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On the Brink of Adulthood, Half-Equipped

Martha Lavey: What is the origin of this play for you—and are your thoughts about it different now, 18 years after you wrote it originally? Kenneth Lonergan: Well, I wrote the play almost 15 years after it takes place, so it doesn’t feel all that different to me now than it did then. Maybe I haven’t matured enough over the last 20 years. Anna D . Shapiro: My first experience with the play was seeing it and I remember how authentic and how original it felt. I graduated high school in 1983—Kenny and I are basically the same age. I think part of what the play is exploring is human paralysis and how young people can become immobilized when reality doesn’t match their expectations. ML : The play examines a particular generation of young people growing up in a specific cultural situation in New York. First of all, they’re all white, which I think is significant to the play in terms of evoking a specific milieu. They’re children of prosperous families and I think a really important dynamic in the play is their relationship with their parents. In 1982, the parents are probably in their early 50’s. Kenny, how would you describe that generation of parents? KL : Well, the character of Jessica refers to her parents’ generation as “the last pathetic remnants of Upper West Side Jewish liberalism,” but I would say she also agrees with most of her parents’ values wholeheartedly. She just doesn’t see them as having been terribly effective. I would describe their parents as being secular, mostly but not exclusively Jewish liberals, interested in social issues; what they used to call knee-jerk Liberals. They hated Nixon, hated McCarthy, joined the Civil Rights movement, protested the Vietnam War... And then just as their kids are on the brink of adulthood, Ronald Reagan is elected in 1980 and it felt as if the entire liberal movement had come crashing down and that everything they believed in growing up had been resoundingly rejected by the country overall. ML : How do you feel the disillusionment of that generation relates to what the kids are experiencing? KL : Well, they are stepping into a world where there is no longer a place for their particular philosophy. They’re full of opinions and beliefs and ideas, but at that very instant, their team— so to speak—has been not just beaten but totally dismantled—so they don’t quite know what to do with themselves. And of course their family situations are not especially stable. So they find themselves struggling to break free from their families without necessarily rejecting the ideas their families gave them. Which leaves them in kind of an odd spot. AS: Kenny and I had a great conversation with Ann Roth, the costume designer and it was so illuminating because I got to watch them spar over generalization. One of the designer’s responsibilities is trying out different things so we can figure out exactly who these characters are. And when you’re dealing with a writer who is writing about a group of people that he knows extremely well, the conversations get really interesting. For example, my mother started taking me to NY every summer around 1980. And I had an older cousin who would take me to clubs like Danceteria and Studio 54. I was really young, like 14— ML : —How did you get in? AS: Well, they didn’t really card then. (She laughs.) And I would dress up like Madonna. And so Ann, like I did, assumed that Jessica would have dressed like that. And Kenny said, “The girls in the group that I’m talking about would never have dressed like Madonna— that was too mainstream.” That was a really important moment to me in my understanding of the play geographically. As a Midwestern kid, Madonna was the “other”—she was a rebellious image. But if you were growing up in New York, she was considered part of the mainstream culture and thus something to be rejected. ML : Kenny, so this play somehow captures something that was in your experience. And now you’re a parent, right? How old is your daughter? KL : She’s 12. ML : What do you think her This Is Our Youth going to look like? KL : I’m sure it’s going to look really different, but I’m preparing myself to be just as alarmed about it as I would be if I were the father of one of the characters in the play. It’s scary. But I also find it touching that as you grow out of adolescence, for a short time you are somewhat free to invent or at least make a conscious choice about what kind of person you want to be. When you’re a little kid, your personality seems like a given and your circumstances are your family’s circumstances. When you become an adult, if you’re like most people, you end up settling in to one track or another depending on what’s available. Once you leave home you find you can experiment with who and what you want to be—for a while anyway. But I will say even though one of the common notes for my particular group was to deliberately carve out a style of life outside the mainstream of the 1980s, looking back it’s easier for me to see how we were still shaped, constrained, pulled and formed by the terribly powerful forces all around us. It’s a cliché to say what a different world it was, but it was. There were no computers, no internet—1980 feels much closer to the world of 1960 than the world of 2000. And 2000, which is almost 20 years ago, seems like yesterday to me. AS: I totally agree. We’ve been having this really complicated conversation about how to educate our kids and I come from a devout public school background. And my brother said to me the other day, “The public school you want to send your kids to doesn’t exist anymore.” KL : There are some things that my daughter is going to go through that I hope I understand because of what all 12 year-olds have to go through. But there’s a lot that’s really hard for me to relate to—I didn’t grow up staring at an iPhone for 12 years... The organized assault of popular culture and advertising had not quite consolidated into the inescapable leviathan it is now. They were just starting to bring together the threads of popular culture and advertising and the TV and movie culture in the ‘80s. Now it’s a well-oiled universal constant of life. But one thing that I think cannot possibly be different from the ‘80s or from any other decade is that singular time in your life when you step out of your teenage years and into the adult world only half-equipped to deal with it. Teenagers have so much more depth of experience than their parents think and so much less than they think. It’s a difficult and wonderful and fascinating moment in life, whether you come to it in 1982 or 2014. I never understand why these characters are sometimes described as burn-outs, when they are just churning with feeling and in love with ideas. Any more than I understand why they’re often described as spoiled because their parents are well-off instead of indigent.