PUNCHING THE SKY AND FAMILIES.
by Rebecca Jenkins.
Rebecca (professional actor, musician, arts practitioner, mother of 2 sons) was a Company Member for 2nd Research & Development Phase of Punching The Sky where she played the role of the mother.
Recognising that our children’s relationship with screens is influenced by our relationship with our own digital devices, and that both relationships are new, are changing, and in many cases, haven’t been reflected upon – is crucial – if we are to ‘solve’ any of the issues thrown out by our use of the internet.
There came a moment in the Punching the Sky process where Lizi was re-writing the piece for a second development stage in early 2015. She was sifting through a pile of audience feedback – comments from people she respected and knew in the industry, comments from the young performers who’d helped shape the piece so far, from young people on workshops about internet pornography, and feedback from members of the audiences who’d seen it. ”Whose story is it?” they were asking her. “Is it Arthur’s story or yours?” Just as many of them wanted it to be Arthur’s story as wanted it to be Lizi’s story. She needed to know the answer to that question if she was to be able to develop it any further.
Lizi asked me to read what she had so far. On doing so, I became upset – you see I know Lizi, and I know Arthur too – very well. I lived with them for a few months and in the years before having my own children, hung around there an awful lot. And for me, the story was Liz’s. And only because it is Liz’s story, can it become Arthur’s.
Let me explain. I love fruit and vegetables and my children are aware of it. Mmm, I might murmur as I bite into a buttery carrot or a crisp green bean. I hate salad. Particularly cucumbers, celery – those usual salad suspects. So I don’t prepare and eat them at home. Even if the children tried them elsewhere and liked them, they couldn’t pop to the fridge and chop them up for themselves as a healthy snack, because I don’t buy them. I have never told them to eat cucumber. Just as I have never told them not to. This food item is only part of our family’s relationship with food, by its absence.
Lizi loves screens for the creative potential they can unleash in us – you only have to look at the passion she has brought to projects as an educator, where her creative use of digital media has brought children to a greater understanding of problems or processes in maths, literacy, and science. I observed her helping her own children make stop-frame animations with their play dough and lip-syncs to favourite music, before they were out of infant school. And I saw only a mutual shared delight in these shared experiences. So what I’m saying is, the boy’s relationship with screens was coming from a good place, it had a good, healthy start to life.
Gaming however. Gaming is different. When gaming became an increasing part of the boy’s digital world, it caused conflict, as it has done for virtually every other family I know. For those of you that don’t game yourselves online – even the most innocuous seeming of apps for children is these days built around a cycle of small challenges and incremental rewards – ‘ Come on’ the game whispers ‘just dig a bit deeper. You might find some copper ore. You can craft a pair of copper grieves and protect yourself’ or ‘just 2 minutes and 33 seconds until your soybean crop is ready. Then you can fulfil the boat order and get a mid-level reward of 5 stars’! This cycle, which forms part of a larger narrative in the game, is incredibly difficult to resist – and is hugely lucrative to games manufacturers.
My husband was led to delete one seemingly charming farm-based game from his iPhone, because he knew he couldn’t resist it. What chance then, does a 5 or 6 year old have of resisting? And how do we navigate this as a family? And before you even realise it, online gaming and our relationship with it, now takes centre stage in our broader relationship as a family with our use of screens. We’re hurtling towards wider internet use, a process then hastened by the growing trend for You Tube video ‘tutorials’ in which our children watch grown men and women playing their beloved games. So how much of it this do we govern by rules? And if so, by mutually agreed boundaries or by old fashioned, non-negotiable rules? And furthermore, are we parents setting boundaries for screen usage for ourselves? Or do we live by different rules to our children? Do we force ourselves to like celery and cucumber, because we want our children to have access to them? Do we acknowledge the ridiculous amount of influence our own screen usage has on our children? Do we hope that they will work it out for themselves? Do we hope they’ll delete that life-draining games app, in preference for the programming app, in the same way they might switch friendships at school once they’ve wised up to someone’s bad influence. How do we give them the skills to find new friends, or to choose to play in the snow or take up a sport?
I’m beginning to realise that as an adult, my pleasure in the discovery of a new and brilliant piece of tech – tracking my run, or watching on demand tv, for example, is slowly eroding as I witness yet another potentially brilliant creative digital activity for children being permeated by the incentive, challenge, reward cycle of the gaming industry. And this cycle is spreading to non-gaming environments – being rewarded by an app with a badge for climbing a certain amount of floors or having a coffee in the same place is now commonplace.
Lizi has felt under enormous pressure to present, with Punching the Sky, a solution to the problem of our children accessing online pornography. During the development process of the piece, the ending has changed many times. With what thoughts or feelings to we want to leave our audience at the end? Is it even possible for a theatre piece to offer a solution? Should it? In my mind, the strength of Punching the Sky is the discussion which surrounds it – the endless feedback which Lizi diligently worked her way through – that feedback quite simply, represents its value. And in one fell swoop, justifies it’s investors commitment to it. And those questions upon questions are the single most important reason why families should see Punching the Sky. You have to see it together. And afterwards, discuss it together. Then allow the questions it raises in you all, to shape the way you live your lives together.
I am honoured to have been a part of the journey of Punching the Sky – having played the part of Lizi Patch in venues as part of it’s second development phase – so that Lizi could see it from the outside, see if it worked, assess the value of the personal, decide whether it was a story she was still interested in telling. Turns out she was and is – and my part in the process from now on will be to watch, and discuss – I hope you and your families will decide to join us.
Rebecca Jenkins. 26/01/2016
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