In the few hours during my adolescent years when I wasn't listening to rock bands or using up all the Kleenex, I loved to play the villains in our school productions, loudly and publicly ﬂipping off the world without risking any of the consequences that normally follow bad behavior. The tissue between reality and fantasy is thin in high school, and theater is a perfect vehicle for indulging the imagination, allowing youngsters to prance around as devils, degenerates, and Lotharios without inﬂicting serious damage on themselves or others.
Foolishly, most high schools do theater that only effete, pretentious kids (like me) could love. If grownup playhouses want to hook younger audiences, they should do more than produce youth-friendly (read: condescending) theater. They should lean on high schools to do work that will resonate viscerally with the young'uns, demonstrating that plays can be as hilarious, burning, and fucked up as rock 'n' roll-brandy and ice cream instead of chicken soup for the teen soul. Theater should seduce new generations, not simply educate them or plunk old chestnuts in their laps and hope for the best.
A little dangerous role-playing might do the kids a favor: Boredom has always been youth's deadliest poison. I wouldn't be surprised if high-school productions of Carousel were statistically correlated with teen pregnancy or if Grease were linked to glue snifﬁng and vandalism.
This Is Now (at the Moore this weekend) is a theater/dance spectacle written and performed by students from Bainbridge High School. I haven't seen, and can't vouch for, the show, but the mere fact that a show-any show-has been written and produced by high schoolers is a glimmer of hope. This Is Now's "youth issues" themes have long been the stuff of after-school specials, but co-creator and Bainbridge senior Vince Palazzo promises the production is funny and abstains from cliché. Of course, this path carries the risks of chest beating and maudlin self-parody-but that's where a critical adult eye comes in handy.
Mike Daisey (coming to ACT this week with The Ugly American) recalls telling his high-school director: "Albee! We should be doing Albee!" Adam Greenﬁeld (directing Stupid Kids at the Empty Space) wished he could've done new work, "but my scope was so limited, I thought Pippin was it." The Time of Your Life, The Playboy of the Western World-these are nice shows, but we might achieve wonders by producing scripts that the skate punks and hiphop kids can get ﬁred up about. If the PTA can't handle it, head for the basement, the back forty, and the garage.
I'm not suggesting high schoolers always write their own material, nor that they abandon the classics. But tossing a few new, gutsy plays into the mix will pay dividends that belie the ninnies who quake at an occasional pot reference or curse word. Students and directors should be steely for art's sake, but principals and school boards will have to be even steelier. ■