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Why Age-Appropriate Roles for Teens Are Important, and How to Write Them

In this guest blog post, playwright Jonathan Dorf discusses the importance of creating more opportunities for teens to play characters in which they can see (and find) themselves.

Toilet1.jpgWe’ve all seen it: a 17-year-old with a fake beard, hair sprayed gray, affecting a voice and some strange stoop or waddle walk. Or just completely ignoring it and playing a 50-year-old as if there’s no difference whatsoever. I get it. There are lots of great plays out there, plays that are important for young actors (and anyone else with an interest in theatre) to know. Whether that’s Our Town or Arsenic and Old Lace or Romeo and Juliet or Death of a Salesman, it’s sometimes valuable to do these shows simply so that young performers are exposed to them.

There are, of course, other reasons why these shows are often selected. One, they have proven name recognition, and so they are likely to draw an audience—and make it past the administrative gatekeepers. Two, along those same lines, they are of proven quality; if the production doesn’t work, it’s not because the writing is bad. Three—let’s be realistic—these are the shows that every drama teacher learned about in high school and college, and choosing one of them is a path of less resistance than having to pour through a catalogue and exhaustively read less well-known titles when you’re already overworked.

As wonderful as many of these classics are, they were written for Broadway and off-Broadway stages, with the expectation that adult actors would be performing them. That means that rarely do young people get to play characters their own age. In the long run, this does them a disservice.

Why? Because while they may get to “play up” until they get out of college, in the real world, they will NEVER be cast in these roles at this point in their lives. After growing up on the East Coast, I’ve lived in Los Angeles for more than 15 years. In the City of Angels, we’re graced by fabulous weather (at least until the Big One hits), mind-melting traffic, and the largest, most competitive acting pool in the world. While most actors are, of course, here for film and television, the theatre scene—I’ve voted in the Ovations, our version of the Tony Awards, for more than a decade—is busier than almost anywhere else, with hundreds of productions every year, often in theaters not much larger than a shoebox.

blog1Type-casting is standard practice in film and TV. In other words, they call in a bunch of people, all of whom look pretty much like our preconceived notion of the role (e.g. blond-haired, tanned teens to play a high school surfer)—and everybody looks the right age. Having said that, it’s fairly standard practice to cast a slightly older actor who still looks young (many teens on TV are played by twentysomethings), as that actor is still very close to the same period in his life as the character (and he’s already been through it) but will have more experience and, unlike an actor who might be under 18, doesn’t need supervision on set and can work a full day. Even though theatre may not type-cast quite as religiously, it still falls in line with screen when it comes to casting actors of appropriate ages.

And the other problem is that whenever you’re called upon to play someone far out of your own age range, your portrayal of the role is necessarily going to be stylized. (A teenager can only be so authentic as a fortysomething, as she hasn’t any experience that’s even close to what that is actually like.) In other words, to a certain extent, you’re reinforcing through practice certain habits that aren’t necessarily going to serve you in the long run. It’s a little like in football being told you’re going to play as a wide receiver when you make it to the NFL, but then only practicing running plays.

I remember visiting a school’s production of The Locker Next 2 Mine, my play about teen suicide that has an almost entirely teen cast (other than a few purposely stylized adult roles), and being told that it was challenging for the students to play characters their own age because they so rarely did it. I understand that we still need some of those old chestnuts, but we also need substantial opportunities for teens to be real, with characters who are like them, and addressing issues—whether seriously or in more comedic fashion—with which they’re really dealing. It’s important both for the audiences of their peers for which they often perform, and for the performers themselves.

Just Add ZombiesFor me, that’s meant a concerted effort to write plays for teens in which most or all of the roles are age-appropriate. In 4 A.M. and The Magic Hour, my most produced play and its new stand-alone sequel that follow a group of teens awake in the wee hours of the morning, the only roles that aren’t age-appropriate are fantastical: the Monster Under the Bed and a pair of Keystone Kops. Everyone else is an actual teen—dealing with loneliness, depression, romance, the ups and downs of friendship and many other issues that I hope ring true for the young actors playing those roles. To me, it’s a lot easier to see elements of your life in characters who are somewhat like you than in characters with whom you have little to nothing in common.

Of course, if we’re going to write for teens, we have that same obligation to write material that speaks to them and is authentic, whether that means it’s naturalistic (i.e. “real”) or it’s more expressionistic but still emotionally authentic. The actors and audiences of tomorrow deserve the same level of effort and quality that we give to adult audiences.

To that end, a few simple rules when I write teen roles and plays intended for teens:

1. Don’t use shows on the Disney Channel, Nickelodeon or other very “now” television channels as your model for what teen-speak sounds like. The very words that are “in” today will likely be dated and collecting dust on the shelf next year, or possibly next week.

2. On that note, rhythm is the most important thing in dialogue. While obviously you need to select vocabulary that is appropriate for any given character, plays (and the dialogue characters use) are like pieces of music. Teen characters speak in different rhythms than adult characters; their music is different. As a writer, it’s your job to get familiar with it. Almost all of us know some teens—not teens on TV but real ones. Learn to listen to them, and then learn punctuation, which is the best way to communicate your intentions to the director and the actors. In my Rumors of Polar Bears, for example, a group of teens wander a Mad Max-like world that is very foreign to ours in its appearance, and their vocabulary sometimes uses new words, but their rhythms and concerns still make them relatable.

3. Speaking of concerns, those of teens are different than those of adults. It doesn’t mean they’re any less valid, or that the stakes, real or perceived, are any less high. They’re just at different stages of their lives. For example, After Math, while on one level it’s a sort of whodunit (where did Emmett go when he was taken out of math class?), it grapples with the issue of teens feeling invisible. It’s not to say that adults don’t ever face that problem, but it’s much more of a challenge young people face as they try to find themselves and their place among their peers.

4. Teens have the agency. They should be the protagonists, the ones who make choices and have to live with the consequences. It’s a bit of a cop-out when the adult characters ride to their rescue. In my dark comedy You Should Never Eat Your Heroes, which is a little stylized in its “Sweeney Todd meets high school” world and includes a few important adult characters, at the end of the day, it’s still the two main teen characters—with the help of a third young character—who save their own day.

5. Like with writing adult characters, to quote my friend (and fellow Playscripts author) Ed Shockley, “Great writers work in the specific.” Characters have specific sets of experiences, incidents, and behaviors that help make them who they are, and give actors meatier roles to play. It’s not enough just to saddle a character with an adjective like “friendly” and call it a day. Going back to 4 A.M., at the time I was working on the play, I sent out a query to my email list—I’m fortunate to have a bunch of younger folks on it—and I asked them what (if they were awake) they were doing at 4 A.M. The Joggers, for example, were a direct result of their answers, as were little moments like characters worrying about falling out of bed or pretending to be famous artists. These specifics help make your characters feel real and credible.

The bottom line is that there’s nothing wrong with the canon of Broadway/off-Broadway classics that so often make their way to school stages, but at the same time, whether you’re in the position to produce a play or to write one, we need to create more opportunities for teens to play characters in which they can see (and find) themselves. This is how they’ll grow as actors and gain practical experience for the roles they’ll be asked to play next, and how we’ll engage the audiences of the future.

—Jonathan Dorf

Jonathan Dorf
has had his plays produced throughout the United States and Canada, as well as in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Central America, Africa, and Asia. He has been a finalist for the Actors Theatre of Louisville Heideman Award, the Weinberger Playwright Residency, the Charlotte Repertory New Play Festival, and the InterAct New Play Festival. His work has been seen at Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey, Ensemble Studio Theatre – LA, Moving Arts, and the Pittsburgh New Works Festival, and he has had plays for young people commissioned by the Walnut Street Theatre, Coachella Valley Repertory, and the Choate Rosemary Hall Summer Arts Conservatory, where he served as playwright-in-residence. In addition to his many works with Playscripts, plays include Ben, Bookends, Shining Sea, Milk and Cookies, Beef Junkies, Supermodels in Jeopardy, and Neverland,while such works as 4 A.M. (the musical), From Shakespeare With Love?, Now You See Me, Dear Chuck, War of the Buttons, and Day One (a musical) were created specifically for school-age actors and audiences. A number of his monologues are published in collections by Playscripts, Inc., Meriwether and Smith & Kraus, and his published plays make their homes at Playscripts, Inc., Brooklyn Publishers, Heuer, and Original Works. He co-founded YouthPLAYS and He also authored Young Playwrights 101, a complete playwriting text for young playwrights and those who teach them.

Long-time playwriting advisor for Final Draft and The Writers Store, Mr. Dorf has also served as Visiting Associate Professor of Theatre in the graduate playwriting and children’s literature programs at Hollins University, and as the United States cultural envoy to Barbados. He is the co-chair of the Alliance of Los Angeles Playwrights and a life member and former managing director of the Philadelphia Dramatists Center, as well as a member of the Dramatists Guild of America. He holds a BA in Dramatic Writing and Literature from Harvard University and an MFA in Playwriting from UCLA, and works with playwrights and screenwriters internationally as a script consultant. He has been a guest artist at the International Thespian Festival, Educational Theatre Association Annual Conference, Asian Festival of Children’s Content, the Tennessee Arts Academy, as well as at numerous schools and festivals.


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