As a teenager, Yve Blake avoided public displays of affection towards the playwrights and musicians she loved out of fear these very serious passions would be dismissed as “fangirling”. It all seemed a bit uncool, a “bit pathetic”.

Years later, the 27-year-old watched the way contemporary fan cultures were portrayed in the media and realised her internalised stigma said more about the world than fangirls themselves.

“It was as if I’d discovered this sovereign nation of teenage girls on the internet,” Blake says of her initial, “morbidly curious” forays into online fandom — specifically, followers of British boy band One Direction.

“It occurred to me, for really the first time in my life, how we use different language to describe enthusiasm when it comes from young women. We are so quick to dismiss and ridicule things that are perceived as only being interesting to teenage girls.

“I guess, by extension, I wonder how the words we choose to use around young women affects how they then see themselves — and what they feel they’re capable of.”

Fandom, Blake explains, can be much more than the soundtrack to a young person’s formative years. It’s a prism through which their sense of self and the world are framed, a way of shaping identities and building communities that are their own.

As you laugh at these girls I’m going to smuggle them into your heart

In Fangirls we meet Edna (Karis Oka, in a role originated by Blake), a 14-year-old besotted with fictional chart-topping boy band True Connection and its star, Harry (played by The Voice alumnus Aydan). Through Edna and her friends’ journey, Blake hopes to draw uninitiated audiences into the experience of fan culture, and gain a better appreciation of its value.

“I wanted to make a show like a Trojan horse, so it appears on the outside to be glittery and sparkly and funny and satirical, but actually at its core it’s about some really big social ideas. As you laugh at these girls I’m going to smuggle them into your heart.”

The musical — which is currently touring nationally after a 2019 debut at Belvoir, and will be presented as part of the Adelaide Festival — wholeheartedly embraces the teenage world of its protagonists and the modern pop idioms of their heroes. The result is a mash-up that blends the aesthetics of the schoolyard, a stadium pop concert and a religious experience.

“Early in the process I realised that the story was going to have life or death stakes — because being a teenager feels like life or death, right?” Blake says of her early ambitions for a “blockbuster score”. “It needed to feel as adrenal as a first crush. Then the more I researched, I realised it also has to sound like the best pop concert you’ve never been to.

“Seeing the sacredness of how devoted [One Direction fans] were, I also wanted huge chunks of the score to sound something like a church choir. When the fangirls step onstage, they sing in these eye-watering harmonies.”

Photo: Brett Boardman

In recent years there has been a noticeable shift in the way pop music is discussed, shaped in no small part by the impact of the internet and how it empowers and serves fan culture. The imaginary lines that once distinguished critically revered, “serious” strains of music (read: ones primarily produced and fêted by men) from chart-topping “guilty pleasures” like Britney Spears, Beyoncé and Ariana Grande are now far more porous.

“When I started writing this show, the world was a different place,” Blake says. “In that time it’s been really exciting to watch teenage girls really clue up to how they’re spoken to, and to make the show in a world that understands it a little more.

“When I started, I didn’t think I’d ever be able to convince people of this really basic idea: that young women aren’t as stupid as we tell them they are.”

For Blake, Fangirls is a not just a chance for young and diverse audiences to step into a theatre space for perhaps the first time, but for theatregoers who might otherwise never find themselves in a stadium full of screaming voices to get a taste of the euphoria.

“It’s been very emotional to see young people, and people from all walks of life really love the show and scream back,” she says, fresh from watching early previews of the new production.

“At the start of the show you can tell where the teenagers are sitting, [but] by the end you couldn’t — everyone was screaming and yelling. That’s the dream: to take a roomful of strangers and make them feel like they’re united in something.”

Blake hopes that audiences, like herself, will leave having shed their hang-ups about being a total fangirl.

“Now, I think it’s really powerful to love something without apology, and to own the things you like.”

Fangirls is playing at the Ridley Centre, Adelaide Showground, from February 27 to March 14 as part of the Adelaide Festival.

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