“The show contains a lot of adult language and themes and is not recommended for children,” UNCW’s Anne Berkeley says of the theatre department’s debut of “Punk Rock,” which opens their new season. The show, written by British playwright Simon Stephens, opens Thursday on the mainstage of the Cultural Arts Building.
Stephens is seeing a rise in popularity after successfully adapting Mark Haddon’s book, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime,”on both Broadway and London’s West End. “After reading a couple of other scripts, we thought ‘Punk Rock’ was perhaps the most thought-provoking play that wrestles with various current crises in Western societies,” Berkeley tells.
The play follows sixth-form British students preparing for A-level exams. The outcome of their studies will determine the schools they attend and the careers they pursue.
“Parents and students themselves experience enormous pressure to succeed at these exams,” Berkeley says. “Also, Stephens’ story reveals mental disorders, loneliness, anti-social behavior, and explosive reactions generated by a bunch of unusual young people colliding with one another as they simultaneously absorb the multiple crises and pervasive violence that characterizes the contemporary world.”
Aside from a “claustrophobic” set (reflecting anxiety the characters face), designed by faculty Rand Enlow, Berkeley says one of the unusual (and exciting) things about the show is the lighting and costume designers are all students as well. Berkeley wants them to imprint their own generational aesthetic into the text. “We also have choreography by a student and the scenes are interspersed with the frenetic cacophony and dissonance of punk rock music,” she tells.
Eight students make the cast and Berkeley has been impressed most with the way they are merging their own personalities and inner struggles with those of the characters. The focus has been on creating a fully fledged ensemble piece, including Nicky Taylor portraying 17-year-old William Carlisle, who is struggling with many things throughout this school year: exams, connecting with peers, and potential love interest. Playing mild-mannered Nicholas Chatman is Matthew Barkman, whose character is handsome, athletic but perhaps not the brightest crayon in the box. He’s good friends with resident school bully Bennett Francis, played by Robert Smith III, dealing with his own insecurities and girlfriend Cissy (Wesleigh Neville). Tanya Gleason (Lydia Watkins) is mainly there to try deescalate all the tension and stress.
encore interviewed the young cast of characters to see how the college students are bringing to life similar pressures, crises and problems as their slightly younger British counterparts.
encore (e): What are you learning most from your character? From the show and its themes?
Nicky Taylor (NT): William has taught me that everyone sometimes feels helpless, alone and lost, but the people who need the most help are often the ones who get the least of it. People feel uncomfortable around William, and only one person truly tries to get him help after it’s too late. Even if you’re not best friends with someone, showing empathy can go a long way.
From “Punk Rock” itself, I have learned—while people can be inhumane, hateful and do things just for the sake of hurting others—there is a deep-seated humanity and caring in people. There is always hope for humanity, even in the darkest of times, and no matter what happens to us as a race, we should never forget that most people are good.
Matthew Barkman (MB): What I’ve learned from Nicholas is it doesn’t matter whether you’re an athlete or a nerd, the same anxieties apply to everyone. Particularly when it comes to an exam that will have a substantial impact on one’s life.
In considering what I’ve learned from the the play as a whole, “Punk Rock” has made me more aware of the impact that excessive stress can have on young people. When I first discovered I had been cast in this show, I was a bit nervous about the subject matter because I wanted do it justice. Fortunately, Simon Stephens, the author of the play, did a phenomenal job portraying the transition into madness undergone by many of the characters in the show.
Robert Smith (RS): I think what I’m learning most is how to be a high-school student again. Because college is very different, you’re thinking about your future, and the little trivial things in high school don’t really matter to you. Though with these characters, presently, that’s not the case. All they have is their high-school drama. Worrying about this huge upcoming exam and everything that’s going on in their lives. It’s just been nice to kind of go back in time and remember what it was like to be an angsty teenager.
Wesleigh Neville (WN): Cissy is a very different character compared to me, and I was a little nervous about playing her when I first read the script. But this show is a major ensemble piece, and I don’t think I could have developed this character as much as I did without my cast members. They’re all wonderful beyond words. I think we all play off each other well, and this show has helped me become a better listener on stage.
Lydia Watkins (LW): The biggest thing I’ve learned from Tanya is that empathy and vulnerability aren’t weaknesses. They’re an important part of forming relationships with people and that it doesn’t go unnoticed by the people who need it most. I think Punk Rock is a very good representation of what stress does to students in a hyper-realized way. We’ve all experienced the stress that these characters are under and most of the time it’s completely out of our control. When you’re 17 everything feels like the end of the world. Add an undiagnosed mental illness due to lack of awareness on mental health and you’ve got a deadly weapon on your hands.
e: What’s been the most gratifying challenge to overcome thus far? Why?
NT: The most gratifying challenge for me to overcome has been learning not to fidget 24/7 on stage and portray a serious/dramatic character. William is described as standing very still and turning his head slowly, but the actions William makes have to be visible from the audience without being dishonest to his character. Previous to Punk Rock and William Carlisle, I had only ever really been in comedies, farces, and musicals, where my characters were eccentric and comedic. William is the first true dramatic role I have ever had the honor to portray, and the complete polar opposite of anything other role I’ve been. As silly as it seems, it has been incredibly rewarding to just stand still in the scenes where I move very little instead of running across stage!
MB: This being my first mainstage show, it was quite gratifying to overcome the challenge of getting comfortable on stage as someone other from myself. However, once I became acquainted with the rest of the cast, my improvisational background kicked in and I found myself more comfortable on a stage than I’ve ever been in my life. Mix that with Dr. Berkeley’s empathetic directing style and I found that my anxieties had vanished, allowing me to more thoroughly explore the world of the play.
RS: Whenever I create a new character I always try to figure out who they are at their core. What REALLY makes them tick and with Bennett, that was the perfect opportunity. You have a character who at face value is a really horrible person, but it’s my job as an actor to allow the audience to see more than that. This role gave me the opportunity to really play with the subtle nuances that Bennett has as a person. I get to present him as this kind of douchey, dominating force, but at the same time humanize him for the audience so that they see all that gruff bravado is coming from a real place of insecurity for him.
WN: Early toward rehearsals, after we’d read through the script and completed blocking, I still hadn’t really figured out how to play Cissy. I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to figure her out. But then one night we were joking around before our first rehearsal without scripts. We got into the first scene and something clicked. I think that was the first time I had fun with the character, and from there, I felt a lot more open to explore.
LW: The most gratifying challenge for me so far has been putting myself back in the shoes of a version of my high school self. Everyone has self-esteem issues, school troubles, relationship faux pas, and a total lack of self-awareness in high school and accessing that again has been a challenge for me, personally. I’m extremely lucky in that over the past year I’ve really come into myself emotionally and spiritually so to find that again has been a bit challenging, but definitely not too far away. It’s still inside everyone because we’ll never stop discovering who we are.
e: How do you think audiences will connect with this show most?
NT: I think that our audiences will connect greatly with the immense stress that the sixth formers in the show are going through, especially since such a large population of the people who come to see our shows are college-aged students. Many audience members will have just went through the stress of applying for and getting accepted into colleges, graduate schools, their major of choice, and so much more. Even being in “Punk Rock” really gets to me sometimes; there are days that I come home from rehearsals and just lay in bed because the weight of everything I have to do is enormous and I feel like I’m drowning. We all (students or not) live in a society where this enormous amount of stress is omnipresent, and it often times feels like the more and more responsibilities are slumped onto us. It’s something that we are often told to deal with or get better at managing, but I feel like “Punk Rock” really brings to light that the factors in our life that are outside of our control can sometimes be too much to handle.
MB: First, this play does a wonderful job of pointing out the impacts that stress can have on adolescents, regardless of social status. Second, I think audiences will find that each one of the characters throughout the play exist within each and every one of us. At least to some extent. We can all be a bit nerdy like Chadwick, or anxious like Cissy, and we all know, whether we want to admit it or not, that there exists a Bennett within all of us (just think of any given Monday morning). That being said, I believe that if the play is done correctly, from the opening scene, all the way to curtain call, the audience will find themselves compelled by the dynamic happening before them. They will feel as though they know the people in front of them because we all know a Cissy or a Bennett or a Nicholas.
One thing I believe Simon Stephens has done exceptionally well is the slow and steady build from the beginning to the end of the show, which gives the audience just enough time to grow connected to the characters before ripping the rug out from under them and everything they thought they knew.
RS: I think this show hits on a lot of points that society doesn’t really like to talk about. Especially with teenagers in high school. There have been so many times throughout just the last decade that issues kids were dealing with were just looked over and that led to things that could have been prevented. I just hope audiences see what I think is an “obvious” message in the show and truly listen to it and take it to heart.
WN: I think anyone who’s gone or going through high school right in the past ten years will identify with the struggles these characters face. “Punk Rock” nails the stressful environment of high school in a way that doesn’t feel like we’re talking down the audience. The teenagers in this show are just that: stressed, impulsive, flawed, and ultimately hopeful teenagers.
LW: I think they’ll connect with each individualistic thing about the characters and then how they interact as a group. There’s a little bit of everyone in each of these characters, and their roles in the social circle are very apparent. I think that’s something really relatable and real.
“Punk Rock” runs from September 22-25 and September 29-October 2 on the Mainstage Theatre in the UNCW Cultural Arts Building. Tickets are $6-$15 and available at the Kenan Box Office on campus by calling 910-962-3500 or online HERE. Tickets can also be bought in person an hour before the show on show dates.