NEW YORK CITY: From studying for the SATs to visiting colleges to juggling extracurricular activities, high school students are very busy—but not too busy to originate roles in Off-Broadway world premieres.
The participants of Keen Teens, Keen Company’s program for high schoolers, took the stage at Theatre Row May 13-15 for the 2016 Keen Teens Festival of New Work. For the event, the company commissioned plays and musicals from professional playwrights, and the students performed in the shows. When the works are subsequently published, the students’ names will appear in the “original cast” lists. The writers this year were Hannah Bos, Paul Thureen, Max Vernon, Jason Kim, and Nick Gandiello.
“So many high schools do plays that are not suited for teens,” said Keen artistic director Jonathan Silverstein. Chestnuts like Our Town or Death of a Salesman may be great plays, says Silverstein, but “they’re not necessarily plays for them.”
The program was formed in 2007 as a way to bring high school students in New York City into the fold of the company’s mission: to stage stories that focus on identification and evoke an emotional response. Keen Company seeks out professional playwrights to write material specifically for teenagers, in plays that must be 30 minutes long, have a cast size of 10 or more, and have an ensemble structure. The writers are involved in the development process of the production, from the audition room to the stage.
“Part of the mission of the program is for students who are excited about theatre to see the playwright as a real person,” both in the sense that playwriting “is an artistic avenue and a career opportunity, and that the person has a vision that should be respected in the rehearsal process,” explained Mark Armstrong, the director of new work at Keen Company.
Craig Steeley Jr., a junior from the Bronx, enjoyed having the writers on hand. “The writers are at our rehearsals, they watch the process, some of them make edits, and they like to have our input sometimes,” he said.
Students were required to audition for the 2016 festival and were asked to prepare a monologue and read from sides. Melody Munitz, a sophomore, traveled from Westchester, N.Y., for the audition.
“I came in and I had a phenomenal audition,” she enthused. “Everyone was so excited, and you could tell that this was a group that was really passionate. I was just dying to get the call, and I was ecstatic when I did.”
Another highlight of Keen Teens is that the plays are published, with the students’s names listed, and then licensed so they can be produced around the world, which helps build the canon of work for high school students. Keen Company has a standing contract with Samuel French to publish and license the plays, and to date, more than 200 performances of Keen Teen plays have been produced all over the world.
The students began rehearsing once a week in January for the performances to fit in with their busy schedules, and Keen Company also aims to offer a different experience than what most drama departments provide. Due to censorship guidelines, there are many works that high schools cannot put on, but for Keen Teens, the rules are much looser.
The program also gives working professionals a chance to remember their own high school experiences. “Most people who are in the arts fell in love with theatre while in high school, and being able to return to that time and give something back to that age group is an incredibly powerful exchange,” said Armstrong.
And the writers this year definitely captured the modern high school experience. 30 Million, the program’s first musical, features music and lyrics by Vernon and a book by Kim. The story follows Dee Dee, a wannabe pop star in high school who posts an original song on YouTube. The music video sparks hateful comments, bullying at school, and ruthless Internet trolling. The show is a harsh reminder that high school is still a challenging time—and has become more difficult since the dawn of the Internet.
Bos and Thureen teamed up to write Landlines, set in a simpler time before cell phones. The play is about a telethon in which a television fundraiser’s hosts and the donors communicate via landline phones. Commercial segments jolt the characters in and out of reality, as the characters ask existential questions.
Gandiello’s How the Moon Would Talk addresses many thorny issues, including mortality, loss, and big decisions. The play follows Ally, a high school senior who is mourning the loss of her baby sister, trying to choose a college, and preparing to break up with her longtime boyfriend. A group of friends gather to console her on a rooftop before the memorial service, and the emotional scene results in a lighthearted popcorn fight and watching a lunar eclipse.
“They are having very sophisticated and complex experiences at home and school,” Armstrong note. “One thing that is important to me is that not every play that we do for high school students is about who is or who isn’t popular at their school. There are also family issues, mortality, and all sorts of sophisticated things that young people in New York City are exposed to that are so much more complicated and mature than who is or is not the homecoming king.”
Francesca Iannacone, a junior from Little Neck, Queens, said that the Keen Teens plays are a departure from the work produced at her high school. “My sophomore year, we did Antigone and I got to play Antigone, but that’s Sophocles, and this play is so modern and written for us,” said Iannacone.
The young actors are treated as professionals throughout the entire process, and among the biggest takeaways for the students are the lasting friendships formed with people who have similar interests to them.
“You get to meet different people, and it breaks your preconceptions of different types of people,” said Iannacone. “[Keen Teens] is giving us a chance to be up on this magical stage at this theatre that has so much history and energy to it, and we get to create with people who are so different from us. Isn’t that what we are trying to do in the world all the time? We’re all just trying to connect with each other.”