Teen Playwrights use Bits and Pieces of Social Media to Explore Nature of Truth

Thursday, January 12, 2017

(Photo Emma Lee / WHYY)

News Works

By Peter Crimmins
@petercrimmins on Twitter
pcrimmins@whyy.org

The school is on lockdown. Don't leave the classroom, no matter what.

"Attention students and staff. We understand many of you may miss your fifth-period class, but we are doing everything we can to move forward with the regular school day," implores a voice on a scratchy intercom.

But the disembodied voice does not explain why the school is locked down. Nine teenagers stuck in a classroom, without a teacher present, try to figure out what's going on. Is it a shooter? Is it drill? Is it a suicide?

"Of course it's not a suicide," scoffs one.

"A suicide?" says another, a seed planted in his mind.

As in life, the kids in this play, "The Time We Give Each Other," instinctively reach for their cell phones, checking social media and news websites.

"They have all these ways of accessing information. Who is helping them process that?" says director Tim Popp. "This play forces us to look at kids in a room, with no adult, and they are processing information, and not in a productive way."

Director Tim Popp watches a performance of "The Time We Give Each Other" accompanied by the young actors and playwrights of Wolf Performing Arts Center's Butterfly Project. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

"The Time We Give Each Other" was created by the Butterfly Project, an initiative of the Wolf Performing Arts Center in Bryn Mawr, in partnership with Philadelphia Young Playwrights. The project convened 16 teenaged playwrights to spend a year collaboratively coming up with a narrative concept that describes what it is like to be a teenager now.

"One of the things that was fascinating was bringing kids together from these different communities — we had city kids and Main Line kids coming together to share," said Popp. "They thing they glommed onto was their phone."

One of the writers, 13-year-old Audrey Blinman of Friends Select School, says the cell phone, as a narrative engine, is both a blessing and a curse.

"A lot of plot comes off the phone," she says. "They pull things off websites and put it together to make a story that isn't real. But they think it is, based on what they found on the internet."

This play is the second production of the Butterfly Project. Five years ago, Popp assembled a cast of teenagers to produce "I Never Saw Another Butterfly," using a script based on writings of young people inside the Nazi Terezin concentration camp during World War II.

"Butterfly" toured schools in the region for four years.

"We retired it to find this play about today," says Popp. "We want to keep ourselves relevant and in touch with what matters to the kids. This year, our writers determined social media, empathy, and communication are what are important to them."

Haley Stokes, 16, performed in the concentration camp play, then jumped at the chance to write an original script.

"Using social media and the cell phone usage opened up a passageway into other topics we could touch on — such as social justice," says Haley. "We had conversations about privilege, about disabilities and sexuality."

Haley and the 15 other writers each created a character through discussions and writing exercises. But the play can only accommodate nine actors. They had to learn to create, argue, and then compromise in order to whittle the script into a manageable shape.

Audrey, with short hair and boyish build, plays William, a character harboring a crush on a fellow student. It's not the character she originally envisioned.

"I didn't decide he would have a crush on Carly, or that he would be a boy," she says. "Originally, I named the character Willow."

Because the entire cast are active high school students, they cannot be pulled out of school every time the play is performed at another school; they would miss far too much class time. So the Butterfly Project created a pool of 32 actors rotating through nine characters. Each character is portrayed by three or four actors during the tour, with each actor giving it a unique spin.

It keeps the production fluid — the play is never performed with the same combination of players twice — and creates empathy among the cast. Everyone has to learn to respect the various interpretation.

"I originated Jackie. She's misunderstood and introverted," said Haley who wrote and performs the character. "I feel a personal connection to her, but I don't own her. The actors all take her in different directions."

After a two-weekend run at the Wolf center, "The Time We Give Each Other" will go on the road. Its first date is at Great Valley Middle School on Feb. 22, with more dates forthcoming as booking continues.