That’s the ticket
What: “Graffitied Walls,” a production by Davis High School drama students
When: 7 p.m. March 13-15 and 2 p.m. March 16
Where: Brunelle Performance Hall at DHS, 315 W. 14th St.
Tickets: $14 general, $12 seniors, $10 students; DJUSD employees get a two-for-one deal for general admission tickets. All tickets available at the door
Child care: Drama students will provide free on-site baby-sitting with the purchase of general-admission tickets; email email@example.com
Stay after: At the end of each performance, the cast and crew will host a question-and-answer session to discuss their creative journey and the issues they have addressed
It was the Saturday of Presidents Day weekend in February and Gwyn Bruch was facing a tough decision.
The longtime Davis High School drama teacher had scheduled a full day of rehearsals for the Monday holiday, when students from Davis and Da Vinci high schools would be preparing for the annual spring play scheduled to open in less than a month at the Brunelle Performance Hall.
Auditions had already been held, roles long since cast, and students were busy memorizing their lines, preparing the set, even selling tickets.
But there were issues. It was a wonderful script, Bruch said, but the ability to put on this particular play in this high school setting, when copyright rules precluded any changes, was becoming increasingly difficult.
“We really thought we could do it,” Bruch said. “I thought I could pull it off … but it became too complicated. That had never happened to me in 20 years. I really didn’t want to let down these kids, but I had to make a tough decision.”
That decision, after much consultation with colleagues, was to change course completely, less than a month before the play’s scheduled opening.
Bruch and DHS stagecraft teacher Kathy Peter broke the news to the cast and crew that Monday: “I told them we couldn’t do the play,” Bruch recalled.
Then she and Peter left the room to let the students figure out what they wanted to do.
Bruch had suggested the students come up with a series of vignettes they could write and rehearse in a few short weeks. But by 3:30 that afternoon, Bruch said, “they had an outline for a whole new play.”
And that’s exactly what she was hoping they would do.
“This is an extraordinarily unique group,” Bruch said of her mix of 23 sophomores, juniors and seniors. “They are smart and independent, yet have this extraordinary esprit de corps. They are resilient. I knew they could do it.”
The play they originally had been preparing for was set in a high school, and Bruch knew there was no other topic this group could better write about themselves.
“I said, ‘Tell your stories. Tell the stories of your friends, of the people you see who aren’t your friends, but who you know about,’ ” Bruch said. “After teaching high school for over 20 years, I’m very frustrated that teenagers are marginalized and dismissed in our culture. People don’t take the time to appreciate their strength and resilience … their courage.
“I wouldn’t want to be 15 again for anything in the world, navigating through life,” she noted.
“And we have too many students here who have difficult family lives, difficult situations. The academic pressures of a town like Davis are very frustrating to me as a teacher. And then there are the social pressures. So I said, ‘Tell your stories.’ ”
“That first day they came up with quite a wonderful variety,” Bruch said. “The characters in this piece cover a very wide spectrum of the kids we see at our high school.”
The one thing lacking, she said, is diversity. She wishes more students from different backgrounds had chosen to participate and in the past, given time, Bruch has been known to head out onto campus and find those kids, grab them and say, “I need you.”
This occasion, there wasn’t time, and Bruch says diversity is “the one thing this lacks.”
The script, titled, “Graffitied Walls,” written entirely by the cast, provides a look at the challenges high school students face daily. The play centers around interactions of several cliques, as students struggle with social, academic and family pressures, as well as identity and relationship issues.
When the school community is shaken by a tragedy, those same students are faced with the choice of breaking down the barriers between them or just building them higher.
All of the students participated in writing the script, but some stepped forward in a big way.
“Some who were principal characters in the original play have been more instrumental in the process,” Bruch said, even if that meant giving up the spotlight for a greater good.
Student Tina Simpson, who Bruch dubbed “a visionary,” was willing to drop an acting role in order to coordinate the writing of the script. Eden Tomich, meanwhile, became head writer, while Wil Forkin, Noah Papagni and Sydney Maguire all took on roles as both leaders and writers. Canela Garcia would serve as stage manager.
The students broke into groups to write, rehearse and begin building the set.
“The buzz in this classroom the last few weeks has been quite possibly the very best of my career,” Bruch said. “These kids, in 2 1/2 weeks, they’ve written a completely brilliant script, and everyone has contributed something valuable.”
The play itself alternates between hallways at a high school and an alley where the students congregate.
“That’s where the graffiti comes in,” Bruch noted.
And very important to Bruch and the students was making it as real as possible — right down to the language and behavior of high school students.
Bruch had to pitch to both Davis High Principal Will Brown and a school district administrator the idea of using language that otherwise might not be allowed — including “a very limited, very carefully chosen use of the F-word,” Bruch said. “Because this is about high school, and that’s how they talk.”
There is also dialogue about drug and alcohol use, as well as prescription drug use, a very real and growing problem among high school students, Bruch noted.
“And if we’re going to address problems, I have to get a little gritty,” she said.
The district administrator — aware of Bruch’s 20-year history producing plays with teens — gave the go-ahead, as did Brown. The students, meanwhile, regularly check in with Brown on the evolving script.
“We’ve shown him scenes,” Bruch said of the DHS principal, “and he’s very supportive.”
And her students, she added, “are smart… They’re not throwing around gratuitous stuff. But the world is changing, and we have to change with it.”
Bruch says she feels blessed to have the involvement of both Davis High and Da Vinci High students, including some veterans of the Acme Theatre Company. And she and Peter both praised the students’ ability to roll with the punches that have come.
“They’ve been amazingly responsive,” Peter said. “It’s all been very positive, like we’re all on this journey somewhere together.”
Not that it hasn’t been challenging.
Bruch said in a teaching career spanning more than two decades, only once before has she ever done anything like this, “and it was the most painful process I have ever gone through,” she laughed.
“But the end result was amazing and is one of the best memories of my career.”
She’s done Rodgers and Hammerstein, Shakespeare and many, many other productions, Bruch noted, “and now it’s time to give these young people a voice.”
“They deserve it,” Bruch said. “I have never been disappointed, and have always been rewarded, by giving my students a voice. And I need our community to come see this, to understand that our teenagers are awesome.”
There will be four performances of “Graffitied Walls”: March 13, 14 and 15 at 7 p.m. and March 16 at 2 p.m., all in the Brunelle Performance Hall, 315 W. 14th St.
The Thursday, March 13, show is a preview performance featuring reduced-price admission. All other shows are $14 for general admission, $12 for seniors and $10 for students with valid ID, and all Davis Joint Unified School District employees receive a two-for-one deal for general admission. Tickets are available at the door.
At the end of each performance, the cast and crew will host a question-and-answer session to discuss their creative journey and the issues they have addressed. They encourage all educators, parents and anyone who works with teens to share the experience, but caution that “Graffitied Walls” includes adult content, very strong language and suggested drug and alcohol use.
The Davis High School drama department is providing free on-site baby-sitting with the purchase of general admission tickets.
For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at email@example.com or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy