About four years ago some teenagers from Milton started performing plays in an empty storefront using borrowed chairs, makeshift lighting and a few hundred bucks. They call themselves The Boston Teen Acting Troupe and their mission is to produce professional-quality, serious works with adult themes.
On Thursday night the young thespians make their “grown-up” theater debut at the Boston Center for the Arts (BCA).
Jack Serio has wanted to produce Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” for years — which is something, because he’s only 17.
"I was first introduced to this play in seventh grade when the Huntington Theatre [Company] did it a few years ago," he said. "What I thought was very cool is that I was watching this show and finding elements that I loved about it, but there were also things that I wouldn’t have done or I didn’t like and I said, ‘I don’t think I would’ve done that knowing this play.’ "
Five years later Serio is finally doing “All My Sons” his way, which means he’s using a cast of teenagers in the classic play set nearly 60 years before they were born. The drama follows the Keller family’s struggle to stay together in the shadow of WWII. One of their sons hasn’t returned home.
The young actors wear period dresses and high-waisted pants. One added a touch of gray to his sideburns. All are excited, and a little tense, about performing in a 90-seat black box theater.
"It’s so incredible that we're sitting in the BCA in Boston," said actress and troupe co-artistic director Catherine Spino.
"The Huntington has used this space, the SpeakEasy [Stage Company] has used this space," she added. "And it’s really surreal. I think it’s a weird moment to look back and be like, wow, we were those kids who met at Jack’s house and would discuss, ‘OK, we’re gonna do this, this and this,' and realized we have a lot of work to do."
They’ve moved from rehearsing in the Milton library’s basement to performing in a storefront, to Boston College High School, and to the Cambridge YMCA Theatre. Serio always chooses challenging, nuanced plays for their actors, like "Red," "God of Carnage" and now "All My Sons."
"It’s so great to be working with only teens, having teens design and act and direct and produce," he said. "The other side is we don’t have a school paying for everything."
Serio and Spino pulled in Ritchie Sullivan to handle the troupe’s finances. Like Serio, he’s a rising senior at Boston College High School.
"The audience has grown, the performance space has grown, the cast has grown," Sullivan said. "One of the most challenging things with everything growing was the money. Everything was more expensive. Like our first budget was $350 or $400. Right now we have to find ways to come up with over $7,000 to put on this production."
"Our parents love us but my mom isn’t gonna give us $7,000 to do this production," Spino said. "One of the best moments for us in Kickstarter, we had a girl from California who said, 'I did a production of "Dog Sees God,” here’s some money.’ It’s great that people can look at us and say, 'Wow, you guys are really building something big for teenagers in Boston.'"
Then she added, "We’re very serious about the theater we make and we’re running with the big dogs now! We’re ready to start the race."
But running with the big dogs has been a wakeup call for the young team. This is the first time they’ve had to pay insurance for a performance space.
"We were gonna have grass here in this theater..." Spino said.
"Sod, real live sod," Sullivan clarified.
"We wanted to do that but the fire marshal was like, 'No, you can’t do that.' And it’s hard because obviously we want to go big or go home."
The teens were told to go home last year. They applied to rent the space but were rejected.
"You know, when you’re at the BCA you're operating at a different level," said Darren Evans, the director of programs at the BCA. He says working with teens could be risky.
"You have 24-hour access to the space; they could be here at 3 in the morning, a bunch of 16-year-olds running around. I mean, I run my own small theater company so I know what it takes to do what they’re doing, and to be working on a shoestring," Evans said, adding with a laugh, "I can’t imagine myself doing that when I was in high school. You know, I think it really shows a lot of ambition."
Serio and Spino are hoping their ambition is contagious.
Kevin Koulopoulos plays George Deever in the production. He's convincing in the adult role, even though he’s only 16 and has been acting for just 18 months.
"I’ve gone from doing a few musicals just with schools to I did one show in the past with The Boston Teen Acting Troupe, but that was again a much smaller production," Koulopoulos said. "This is by far the most ambitious thing we’ve done. And it’s great to be a part of it, but it’s also terrifying at times."
The young actor is determined to get his character right.
"The way he would walk, his physicality, how he would dress, how his tie would be hanging," he listed. "Stakes are very high, yes."
Ritchie added: "Kevin was paying so much attention to detail that he set the time on his watch for the time it would be during the scene."
Koulopoulos says working with this troupe has been eye-opening. For him acting is just a hobby, but Spino wants to make it her career. She’s actually 20 now and is studying theater arts in college.
"At the end of the day we’re still pretty young and, I mean, we still have a long time," she said. "I mean, I don’t know where our company is going to be next summer, I don’t know where it’s going to be the summer after that, but the only place we can go is up."
As for Serio: "Well ultimately I want to get into college..."
The teen troupe has already applied to the BCA for next year. How things go at this week’s performances will certainly affect that decision.
The Boston Teen Acting Troupe’s production of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” opens Thursday night in the Black Box Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts, and runs through Saturday.
This program aired on August 15, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.