Mother-daughter relationships, divorce, autism, gay teen relationships -- even dementia -- are among the themes addressed in plays written by local high school students and set for professional performance to the public next month.
Fourteen advanced theater students from Gunn and Palo Alto high schools are polishing their scripts, which have been in development since October under the direction of the nonprofit TheatreWorks.
The plays will be shown at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts in late April.
For the first time this year, Palo Alto students in the TheatreWorks's annual Young Playwrights Project were asked to stick to the theme of teen issues because of participation by Palo Alto Project Safety Net, a community coalition focused on youth wellness that was formed following a series of student suicides in 2009 and 2010.
Though not happy to be limited in their subject matter, the Gunn students said they managed to comply while still coming up with compelling works.
"I felt a little stifled in my writing process when I had to write about a teen issue," said junior Addison Kamb, who ended up writing about two girls who are best friends, one of whom loves the other romantically but knows it will never be reciprocated.
The parameters resulted in plays with little subtext, Kamb and junior Holly Wright said.
"Normally, plays are about what's implied, and what you think characters are thinking -- you dance around the issues," Wright said.
"Here, it's more direct."
Nonetheless the students, who have been reading the plays aloud to one another, said the definition of "teen issues" could be broadened to include many things -- even dementia.
Junior Dennis Mashevsky wrote about a teenage boy and his older sister helping their grandparents decorate a Christmas tree. The grandmother has dementia and the grandfather is "in denial."
"It's not a typical teen issue, but it affects teens," Mashevsky said.
"I think people will be surprised because the plays aren't necessarily about the stereotypes of teens."
Senior Cory Gaytan, who wrote about a Mexican-American mother-daughter relationship, said people will be surprised at the individual voices and the diversity of themes.
"They're not angsty, like 'I hate everything,'" Gaytan said.
"They're just honest. And I like that it's not completely focused on suicide because that is unfortunately a very hot topic in our town and it's what people think of when they think of teens dealing with issues."
Even in the single Gunn play that deals with suicide, she noted, the student in question ends up deciding he wants to live.
"Adults keep trying to help us, but now they're getting teens to speak out about what's going on -- not just suicides, but life in general," said junior Julia Nelson, who wrote about a conversation between a mother and daughter that takes place at the wake of their husband and father.
"I think that's going to be really effective, instead of them trying to talk to us."
At Paly, sophomore playwright Daryl Dillahunty said students were asked to write about teenage characters not usually seen on television, which came naturally to him.
"It was not easy but it was natural because for the most part people we see every day don't act like the typical teen you see on television," said Dillahunty, who wrote about a 2 a.m. conversation between two teenage boys who recently had broken off a long-term relationship.
A series of workshops with TheatreWorks professionals, including playwright Prince Gomolvilas of Los Angeles, helped the teens develop their scripts, Paly sophomore Molly Mackris said.
"He taught us a lot about character development, how to start with a simple idea like two people at a grocery store and turning it into a whole interesting scene," she said.
Paly senior El Loeb, who wrote about two teens in a hospital parking lot waiting for a friend who's made a suicide attempt, said she thinks "people will be surprised by the contrasts between the plays and the range of subject matter and tone."
In addition to Dillahunty, Mackris and Loeb, Paly playwrights include juniors Matthew Craig, Paige Esterly, Sarah Ohlson and Aaron Slipper.
Gunn playwrights, besides Nelson, Gaytan, Wright, Kamb and Mashevsky, are juniors Sivan Spector and senior Jeremy Kelem.
Professional readings of the plays, free and open to the public, will be on the Second Stage at Mountain View's Center for the Performing Arts on Monday, April 22, for Paly and on Tuesday, April 30, for Gunn.
Both performances begin at 7 p.m. and will be followed by opportunity for audience discussion.
Paly theater teacher Kathleen Woods said she tries to scrape together funding for the Young Playwrights Project every year because it's a great opportunity for students. Students also have play-writing opportunities through Paly's Play in a Day project each December and the One-Act Showcase in May.
The Young Playwrights Project "is about giving students the idea that they have a voice in the community," said TheatreWorks Education Administrator Jake Arkey.
"This type of creative writing gives students something they don't often get, a safe place to freely express themselves."