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Wilderness revolves around six teenagers on a wilderness retreat.
Wilderness revolves around six teenagers on a wilderness retreat.
Julia Gambon

Centaurus High School Theatre Tackles Hard Issues in Wilderness

Jay Kinsel, director of the Centaurus Theatre Company at Centaurus High School in Lafayette, initially shied away from the play Wilderness.

The 2017 script, written by Seth Bockley and Anne Hamburger, tells the true story of six high-schoolers and their families dealing with issues like mental illness, addiction and gender identity — topics that Kinsel feared would be too intense for students. Even so, he found himself repeatedly returning to the script.

"The show just kept sitting on my heart," he says. "I went back and looked at it again, and then the third time I went and read it with a student, and through that process, we started having a conversation about mental health. And it turned into a conversation that helped the student a little bit. It dawned on me that all the mental health experts say we need to start talking about mental health and take that stigma away and make it okay to discuss. And this show did that without any shock value."

Ultimately, Kinsel felt that the non-fiction show was representative of his students and the hardships high-schoolers face. Wilderness follows six teenagers on a wilderness retreat — a common treatment option for teens struggling with mental, behavioral or substance abuse problems — and a mother whose child is going through the process. As part of her own healing, she interviews the parents of the other children in the program. While those interviews are usually projected on a screen on stage, Kinsel cast students to play the parents, opening up more roles.

When Kinsel proposed Wilderness to the school's administration, explaining the therapeutic value of dealing with tough issues head on, most were supportive.

"The true danger of the show is the rehearsal process, because the kids have to live with the characters for two and a half months," Kinsel says. "The audience has to live with the characters for ninety minutes. We had a lot of debate at the beginning, and we had some kids that felt like the show was a little too much for them. They stepped away from this show, and they'll be back for our musical. We told the kids that we're going to try and do something, and if for some reason there's something going on in your life or there's a reason that you don't want to be a part of this show, no one is going to think differently or talk down about you."

Many students discovered that the production gave them a chance to exercise their empathy.

"What's cool about it for a high school is that, if you're a high school kid, you're going to see the six kids, and you're going to know somebody who is going through that, if it's not you," Kinsel explains. "You're going to have this experience that the play talks about, something that matters to you and something you're going through. With the parents on stage as well, it gives the parents of the students an opportunity to maybe see a mirror image of themselves, or maybe see a parent having a similar struggle that they are, and hopefully make them feel like they're not the only ones in the world that have this problem, and let them know that there is support out there."

Kinsel credits the show's careful treatment of teen mental health to its authors. Unlike many tragedies, it doesn't end with a suicide attempt or sensational drama.

"It's not a show that's going to trigger somebody into a terrible place, it's not a show that will hurt anyone, and I think what's really important about it is the way it's written and put together," he adds. "The playwrights never took us into a place that was too dark for the kids."

Students rehearsing Wilderness.
Students rehearsing Wilderness.
Caleb Loewengart

Kinsel reached out to Bockley and Hamburger through the Dramatist Guild, thanking them for writing the play. To his surprise, both responded enthusiastically. Hamburger planned a Skype call with the entire cast, and Bockley is hoping to see the production.

"It's pretty rare that high school kids get to meet an author of a show that they're producing, so it's going to be a cool experience for them," Kinsell says. "It'll be neat for them to ask a little bit about these characters, and maybe hear a little more context that will hopefully translate to the stage."

Centaurus High School invited organizations devoted to mental health awareness and treatment to attend the show. Thanks to stage managers Emerson Fisher and Maeve Carroll, representatives from NAMI Boulder, Out Boulder, Colie's Closet and Sources of Strength — all of which provide mental health education and services — will be attending the premiere. Additionally, part of the proceeds from the first performance will be donated to NAMI Boulder. The efforts to include mental health advocates in the discussion are a part of Fisher and Carroll's senior service project.

Kinsel plans on having the organizations' representatives stick around after the November 13 show to answer questions and provide resources to anyone in the audience looking for support.

"We've discussed having a talk-back, but I'm almost more interested in having the actors out in the lobby with the four organizations, talking to the audience," says Kinsel, "so that if anybody decides they do need a phone number or they would like to talk to somebody further, that we're providing them that opportunity for support, and not just opening Pandora's box and then running away."

Centaurus High School Theatre Company presents Wilderness at 7 p.m. November 13 to 15 and at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. on November 16. Tickets are $12 for adults, $10 for senior citizens, and $5 for students.

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