Berkshire Playwrights Lab: Real life resonates in new play
GREAT BARRINGTON -- Four young people sit around a table at a coffee shop. Over the course of an hour, the conversation drifts to college, high school, SATs, the prom, the dynamics of teen relationships.
This could very well be a scene out of playwright Anna Ziegler's new play, "Life Science," which is about four high school seniors wrestling with these familiar growing pains as they approach the end of the comforts of their suburban lives before starting college.
In a case of life imitating art, this conversation is not from a scene in the play, but among the actors who are bringing Ziegler's characters to life, as the four meet at Fuel Coffee Shop in Great Barrington.
Produced and developed by Berkshire Playwrights Lab, a nonprofit committed to readings of new plays, "Life Science" premieres tonight at the Daniel Arts Center at Bard College at Simon's Rock.
"This play really resonates with everyone, not just high schoolers, but people who are college-aged, parents and grandparents," said David Kremintzer, one of the actors. "Parents see this and they freak out. This is what happens when high schoolers are talking to each other, it's this secret world. Parents don't know about this stuff, all of this sexual stuff, these worries and fears that teenagers have. The play is very microcosmic."
This relatable quality of Ziegler's work, set at a Jewish day school in Maryland outside of Washington D.C., be came apparent to the cast when they performed a short selection of scenes at the Berkshire Playwrights Lab season-opening gala earlier this month. The performance was meant to preview Ziegler's play -- the Lab's first fully staged production.
Julian Leong, another of the actors, said everyone who watches or reads Ziegler's work recognizes either themselves or their friends in the four-person play. From the jock to the teen railing against social injustices, "Life Science" gives its audiences a trip down memory lane.
That was especially true for Kermintzer and Leong's cast mate, Arielle Lever. Like her character, Lever grew up in suburban Maryland and attended a private Jewish day school. While she said that she is very different from her character, reading the play for the first time produced a strong reaction.
"I read it and saw that I know or knew a version of these people," Lever said. "The play is actually based in a school in Bethesda, Maryland. I went to its other version in Baltimore -- it's pure coincidence, but I identified with it. I know this world."
Ziegler taught high school English at the school that formed the basis for the play, and wrote in an email that she has "no doubt that the voices of my teenaged students were guiding me as I wrote."
Expecting her first child this month, Ziegler was unable to attend the gala performance, but was able to sit in on a rehearsal with the cast and their director, Joe Cacaci, in New York.
"I enjoyed my time in re hearsal," Ziegler wrote. "This cast is just terrific -- very enthusiastic and generous -- and it's a real joy to see people having fun with your material."
From just sitting down with the cast for just one hour, it is clear from their easy camaraderie they are having a lot of fun not just with the material, but with one another. Ranging in age from early 20s to early 30s, the actors all said that they are far enough removed from their characters' actual ages to look back more objectively on the high school experience. For some, it is far less removed from their lives than others.
Jess Jacobs is the youngest in the cast. Heading into her senior year at New York Uni ver sity's Tisch School for the Arts, Jacobs said she immediately drew parallels between people in her own life and her character.
"I'm 21 and my brother just turned 18. It's funny, I started playing this role and realized that my character and my brother are so similar, it's weird," Jacobs said. "The characters feel real because they are real people and their experiences are very real. Dana (Jacobs' character) is kind of similar to my brother in some ways, which is true, but on another level, these characters are all of us."
It's a realization that director Cacaci had when he first read the play. One of the Lab's founding artistic directors, Cacaci said that he looked at the play both as someone who had gone through many of the same experiences as well as a parent who is now watching a younger generation tackle the same trials and tribulations of growing up.
"This period of my life is something that I remember vividly. It's interesting in that it is done in a very adult way -- this isn't a sitcom or a teen soap. You see the play and know the characters," Cacaci said.
Cacaci, who is a playwright, screenwriter and educator, said the play did not change much as it went through the workshop process with Ziegler.
"It just really works off the page. We took a few things out here and there and played with them, but for the most part it was all there."
The scenic backdrop, designed by Chien-Yu Peng, is a giant blackboard filled with what look like typical high school doodles. While there is no rhyme or reason to the arrangement, there is something of an accidental pattern. Like some secret proof attempting to answer those eternal questions that fuel teen angst, the doodles hint at the play's title, "a playful nod," Ziegler wrote, "(to) the name of a high school class that also suggests the idea of figuring out how to live one's life "
For the members of the cast, the science of life is something that is never easy to decipher even after high school ends.
"I now have a heightened awareness of teenagers around me," Lever said. "I was sitting down at a table here [at Fuel] and there was a whole table of kids taking about prom and college. I was fascinated by the behavioral dynamics of how they were sitting and facing each other. They were talking about all of these issues. It's not age specific, everyone has had the same experience."
What: "Life Science" by Anna Ziegler
Who: Berkshire Playwrights Lab
When: Now through June 30. Press opening tonight at 8. Eves.: Wed.-Sat. 8 (June 22 at 9:30). Mats.: Sun. 2
Where: Daniel Arts Center, Bard College at Simon's Rock, 84 Alford Road, Great Barrington
Tickets: $20; students $15
How: (413) 528-0100; mahaiwe.org
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