Theatre of Youth's "New Kid" explores immigrant experience - The Buffalo News

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Theatre of Youth's "New Kid" explores immigrant experience

Theatre of Youth likes to say that it speaks to children about their "wonders and their worries," Artistic Director Meg Quinn says. The latter will be on the minds of their audiences in coming weeks as TOY presents "New Kid," a nearly hourlong play in which a mother and child from a different country, who speak a different language, come to America to start a new life.

TOY will host public performances of "New Kid" at 2 p.m. Oct. 21 and 22 in the historic Allendale Theatre, 203 Allen St., as well as at 2:30 p.m. Oct. 28 and 29 in the Lancaster Opera House and 7 p.m. Nov. 8 in the Palace Theatre in Lockport. Performances for students in Lancaster, Lockport and Springville also are planned in the coming weeks. Tickets cost $15 to $28 and can be purchased online at theatreofyouth.org or through the box office at 884-4400, Ext. 304.

Q. Talk about the play. What is it about?

It's a series of 11 scenes and it's about a boy named Nick and his mother. They are leaving their country, identified just as "Homeland." We never know more about it than that. We have chosen to maintain the theme that it's not identifiable, not about a particular geographic region or religion. This boy and his mother are getting ready to leave there. We get a sense from the script that they have no choice. They know it's going to be different but they are very hopeful about coming to America.

Meg Quinn, who helped found Theatre of Youth, will direct "New Kid."

The story follows the experience of Nick, who goes to school and meets two American kids, a boy and a girl. One of them eventually befriends him and the other just will not accept someone from Homeland and calls him sgak - a made-up word.

A brilliant stroke by the playwright, Canadian Dennis Foon, is that the two American kids speak gibberish and Nick and his mother are speaking Homelander, but we hear it in the audience as English. That's the twist. The audience will only understand Nick and his mother. They will not understand the American kids. We hear it the way Nick hears it. He's trying very hard to understand but meanwhile, the American boy makes fun of him, and makes his life difficult. That escalates to where the boy, Mug, says, "I can't have anything to do with you. My father told me not to because you're from Homeland and you're a sgak."

Q. Can you talk about some of the themes it's going to explore?

The play is really well-crafted. You feel, "It's so hard to be different, to step into a different culture and a different place." It's about identity and that's a theme that runs through our whole 2017-18 season. Each play is a different kind of story but each play has a character or circumstances that address what it means to be different, and ultimately to accept yourself and accept others, and allow for differences…

"New Kid" deals with immigration, and coming to a new place and being new. It can be a challenge to be understood and accepted in a community and we felt it was a very timely topic. ... This play was written more than 30 years ago and it's been done all over the world. …

The play is about being different and fitting in, and accepting other people. The problem, or the context, of the story is the situation of an immigrant family. That is the circumstance of this story. It was originally done by Dennis Foon with a school teacher. They interviewed immigrant children in some schools. Out of those stories is where they ultimately crafted this play.

It's very timely. It's not political. It doesn't get into anything that would be overbearing. It's about coming into a community and being different and what that feels like.

We hope the takeaway from our audience is a sense of empathy, what this feels like, how strange things can seem – but when we concentrate on the human factor, on people and feelings, and everything that is universal and shared and common, then we can deal with things that are abrupt and unusual, and make space.

Ultimately, everyone needs to look beyond her initial feelings or their judgments or the opinions they have which have no basis. Three of these characters – Nick, his mother and Mench, the American girl – kind of get past some things but Mug, the other boy, has been having a difficulty at the end and is still unpredictable. It's going to take some time for him to see past some things and, hopefully, he does. I respect the play doesn't just tidy up some things.

I've done some reading about the play being performed in other places, and it puts the audience in the position of being the foreign person, so our audience will have some sensibility about what it feels like to not know what's going on around you, trying to read all the signals, but you don't understand the language.

It will be very interesting for the audience to see what bullying by the American boy looks like, especially when it's done in this gibberish, which focuses on the emotion of it, the physicalization of it. It sounds out in a way that's really disturbing. You sense that it's so ugly and unfair. It feels that much stronger because you don't have the language.

Q. You have a talk back session at the end of your shows?

The cast of "New Kid," including Lisa Vitrano (mother) and Zachary Bellus (Nick), will talk with their audiences after each performance. (Photo courtesy of Theatre of Youth)

I facilitate with the actors a conversation with the audience about what they've seen. Sometimes we have questions about how we technically do things but with this play, we plan to ask the kids, "How do you hope this play ends?" What do you hope happens between Nick and this other boy?"

You see through the course of the play that Nick starts to learn the gibberish. It's a specific language. In rehearsal, the characters have learned it just like you learn any lines. Now they're able to physicalize it. When I watch it, I can tell what they mean by what they're saying (and how they're moving). I know what they're up to. I think the audience is going to be fascinated by it and get an emotional reaction to it.

Q. Is the play designed for a child of any particular age?

We're saying 8 years old and up.

Q. Who needs to see this play?

Whoever is watching it is going to connect with it in many possible ways, depending on what your own life is about. If you're someone who pushes people around because you don't like people, you might see yourself in this one character. You could be somebody like the American girl in the story. She ultimately tells Mug she doesn't want anything to do with him anymore. She stands up for, and befriends, this immigrant kid. We get to see someone who's not going to become a bystander in this situation. She makes a very deliberate choice to step away from the bullying.

It also shows what it looks like to prejudge and dismiss people because you don't know anything about them – or because you let other people influence your beliefs.

As we've read the script, I've asked the actors to think about a time when they've unwelcomed or unaccepted. We try to transfer those feelings to the play. We offer the story to the audience and invite them to reflect.

Q. Why are you bringing it out to school districts in Lancaster, Lockport and Springville?

Over the years, we did all kinds of touring. Back when the company started in '72, that's what we did all the time. Since we opened the Allendale Theatre in 1999 – the building is owned by the city, it's a 450-seat theater and our main stage productions are pretty big – we really focused all of our resources and energy on establishing this theater location. We think it's really important to bring people here to experience theater. Last year was our 45th anniversary. We called it our year of reflection. We spent a lot of time internally thinking about all the things that we've done and what else we should be doing in response to the community and the children. We thought it was time to start going outside the building again, taking theater to other locations. (Each of those communities has its own theater, as well.)

Next year, we hope to do another touring show.

Q. Have you ever been bullied by or bullied others? What did that feel like?

I'm too Irish. We talked very honestly with each other in the early part of rehearsal and I remember in first grade being nasty to a girl who came into our class who had moved here from Germany. What was wrong with me? She was different and it was the first day of school, but that went away. Maybe it meant something and I remember because it bothered me.

Q. Will the performance provide tips for how to address bullying and being more tolerant? If so, can you share some?

In the play experience itself, one of the things that Nick does at the end of the play is he says to Mug, after Mug writes the word sgak on a steamy window of this house and Nick's mother is very upset and wants to call the police, Nick says, "No, I want to handle this myself." In the next scene, we play out all the things he tried. He first tries to ignore him, and after that four or five different strategies for handling the situation. This is not to say it's easy for anybody, but he finally takes the word sgak and doesn't give it meaning. When he's called the word, he says "Thank you." Mug gets confused and backs off from that – and he keeps diminishing the impact this bullying has. And Nick just keeps getting stronger. He develops other friendships. He learns the language. He starts to fit in more. He says things like, "I still speak Homelander at home; I don't want to forget where I came from. But now I play hockey and my parents are learning English and I have friends."

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