You know the story.
A group of angsty, young, leather jacket-wearing “greasers” clashes with the rich, Madras-clad “Socs” with the “semi-Beatles” haircuts from the nicer part of town. It’s a story that’s been retold time and again, in the form of plays, a star-studded film adaptation from 1983 and even a short-lived television series in 1990.
SE Hinton’s The Outsiders, written in 1967, is a classic coming-of-age narrative rife with themes of class warfare, masculinity and redemption. And despite its many renditions, a small theater group in Winston-Salem has found a way to infuse the decades-old story with new life.
“We never have enough boys in theater, but that’s also a good opportunity for a lot of young girls to play roles they wouldn’t get a chance to play,” said Grace Reasoner, the co-director of Spark Theatre Collective’s run of The Outsiders, to debut this June. “We wanted to see how a girl could relate to Ponyboy or Soda Pop or Randy. There’s no reason why a girl couldn’t be a greaser.”
Reasoner, an 18-year-old freshman acting major at Columbia University, is one of the co-founders of Spark in Winston-Salem, a teen-founded and run nonprofit theater company. She said that the idea of a gender-blind casting for The Outsiders came about because of the strength of Hinton’s original characters.
“Once you take away the context of Randy being a guy, it becomes about the situation that the person is put it and the actor is able to create in a new way,” she said. “It doesn’t matter that it was a boy; you saw actors put on different masks and try different things.”
On the second night of open auditions on Jan. 4, more than a dozen teens showed up prepared with monologues. A handful of those in attendance were boys; most were girls.
“We wanted to open up that space in our cast to have more genders so people wouldn’t be afraid,” Reasoner said.
After the first part of auditions, which included prepared monologues and then a movement exercise, Reasoner and co-director Parker Bond, paired different actors to read scenes from the play adaptation.
A girl with long, wavy, blond tresses read lines as Ponyboy while another petite, fair-haired girl acted as Johnny. Both brought a kind of subdued, hard quality that marked a difference from their more emotionally delivered monologues at the beginning of the evening. The girl reading as Ponyboy acted indifferent, her body language mimicking her character’s subdued personality.
In another head-to-head, a young, red-headed girl took on the role of Ponyboy while a boy with sideswept locks and a striped shirt stepped into the character of Cherry, a girl Soc.
The two delivered lines back and forth, their characters’ gender roles reversed from their own. The boy talked expressively with his hands, reciting Cherry’s impassioned speech about how Soc’s have their own issues too, despite having the comforts of money and status that the greasers lack.
“We have troubles you’ve never even heard of,” the boy said, looking straight into the redhead’s eyes. “Things are rough all over.”
Bond said they picked the story of The Outsiders because of the parallels they saw between the book and current events.
“Division is a big thing we’re dealing with right now,” Bond said. “America has always been cast as ‘one nation,’ but there’s always been division; we’re not indivisible.”
Spark also prides itself on telling stories that work against the narrative of teens as the lazy and tech-obsessed generation. Picking Hinton’s gritty, emotional story shows the depth of experience and maturity that teenagers have, but often get ignored.
After the launch of their company in March 2019, their first show, Me, My Brain and I, co-written by Reasoner, tackled portrayals of anxiety in teens.
“It was about how anxiety manifests in teenagers and the things they keep inside,” she said. “Things they wouldn’t tell their parents or even their closest friends.”
In the end, the show sold out and Reasoner and the cast had multiple attendees come up to them with praise, especially parents, who said that the show was “necessary viewing for any parents with teenagers.”
Despite being pleased with the outcome, Reasoner said that it can be frustrating trying to work and create art as a teen because society doesn’t take them seriously.
“When you say that you have a teen-run company, sometimes people don’t trust you and are less willing to give help or respect,” she said. “We’ve had a really difficult time finding a space for The Outsiders because the people we reached out to didn’t know who we were, and they didn’t like the idea of a show of just teenagers.”
But Reasoner and others like Bond said that teens have the power and the experience to tell impactful storytelling and that their viewpoints deserve a space. They point to Hinton, who was just 15 years old when she started writing The Outsiders. And as they start rehearsals and continue to look for a space for the show, Spark members said they’ll stay true to the goal of the company.
“Part of our mission is unapologetic art,” Reasoner said. “We want to do things that are bold and things that are risky; we don’t have to limit ourselves.”