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Between a Rock Lobster and a Hard Place

Burgess Clark adapts Aaron Fricke's memoir about a gay teen who sues his high school to take a same-sex date to the senior prom. logo
Aaron Fricke and Burgess Clark
(© Jonas Degen)
In 1980, teenager Aaron Fricke took a stand against his bullying classmates and homophobic school administration by suing the principal of his Rhode Island high school for the right to take a same-sex date to the senior prom. He won the case in a landmark decision that brought national attention to the discrimination and persecution faced by gay students -- a subject that continues to have relevance today.

Fricke told his story in a memoir, which Boston Children's Theatre Executive Director Burgess Clark has adapted into a stage play of the same name, Reflections of a Rock Lobster, which will be seen at Boston Center for the Arts, March 3-11. Clark recently discussed this world premiere project with TheaterMania.

THEATERMANIA: When did you first read Reflections of a Rock Lobster, and what made it seem like it should be put up on stage?
BURGESS CLARK: I read Aaron's book in 1981, when it was first published. I was in great admiration of his courage, and had been looking for an opportunity to adapt it to the stage ever since. When I took over at BCT three-and-a-half years ago, I developed a mission to produce plays related to history and justice through the eyes of a child. We began this series with The Diary of Anne Frank, then moved to To Kill a Mockingbird last season. Reflections of a Rock Lobster is third in that series -- and the first play to be developed exclusively by BCT.

TM: I understand that Fricke has been involved in the development process for the show.
BC: Aaron was in attendance for the reading, and following it, he received a standing ovation by the audience. He has spoken to our student and adult cast members, and has given me further anecdotes and updates -- including details about his relationship with his mother, which I found to be particularly helpful. He is thrilled that we are revisiting his story, not only because of its timeliness, but also because unlike so many other stories of gay youth, this one has a hopeful and happy ending.

TM: One of the things I think is so great about your production is that it is for a children's theater company. Was there ever any worry that the subject matter would be too controversial for Boston Children's Theatre to produce?
BC: Yes -- I had some convincing to do with my Board. There was some concern that we were taking too much of a risk. But by and large, everyone realizes that it's time that a story like Aaron's be told. And the response from the schools, parents, and teachers has been overwhelmingly positive. We had a few raised eyebrows, but hey -- I want everyone to feel welcome at BCT. Although doing The Velveteen Rabbit and James and the Giant Peach are entertaining classics, BCT is dedicated to telling everyone's story -- not just the pleasant ones.

Ian Shain and Felix Teich star in
Reflections of a Rock Lobster
(© Saglio Photography, Inc.)
TM: You have actual teenagers performing the roles of the high school students. How important was that for you, and what do you think it adds to the production?
BC: I started with a select group of students -- ranging from ages 14-19 -- to workshop the play about nine months ago. These students are both gay and straight, and all from different communities and high schools. We met once a week and did exercises and improvisations surrounding bullying of all kinds. I'm 30 years past being a teen myself, so I required their perspective and wisdom in creating this play. I think it's a teenage story, no matter what the generation. These kids gave me the courage to make the play as real and as raw as their own experience. I am indebted to their individual courage and risk in tackling this difficult topic head-on.

TM: Can you talk about your leads -- Ian Shain and Felix Teich, who play Aaron Fricke and his prom date, Paul Guilbert?
BC: These boys bring an extraordinary amount of talent, compassion, and insight to their roles. Ian possesses a tangible vulnerability -- someone that an audience is willing to invest in. Felix exudes confidence, sensitivity, and intelligence. These two are a perfect match for this project, and have taken it on in a truly mature manner.

TM: What have you most enjoyed about working on this play?
BC: My favorite part of this process is to witness how profoundly effective this story strikes people. I had grown straight men in tears at the reading. One of our straight actors described how he was targeted because he chose to pursue theater one year in high school rather than football. The coach organized a campaign against him. I enjoy that people of all generations, sexes, sexualities and cultures seem to find the play engaging and moving. I think everyone can relate to feeling picked on and marginalized.

TM: Are there any plans in motion for future productions of the play after the Boston run?
BC: Yes -- several. With the timely nature of this topic and the amount of interest nationally, I believe that can be assured.

TM: Is there anything I haven't asked you about that you'd like to comment upon?
BC: In these times, there is great awareness of the GLBT experience, bullying and an active dialogue in schools and among school administrators. However, there are many schools and school administrators that are verbally supportive, but not supportive in action. For instance, several significant high schools are not attending the show -- namely those in which their students are featured. I can't hide my disappointment at their school administrations' unwillingness to celebrate the risk their students are taking -- especially in light of the overwhelming support for this ground-breaking production in the mainstream media. When I challenged one school, they said they "might" arrange their GSA group to come -- which comprises six students. One of our students was terrified that their school was going to hold my questioning them against him. Bullying assumes many forms, and this sort of "active passivity" is still every bit as present as it has always been.

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