As the frontiers of theatre for young people have expanded in recent years, traditional taboos have fallen quickly. Today, children’s theatres regularly present work that deals with divorce, domestic violence, disease, death, racism, war, poverty—the whole range of painful, complicated realities that exist outside Peter Cottontail’s garden. But one taboo has held fairly firm: sexuality. That changed last February when Kansas City’s Coterie Theatre presented the premiere of The Wrestling Season. Meant for audiences 13 and up, the play focuses on two high school wrestlers who are rumored to be gay lovers and examines the effect of peer disapproval on other characters as well. After the play is over, the actors remain on stage, in character, to respond to questions from the audience. Playwright Laurie Brooks, the mother of three daughters, is currently playwright-in-residence at New York University’s program in educational theatre.
SMITH: Were you worried that people would be upset about the subject matter of your play?
BROOKS: Oh, yes. There’s such an aura around about what can be presented for young people and what can’t, an attitude that if you put imperfect behavior on stage, young people will do it. But the opposite is true. This play represents young people who are anti-models. They often make mistakes and they don’t necessarily do the right thing. But that doesn’t mean that the young people in the audience are going to emulate them. Instead, the play gives them the chance to stand up afterwards and say, “I don’t think he should have done that.” Or, “If it were me, I would have done it this way.”
SMITH: Is that what you include in the forum?
BROOKS: The forum offers the beginning of a dialogue. Young people are crying out to talk about these issues. At the Coterie, the forum was supposed to run for about 30 minutes, hut it could have gone for an hour or more. The kids were cheering; they were disagreeing and you could watch some of them rethink their positions.
SMITH: Did you script answers for the actors to use during the forums?
BROOKS: We couldn’t have. The forums were never static. Each one was different and totally spontaneous. The actors had a vocabulary of responses that they built up over time, but it wasn’t scripted.
SMITH: It’s interesting that you left the ending so ambiguous.
BROOKS: There are many who believe that theatre for young audiences is all about teaching lessons, but I think it’s about raising questions. It’s one of the best strategies to help young people think about the complications that make us human.
SMITH: Did The Wrestling Season grow from any specific incident?
BROOKS: It came out of a couple of years of work I did in high schools in the early 1990s for the Nassau County Commission on Human Rights. I worked with young people to devise scenes that showed conflicts they dealt with every day. As you can imagine, the same topics came up again and again—issues of identity in particular. I wanted to write these issues into a play. Then I happened to go to a wrestling match, and found the metaphor laid before me.
SMITH: Why didn’t you make one of the characters clearly gay and struggling with that?
BROOKS: I made a conscious choice not to do it that way, because sexuality is not as clearly defined as we would like it to be. Taht’s simply too easy. It’s difficult to put labels on anybody. I’ll admit that in early drafts, I tried it that way. But I didn’t want this work to be labeled the “gay play.” My feeling is that it’s about that and more.
SMITH: Why do you write for young people?
BROOKS: I guess there’s a part of me that never quite grew up. I still struggle with a lot of the same issues that young people face. I find the young adult search for meaning beautiful. I like to be around them – their energy, their vulnerability, their discovering.
SMITH: How do you keep in touch with kids and how they speak?
BROOKS: Mostly by hanging out with my daughters and their friends. That’s very important to me as a playwright, and of course my daughters are in every play I write in one way or another. In fact, if you track my work, you can watch my kids grow up.
SMITH: Did your daughters make any contributions to The Wrestling Season?
BROOKS: Yes. For example, my daughter Joanna had an interesting suggestion about the character Melanie. She was the one who said, “Maybe Melanie likes the rumors.”
SMITH: Are there still taboos that can’t be crossed in youth theatre? Are there any lines that you won’t cross personally?
BROOKS: That’s a tough question, because I wouldn’t want to censor myself as a writer. But whenever we present work for young people, I think it should have redeeming value. I think it should be helpful in some way.
SMITH: Why is it important for youth theatre to produce plays like The Wrestling Season?
BROOKS: I think we have to reach young people within their own territory. It’s patronizing for adults to say: This is what you should do. Kids can smell didacticism a mile away, and they’re turned off by it. A better approach is: “Here’s a story. Now, what do you think about the characters and their actions?
Russell Scott Smith is a New York-based freelance writer.
American Theater – November 2000