“When mum is doing pole dancing classes and Ke$ha and every other young female pop star is flashing her tits your way, when your boyfriend is sexting you pics of his cock and the internet is full of clips of everything from furry sex to fisting, how do you grow up as a teenager with a healthy sexual outlook?”
The question is posed – if not in so many words – in a new play by Lachlan Philpott. Truck Stop, a Q Theatre Company production coming to the Seymour Centre via a premiere at the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre in Penrith, is set in the “raunch culture”-saturated western suburbs. The play follows three 14-year-old girls – Kelly, Sam and Aisha – and the events that lead to two of them slipping out of school during their breaks, hanging out by the side to the highway and selling themselves to truck drivers. It’s based on a true story.
“A teacher told me the story a while back,” Philpott says. “I was fascinated by it and the aftermath because everyone kept the story a secret. These girls are not just sex-crazed, tech-obsessed little schoolgirls. They could be our daughters, granddaughters, our neighbours, cousins or future carers.”
Philpott knows young people. He was a high school teacher for eight years in NSW and Victoria and managed the Australian Theatre for Young People’s education and young playwrights’ programmes. He has drawn heavily on his experiences with young people for such coming-of-age stage tales as the post-apocalyptic parable Bustown and last year’s high school drama Silent Disco. “I love writing for teenagers because it requires care,” says Philpott. “They respond to theatre with such honesty. If it sucks, they start talking or fiddle with their phones but it they are engaged it can change them.” As it happens, some teen audience members were so stirred by Silent Disco that they took to the stage during interval and turned it into an improvised dance floor.
For Truck Stop, Philpott’s research involved interviewing sex workers, counsellors and truck drivers and spending a lot of time listening to a CB radio by the Great Western Highway. He eavesdropped on after-school conversations in Westfield Penrith's food court and did workshops with suburban school kids “to establish lexicon and gauge what they were thinking about stuff.”
Writing particularly about issues of teenage sex and sexuality brought its own challenges. Philpott wanted to address unhealthy attitudes to sex in a meaningful way - not to glibly suggest that all teen sex is dangerous. “So much sex ed undermines its intention because it uses sensationalist terms or some form of moral judgement code instead of just telling it how it is,” he says. “It’s important that we don’t demonise sexual activity between anybody. If sex is consensual and pleasurable for all involved than what is dangerous about it? Sexual health is about enjoying your body and learning how to confidently stay safe and in control.”
Truck Stop may have teen protagonists and a teen audience in mind – its three young actresses have been listening to Ke$ha, Rihanna and Nicki Minaj as part of their ongoing preparation – but, as with Silent Disco, the themes are way bigger than the schoolyard. It’s a story, Philpott says, that’s not just about suburban schoolgirls but about our society as a whole. “We need to examine what is happening to Gen Y to make sense of our community,” Philpott says. “It’s hard for the audience to remain neutral in this one. I hope that they don’t.”