Playwright and actress Linda Daugherty has written about 35 plays, a large chunk of them for Dallas Children's Theater. In recent years, she has found herself coming back to a topic that has befuddled parents for millennia: teenagers.
"I write other things but I keep coming back to these themes because they're so fascinating," she says. "It's a hugely dramatic time of life."
It probably helps now that she's had a good decade to reflect on raising two teenagers of her own, who are now 29 and 31. One of them, her son Evan, followed in mom's writing footsteps and is a rising screenwriter in Hollywood. He was a lead screenwriter for the 2012 movie Snow White and the Huntsman, and the projects to which he's attached include Divergent, based on Veronica Roth's novel, the first of a trilogy that could be the next big fantasy/teen franchise, à la The Hunger Games.
That hindsight has come in handy as the Dallas Children's Theater has made it part of its mission to reach out to teenagers, an age group that begins to drop out of seeing theater for young audiences. Daugherty has written shows about eating disorders and the "mean girls" syndrome, and DCT has staged shows that deal with issues such as racism and sexual orientation, aimed for a teenage audience.
The experience of raising and writing about teens has particularly worked with her latest show, which deals with the science of what makes teenagers think differently. Teen Brain: The Musical, which has a book by Daugherty and music and lyrics by Nick Martin, 31, runs for one more weekend at Dallas Children's Theater, performed and designed by DCT's Teen Scene Players.
Martin, a Dallas native, has known Daugherty since he was four years old when he started taking classes at Dallas Children's Theater. He stayed involved through high school, when he taught classes there, before taking off for the University of Southern California. A composer and songwriter who was influenced by musical composers like Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, as well as rock bands of his youth like Placebo, Martin moved back to North Texas two years ago to work on his Master's at Texas Christian University.
While in L.A., he dabbled in film, too, contributing music for the trailers of such movies as Secretariat and Iron Man 2. He also wrote a musical, The Milford Project, based on the true story of a teenage science prodigy in 1930s Iowa whose research into the atom attracted government attention. The show debuted in the 2011 Hollywood Fringe Festival, where it was named Best Musical of the Fringe.
"I had always wanted to work with Linda. I was looking for somebody to collaborate with here in the Dallas area," Martin says. "We started talking and she said she had this idea about the teenage brain. We kicked around some ideas. It started with one song about teenagers getting mad at their parents. That song didn't make the show."
In the final product, eight of the 15 songs they wrote made it into the 50-minute-long show. Martin music directed and plays the keyboard, the only instrumentation in the work, which is directed and choreographed by Nancy Schaeffer.
Teen Brain: The Musical follows one Friday in the life of teenagers Holly (Colleen Breen), Dana (Annabel McGill), Sonya (Meghan Harshaw), J.J. (Froy Gutierrez), Terri (Kendyl Mull), Austin (Austin Ovarik), Ziggy (Carter Brown) and Ashley (Hunter Wienecke). The talented cast sings about the stress of school work, relationships, friendships, parents, peer pressure, social media and the like. It ends up at the house of one character, where what was intended to be a small party grew into something bigger. It will come as no surprise to anyone who's been a teenager that bad judgment doesn't end well.
Meanwhile, Ziggy is working on a science paper about the brain, and explains some of the recent medical findings about how the white matter, myelin, in a teenager's brain isn't fully connected to the part of the brain that affects judgment.
The songs reference pop culture (J.J. Abrams makes it into a lyric), blogging, the "social disease" of social networking, drugs (prescribed psychostimulants and illegal substances), and the music has a nice variety of styles, including tango and mood-tensing piano high notes during the harrowing climax. The best song, "Elronia the Elf," has Holly singing about the better world she imagines in her head, when she's a character in the video game World of Warcraft.
Daugherty had the idea for the musical after hearing a talk on the subject at a symposium sponsored by the local Grant Halliburton Foundation, founded after the group's namesake, a teenage artist and musician, killed himself in 2005. The foundation seeks to help people recognize signs of crisis and suicidal distress in young adults.
"The teen brain is firing off in different directions," Daugherty says. "[Dallas] Dr. Susan Sugerman calls it 'maladaptive adjustment to stress.' They stress out of their minds, and that makes them snap."
Even Martin, who is only a decade past the teenage years, recognizes how things have changed in the age of constant media bombardment.
"I think things are harder for them today," he says. "They're being bombarded more by media and social media, there's more to grapple with. Standardized tests are more important than they were. I thought it was hard when I was a teenager, and now it seems like there's more stuff to deal with."
"When I watch them rehearse, I'm always so touched by how vulnerable they are, in the world and with choices and situations," Daugherty adds. "It's hard to grow up and when they're out there, the wind can blow them in a lot of different directions. That's the thing I find very touching about teenagers."
There are several messages in the musical, but the team was careful not to become too preachy.
"We didn't want it to be a play about teen drinking, we've seen that," Daugherty says. "In the play, everybody makes bad choices, and all of the choices add up to the tragedy that happens."
"I think we're trying to tell a story and let that story speak for [itself]," Martin adds. "There are adults mentioned in the play, but they're not in it. We're in this insulated world. It think it helps teenagers to watch other teenagers do things and draw their own conclusions."
Whatever their conclusion, it doesn't take a lobotomy to understand why Daugherty and Martin are hopeful that they'll work on another musical in the future. This one took about nine months, like carrying a child to birth.
Of course, childbirth is just the beginning of the journey.
♦ Here is an exlusive snippet of the song "Get Our Story Straight," performed by Martin and Daugherty, recorded by Mark Lowry: