RUSHFORD — Rushford-Peterson High School's one-act play deals with a subject people are reluctant to talk about: Teen depression and anxiety.
The main character, Clay, played by R-P senior Xander Auman, is feeling emotionally overwhelmed. His mother is dying of brain cancer. Yet he resists the help that he needs as his mental health deteriorates.
It's not the stuff of most high school productions, and because of that, the play, "who are we, who we are," has struck a chord with audiences. It was named the Section 1A One Act Play Champion and will be performed today at the State Festival at St. Catherine University in St. Paul.
The play's emotional punch has registered not only with judges but with teenagers. The 19 R-P students in the play performed it for their classmates two weeks ago, and "you could have heard a pin drop in the auditorium," said Forrest Musselman, R-P's theater director and the play's author.
"Many students were in tears at the end," Musselman said. "When I wrote it, I knew it was going to be emotional. I didn't realize it was going to have that much impact."
The play's power comes from two factors, the director and students say. Many of the stories are real. Clay's character, for example, is based on Auman, whose mom, Tracey Auman, died two years ago after being diagnosed with brain cancer. Some of the student-cast members are also currently in therapy, Musselman said.
"These are some of our stories, so it's easier to portray it, but it's emotionally harder because it's so real," said freshman Annika Bakkum-Ekern, who plays Nora. "The tears on stage are real."
Musselman said he began talking with Auman about writing a play based on his story at the beginning of the school year. Auman said he was fine with that. Still, reading the script and the first three weeks of rehearsal were "very difficult," Auman said.
"It was hard to go back to that place for awhile," Auman said. "But over time, it became more of an empowerment thing, that I can do this."
The play is registering with teens because they find it easy to identify with the emotional struggles of the characters on stage. Some R-P students have used surveys to express their desire for more mental health resources and counselors, Musselman said.
Auman is not convinced that today's generation of students face substantially greater stress than previous generations. He believes there is more openness surrounding the issue of teen depression and anxiety. The stigma of mental illness, while still present, is less powerful than it once was.
Still, teens today do face challenges that past generations did not. "Social media is a huge factor," he said.
This is the fourth year that Rushford-Peterson has reached the state championship under Musselman's directorship. When he first became coach of the school's one-act plays, he struggled to find scripts that would be meaningful to teens. Most were "fluffy, parody stuff." So working with students, Musselman began to craft his own.
Auman said he has found the experience, in the end, to be cathartic.
"I'm honestly kind of excited, for once we're done with the last performance, I get to do with Clay what I do with all the rest of the characters that I've ever played, which is it's just gone after that," Auman said.