Everyone remembers their teenage years. Surviving high school, for most North Americans, is a seminal feat in an individual’s life and one that continues to help inform personal identity well into adulthood. Being a teenager can be like living on a battlefield – quite literally for some – or can be some of the best years of your life, creating life-long bonds with people you experience some of your most transformative years with. All this is to say that there is a wealth of stories to be drawn upon when it comes to giving teenaged artists a voice and a platform to be used to express themselves creatively and artistically. Concord Floral, originally created by Erin Brubacher, Cara Spooner, and Jordan Tannahill, is one such play that endeavours to put these stories on stage as a means of exploring lives that are about to crash headfirst into adulthood and personal responsibility. While the text achieves this to some degree, what really gives this production its punch is the honesty and pure heart displayed by the young performers themselves.
Closing out the National Arts Centre’s 2015-2016 Studio series, Tannahill’s play is described as being a “cellphone thriller” in which a group of teens try to come to terms with a horrible event that’s taken place at their hang-out spot, the abandoned greenhouse known as Concord Floral. We get a glimpse into the lives of these young adults who are (whether they are ready for it or not) beginning to recognize their individual impact and agency in the world around them. An exploration of suburban teenage life in North America, Concord Floral at its core is a coming of age story that is necessarily informed and (mostly) enhanced by the life experiences of the play’s teenage ensemble.
To get slightly more specific, this piece has undergone a three year development period involving 21 Toronto teens over three iterations (Prélude 2016) and, according to the Director’s Notes, this is the first time Concord Floral has been staged with an entirely new cast. Directors Brubacher and Spooner state that it is “crucial” that this text be performed by actual teenagers so that their “real presence and experiences inform what the work offers” (Prélude 2016). I can’t help but whole heartedly agree. It is so refreshing to hear young people on stage presenting stories about them while they are currently (undoubtedly) experiencing these same struggles that the fictional characters are facing.
The stage is dressed relatively minimally with only fake turf covering the floor and orange moulded plastic chairs (the kind found in almost every high school) used as set pieces. The staging itself is also pared down, giving the text full prominence, with some lovely sightlines- I was sitting in one of the side sections of the audience but never had any problems seeing any of the ten performers on stage. The use of the chorus is particularly enjoyable with the added incorporation of choral singing and humming which underscores the incredible soundscape designed by Christopher Willis.
Casting, as previously mentioned, is perhaps the most crucial part of producing this particular show. Regular readers might be familiar with my aversion towards adults playing as teen aged or child characters because I feel this image is too ‘dramaturgically heavy’ for the spectator to reconcile. Meaning: adult performers can never physically embody teenagers or children and no amount of ‘realistic acting’ is able to harmonize the physical form of the adult with the psyche of an individual 10+ years their junior.
This is why it is incredibly refreshing to see these artists, aged 16-19, portray characters in this exact demographic and is integral to how this story gets told. The voices of the performers on stage are so fresh and honest, it is impossible not to feel the heart and soul of this production. This is most obvious in the language of the play and how it is delivered on stage: the vernacular and the slang feel natural and not simply ‘put on’ by performers who no longer speak the ‘lingo’ of the youth, as it were.
Most impressive, though, are the moments of great presence some of these actors have on stage. Franco Pang, as John Cabot, becomes a powerful symbol of teenage angst, of the immense boredom and frustration felt by many teens at being ‘trapped’ in the hierarchy of high school, as he continually runs and forcibly slams himself into a locked door upstage not unlike a bird caught in a glass house. Forever Irene is a curious individual and performer Emily Ong does a good job keeping this character interesting without giving away too much of her mysterious air. Major kudos also have to be given to performers Sadie Laflamme-Snow and Sofie Milito (playing Nearly Wild and Bobbie James, respectively) who drive a lot of the energy on stage with the tension between their characters and the secret lying between them.
While this production does succeed in accurately portraying some aspects of suburban and/or teenage life, it nonetheless feels a little clichéd. It attempts to stage teenagers as technology adept individuals and as young adults who are quickly learning to own their agency in the world. Yet, on a few occasions it undercuts this vision by utilizing stereotypical teenage tropes.
For example, my favourite moment in this show comes when Connor McMahon, as Just Joey, delivers a monologue about coming to terms with his raging hormones and finding outlets to explore his sexuality. One of these outlets is Craigslist where he drafts ads in the personals sections. It’s both beautiful and moving because this young gentleman is so open (“Will bottom for the right guy”) and willing to experience new things as a newly discovered sexually independent individual. When he finally meets up with an older gentleman specifically for oral sex we see his innocence finally show through the brash confidence of youth (“I didn’t know whether to crouch or kneel”) only to be undermined by a bit of throw-away humour where Joey notes that there isn’t actually any blowing that takes place and questions why it isn’t just called a “suckjob” then?
I find it incredibly hard to believe that this character, who understands how Craigslist personals work and who lives in the time of the Internet and Tindr, has never watched porn and doesn’t know what fellatio is. It feeds into this idea that teens ‘fumble and bumble’ their way through sex because they don’t know any better or aren’t educated properly. Yes, first sexual encounters can certainly be awkward and not what one might expect, but it seems a little dismissive to think that teens are so uneducated or that sex-ed is so poor that they are surprised or shocked to learn that there isn’t actually blowing involved in a blowjob.
Even further, it’s growing more than a little boring seeing high school portrayed as nothing more than this “popular kids versus uncool kids” dichotomy. I’m not trying to be dismissive of the fact that bullying is still a very real issue or the very rich conversation surrounding it currently; however, I would question the seeming dependence on the “Carrie” narrative where the shy/awkward/homeschooled/new kid is always targeted by the cool/popular kids who always find a reason to feel threatened by this uncool individual. This typically results in some sort of horrible prank pulled on the Uncool/Other which results in a sort of self-reflection where the main characters realize that we’re all just human beings and that high school is only temporary (a la Mean Girls, the Breakfast Club, and She’s All That etc.).
In Concord Floral’s case it is a red sweater worn by both Nearly and Bobbie on the same day, which somehow becomes a big enough deal that Nearly and BFF Rosa are convinced that they must exact revenge somehow. To be charitable here, there is an important line that comes from Nearly (I believe) where she states that the two girls, at the time of the incident, were just looking for an excuse to get excited. However, what they decide on doing becomes the entire premise for the play. The act they commit is so heinous that it haunts Nearly in such a way that her friends begin to think she’s lost it. And aren’t teens just so fickle? The second Nearly starts acting strange her friends turn on her. Every. Single. One. All of a sudden Nearly is an outcast as if this turn of events is supposed to provide insight as to how Bobbie James, the formerly homeschooled kid, felt.
Concord Floral feels like a bit of a missed opportunity in the sense that it hardly presents any new or exciting ideas about life as a teenager. We only get a brief glimpse into the immense amount of pressure teens confront on a daily basis through Irene’s seizure and John’s ‘caged bird’ moment. Where are the nuances in the social structures that make up high school? Such as the ‘floaters’ who hang around all cliques; or the awkwardness of having to hang out with your “uncool” friend in private settings because you still like them, but you also want to be popular; or how the bully and the bullied can form a complex friendship; and could the conversation about social media/online interactions and/or bullying not have been deeper considering all the performers have cell phones in their back pockets? Finally, why do some characters have stories to tell and others (specifically Madison Baines, Caroline Munoz Jasa, and Aurel Pressat) represented animals, tertiary characters, and/or inanimate objects? It is difficult to understand the overall significance of this juxtaposition between the players and the observers.
To conclude, Concord Floral is an incredibly well-executed production and the young performers are to be highly commended on their NAC debut. Textually speaking, on the other hand, this piece feels a little undecided…as if it’s still figuring out who it’s trying to be or represent much like these characters on stage. With some more development time and with the added input of even more teenage voices (which I believe is the plan for the future of this piece), I have no doubt in my mind that Concord Floral will blossom into something even more incredible; unfortunately, in its current iteration, some of the major ideas and concepts presented are still only seedlings.
Playing at the National Arts Centre’s Studio space until April 9th. Ticket info can be found here.