Exploring the effect that inappropriate student-teacher relationships can have, Twenty Something Theatre presents Pulitzer Prize nominee Stephen Karam’s Speech & Debate, a dark comedy about three teens brought together by a sex scandal in their Salem, Oregon high school.
In Speech & Debate’s central premise, the characters unite after discovering a mutual sexual connection to one of the school’s teachers, but despite the play’s salacious nature, the cast of this upcoming production insists it is the way it treats its young characters that gives it its real strength.
“It’s a play about teens without being condescending,” says director Brian Cochrane.
Cochrane’s cast agrees, and it is immediately apparent from sitting in on a recent table reading that they have all found it easy to connect with their characters and the situation.
“I read the play and was hooked by the second scene,” says Alex Rose who plays the role of Solomon, the young student still in the closet. “I thought it was so funny, but it also dealt with real issues and wasn’t glossing over them; they are all believable teenagers. It doesn’t pander to anyone and certainly not to teens.”
“It doesn’t pander to gay people either,” interjects actor Scott Button, the only gay actor among the cast, who plays the out and in-your-face Howie. “The fun thing is the masks they wear almost constantly. It reminded me of my own high school experience because I had to wear my own my mask.”
Growing up in Langley, Button recalls his own high school experience as a gay teen where he hid his sexuality, acknowledging that it is indeed ironic that he is now playing the outspoken Howie. “I wasn’t a bully and I wasn’t traumatized, but I wasn’t myself. I was completely unauthentic.”
It is the truth in the play’s characters that also drew Claire Hesselgrave to the role of Diwata, the frumpy girl with an obsession for musicals.
“The more I read it the more I realized how many flavours these characters have,” she says. “There is the public face that they carry, but then they have these moments with each other when all the shit is removed and they become very vulnerable.”
Despite the playwright having a difficult time in a 2008 Los Angeles Times interview describing his own play or defining what he hopes an audience will take away, this local cast doesn’t seem to suffer from the same problem.
“There are some big political issues explored like [ex-gay Christian organization] Exodus,” says Cochrane. “We think of ourselves as being this progressive society, but we still have issues like that to deal with. It asks a lot of questions: what does it mean to be an adult? When does that happen? What are the things that happen to make you an adult?”
“It also speaks to the power of words and the power of speaking out publically,” adds Button. “There is a lot to do with the roots of intolerance, usually covering up something else.”
Presented by Vancouver’s Twenty Something Theatre Company, the mandate of the independent theatre group is relatively simple: give young artists, usually just out of local theatre schools, an opportunity to hone their craft and to present plays that speak to their generation. But there is nothing simple about the shows that Founder and Artistic Producer Sabrina Everett and her team have presented over the course of its eight seasons.
“I like plays that don’t present an issue as black & white but that look at the grey area”, says Everett. “I think the grey area of an issue is so much more interesting.”
Rather than choosing a play just to be controversial though, Everett says it is in that grey area of a play like Speech & Debate that generates the controversy.
“There are no easy answers in this play and it asks the audience to think about some tough issues but it allows us to laugh and have fun while doing it. I think the best plays make us think, make us laugh and or make us cry. I think, I hope, this play does all three.”
A version of this article first appeared in the September 26, 2013 edition of Xtra! newspaper.
3 – 13 October 2013 at Studio 58 on Granville Island. Visit http://twentysomethingtheatre.com for tickets and information\