Silent Disco certainly doesn’t follow the crowd. Playwright Lachlan Philpot has created a play with its own world, which at first sight is an hormonal explosion of middle adolescent growth, incendiary language and defiant theatricality, but then once you get into the beat it becomes an inspirational journey.
Some may have heard of the term “silent disco”, a concept developed in the last couple of years, involving a dance party where the music is broadcast through people’s mp3 players instead of loudspeakers . The concept got its name because a bystander sees a dancing crowd with headphones, but doesn’t hear the music, hence the name “silent disco”.
The play tells the story of Tamara’s (Hansser) adolescent life. With a missing Mother, a drunken father and a new boyfriend called Squid (Wyatt), all Tamara wants to do is go to the year nine formal. During the play Tamara takes you inside her own mind, sharing her every thought, from what she thinks of her school teacher to her thoughts on why she hates Tuesdays.
Almost every second student at Tamara’s school drops out, but one teacher, Mrs. Petchell (Ah Kin), tries hard to keep students in school to sit their exams. Most of all she tries harder to understand her students’ minds. When Tamara shares a personal story, Mrs. Petchell tries even harder to make sure Tamara sees the end of high school. However, Tamara is quite distracted by her relationship with Squid. They have been dating for exactly three weeks, sixteen hours and forty minutes.
Squid is of Indigenous heritage and, just as many Indigeous young people are stereotyped, he comes from a difficult home life. His mother and father are long gone and he lives solely with his Aunty (also played by Ah Kin), as his elder brother, Dane (Page), is in jail for drug dealing.
Tamara and Squid have a complicated teenage relationship that ranges from their first time to the awkwardness of using the ‘L’ word. After an abusive fight, Tamara is informed that her father has contracted HIV AIDS and instead of turning to Squid for support, she finds comfort in Dane’s bed the week that he is released from jail. Squid discovers Tamara’s infidelity and, like his brother, turns to the use of drugs.
Then one day at school all seems normal until there is an emergency lockdown as Squid rampages around the school, out for Tamara’s blood.
The set (designed by Justin Nadella) takes the form of half a skate park with a wire fence and at times a living room, and a classroom. With her 21st century high school uniform Tamara really does look like a year nine skank who could go to my very own school.
Silent discos, in which people dance to music played through personal headphones rather than speakers, was once the preserve of music festivals and special club nights.
But now it is becoming increasingly popular at weddings and private parties, enabling teenagers to dance to their hearts’ content without keeping their parents or the neighbours awake all night.
And the fact that dancers can choose between two or more different channels, means classical music fans waltzing to Schubert can in theory share the same floor as ravers partying to hard-core techno music.
Its origins are said to date back to an obscure 1969 Finnish sci-fi film called Ruusujen aika, but its popularity has soared in Britain since it appeared at the 2005 Glastonbury music festival.
It now appears to be entering the mainstream – not unlike karaoke – with home silent disco kits available for about £250.
At least half a dozen companies offering silent disco have set up in the UK in the last three years and all reported business was booming.
One firm, Headphone Disco, has set up franchises in Germany, Ireland and East Africa and is in talks with the British Council about the potential of silent disco being used to promote the UK’s image overseas.
James Johnson and his wife Kirsty, of Glasgow, had a silent disco at their wedding reception in Stobo Castle in the Scottish Highlands in June, with Motown on one channel for older guests and current hits aimed at the younger ones.
Mr Johnson, a 27-year-old property manager, said: “It went down far better than I expected. I had my doubts about it, thinking it was just for younger people – you only ever see them at these festivals.
“But everybody loved it, all our parents went daft on it. There was an old Auntie with her headphones, flicking the switch between channels and putting the volume up.”
Mollie Nock, 15, of Pangbourne in Berkshire, experienced her first silent disco, which she described as “a load of out of tune people singing and dancing”, at the Reading Festival last weekend.
She now plans to have one at her 16th birthday party in two months.
“It was so much fun. I don’t know why it’s more interesting and enjoyable than a normal disco, but for some reason it seems less awkward,” she said.
“It feels freer and nobody really cares. It’s ridiculous because you could be listening to one channel and your friend to another and be dancing completely out of sync. It’s hilarious.
“The few friends I was with absolutely loved it. It is getting bigger. I think these days a disco with music out loud is more for 12-year-olds.
“Normal discos are going out in a way. A silent disco is more allowed, it’s OK if you are older to go to a silent disco.”
Grahame Ferguson, a director of Headphone Disco, said the company, which began in January 2007, had doubled its sales in the second year of trading. It now puts on about 250 to 300 shows a year, mainly in the UK and Ireland.
“We’ve licensed it out to Ireland and Germany and are in the process of licensing it out to Canada. We were out in Uganda in July and did a festival there.
“A guy out there has just set up Headphone Disco East Africa and they have got a residency at a beach resort in Tanzania which has sound issues,” he said.
“It has got global reach… it’s all kind of bizarre to be honest with you. We thought we might get a year our of it, but we keep getting busier and busier.
“We are in talks with the British Council about doing stuff with them. I cannot say too much about it, but they are right behind it – it’s a great British export.”
Silent Arena, which also set up two years ago, claims to be the biggest silent disco company in the world and can cater for 10,000 people.
“Because it’s been in festivals for a couple of years, it’s starting to go down the line and we are doing a lot more smaller parties,” said director Tom Naylor.
“It’s getting out there and people are starting to experiment with it. We probably do an average of about five a week, if not more than that. There have been times recently when we’ve done 11 in three days.”
Another firm, Silent Sound Systems, sells a kit with a transmitter and headsets with prices starting from £240 in addition to putting on its own shows.
Time Out magazine’s comedy editor Tim Arthur, who was involved in organising a silent disco this weekend at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden as part of the Deloitte Ignite 09 festival, said: “It’s such an extraordinary thing to watch. It’s like a weird piece of performance art. It’s just the best fun and people absolutely love it.
“And it doesn’t have any issues of disturbing neighbours. It’s a very polite thing to do. It’s probably one of the most polite clubbing events you can have.”
The play reminded me of all the people I have judged in the past, and that in a life in which Facebook and the media takes centre stage, it is easy to forget how to show compassion and understanding to those who are less fortunate.
Everyone sees Tamara on the outside without knowing her full story, which personally gives me the link to the title: Silent Disco.
Phillpot, a graduate of Victorian Collage of the Arts (directing) and NIDA (playwrights studio), is a Sydney-based (added hyphen) writer known for his play Bison and Colde. It has a unique beat of its own. Without sounding cheesy at all, it has a poetic rhythm the gives the play a meaningful soul. Phillpot has a few more scripts up his sleeve and I just can’t wait to see more.
Silent Disco was the winner of the 2009 Griffin Award, (an annual $10,000 prize for an outstanding new Australian play or performance text) and I believe it has a bright future and that there will be many more standing ovations to come.