High school: was there ever a time where the theatrics seemed larger life, the problems more urgent and the challenges insurmountable, before it all fizzled away in adulthood? There’s a reason high school dramas have always been a popular genre of entertainment: it’s a period of deep friendships, roiling rivalries, early romances and accompanying heart aches that make for some of our most formative years.
The setting is fodder and familiar territory for young playwrights Ayden Elworthy and Parker Merlihan, who make it the backdrop of their upcoming musical comedy, You Smile, which plays next month at The Registry Theatre.
“I’ve been saying that it’s a bit of an ode to our high school experience, in the sense that there are a lot of characters that are represented in our friend circles, and kind of feelings and general similar aesthetics to what I experienced in high school,” says 19-year-old Elworthy.
The play, at its most basic, is about a pair of high school students, Sam and Liam, who come to the end a romantic relationship. The characters must to learn to navigate the loss and in doing so, explore the connections between art and friendships and the weight of high school relationships.
“At the same time, the other plot throughout our play is that we play characters in the story, and we are trying to write something that is worthwhile to us, but also helps us through,” says Elworthy.
“So it’s kind of a play within a play I guess. Our characters are writing the fiction of this other break-up story,” adds 17-year-old Merlihan.
You Smile is the duo’s first collaboration to hit the big stage, at least as far as writing a play is concerned. The pair met at Kitchener’s Eastwood Collegiate Institute, where they bonded over their love of music and theatre. Elworthy has since graduated and plans to pursue post-secondary studies in drama, while Merlihan, an Elmira resident, hopes to join him along that route soon.
“We started collaborating about a year ago. We just started goofing off and making really dumb things. And then eventually we sent some stuff in, and it got approved by an actual organization,” explains Merlihan.
That organization was JM Drama Alumni, the not-for-profit that runs The Registry Theatre and organizes the Playground: Festival of New Work. The Festival immediately saw the potential of the pair, and the natural chemistry and comedic timing that they shared, and opted to help the young artists bring their script to life.
“When they were first presenting their piece to us in the writers’ circle room, they were sort of stumbling through it in the most adorable and wonderful way imaginable,” says Sam Varteniuk, executive director of The Registry Theatre and artistic director of the festival. “Their rapport and their patter was so wonderful that everyone in the room said, ‘guys, you’ve got to make this part of the play.’”
The writers’ circle convinced Elworthy and Merlihan to make changes to their original
screenplay, lowering the age of the characters from adults to adolescence, and incorporating the idea of writing a play within a play as a framing device for the story.
“We didn’t intend it to really be about high school in particular. It was kind of just the main basis of getting over someone, and then as we took it to our writers circle, we got suggestions from them and flipped it around and made it more personal,” says Merlihan.
The result of that collaboration is a story the writers, cast and crew hope will be true to life and meaningful for audience members, with a mixture of toe-tapping musical numbers, comedy and a healthy dose of introspection lighting the way.
“The themes are generally pretty relatable,” says the play’s director, Taylor Mann, another Eastwood student. “Like high school romance: it’s really kind of a silly thing, and the drama of it is escalated which is funny because that’s just how a lot of teenagers [are]. They feel like it’s the end of the world. And that’s kind of how it’s being portrayed.”
Those hoping to catch the works of the young, local artists in action will have an opportunity to do so next month at the Playground: Festival of New Work, which runs from June 6-9 at The Registry Theatre. You Smile will have two showings, first on June 6 at 7:30 p.m., and again for a Saturday matinee on June 8 at 2 p.m.
The festival is an opportunity for daring connoisseurs of the arts and theatre lovers to venture outside their comfort zones, and support a fresher cast of artists in the region.
“Theatre is a risky proposition. You don’t know what you’re are going to get, especially when you’re talking about new works. Some things might be brilliant, some things might not be,” opines Varteniuk. “I think this is really for people who like to explore in their consumption of culture, like to take a little risk on something new.”
Tickets for the festival are available at www.registrytheatre.com/playground