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Teens' play takes potshots at pushy parents, peers


You just can't take too many chances. After all, risk-taking might lead to failure, and failure is unacceptable.

That's only one of several cynicisms conveyed by county teens in "The Game of Chance," an original production that takes swipes at pushy parents, materialistic peers and grade-oriented schools.

The play is the combined brainchild of Toby Orenstein, owner and operator of Toby's Dinner Theater, local writers, and a score of county high school students who met for several months to develop a script reflecting the teens' concerns.

"No one was more surprised than me," said Orenstein. "I thought they would discuss dysfunctional families, AIDS, the environment, politics. I could not make them deviate from this theme -- that everything is seen as cumulative to their future. They're not able to take a risk or fail.

"I asked them, 'What about your passions?' They said, 'There's no time for passion. It's dangerous. You get sidetracked.' I was flabbergasted. They were crying out, 'We're missing so much of what our parents had.' "

Premiering at 7 p.m. tomorrow at Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia, "The Game of Chance" will be followed by a symposium moderated by county School Superintendent Michael Hickey on the development of the production.

Production actually began more than 18 months ago, when Orenstein was frustrated in her efforts at finding a play geared to teen-agers. That spring, she approached Hickey with the idea of working with area teens on the creation of a script dealing with their issues.

A partnership was soon arranged between the school system, the dinner theater and its non-profit outreach program, Theatrical Arts Production.

"I was very enthusiastic," Hickey said. "I felt the opportunity for the students to create a professional piece of art, particularly with Toby, was a singular opportunity. I had no idea what they would focus on."

The partnership required a year-long commitment of human resources by the theatrical company to work with county students on two levels: development and production. Students would work with professional scriptwriters and composers on the writing and development of scripts.

During production, students would intern in directing, including musical and technical direction, costumes, lighting, set design and construction, and publicity.

Orenstein donated her services as producer and director, and the use of the dinner theater for rehearsals and performances. But $12,000 was needed to cover production expenses, including actors' and writers' fees.

Orenstein approached the Columbia Festival of the Arts to schedule the show in its summer lineup and assist with financing. Enthusiastic about showcasing performances that highlight what goes on behind the scenes, the festival contributed a hefty $5,000.

"It's basically right up our alley," said Lynne Nemeth, managing director of the festival. "The collaboration between the students and professionals is very much a thing we like to do, getting the public involved with artists."

Paula Blake, assistant to Hickey and coordinator of Business Partnerships, arranged for a $2,000 contribution by Bendix Field Engineering Corp. and Rouse Co., which had agreed to lend support to school programs. The theater company received $2,100 from the Howard County Arts Council and about $300 from Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co.

Applications were sent out to county public high schools seeking students to develop and produce a script. Twenty-eight juniors and seniors were then selected -- 14 for each of the production phases.

Throughout the fall and winter, students met weekly with Orenstein and professional scriptwriters Pat Foreman and Michael Tilford and composer Tom French.

Three students, Marcus Klein, Scott Matheson and Jessica Miller, participated in both phases of the project, meshing daily attendance at rehearsals with studying for finals.

"Scott and I did it for opposite reasons," said Klein, 16, an incoming senior at Oakland Mills High and student stage manager.

"Scott was involved in theater at school, but I saw something I've never done before. I've always been interested in math and science. I was never involved in performing. Getting involved in theater was something different, something new to experiment."

During the sessions, Orenstein and the writers would throw ideas out to the students and ask them to write about it.

"They were amazingly imaginative and very gung-ho," Foreman said. "Their answers would come from the gut because they had no time to work on it. We asked them what they feel most passionate about or give them nursery rhymes and ask them to finish it. We ended up using them in the lyrics of songs."

Although Orenstein and Foreman were impressed with the teens' creativity, neither was prepared for the responses.

"Pat thought we were going to write about teen-age, unwed, crack mothers," Klein said. "But so much of that stuff has been done."

Student technical director Matheson, a 17-year-old incoming senior at Howard High School, calls the overwhelming push to succeed "a universal pressure. If not academics, then sports. And if it's not from your parents, it's from guidance counselors.

"You can't fail and disappoint your parents. Too often you have to take an honors course, because you'll get an "A," and in a GT [Gifted and Talented], you will only get a "B," and it will mess up your GPA."

Until its Monday night preview, the script was still being written and rewritten.

"We say at rehearsal, 'we need a line here' and have them write it," Foreman said.

The 52-minute musical follows the lives of two teen-agers from nursery school through their early professional careers, all the while questioning the relentless crusade of parents and educators to produce overachievers.

Even as toddlers romping in the playground, "Dan" (played by Timothy J. Owmby) and "Miranda" (played by Sherri Edelen) are pushed by their parents to compete. They sing distorted nursery rhymes that quote stock prices, and chant, "what's most important is making a dollar."

As they progress through school, secretly resentful at not being allowed to be children, they take their turn at "The Game of Chance," a metaphor for the choices we face in life and what we do with them.

A bleached-blond Vanna White-ish hostess, played by Pamela Peach, appears, spinning the "Wheel of Life" in a game of chance.

"The tougher the game, the better the prizes," she barks. "And remember, the better you are, the more we expect of you."

Dan and Miranda spin the wheel and are handed cards about their future. Miranda, a music enthusiast, trades her card imprinted "computer scientist" with Dan, whose card is blank. He is too afraid to take chances. Miranda rejects the safe route to success in favor of following her passions.

"The Game of Chance" previewed to a crowd of almost 200, followed by an hour-long speak-out, or as one observer put it, a "mini-community forum."

The audience of parents, students and educators was asked to comment about the quality of the production and express their feelings about pressing kids into pursuing lucrative careers.

Moderated by Orenstein, she and the panel of actors and student interns fielded questions from the controversial, "Would this be a plea for a seventh-period day?" to the comparative, "Do you see this as a play of the '90s or a play of the '60s?"

One parent was pleased that the character of Dan's mother (played by Jane C. Boyle) was allowed to present her side, in the poignant lyric, "All the mistakes you make are for your children's sake as you guide them through life."

The point was made that while children in the '60s rebelled against their parents' pressures to achieve, today's kids are being pushed as early as 5, 6 and 7 years old.

Orenstein wondered aloud if being practical is bad. After all, with the high costs of college and fierce competition to land a job, "you want to protect your children from getting hurt."

But Orenstein and several students in the audience implored parents to allow their kids to experiment and explore their options. And if they fail, "they'll pick themselves up and try another road," she said.

"I think many of the parents who grew up in the '60s and '70s went wild," said one teen-age girl. "They want to now protect us from making mistakes. But we have to make mistakes, too."

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