Clutching a playbill inside the Lyric Stage Company of Boston’s cozy venue, I found myself in a 14-year-old’s social nightmare: I was the only person sans gray hair in the room; I was sitting next to my dad in a public place; and, 5 feet in front of us, an actor was passionately singing a song titled “My Unfortunate Erection.”
For a kid fresh out of eighth grade, this should have been downright Dantean. Why, then, was I having the absolute time of my life? Perhaps because this musical (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a delightful sendup of all things adolescent) was not the first piece of potentially awkward theater the two of us have seen together.
After becoming The Boston Globe’s drama critic in 2010, when I was in middle school, my dad took me to everything from Death of a Salesman to multi-hour experimental theater pieces to vaudevillian drag shows. These dramatic outings prompted conversations unlikely to arise over the dinner table. The in-your-face immediacy of live theater and the staggering range of human experiences represented onstage bridged the communication chasm between me and my parents. It also saved me from a menace as relevant to teens today as it was then: the insidious echo chamber that is curated social media feeds.
As an adolescent, my primary hobbies were shrugging, eye-rolling, and brooding. The psychological wear and tear of middle school had put a serious strain on my relationship with my parents. I refused to talk to them about the tween problems I could barely articulate to myself. How could they understand, anyway? It’s not like we had anything in common. They liked sprawling novels and fancy art; I liked the Internet.
Like most of my peers, YouTube was my main source of entertainment. Unbeknownst to my young brain, I was building myself a feedback loop with each click. YouTube’s algorithm keeps you in your comfort zone by recommending content similar to what you’ve already watched. More importantly, if I stumbled on a video promoting a hateful or bigoted worldview, I’d be handed 10 more videos with the same message.
Kids today — am I old enough yet to say things like “kids today”? — are facing the same challenge. According to the Pew Research Center’s “Teens, Social Media & Technology 2018” report, 85 percent of the teenagers interviewed said they use YouTube. Forty-five percent said that they use the Internet “almost constantly,” compared with just 24 percent in its 2014-2015 survey.
If YouTube’s current teenage audience is anything like my teenage self, they won’t take kindly to their parents telling them to get offline. At that age, my dad disparaging a website I genuinely loved felt like proof that the two of us were fundamentally incompatible. We simply didn’t have any cultural common ground — that is, until we experienced live theater sitting side by side in identical plush seats. Something I hadn’t learned while analyzing The Crucible to death in English class is that theater can leave you feeling vulnerable. Making eye contact with a character giving his dying soliloquy or professing her love, I was forced into more unguarded emotions than usually provoked by the screen-based mediums that helped me maintain my oh-so-cool brooding facade. There was no algorithm spoon-feeding me my own opinions. I was inhaling countless worldviews, all with my dad at my side.
Our trips to the theater pried open a channel of communication that might have otherwise stayed shut throughout my adolescence. The plays we saw handed us a script on every uncomfortable topic parents and children both painstakingly avoid and desperately need to discuss. A production of Geoffrey Nauffts’ play Next Fall at the SpeakEasy Stage Company, which focuses on a gay couple wrestling with sexuality-related shame, coincided with my own tentative sidling out of the closet. Gloucester Stage Company’s production of Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth, a desolate portrayal of young people slowly losing themselves to the drug world, was much more frightening than any anti-drug PSA I’d been shown in school. At the height of my (eventually hard-won) battle with an eating disorder, a stage adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby featured the titular character sighing a phrase that was scarily similar to my constant internal monologue: “Well, then, we’ll have to walk on hungry.”
On the car rides home, my dad and I discussed these hard subjects in detail. Every time a theater’s house lights dimmed, our understanding of each other was further illuminated. Who knew spending so much time sitting in a dark room could make me feel so seen?
For families who want to recast themselves beyond the roles of finger-wagging parent and sulking teenager, live theater could be just the catalyst you need. While I had the luck to traverse Boston theater for free, taking your child to a play does not necessarily require breaking the bank. Many Boston theaters, including the three mentioned in this article, offer discounted student tickets for less than $30.
My closer relationship with my dad didn’t develop from one night of Shakespeare, of course. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from theater, it’s that forging the parent-child connection takes a lot of rehearsal.