In general, plays about being a teenager flat-out suck. Very shortly, I’ll tell you about one that probably won’t — The Instant Theatre Company’s production of Voices From the High School. But before I do, let me set the stage with a simple question.
How do you recall your teen years?
Not in that high-school-summer-movie sense — where it’s all about the jocks and preps versus the geeks and misfits, with gross-out jokes and a climactic battle that sees the underdogs win, and where, by the end, everyone has either received their comeuppance or learned a valuable lesson about life.
I mean: How did it really feel?
Most of it was forgettable, right? And what wasn’t was usually so embarrassingly uncomfortable you’d still rather forget it: your first parallel parking job. Your first joyfully illegal bender and its ugly cousin, the first hangover. Your first love — which, if you were particularly unlucky, led to both your first awkward sexual experience and your first real break-up — though hopefully not in the same night.
All the while, regardless of how cool you played it to friends and family, you got the sinking feeling that, somehow, you were doing it all wrong. As adults, we like to think we’ve got a better handle on things, but the best we usually end up with is an emotional B-minus for trying.
A bigger problem, though, is trying to make passable theater out of all this — cue the phenomenally bad “real teen issues” melodramas and their comedically simple-minded answers. Sex? Bad. Drinking? Bad. Drugs? Really bad. Suicide? There’s always help (except, of course, when there’s not).
But when he wrote Voices From the High School, Peter Dee offered no solutions, choosing to let his teen characters simply discuss their problems with one another as they would, he apparently hoped, in the real world. Dee’s kids carry the same loads as teens in other plays — alcoholic parents, disastrous love interests, drug habits, botched suicide attempts — but no grandiose, redeeming affirmation is imparted. Being a teen, Dee seems to say, is maddening — but at least all your peers are going mad, too.
Though written more than 20 years ago, Voices From the High School remains reasonably relevant because it is simple, insightful and honest. (In fact, the play has produced several spin-offs, most recently an independent 2002 feature film by the same name.) It can be assumed that, despite the overwhelming advancements in technology that today decorate their culture (cell phones, belly shirts, body piercings, instant messaging), teens haven’t changed that much inside.
That goes for rural teens, too.
Initially, director Adam Heffernan was concerned that his young actors — all taken from The Instant Theatre Company’s student-acting classes in Macon County, southwest of Asheville — would be put off by the idea of doing any kind of “teen” play. Even, he feared, a play as comparatively light of message as is Voices.
“I thought that they might hate it,” he admits. “It’s so hard to tell what teenagers will find cool — but they’ve actually emphasized how much they like the play.
“One of the great things about [Voices] is that it doesn’t have that after-school-special sort of dialogue,” the director continues. “One character’s monologue [is] about how he tried to commit suicide, but it’s not preachy … he’s just sort of truthfully laying it all out for the audience.”
Based in the retiree-oriented community of Highlands, N.C. (which Heffernan claims has less than 1000 year-round residents, but swells to accommodate more than 10,000 people in the summer), The Instant Theatre Company is considered the edgiest of that area’s troupes.
“There’s definitely an older theater crowd in Highlands throughout much of the year,” Heffernan allows.
Voices, he hints, is for everybody else.
“There are plenty of people in the county and other areas who would find this play important.”
The Instant Theatre Company presents Peter Dee’s Voices From the High School at 7:30 p.m. at the Martin-Lipscomb Performing Arts Center in Highlands, N.C. on Thursday, April 22 and Friday, April 23. Admission is free, though reservations are suggested. For more information, call (828) 342-9197 or visit www.highlandschamber.org.