"Nineteen-year-old Warren Straub has stolen $15,000 from his lingerie-tycoon father.”
Rowan Vickers, the third-year acting student who plays Warren in this fall’s student-initiated production, Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth, describes his character and the play in dangerously exhilarating short sentences. “It’s about three very lost young people in New York City at the dawn of the Reagan era, trying to find themselves and each other,” he told The Journal. “We get a glimpse of 48 hours of their lives.”
The play, which will be performed on September 15, debuted in 1996 and has over the years featured such high-profile actors as Mark Ruffalo, Michael Cera, Kieran McCulkin, Matt Damon, Colin Hanks, Chris Klein, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Anna Paquin. It packs a powerful, Upper West Side-circa-1982 punch. With enough crude language, teenage angst, theft, romance, and cocaine to land anyone in the pen for at least 5 to 10, This Is Our Youth tells the story of adolescence at its most critical point, the precipice of adulthood. When third-year Max Woertendyke, who plays Warren’s friend Dennis Ziegler in the Juilliard production, saw the play as a teenager, he told The Journal, “I was like, those are all those kids I went to high school with. It was sort of the first time in my life I’d ever seen a play that seemed to be a play about me and about people I knew. And it’s about New York. About kids in New York.” Despite encountering Youth only two years ago, Vickers, who initiated the project, had a similar reaction. “It was the first time that I came across a play that was so accessible to me on a concrete level,” he said.
In the play, Warren Straub runs to his older friend Dennis Ziegler’s apartment with the $15,000 he’s stolen. The loot serves as drug money for Dennis and bait for the object of Warren’s affections: 19-year-old Jessica Goldman. “These characters are so intelligent and yet they have no solution to the problem of being an adult,” said third-year drama student Mary Chieffo, who plays Goldman. Chieffo added that her character “is so opinionated and willing and ready to share her opinion. You could externally view her as being on her game, but she’s still just as nervous and just as awkward and just as unsure of what her life is gonna be.”
Woertendyke described Ziegler as a “totally functioning drug addict” who’s “aggressive, athletic, rich, entitled, and used to getting his way.” But he suffers from the same identity crisis as Jessica. “He lives in the shadow of his father’s success. He doesn’t quite know what to do with himself but he’s still at an age where that’s O.K.”
As third-year drama students, Vickers, Chieffo, and Woertendyke can strongly identify with these feelings of uncertainty and newfound freedom—this is their first Juilliard independent project; it’s also that of the director, fourth-year Jessica Savage. While they had administrative guidance from the Drama Division and schedule and production coordinator James Gregg, the students initiated, cast, and produced—not to mention raised funds for—the production themselves.
“Originally I was sort of daunted,” Vickers admitted. “I’ve never done anything like this before.” The participants gave up what little free time they had putting the play together. To questions like why lose the sleep or truncate your summer break, Chieffo had an answer. “It’s just us and Julia [Singer, a former Juilliard intern and now a professional stage manager], our stage manager, in a room for a month working on a piece that’s so accessible to us and that we love and we’re so passionate about and that we have such opinions about,” Chieffo said. “It’s the first time in a while that I’ve been in a play that’s not in an educational environment. It’s passion-driven, like, ‘Let’s all get together and rock this play that we feel so strongly about.’”
Chieffo also recognized the value of ownership in the project. “I’ve got that safe space,” she said. “Regardless of my casting for the next two years, in this role, I’ve shared such an intimate, vulnerable part of myself. It’s in a small space, Studio 302, and I’ve decided to share something so close to me there, because that’s been something that I’ve always been very afraid of—to play a role that, given the right circumstance, could easily be me.”
Nor does Woertendyke begrudge the time, noting that the play “doesn’t get boring to me. I’m still curious about it. I’m still entertained by it; I still laugh. I still like it, and the fact that I love the play so much, and that I’ve waited so long to do it gives me a lot to live up to, not from any external pressure, just that I want to do the play well,” he said. “It’s my shot to do this play justice.”
Student-initiated production: This Is Our Youth, directed by Jessica Savage. Sept. 15 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. For information, e-mail email@example.com.