The West Linn High School Theatre Department will explore gender and identity challenges through a pair of winter productions: "The Unravelling" by Fin Kennedy and "The Okay Kids" by Hunter McKenzie — two very different plays with similar themes relating to teenagers.
"The WLHS Theatre Department prides itself in being inclusive and maintaining a safe space for all," said Steven Beckingham, WLHS theatre arts program director and teacher.
"The Unravelling" — which takes place in a fabric shop and focuses on three siblings whose mother is dying, leaving them 12 hours to prove they can run the fabric shop — and "The Okay Kids" — which is centered around a male friendship and is about a group of high schoolers exploring relationships, both platonic and romantic — are coming-of-age plays that range from 30 minutes to an hour and will be performed back-to-back starting Dec. 7.
"I think it's a fairly relatable play," said Ryan Mooney, English teacher and director of "The Okay Kids." "I think that it skirts a lot of stereotypes and avoids a lot of easy answers."
Last year, Beckingham said it occurred to him that although the theatre department covers a variety of genres, time periods and styles, it was only in the classroom where he had students investigate themes and characters that were relevant to themselves as teens.
"I wanted to create an extra-curricular production that might speak directly to teens — actors and audience — and the many facets of their lives," he said.
Beckingham approached English teachers Anna Crandall and Mooney — both of whom have backgrounds in theater — to direct plays of their choice surrounding the gender and identity theme.
"I have a very specific type and style of play that I like to direct," said Crandall, who steers clear of hyper-realistic productions and is directing "The Unravelling." "I love plays that give opportunity for play and magic to happen on stage."
Mooney takes a different approach.
"When I'm looking at plays, I'm usually drawn to language that I find is exciting or interesting or poetic. ... But I picked the play because of one line," Mooney said. "It's a line that it kind of hints toward a conversation about nuance and about understanding our language and understanding how we can have conversations about relationships and how we can have conversations about sexuality."
Junior Gwyneth Seward, who is playing one of the three narrators in "The Unravelling" whose character is an older, wiser version of the youngest child, likes that "The Okay Kids" explores sexuality.
"I think it's really cool, especially this day and age to be exploring things like being gay or being part of the LGBTQ community," Seward said. "I think that for a long time it has been suppressed and it's been kind of embarrassing to talk about it. ... I'm actually really proud of our school for being able to take that leap in doing this."'
Sophomore Eric McDevitt, who is playing Jack in "The Okay Kids," has never acted in a theater production before, but is looking forward to performing as a character who is around his own age.
"There's stuff my character goes through that I kind of relate to, like lashing out in anger," McDevitt said. "He's really about what other people see him as and that's kind of his main stress throughout the whole thing: People are going to see him as somebody that he's not or something he doesn't know if he is yet. I get (the idea of) worrying about your vision, I think everybody kind of gets that."
Junior Gwendalyn Jeuris, playing June in "The Okay Kids," agrees with McDevitt and said the play feels very raw and real.
Her character has just returned from rehab and is exploring her emotions after coming home.
"It's really cool because it's also my first experience in a school play so having an opportunity to play a role like this is really exciting," Jeuris said.
For Beckingham, the purpose of the two plays is to tell stories for entertainment but it's also to enlighten, broaden and create an atmosphere of empathy.
"Additionally, for some, it is a challenge to voice feelings and thoughts for fear of ridicule or judgement — unfortunately, it's the world we live in — but with theater, those same individuals can explore similar feelings and thoughts through the lens of a character in a similar situation," Beckingham said. "It is therapeutic, and more importantly, safe."
Steward relates the two plays to string.
"Every person has their own ball of yarn and they're just trying to unravel and find their story in the center," Seward said. "As you're pulling out the string you find different colors, different ideals and different morals and you find out who you are."
The two plays will be performed on Dec. 7, 8, 13, 15 and 15 at 7 p.m. and Dec. 8 at 2 p.m. in the Black Box Studio Theatre in the Performing Arts Center at West Linn High School. Tickets are $6 for students, $8 for adults and can be purchase online at www.wlhstheatre.org or at the door.
"These types of plays may not be for everyone, but in these troubling times where tolerance, civil rights and prejudice are still being arbitrated, these stories need to performed," Beckingham said.