High schoolers: no matter which crowd they run with - be it the nerds, the plastics, the alternatives or the jocks - they are all just looking for a way to fit in and be accepted for who they are.
That was the theme at the heart of Normal, a smart and multifaceted play written and produced by PWK high school drama students in Fort Smith, which had its debut last weekend.
In the same vein as modern coming-of-age stories like Mean Girls, Freaks and Geeks and The Breakfast Club, Normal intertwines the lives of several students at a moment in time when they are each facing their own set of unique challenges. Ultimately, they realize there isn’t really such a thing as being “normal,” because everyone has their own cross to bear.
The production started out as an assignment for the Grade 10 and 11 drama classes, said Kelsey Smith, the teacher who facilitated and directed the play with her husband Sean Smith.
“The students had an idea of breaking down high school stereotypes,” she said. To confront and address those stereotypes, she wanted her class to dig deep into their own experiences. “I asked students to write something they could speak honestly about.”
They came back with their own monologues and scenes, and from January up until a week before the performance, each piece was put together to create Normal.
The plot focuses mostly around three main characters: John, the new guy in town, played by Daniel Wiltzen, with a crush on the prettiest girl in school; Allie, the love interest, secretly battling a substance abuse problem in the wake of her recent transition to a foster home, personified by Isabella Bourque; and Tyler, an out gay teen who is mercilessly bullied by his peers until he takes his own life, played by Shawn Tourangeau.
Text message conversations read aloud by the characters – complete with abbreviated ‘txt talk’ and emojis – serve as smooth transitions between scenes and distinctly set the story in contemporary times. The device provides many opportunities for comic relief, though it also illuminates the pervasive and inescapable nature of modern bullying, a phenomenon where kids are harassed at all hours in their homes through cell phone and internet interactions.
Overall, Normal tackles some dark material. A monologue by Allie explains her tendency to drink away her pain. A spoken-word delivery of Tyler’s suicide note paints him as a martyr for other gay and bullied teens, and pleads for youth to be more accepting of their peers’ differences. However, the writers said they were only trying to reflect the realities some students face.
“I hope it was believable because that’s what the life of a teenager is,” Bourque said. “Sometimes people forget issues are happening, so we wanted to draw attention to them.”
The students enjoyed the overall experience of highlighting issues that matter to them and many look forward to creating their own play again next year.
“It was awesome to put it all together. It was pretty difficult, not only to write the story but to intertwine those characters,” Wiltzen said as he reflected on the performance. “It’s hard for people to fit in. Being welcoming is the first step to solving the biggest problem of all, bullying.”
“It was a lot of work but it was still amazing and so worth it,” Tourangeau said, giving praise to the Smiths for their help and dedication as directors. “I wanted to highlight teenage suicide because it’s real and it happens everywhere. It’s not a thing that’s talked about enough.”