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The first line of the play is a viciously hurtful insult. And the name calling only gets rougher from there.
The salty language in “Girls Like That,” a play staged by an all-female cast of Middleton High School students, is integral to British playwright Evan Placey’s searing look at how a group of high school girls reacts—and turns on each other—when a nude photo of one of their own goes viral.
It’s not at all your typical high school theater fare. Where most local programs are staging familiar musicals and family friendly classics, director Kendra Norton Dando and her cast are taking on a play that unflinchingly tackles about 20 modern hot-button high school issues at once—from bullying to social media to the often volatile and destructive nature of modern female friendship.
The script pulls very few punches in its depiction of female high school culture. Let's put it this way: More than a few F-bombs get dropped, and the sexual references are explicit—exactly what you would hear in the average high school hallway, every single day.
“The biggest challenge has been getting over my fear of making this production,” Dando says. “I don’t want to upset people. That’s not the point. I don’t think this play is gratuitous. We’re trying to handle it in a responsible way.”
Part of that approach involves talkbacks after every performance to give potentially concerned parents the chance to ask questions and have their say.
“We’re anticipating pushback,” says Dando. “We’re trying to prepare for it. It can be jarring to see your daughter on stage saying some of these things.”
It’s jarring for the daughter/actors, too. Middleton junior Olivia Larson is one of the members of the play’s ensemble. Unlike most typical plays,‘Girls' only has a couple of named parts. And one of those, Scarlet—the student whose naked selfie goes viral—says nothing for most of the play, even as everyone else is gossiping and saying nasty things about her. The cast members who castigate Scarlet are identified only as “girl” and not given names.
“There’s no real dialogue between the characters,” notes Larson of the play’s unusual structure. “It’s just line after line. Because of that, memorizing has been hard. And with some of my lines, I think, ‘I don’t want to say that, because it’s gross.’”
Larson says she’s been fortunate to have a supportive group of female friends during her time at Middleton, and ironically, she’s found that working with the play’s all-female cast is the most fun she’s ever had with a group of girls.
Still, the events of the play still ring depressingly true for her.
“You definitely see and hear about it. Girls don’t support girls,” says Larson. “The first things girls do is to talk about other girls. But I also hope the audience gets that this is not a women’s issue. Boys and dads don’t always support women either.”
Dando’s also seen how pervasive the issue of toxic female relationships can be in our culture. One night after rehearsal, Dando says she went to her car and turned on her car radio, only to catch a story about a pair of Hollywood actresses fighting through Twitter. She’s hoping her audience’s awareness is similarly raised.
“I want the audience to recognize that this is real. This is happening,” she says. “This should be the start of a very long discussion about his very important issue.”
“Girls Like That” runs Feb. 1-3 at the Middleton Performing Arts Center. For more information, click here.
Aaron R. Conklin writes his award-winning coverage of the Madison-area theater scene for madisonmagazine.com.