Freshwater heads back to the hell of high school

Freshwater heads back to the hell of high school
Image courtesy Freshwater Theatre
Freshwater Theatre takes everyone back to the dark days of high school with The Gifted Program. Set in Racine, WI, in 1986, Ruben Carbajal's play looks at the lives of four refugees from the school's canceled gifted and talented program. Will they survive in the general population? We talked with Freshwater's Ben Layne about the show, and the challenges of bringing the real '80s back to life.

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What drew you to do this piece at this time?

Ben Layne: First, the script is just really good. The voice rings true, especially as teens of that time period. They're sarcastic, cutting, insecure, and not as PC as we are today. It feels like how kids talked when I was a kid.

Then there are the layers within the play about bullies, and general teenage oppression. There are bullies -- both teens and adults -- who make life hard for these kids simply for being who they are, and the play doesn't shy away from those harsh truths. You can even be bullied by your very own friends because they feel it is easier to go with the flow than buck the system. Not to mention what faculty could get away with back then versus now. We're still dealing with the repercussions of those attitudes today, as evidenced by the recent controversy over -- the now former -- Rutgers basketball coach. 

The other big reason is that the main characters in this story are not the typical leading man roles you might see in other plays. It was a great opportunity to give large, meaty roles to character actors, and let them sink their teeth in. At the same time, it's still a skillfully crafted ensemble script, and everyone in it has their own unique story.   

How do you work to keep the characters from falling into routine clichés, especially for ones identified as "geeks"?

The script really does a lot of that work for us. The "geeks" aren't written one-dimensionally. Their worldview is very nuanced, and each one sees things in a very distinct way, especially when it comes to how to deal with the social hierarchy. The decisions they make are idiosyncratic, and true to each individual character. With four different points of view, that really helps keeps it honest. 

From there, we let them be who they are as the actors portrayed them, and let the characters and situations flow. Even the "mean girls" are distinct in their own right. Sure, they're mean, but they have their motivations, just like everyone else. The whole play has a running theme of who these kids portray themselves to the world versus what they really are like inside, and by simply playing the text and the situation, it naturally avoids stereotype.  

The '80s were a distinct time, how have you worked to bring the texture of high-school life during the era to the stage?

Our fantastic designers really took to the challenge. A lot of it comes out in the costumes and the props and the sound. We asked people we knew who were in high school at the time things like, "Did you use backpacks a lot back then, or no?" Based on those answers, we took that into the decisions we made.

The costumes are very clearly modeled on the fashion of the time, and the music artists who made certain looks popular. The radios and other props the kids listen to are appropriate to the era, as are all the songs. Since one big character in the play is a local DJ who hosts a call-in show, we get a lot of those radio moments onstage, thus the music of the era plays a big role in the proceedings. The whole sound design is historically accurate, from the music down to the very commercials they would have heard on the radio at that time in southern Wisconsin. There are a lot of details the audience will appreciate when they see it all together. 

You're doing The Gifted Program in rep with a trio of one-act plays (Freshwater Goes to High School). How did this come about, and how do the two shows work together?

Like many of the ideas we have for our rep shows, it just came out of discussions that happened immediately after the company read the script. We have heard the laments of high school drama teachers who say they are dying for new material to work with, so we decided that this was the perfect time to meet that need. Since we have our own publishing imprint, we knew we could create an anthology of the new works and get it into the hands of educators.

Plus, it's fun to take the whole company back to high school and really play with that theme. We're hosting a Sadie Hawkins dance after the performance on the 13th, and our Night Swim cabaret on the 19th (after a performance of the one-acts) will be a speech meet run, according the high school league rules, but with the addition of beer to celebrate that we're not actually in high school anymore.


The Gifted Program and Freshwater Goes to High School
Friday through April 27
Nimbus Theatre
1571 Central Ave. NE, Minneapolis
For tickets and information, call 612.816.8479 or visit online.

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The Nimbus Theater

1517 Central Ave. NE
Minneapolis, MN 55413


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