How we brought on the monsters: Young Adult Theater, done by young adults

As someone who grew up obsessed with fandoms like Percy Jackson and the Olympians (PJO), I found working on The Lightning Thief with Wildwood Summer Theatre (a youth-run company based in Montgomery County, Maryland) as associate dramaturg this summer to be a dream come true. While researching, I discovered a new concept of Young Adult Theater: shows that feature coming-of-age stories and protagonists in their teens. As members of our company head back to school or start thinking about the “real world,” I continue to reflect upon lessons learned from The Lightning Thief and our foray into being young adults working on this piece of Young Adult Theater together.

The Wildwood Summer Theatre ‘The Lightning Thief’ team. Photo by Zoe Fischtal.

Not a lot has been written about Young Adult Theater as a genre, and shows featuring young people have existed for years (like You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown; Runaways; Babes in Arms). But out of the post–Spring Awakening and Dear Evan Hansen world came musicals featuring young adult characters and coming-of-age stories, geared toward teen fanbases and with contemporary musical theater pop/rock scores. Essentially, musical theater’s response to young adult novels. Some examples include Heathers, Be More Chill, and Beetlejuice, many of which have been panned by critics during Broadway/Off-Broadway runs but are loved by teens.

The Lightning Thief is a special case because it has the added element of being a direct adaptation of a beloved young adult novel with a massive fanbase. It’s not a parody like the popular Team Starkid shows, but both feature adaptations created out of love for the source material and a desire to do the story right, rather than for monetary reasons of adapting a story for its popularity. The Lightning Thief actually falls somewhere in between Theater for Young Audiences and Young Adult Theater — just as the book series places its characters in between their childhood and teenage years and follows the characters growing up.

Young Adult Theater matters because these stories speak directly to young people in an empowering way. I’ve always been a champion of the power of young people telling and shaping their own stories. When adults don’t make it possible, we take matters into our own hands. That is why companies like Wildwood Summer Theatre exist. Our production of The Lightning Thief was perhaps the closest to fully realizing this story’s mission that any theater can achieve, since young people between the ages of 14 and 25 were at the helm onstage, behind the scenes, and on the board.

Wildwood approached its production of The Lightning Thief with a spirit of “it looks like teens went into a barn and put on a show”: intentionally designed costumes, props and sets with references to the PJO series, and Greek mythology galore. All designed by young people who loved this series while we were growing up, rehearsals with check-ins, a Slack filled with Percy Jackson memes and theories on the daily, a thriving TikTok account run by a ragtag team of anyone who wanted access… all of this was possible because Wildwood is a youth-run theater.

Wildwood Summer Theatre’s ‘The Lightning Thief.’ Photo courtesy of Wildwood Summer Theatre.

We were also able to contextualize the nuances that come with Percy Jackson’s story, with conversations about neurodiversity at the forefront. A lot of my theories behind Young Adult Theater as a genre that I shared with the cast were from “Don’t Blame It on Their Youth”, a 2019 American Theatre Magazine article by Christian Lewis.

I greatly respect Lewis and very much agree with what was said in the first half of the article. Lewis wrote about the problems of overly negative reviews of the Broadway production of The Lightning Thief, the result of older white male critics mocking young adult shows simply for having young adult characters.

But I didn’t agree with everything in the article.

“The solution is not to stop bringing Young Adult Theatre to Broadway,” Lewis wrote. “It is to have better, more representative Young Adult Theatre. The problem is not that the shows are about teenagers, as the critics seem to think; the problem is which teenagers they’re about.”

That misses the mark. Yes, in Dear Evan Hansen and Be More Chill’s case, the shows are centered on a cis white teen boy and it’s unclear why he is angsty. But in The Lightning Thief where every demigod has ADHD and dyslexia, where the original cast was diverse, where Percy’s multiple neurological challenges are listed out, where actor Chris McCarrell (who originated the role of Percy on Broadway) spoke out about how he made subtle choices that identify his Percy as gay…it is simplistic to say “these teen shows need to be more diverse.” Diversity is there in The Lightning Thief, but maybe it wasn’t apparent.

The Lightning Thief is also about how anyone can be a hero. Your neurodiversity can make you stronger, and neurodiversity is diversity. “Your senses are better than a regular mortal’s,” Annabeth says in the show.

Similar to the characters in the show, many of our cast and crew members were neurodiverse (including me with sensory processing disorder and motor tics), and many actually have ADHD. That’s not an accident. All these kids with individual struggles, united in their love for PJO and theater, were one of the most beautiful things to come out of this process. In a talkback, our Percy Jackson, Noah Haren, said that during this process he identified with many of Percy’s ADHD tendencies and questioned if he might also have ADHD.

At the first rehearsal, our director Mercedes Blankenship introduced The Lightning Thief as a story about a kid trying his best with what he’s been given. The kids in The Lightning Thief want to be heard and cared about and the Gods won’t listen, so the kids take their lives into their own hands and find strength and joy in a world that wants to tear them apart. The story addresses parental neglect, kids who are made to feel like problems because of who they are, and the empowerment to rise above it.

Wildwood Summer Theatre in rehearsal for ‘The Lightning Thief. Photo courtesy of Daniella Ignacio.

For me, The Lightning Thief reawakened my love for fandom, which has changed significantly since middle/high school. I used to say stuff like “I’m a ~nerd girl~” and have it define my personality. Throughout my theater training, I have felt myself lose my love for theater on a fan level while considering if I want it to be my professional life.

I regained that love by finding musicals that make me happy. That’s been The Lightning Thief. This summer, listening to cut songs while researching the show’s history for our dramaturgical presentation, I took a lot of joy and comfort from a song called “Take the Weight,” a backup Annabeth solo. Written from Annabeth’s point of view mid-quest, and drawing on the plotline in the book The Titan’s Curse where she holds up the sky in place of the god Atlas, it expresses how much the weight of the world is on these 12-year-olds who don’t know what they’re doing.

I realized that so much of PJO is about kids struggling to figure their lives out, and that struggle isn’t glorified. It’s shown with all the brutal honesty of “I didn’t want to be a half-blood.” Percy isn’t the boy who lived. Percy is the boy who was told he was trouble for all of his life, even when he learned he was a demigod. Learning to live with your circumstances, choosing to do what’s right, and finding the people who truly care about you in the process is what resonates the most for me from this musical and from my own participation in this production.

Not every show can share this message. The Lightning Thief is special because these messages are specific to young audiences, yet they can resonate so universally. I took equal joy in seeing families bringing kids to this production who didn’t know anyone in the cast, and the young people coming to support friends.

This is all to say: Lift up new voices in theater and don’t disparage them just because they’re young. When you give young people the space to be in charge, mistakes are bound to happen, but the point is that you learn and grow through them.

It’s all the more impactful when you grow by telling these stories about growing up.

Wildwood Summer Theatre’s The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical played July 15 – 23, 2022, at Montgomery College Cultural Arts Center – 7995 Georgia Avenue, in Silver Spring, MD. For more information about Wildwood Summer Theatre go online.