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Boston Children’s Theatre Takes On Bullying And Other Heavy Themes

Ian Shain, left, as "Aaron Fricke," and Felix Teich, as "Paul Guilbert," in Boston Children’s Theatre’s production of "Reflections of a Rock Lobster" (Courtesy of Saglio Photography, Inc.)

Ian Shain, left, as "Aaron Fricke," and Felix Teich, as "Paul Guilbert," in Boston Children’s Theatre’s production of "Reflections of a Rock Lobster" (Courtesy of Saglio Photography, Inc.)

BOSTON — Children’s theater is usually a place for kids to develop their acting skills by performing fairy tales and other plays with “light” subject matters. But starting Saturday night and for several performances over the next week, the Boston Children’s Theatre is premiering a play based on a true story involving bullying, discrimination and gay rights.

“Reflections of a Rock Lobster” is adapted from a book by the same name written 30 years ago by a gay Rhode Island teenager who sued his school — and won — for the right to take his boyfriend to the prom. Here’s a scene in which that teen, played by Ian Shain, who’s a senior at the Pingree School in South Hamilton, Mass., tells his mother, played by longtime Boston actress Paula Plum, what he plans to do.

Aaron: “I’m taking Paul Guilbert to the senior prom, and I’m filing suit against Mr. Lynch and the school board for the right to do so. I’m suing the school.”

Mom: “Honey, if you do that, everyone’s going to know.”

Aaron: “Yes, everyone’s going to know. That’s why I’m telling you first.”

WBUR’s All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer spoke with Ian Shain, who plays that lead character, and Burgess Clark, the executive artistic director of the Boston Children’s Theatre, who adapted the story for the stage.

Sacha Pfeiffer: Burgess, since you came to this theater in 2008, you’ve shifted the types of productions it does from more traditionally light-hearted kids’ plays to ones with much heavier themes. Why that shift?

Burgess Clark: Well, I think that we’re progressing along with the times, and when I first came aboard three-and-a-half years ago I decided to develop a series of plays that were all based on justice and history through the eyes of a child. So we started with “The Diary of Anne Frank” and then we moved on to “To Kill A Mockingbird” last season and then this year the third in that series is “Reflections of a Rock Lobster.”

And why this story in particular — the story of Aaron Fricke of Cumberland, R.I., and his successful legal fight to take another boy to the prom?

Clark: Ironically, we started developing it three years ago before bullying had come so close to forefront. I feel that it’s a very important story. I’ve always admired it. I read the book myself 30 years ago. I was extraordinarily impressed with his courage. And I feel that it’s a story of David and Goliath. It’s the truth ultimately wins.

Ian, from your perspective as a high schooler, how is public treatment of these issues today different, if at all?

Ian Shain: I think while a lot of kids aren’t being bullied at school as much or getting beaten up on the schoolyard, kids are still bullied at home and they can’t really escape it like they could years ago. We still have social media sites and Facebook and Twitter and Formspring — different ways for people to be bullied other than just the physical abuse.

Ian, there’s a scene in the play where the principal, Richard Lynch, played by Doug Bowen Flynn, an adult actor, refuses to shake your boyfriend’s hand and, as he leads the two of you into a meeting, says, “Right this way, ladies.” Then there’s this scene in which you’ve just been punched by another student and you confront the principal.

Aaron: “You did this.”

Lynch: “I did it?”

Aaron: “I’ve been beaten, kicked, tripped, spit at, pissed on, and harassed every day since I came to this stupid school, and you’ve let it happen.”

Lynch: “I let it happen. I offered you protection after the hearing. You refused it. My offer still stands.”

Aaron: “Of what — protection?”

Lynch: “Yes.”

Aaron: “I’m just a student in high school. I shouldn’t need protection.”

Lynch: “Well, if you were any kind of a man, you’d protect yourself.”

Ian, in your school experience, how would a high school principal today handle deal with this?

Shain: I think a lot of high school principals today would stand up for their kids and most institutions wouldn’t stand for this sort of discrimination.

Many of the scenes you’re in are quite emotional. Here’s one where you ask your mom if she remembers when she told you as a child that you could be anything you wanted to be when you grew up:

Aaron: “But I can’t just be whatever I want to be. I wanted to be straight, so help me God I did. I used to pray every night for God to make me straight. When he didn’t, I used to plan out ways to kill myself. Because if I couldn’t be straight, then I didn’t think God wanted me to live at all. Then I realized God wasn’t asking me to be straight. I was. You were. The kids at school, the teachers, the principal.”

Ian, what kind of emotions does playing this role stir up for you?

Shaine: As a kid, and in theater, I think a lot of the times we feel marginalized in different ways, just for being out of the mainstream and not playing sports like everybody else. So a lot of the time I felt that similar way of not being able to just be like everybody else and be part of the group that goes and hangs out with each other after school, because I go to rehearsal and do my own thing.

Clark: And I remember from my youth being referred to as the theater fag, as were all of the boys that were associated with the performing arts at that time.

Ian, does that feel dated? Would that happen today?

Shain: When I was in fifth grade I used to be made fun of all the time for doing theater instead of wanting to play soccer at recess.

Have either of you encountered any resistance to or even disapproval of the Boston Children’s Theatre for taking on this subject?

Clark: We initially encountered some resistance from the board, who just expressed some concerns as to what age this was aimed at.

And what is it aimed at — is it more kids or adults?

Clark: It’s 14 to 18 — that’s the target student audience that we’re going for, although we’ve had a number of eighth grades that have actually booked, because I think it’s something that’s even more prevalent in developing in the seventh and eighth grades than it is maybe even in high school.

In fact, as a sign of how times have changed, I understand that one young actress in the play has gotten her Catholic high school to plan a school outing to this performance. Is that right?

Shain: Yes, that’s correct.

Clark: That’s quite a triumph, and she was very persistent. I was enormously proud of her. We also have had what I refer to as active passivity. Everyone, of course, knows that it’s uncool these days to be anti-gay or to say these sorts of things, so that while we’re getting pats on the head for doing the production, we’re also seeing a lot of schools that refuse to book.

Ian, does that surprise you?

Shain: I think it does. It means a lot if you talk about it, sure, and you support it verbally But it means so much more if you bring your kids and let them see the show and have them understand it for themselves rather than just back it as an institution.

Clark: If I can also add, I think that one of the things that really inspires me about Aaron is not just the fact that he fought back, but the way that he fought back. He didn’t fight back with his fists. He didn’t retaliate — you know, this horrible incident recently in Ohio where this child opened fire on this group of fellow students. He, rather, did it, I think, extraordinarily elegantly. He used the First Amendment of the United States Constitution to prove his point.

And a federal judge ruled in his favor and an appeals court held it up.

Clark: Indeed it did.

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