The lights dimmed as the 80s music started to blare, and in the subsequent darkness, the audience was transported back to 1982, the ghost of a Top Ten radio playlist echoing throughout the Black Box Theater. As the music faded away, the lights rose up, revealing a dingy apartment — pizza boxes strewn across the cabinets, a mattress languishing on the floor near a sea of old comic books, a portable television flickering with some old broadcast and a destructive, manipulative young man lazily watching the program and trying to ignore his doorbell.
From there, “This Is Our Youth” launches into an intense exploration of what it means to grow up. Audiences should prepare to be riveted by everything the play throws at them, whether it be the stellar performances, dark content, surprising bursts of humor or the kind of relatable moments that leave attendees squirming in their seats.
The School of Film and Photography’s production of “This Is Our Youth” is, above all else, a reminder that MSU is dripping with artistic talent. The play features three captivating performances from its small cast, which includes Tay O’Neil as Dennis Ziegler, Kyle Downs as Warren Straub and Gabrielle Heron-Tammetta as Jessica Goldman. These three actors are the only actors in “This Is Our Youth,” but each brought enough substance and dimension into their roles that one forgot there were only three people on stage.
“This Is Our Youth” follows Dennis and Warren — two burnout college-aged kids spawned by different sets of rich, successful parents — as they debate what to do with the $15,000 Warren stole from his father. Harsh, hateful Dennis blames everyone but himself for problems he’s caused; lost little Warren fights Dennis’ bullying as weakly and ineffectively as possible; and bright, argumentative Jessica challenges the pair and their friendship. O’Neil, Downs and Heron-Tammetta brought prime levels of depth to their characters, and they’re in good company: Matt Damon, Michael Cera, Mark Ruffalo, Anna Paquin, Casey Affleck and a whole host of other recognizable names have taken the stage as these characters before.
Director Tom Watson — who has been teaching at MSU for 18 years and has directed over half a dozen productions at the school — said he enjoyed working with such a small cast: “There’s a really good director-actor relationship that allows you to talk about what’s going on in terms of the character, in terms of the story … I think it allows for an open, honest discussion. What’s really interesting about the acting craft is you’re talking about the human condition, and so when you have a relationship with actors as a director that is pretty open, you talk about how these characters relate to your experiences, your knowledge.”
In addition to the amazing performances, “This Is Our Youth” features some stunning behind-the-scenes work, as well. The production is a collaborative effort between faculty and students from four different departments, including the School of Film and Photography, the School of Music, the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering and the Honors College. The production combined with an interdisciplinary class from the school of music that gave students enough knowledge on sound design for theater productions that students were able to lend their services to “This Is Our Youth.” And the entire set was designed by an engineering student who was interested in how his engineering skills could apply to technical theater.
Watson chose to do this play for a number of reasons. MSU theater productions are so tied to the School of Film and Photography, he likes to select plays that relate to the school’s work. The actors and much of the crew were plucked from the school, and as he puts it, the dialogue in “This Is Our Youth” has “a cinematic-quality to it … [it’s] got an ultra, hyper-realistic kind of style to it [that] is a lot like some film work.” One of the other major reasons he chose to stage “This Is Our Youth” is that, though the play is set in 1982, many of the themes of the production can connect with the youth of today.
“A big part of what this play is talking about is how difficult that time period is in our life when we basically go from childhood to adulthood … it’s a tough time in a lot of people’s lives,” Watson said. “[This play] has some universal truths to it … [I think] going through the transitions in life relate to that kind of chemical imbalance — depression, thoughts of suicide — and I think you see that in these characters. You see that difficulty. And I think that experience — that human experience — relates to all of us.”
Sitting in the seats of the Black Box Theatre, the audience can feel that humanity. The small, enclosed theater forces the crew to be creative — the set for MSU’s production of “This Is Our Youth” was designed for the space, and therefore is completely unique — but it also brings the story up close and personal to the audience. With the actors so close and the set dominating the space, everything is heightened — every word of dialogue is more piercing, because they could be talking to us; every situation is more heart-wrenching, because we’ve seen this happen before; and every emotional outburst is more powerful, because it feels as if we’re in the room with them.
In addition to being a great play, “This Is Our Youth” has also been a place of learning for the students involved. Watson strongly emphasized the educational benefits of staging a play in the Black Box.
“One of the questions I often get is, ‘You guys don’t have a theater department, yet you still do theater?’” Watson added. “I’m a big advocate for using the Black Box Theatre as a laboratory for SFP students who are studying the craft of telling story. It’s another place to really experiment. When they do most of their projects, they’re usually 10-minute films, so this is an opportunity to really attack story told in a full-length version. I think it’s very important.”
“This Is Our Youth” will be playing in the Black Box Theatre at 7:30 p.m. on April 8, 9, 15 and 16. Student tickets are $12 and general tickets are $14.