When the Wallis Youth Theater Company convened for the first time last fall, the young actors tried a few table readings of contemporary plays that might have made a good debut performance.
But, like in a lot of circles around that time, a certain topic kept permeating their rehearsals: the presidential election.
"A lot of our initial rehearsals were taken up with the actors feeling deeply upset by what was going on and so we would process that during our time working," said Madeleine Dahm, founding artistic director of the group at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.
"We started talking about why the election was the way it was," said company member Malakai Jones, 19. "And we decided it was a sort of a culture of fear."
The nine young actors decided to create a new work that examines the power of words in cultivating that culture of fear, as well as inspiring unity. The product is a piece of experimental, physical theater called "Word of Mouth," which opens this weekend.
"The devised work really came out of a need in this moment for us to find something that spoke to what we wanted to and to what we saw happening around us in the culture," Dahm said.
The lines in the play are drawn from existing work – speeches, articles, novels and social media posts. The narrative weaves excerpts of everything from a speech from Nobel Peace Prize honoree Aung San Suu Kyi, to a viral Twitter thread about conversion therapy.
Monologues and choral recitations are tied together with movement, music and dance.
And like in any good play, this one has a villain. A character called "The Trickster" is revealed as the puppet master who is turning characters against one another by feeding them charged language. He preaches the power of propaganda and spews monologues peppered with quotes from authoritarian leaders around the world. Over the course of the play, we watch the rest of the cast band together to rise up against him.
The journey of the characters in this inaugural production mirrors the overall goal of the theater company to promote camaraderie and understanding.
"It's just a great feeling for me to see the journey they've been on in this very short time," said Mark Slavkin, director of education at the Wallis, which opened in 2013. "We want an audience to see this obviously, but if no one was able to see it, just the growth that they've experienced has been totally worth every bit of it."
The program offers training and performance experience for actors ages 17 to 23. In founding the company, Dahm wanted to extend an experience to actors that went beyond high school or college offerings – something greater than working on a show.
"Often what happens with young actors is they are cast in roles that are smaller, roles that are sort of archetypical," said Dahm. "Here, we’re creating work that speaks to the issues and things they’re concerned about."
And the young cast, aware of the self-indulgent stereotypes of original youth theater showcased in "Saturday Night Live" sketches, are making a conscious effort to be true to their experiences and perspectives.
"I think when people think of youth experimental theater, they view it as, 'Oh, the kids are putting on a show and they have these thematic things they don’t really understand, but they’re gonna convey to you anyway,'" said Jones. "And it’s different when it’s a story because it’s more personal and the audience is invested."
At 21, Kelvin Morales is the oldest actor in the company this cycle. He's performed in a lot of Shakespeare productions and is used to being the baby of any cast.
"I’ve experienced the older generation talking about how the kids don’t care, they’re just distracted by social media. But coming here it’s kind of validates me and that fact that I care about this world and I know there are other kids my age who also care about the world."
"I think the older generation could learn a lot from young people," Dahm said. "And so I think this is also an important part of the piece is them saying, 'We've been raised to understand each other differently. So now it's time that you listen to our voices as well.' "