After going years without seeing any high school theater, last weekend I saw two youth theater productions in two days. Several of my friends are schoolteachers and it just so happened that two of them invited me to see “their kids” perform over the weekend. On the surface of it, the two shows couldn’t have been more different, but they both left me with a good feeling about today’s teens, and about youth theater in general.
On Friday night, I went with my friend Rachel to In and Out of Shadows, a new play by acclaimed author Gary Soto, produced by the Marsh Youth Theater. The script, based on interviews with undocumented California teenagers, is intended to draw attention to their plight. Because Rachel teaches English at San Francisco International High School, a public high school for recent immigrants, this subject is obviously close to her heart; and some of her students even performed in the show. Although the play was in large part an earnest, message-based drama, it was also enlivened with singing, dancing, and comedy bits.
On Saturday night, I went to the Bay School of San Francisco’s production of The Boy Friend, a fluffy pastiche of 1920s musicals. My friend Colin teaches at the Bay School (a private high school located in the Presidio) and, as he is also an accomplished jazz bassist, he helped oversee the show’s orchestra and played in the band.
Both plays were excellent reminders of why professional theater needs to try harder in terms of gender parity. At the high school level, so many more girls than boys are interested in theater, and both of these plays had a majority-female cast. In The Boy Friend, several girls played male roles; in In and Out of Shadows, written for the Marsh’s teen ensemble, Soto made sure to include a preponderance of female roles. It’s depressing to realize that high school and youth theater productions do a better job of gender parity than many leading regional theaters.
Colin told me that before deciding on The Boy Friend, the Bay School had considered staging Thoroughly Modern Millie, but the racial aspects of the script — the egregiously stereotyped “comical” Chinese characters — gave them pause. The Boy Friend has no such problems, and the Bay School’s production featured many Asian-American students in leading roles as 1920s English aristocrats. This is all well and good, but part of me wishes that the school had worked harder to find a show that avoided gender stereotypes as well as racial stereotypes. After all, the main takeaway from The Boy Friend is that a girl’s life is meaningless if she doesn’t have a man to call her own. In the title song, a chorus of girls energetically sing and dance, “We’re blue without / Can’t do without / Our dreams just won’t come true without / That certain thing called a Boy Friend.” And the Vassar-educated feminist in me sat there thinking “This is how we indoctrinate young girls with romantic neuroses.” You could say that the lyrics are meant to be humorous or satirical, but then, the Chinese characters in Thoroughly Modern Millie are meant to be humorous too. So why take a stand against racial stereotypes, but not against gender stereotypes?
While there were a couple of romantic subplots in In and Out of Shadows (one highlight involved a boy singing a humorous love song to two swooning girls) the play passed the Bechdel test with flying colors, allowing its actresses to be far more than just “the girlfriend.” It feels almost radical to see a play where the majority of characters just happen to be female and no one makes a big deal about it. And, while it’s obvious that a play about undocumented immigrants requires an ethnically diverse cast, it was still nice to see characters, and actors, from so many different backgrounds: Mexican, Salvadoran, Chinese, Filipino. I was particularly touched by the girl who talked about teaching herself traditional Indonesian dance by watching YouTube videos.
Both plays had the imperfections you’d expect from any show involving young performers. Some of the kids had great personality and energy; others were unable to project themselves beyond the footlights. (In both of these shows — as with much youth theater — the success of the piece relied on the students’ natural charisma, rather than on advanced acting techniques or the sophisticated display of emotion.) The script for In and Out of Shadows was oddly structured and had some cringeworthy passages that were clearly an adult’s idea of how teenagers talk. This sort of thing annoyed me about youth theater when I was a teen, too — maybe that’s the reason that the first play I ever wrote was a profane, scathing satire.
What came through amply in both shows, though, is how much they meant to the kids performing in them. You could see that the In and Out of Shadows teens were proud to be telling a story that might raise awareness and change people’s attitudes toward undocumented immigrants. And Colin told me that after the final performance of The Boy Friend, the cast and crew sat in a circle and discussed what the experience had meant to them, and all of the kids spoke up — even the shy ones.
That’s what I recall of my own high school theater experiences, too; how they gave me hope and support despite the turmoil of adolescence. Ten years ago this month, my grandmother passed away — it was the first time I’d ever lost someone close to me. I was in rehearsals for Little Shop of Horrors at the time, and I recall that play, and those castmates, as one of the things that got me through my loss. The night before my grandmother died, I had an emotional meltdown at rehearsal, and all of the other girls in the cast gathered round and gave me hugs. And, when the show opened two weeks after my grandmother’s funeral, I sang and danced with all my might, knowing that it’s what she would have wanted and that she’d have been proud of me.
You may not witness the pinnacle of artistic achievement if you attend a youth theater show; but you just might come away with a good feeling about the future of our artform and of our society. We were those kids once, you know: so happy to be there, so earnest, so innocent, so full of hope.
Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco playwright and arts writer. Her favorite high school theater experience was playing Black Caesar in Our Country’s Good (an extreme example of gender-blind and race-blind casting, to be sure). Find her at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.