Adolescent Anarchy

Adolescent Anarchy members handle every aspect of their multi-production theater project.
Top (left to right): Connor Bredbeck, Sam Bates-Norum, Travis Reinders; Middle (left to right): Elsa Klein, Meredith Toebben, Claire Guderjahn, Tommy Anderson, Madison Delk; Front (seated): Halen Becker

Written by Kellye Crocker
Photo by Duane Tinkey

For a small group of teens, staging a full Des Moines Community Playhouse production of William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” last year—handling everything from props to financing—proved an epic task. Now, they’re doing it again—only bigger, bolder, braver.

“They want to tackle Goliath,” says Kathy Pingel, the Playhouse’s director of education and youth programming and founder of the teen theater group Adolescent Anarchy (AA). “They want to accomplish something no one has ever done.”

This year’s show, called “TrAAil Mix,” presents multiple productions over three summer weekends (see page 90). Plans include a play written by Elsa Klein, a Valley High School junior, and Connor Bredbeck, a senior at Roosevelt High School; a musical; a cabaret; an improvisational sketch group performance; an art exhibit; a dance workshop; and Roosevelt senior Travis Reinders’ film documenting the 13-month effort to stage “Lord of the Flies.”

“Our problem is not that we haven’t taken on a big-enough challenge this year,” Klein admits good-naturedly. “It is ridiculously scary, but I have absolutely no doubt that we’ll be able to pull it off.”

Pingel launched AA in the summer of 2012 after learning how important it is for students to show portfolios when applying to college theater programs. She tapped 10 “PIPs,” teens enrolled in the Playhouse’s Pre-Internship Program. David VanCleave, a former PIP turned professional director, volunteered to help. Although Pingel and VanCleave serve as AA’s main adult guides—and many other theater pros have mentored the teens—Pingel gave AA virtual free rein.

The teens made the decisions. They did the work, on stage and off. And, except for $900 from the Playhouse for “lights and rights,” they paid the bills.

“It was intended to be a small-scale production. We completely expanded our ideas and timeline,” says Madi Delk, an East High School senior who, as public relations coordinator, played a key role in the teens’ successful $4,500 Kickstarter campaign to finance “Lord of the Flies.”

Putting on the play was as eye-opening as it was life-changing, says Delk, who also was costume designer.
“I thought I knew most of what went into producing a show because I’d been involved in so many,” she says. “I have been very humbled to be a part of AA.”

After performing “Lord of the Flies” in August, AA teens (minus one graduate) considered their next project. Did they want to produce another play? “We realized as a group it would’ve been a challenge, but it wouldn’t have been an enormous challenge,” Klein says.

Late last fall, Delk suggested a “fringe festival” that would host several performances, some playing concurrently, over a long weekend. Group members were excited to launch individual projects. “They’re so smart,” Pingel says, “but they still have the adolescent brain, which says, ‘I can do anything.’ ”

Still, the idea was a whopper, Pingel concedes. “I don’t drive the ship; I’m the rudder,” she says. “The minute I start saying no, it’s more my program than it is theirs.”

She didn’t say no.

But as the school year got underway, some AA members faced scheduling conflicts, time constraints and creative or technical hurdles. “They’re really determined artists. What they didn’t realize is this year is a different year,” says Pingel, noting that half the group’s members are now seniors, with more demands on their time. “It’s been a little painful (for them), especially to have it be different.”

At one of AA’s weekly production meetings in February, the teens decided to keep the “fringe” concept and all of the planned projects but spread the performances over three weekends instead of one. This would accommodate different schedules and allow more teens to get involved.

“The hardest and best thing about AA is working as a collaborative,” says Delk, who is project manager for the “TrAAil Mix” event. “You cannot imagine how difficult it is, when every single person in the room has a different idea and approach for getting to our destination, and all of them
will be extremely creative, unique and valid. It can get rather loud. But this is also the best thing about AA. We’re all equal, so it’s like our own system of checks and balances.”

One of the highlights of “TrAAil Mix” will be a three-act play (untitled as of press time) that Klein and Bredbeck are writing, a coming-of-age story about a 19-year-old college dropout from Pennsylvania. “He doesn’t know what the next step in life is,” Klein says. “He ends up taking a trip to Brazil, where his aunt and uncle live, and he learns so much. Basically, the theme is: ‘Do what makes you happy. Go for it.’ ”

Klein also will direct the event’s full-length musical, which is called “Title of Show.” Meredith Toebben, a junior at Johnston High School who Klein says is “a wonderful composer,” will be music director.

“Last year, we were still teenagers who liked theater and wanted to do something creative and different,” Klein says. Then they worked with “real money” and “real people” to put on a “real show,” she says. “We ended up learning so much, how to make a decision and take a risk, and succeed and fail. We had communication problems at one point, but we all came together and I think we’ve really grown as a team.”

Teens are rarely given opportunities to risk failure, says Pingel, who also is artistic director of the Kate Goldman Children’s Theatre. “Adults tend to want to put that safety net under them,” she says, “but my point to them always is, ‘Failure is not the end of it. What you learn from it and the fact that you’re still standing after the failure is important.’ ”

Pingel expects her young anarchists will become leaders in business, politics and the arts—wherever their aspirations lead—but not because they learned how to put on a show. “It’s because we enabled them to be great problem-solvers,” she says. “That’s my goal.”

Find Out More
Although adults act as mentors, the teens in Adolescent Anarchy are responsible for all aspects of “TrAAil Mix” and will rely on many other teens to perform and pitch in on crews. Interested high school students can call Kathy Pingel at the Des Moines Community Playhouse, 277.6261.

Adolescent Anarchy members:
Tommy Anderson
Sam Bates-Norum
Halen Becker
Connor Bredbeck
Madison Delk
Claire Guderjahn
Elsa Klein
Travis Reinders
Meredith Toebben

“TrAAil Mix”
Adolescent Anarchy will present three weekends of teen-created art and performances.
June 13-15:
A full-length play by Elsa Klein and Connor Bredbeck and an art exhibit.
June 27-29:
A musical called “Title of Show,” an art exhibit and a dance workshop.
July 11-13:
A documentary film by Travis Reinders on AA’s making of “Lord of the
Flies,” a cabaret and an improvisational comedy show.

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