You're forgiven if someone offers you a ticket to a kid's production and you feign illness; surely no one but friends, parents, and the participating youth gets excited about the idea of a junior Oklahoma! You can always bet that parts of the set, and some of the cast, will be wobbly on their legs, but usually the biggest concern is that kids have to try to resemble adults. Director Jesse P. Howard wants to nurture that challenge offstage as well, and, believe it or not, it's something to see at least once.
Howard, who runs a summer program for youth called Clothespin Productions, staged the offbeat Menken and Ashman man-eating plant musical Little Shop of Horrors last week at On the Boards, after a combined three weeks of rehearsal with two alternate teenaged casts. ("It's a pretty intense experience," he admits).
He's been doing this kind of thing for seven years, and feels confident that he can encourage them to establish a world in which hitting a wrong note is just hitting a wrong note and not cause for self-immolation. He knows this kind of thinking seems gushy and rose- colored, but the philosophy actually shows up on the stage. His Little Shop was as imperfect as you'd expect from an excited bunch of teenagers, but it felt pure somehow. The happiness was genuinely unassailable.
"He kind of works against that adolescent, judgmental thing that sets in—not only about others, but about themselves," admires parent/producer Linda Arkin.
Howard apologizes for what he fears may sound achingly ardent when he says he wants "a place where kids can totally, unapologetically be themselves, without fear of being chastised."
For those among the cast who are about to finish high school and move on to more adult concerns, it may be the last time they experience this particular kind of freedom—the last time it's okay to fumble in front of a paying audience, the last time no one cares if a voice cracks, the last time it won't be a trifle unseemly to have friends hooting appreciatively at them from the back row. They've contributed to something made without ego and with an affectionate awareness of the community that created it. They've found themselves in the art. It seems like a great way to enter the world of theater and an even more ideal manner in which to enter the world at large.