POSTED ON MARCH 9, 2011:
American Theatre Company's Speech & Debate tackles teenage struggle with adult edginess
The words "speech and debate" are enough to strike boredom in the heart of anyone who hears them; however, Stephen Karam's play Speech & Debate is anything but boring. That according to national theater critics and one Robert Walters, director of American Theatre Company's production of the play, which opened March 9.
With a title like Speech & Debate, one might expect a couple of teenage geniuses engaged in a quick-fire battle of wits, which in itself is less than dull. But Karam's play is deeper and more complex than that: three high school students -- Diwata (played by Paige Clark), the drama queen; Howie (Topher Payne), the openly gay kid; and Solomon (John Knight), the nerdy reporter -- set out to expose their teacher, Mr. Healy, as a pedophile.
According to ATC, it goes something like this: "Diwata is an aspiring actress who can never seem to land a decent part in any of the high school productions. She blames this fact on her drama teacher, Mr. Healy, whom she calls 'gay-guy-with-a-receding-hairline' on her blog.
"Howie, a teen new to Salem, sees one of her podcasts and posts a message, promising that he has his own dirt about Healy and asking her to call him. Instead, he's contacted by Solomon, a nerdy, intense young man who wants to be a journalist and is trying to do a story on Republican scandals for the school paper -- much to the dismay and objection of his teacher. Eventually, the three students unite to form their school's first speech and debate club."
While that might sound simple, because Karam's writing is so thoughtful and so unswervingly candid in exposing the minds and lives of the average teenager, the plot is really just a pretext for the play's true themes. As The New York Times reviewer Caryn James wrote in 2007, when the play first premiered off-Broadway, "The play's real accomplishment is its picture of the borderland between late adolescence and adulthood, where grown-up ideas and ambition coexist with childish will and bravado.
"There are a lot of kid shows, a lot of shows with teenagers in them, but there's nothing that really speaks to teenagers or showcases teenagers in a way that is really familiar -- warts and all, really trying to struggle to find themselves and become adults," said Walters, who suggested the show to ATC, said.
In discussing Speech & Debate, Walters gives a nod to some of its themes, like censorship, but says what really sparked his attention when he read the play was how it relates to adults -- though there's only one adult character in it, played by Claudia Sanders, and her role is minor compared to the other three -- as much as it does kids.
"In raising children, you have two extremes," Walters said. "There's the puritanical approach to raising kids, and there's the other side, which is exposing them to everything. The correct way is probably somewhere in middle, but because we don't really talk to our kids, they end up confused...
High School Drama. Stephen Karamís play is deeper and more complex than the title might lead you to believe. Three high school students set out to expose their teacher, Mr. Healy, as a pedophile. While that might sound simple, because Karamís writing is so thoughtful and so unswervingly candid in exposing the minds and lives of the average teenager, the plot is really just a pretext for the playís true themes.
"(The play is) focused on kids, but it's as much about adults feeling confused and lost (as teenagers)," Walters said. "You hear all the time '40 is the new 30' and '30 is the new 20,' but what you're really doing is prolonging youth. When you prolong youth, you never really take the time to become an adult. Meanwhile, you have 18 year olds looking for adult role models, but everyone's caught up in youth and not really owning up to their responsibility."
Walters applauded the play for addressing the teenage years with such forthrightness, saying, "There's a great amount of turmoil in being a teenager sometimes. The stuff we watch on TV is so glib about it, people who are adults kind of hold on to this idealized version of the teenage years.
"The show is funny, but it recognizes there is some pain involved (in being a teenager) as well."
And to exploit the play's honesty, Walters employed teenage actors in the roles of Diwata and Solomon.
"We were a bit nervous about it because nobody really does that," Walters said. "People love 'Glee,' but only, like, one or two are still in their teens, and everyone else is substantially older...
"It's kind of interesting getting to work with young people on (the play)," he said. "The young people we have are extremely mature. (Clark) had never really acted before, so it was really cool working with her and explaining the ins and outs of acting. She so smart, she picked it up really quickly. And she comes from speech and debate background, so I knew she had some grasp of it."
Though its subject matter is a little edgier than most of the plays ATC performs, Speech & Debate is a dark comedy that should appeal to a diverse audience of adults and teenagers.
"If you're a trying to find show that may very well tickle your inner freak, geek or drama queen, this is your show," Walters said.
Speech & Debate is ATC's entry into the 2011 Tulsa Awards for Theatre Excellence. Walters last directed 12 Angry Men for ATC. That play took home the 2010 TATE Award for Outstanding Play.
Because February's twin blizzards interfered with the rehearsal schedule for Speech & Debate, the first weekend of shows was cancelled. The play runs Thursday, March 10, through Saturday, March 12, in the Liddy Doenges Theatre of the Tulsa Performing Arts Center. The curtain is up at 8pm, and tickets range from $24-$30. Tickets are available at www.tulsapac.com.
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