Working with Teenagers in Prospect High: Brooklyn, Premiering at Out of the Loop Festival

The students from Grand Prairie Fine Arts Academy performing at Out of the Loop Fringe Festival.EXPAND
The students from Grand Prairie Fine Arts Academy performing at Out of the Loop Fringe Festival.
Out of the Loop Fringe Festival

When the Out of the Loop Fringe Festival hits stages at WaterTower Theatre February 25- March 6, there will be numerous shows to choose from. A particularly interesting production at this year's festival arrives via Brooklyn from the minds of Daniel Robert Sullivan and a handful of New York teenagers. The original play, Prospect High: Brooklyn,  leans on the real life experiences of teenagers to explore ideas including apathy, revenge, friendship, casual racism, self-harm, trans acceptance alongside other elements of contemporary young adult life.  

When the show premieres at WaterTower Theatre, it's the project of Grand Prairie Fine Arts Academy and will feature high school actors from the school. This won't be the first devised work in Dallas using local high schoolers. Dallas-based theatermaker and playwright, Shelby-Allison Hibbs recently worked with Cry Havoc Theater to create Shut Up and Listen, a piece crafted by 11 teenage actors. To take a deep dive into Prospect High, we had Hibbs sit down with Sullivan and discuss the project. This is their conversation. 

Shelby-Allison Hibbs: I’m fascinated by the conceit of Prospect High, this play that you developed with high school students. From what I have read, some are calling this a tour others are calling it a world premiere? And with these descriptions, it sounds like many high schools across the country are producing it on their own. Can you articulate what this really is?

Daniel Robert Sullivan: That’s exactly right, and thank you for clarifying that because I have noticed in other conversations that it gets misprinted once or twice. Prospect High is not really a tour, it’s the first high school “rolling world premiere”. We’re not touring the play; there are 23 independently and separately produced productions all over the country.

SAH: Can you elaborate on how this rolling premiere works?

DRS: It’s basically a new idea based on an old idea. That the national new play network, which you might be familiar with –

SAH: Yes, I am familiar with NNPN. [In Dallas, Kitchen Dog Theatre hosted a NNPN rolling premiere of The Firestorm and Dallas Theater Center presented Colossal].

DRS: It rolls out plays to smaller theaters, professional theaters, and each one is professionally produced. The creators of the play spy in on each production and learn about their own work as the play is getting more attention because many theaters are doing it. And each theaters can claim it as a “world premiere.”

My idea was to take that model and do it with high schools across America. There are thousands of high school theater programs. So, yes a Rolling World Premiere, and the first of its kind specifically rolling out high schools.

SAH: That’s incredible how this one play will be performed in so many communities. Are you acting in Jersey Boys right now in Las Vegas while this rolling premiere is happening all over the country?

DRS: Yes, that is correct. I am performing Tommy DeVito in Jersey Boys and producing this roll out of the premiere. It’s a quirky thing to talk about, because I actually travel back and forth to be with my family. Five and a half days I’m here in Vegas, and then a day and a half in New York. And that’s just how we’re making it work.

As always, it’s temporary. The show is running here indefinitely and I’ve been in and out of the show for many years. When I’m not on the road in the show, I’m a teaching artist in NYC public schools. It’s been a part of my life for more than 15 years and something I’m pretty passionate about.

SAH: How do you select the schools that get this opportunity?

DRS: This premiere focuses on the non-traditional high school theatre programs, the ones that don’t necessarily have the big budgets.
For the most part, we’re focusing on schools that don’t have the ability to gain publicity or awareness to their productions. We’re trying to give them that little bit of a gift, as they are associated with the rolling world premiere with many other schools. Essentially, what matters to us is getting the play out there to the world.

It doesn’t necessarily matter that the production is big or elaborate, we want it to be meaningful, that’s what’s most important at this stage.

SAH: I have read that a school in Grand Prairie has been selected as the local production, and they are producing it as part of the Out of the Loop Festival at WaterTower Theater. How did you select this school?

DRS: Grand Prairie Fine Arts Academy, they’re very well known in your market.

We essentially found schools by working virtually and contacting all of our high school contacts around the country and this is the school that kept coming up in the Dallas Area. Even though it’s not a school in need of a national boost, we just thought that we could attach ourselves to it and they can help us.

SAH: Are you going to be involved in the production at all or is going to be completely hands off?

DRS: We’re totally hands off. We give the work to each school and we let them interpret it as they wish. The fun part about that is that we’ve had a number of schools focus on different things.

For example, Boston Arts Academy did a wonderful high tech production of the show, they had three different video projectors, music, iphone realizations, and digital motion capture. They did all these things and incorporated it into the play because their school focuses on digital arts.

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We have a school in Philadelphia which is a poverty stricken school, and this was their first play that they ever produced, because they simply didn’t have funding. We came to them and said: “We want you to do this play. Do the play for free and we will try give you whatever kind of help we can. You don’t have to pay royalties, we just want them to have the opportunity to do a play that related to their kids.”
Some are very very small, some happen in a classroom with just a few chairs. So, across the country, all kinds of variations are happening.

A school like Grand Prairie is known for their production values, so I’m assuming that their production will be a bit cleaner and slicker.

SAH: Is the script still flexible when it’s in the hands of the schools? Are they allowed to continue the devising process or do you consider it fixed as it is?

DRS:  We consider is a work in progress. The students who created it and I are the ones who will make the final decisions. But, we are learning with each production. We have discussions with the creative teams after their process is done. We don’t want to interfere while they are producing the play.

So we’ve had about fifteen productions so far and each one has taught us something new. Essentially, there’s a new draft of the script after every production because we find something to fix. And so I’ve been sending each school updated copies digitally so they don’t have to rely on the published version. Which I consider now to be out of date. You can by a copy on Amazon right now, the workshop edition, and it’s gone through many changes since then. We’ll be publishing the final version after the end of this academic year. Now we have a full script and all the tweaking we do is all done virtually. That’s a challenge, but it’s still fun.

SAH: What challenges have you encountered with finalizing the script?

DRS: The tricky part for me is that the students I created the show with are growing up. It’s now a year and a half later, almost two years later, some of them are in college now. So I’m still in collaboration with them, I send them drafts, and updates, and thoughts, and they write me back. And we try to make it all work.

SAH: What kind of support have you received to create this ambitious project?

DRS: Roundabout Theatre Company has been very gracious because Prospect High was developed there in New York. They have been very great about publishing it and keeping it on their roster of plays and keeping it in their online bookstore. Which is quite remarkable, because Roundabout is a big time theatre company and they have produced so many new plays that have become very, very popular. We’re just a rag-tag group made of teenagers and with a teaching artist that thinks they have something to say. Roundabout jumped on board and gave it equal treatment with the sort of more professional playwrights who have been at their institution.

SAH: What was the impulse for creating this piece and the process? It’s not every day that an actor says that he wants to create a new show with teenagers and allow them to have an equal weight in the writing. Why were you drawn to giving them the opportunity to use their own voice?

DRS: Teenagers' stories are really engaging. I’ve been a teaching artist off and on for fifteen years. I find that stories that are coming out of the public schools are really engaging and really meaningful. And I also find that the adult theatre going population doesn’t value them as much. Or, they don’t give them as much credit or publicity.

I’m not doing anything new here, we’re doing the same thing that teaching artists everywhere are doing – devising stories and theatrical dialogue that’s engaging. The only thing I did differently is:” “Let’s attach ourselves to a big institution. Get some energy and awareness behind it.”

SAH: When I read the previous articles you sent me, one quote that jumped out concerning the development process was “we set up a space where anything could happen.” How did you encourage original thought or openness with the students you worked with?

DRS: We had a dedicated studio in New York where we met at least three afternoons a week over the course of nine months. The first six months were about generating material, but in order to generate material in an open and honest way, you first had to be open and honest with each other.

There were nine teenagers [in the group] who didn’t necessarily know each other, they all came from different schools. They didn’t necessarily know me. We were meeting together as a unit for the first time together to make this piece.

What that meant was that I needed to start with lots of traditional theatre-making activities. Story circles and engagement activities that allowed us to get to know each other and become comfortable before anything serious would come out.
It was very important to me to not have a specific agenda on how to make the play.

I didn’t know what the play was going to be about.

SAH: How did you start making decisions concerning the content of the piece?

DRS: After the first weeks, we devised a list of general issues that they cared about and they encountered every day. Right from the get-go we had a couple of people very attached to the idea of self-harm or cutting. And to be perfectly frank, I didn’t think it was as big of a thing in the population I was dealing with. But they said “We want this to be in the play, this is important to us, we are doing it right now, our friends are doing it, and we want to address it in some way.”
Once we had those ideas, I began to take each one and springboard some stories and characters.

SAH: How did you feel as the adult in the room, listening to their stories? When I was working with teens this winter, I realized how disconnected I was with what was going on in their own lives. I would think: “Wow, my past seems relatively simple compared to what you all are experiencing.” Can you comment on that disparity?

DRS: It’s always amazing to see how honest they will be when given the chance. That’s what I like about a safe creative space because it turns on the dial that you can be truthful. And it kind of blows me away at what they have to deal with when going to school in an urban environment every day. The schools that don’t have a lot of money, that are very crowded, that are very cold, and don’t have a lot of programs. This was not my experience growing up, and it’s something that I’m fascinated by.

Our process involved an open circle of questioning, but it’s always me doing the questioning. They know the answers, they’ve dealt with these things for year. As a teacher, it’s things that I’m not always aware of when I’m in the front of the classroom. If anything, the theme of the play is that we have no answers for any of the problems we put into the play, but I know the first step is creating a space where you can listen to the younger people.

SAH: As this play premieres at campuses all across the country, what is your hope for it in the future? What is the end goal of this labor of love?

DRS: My hope is that every school in America will produce this play at some point in the next ten years. Now, that may be a really bold hope. But I really believe that there are issues and things said in this play that should be heard by adults. I hope that these 23 productions will snowball into other productions.

SAH: Creating a work with teenagers sounds very parallel to my recent project, Shut Up and Listen. That play was really more for the adults watching. We wanted them to reflect on their experiences as teens and to acknowledge that teenagers have a real voice.

DRS: That’s it. They have a real voice. And I believe that these stories are legitimately engaging stories.

I don’t claim to be a great playwright. However, I do claim to be authentic in presenting these stories. They’re real and the dialogue is real. I feel like maybe this can be a wave of awareness for stories coming out of the teenage population. Again, I’m not doing anything new. I’m hoping it springboards into something where more people will be interested in these stories. 

Prospect High: Brooklyn performs on the Main Stage at the Out of the Loop Fringe Festival at 8 p.m. February 27 and 5 p.m. February 28. Tickets at watertowertheatre.org. 

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