By Rob Scherf
Ah, teen felony. What would our culture be without it? Countless movies and TV shows have convinced us that wild adolescents are always just one step away from running naked and feral in the streets, ready to cover every bare surface they see in sophomoric graffiti. Or perhaps you’re of the belief that all troubled teens are Dean Martins in training, roaming the country with a romantic lack of cause. Whatever you think, University of Calgary professor and award-winning playwright Clem Martini wants you to know you’re wrong.
Martini’s Illegal Entry is gearing up for a run with Ground Zero Theatre as part of its Alumni program, an initiative which has offered professional mentorship for U of C drama students since 2001.
"They do a great job of integrating students and giving them a leg up in the community," says Phil Fulton, who plays Jim, one of the show’s lead characters. "Last year I was the student and this year it’s Braden [Griffiths]," who plays Stewart, another of the three protagonists
Fulton confesses it was largely the alumni program that gave him the extra push he needed to become a fully confident actor.
With Fulton now in the role of professional rather than student actors, the cast and crew are determined to stay away from teen drama cliche and instead present a view of troubled youngsters that is, for once, realistic in its evaluation of a hard knock life.
"Illegal Entry is about three guys that escape from a young offenders group home, and plan to rip off this house, which one of the characters has a way to get into," says Fulton. "Instead of stealing enough money for the three of them to get to California, they get stuck in the garage. For the rest of the play they’re trying to get out."
So, it’s about these three thugs–
"Without giving too much away, they’re actually young sexual offenders. So they’re in for sexually abusing other kids, other people their own age, but also a variety of other problems like rage problems, arson, theft: they’re just fucked-up kids."
Sensing that Gauntlet readers would readily pass over a tired retread of thousands of similar bad-kid-turns-good after school specials, Fulton is quick to qualify the integrity of Illegal Entry’s characters.
"I think the play takes a pretty accurate approach," he says. "[Martini] volunteers at Phoenix Home, which is a young offenders’ home, as well as Woods Homes. He’s been doing it for the past 10 years, so he knows these kids just like these and wrote the play out of his experiences. It’s all very honest and genuine. That being said, it is a dark comedy. It’s a funny play. But it walks the line–genuine and honest, and the gritty facts, as well as the relief points. We certainly don’t glamorize the lifestyle in any way, but the play does offer a view of these kids’ humanity.
"For example, Jim is the middle child of the group. He’s 16, he’s the loose cannon of the three guys, he’s definitely not the brightest one of them all and he tends to fuck everything up. He’s the outcast of the outcasts. But at the same time he’s constantly trying to get in with them. He’s a very balanced and believable character."
Fulton believes that both the romanticization and disdain of young offenders is destructive and unfair, and hope that Illegal Entry will change some minds.
"These images are detrimental because if you start putting it out there in the public, people are going to start getting this skewed view of the facts, and then that just perpetuates the myth of the garbage teen or the glamourized rebel," he says. "As well, one of the things I like about the play is that it shows there’s no happy ending, no quick fix, and no easy answer in the end. These kids don’t realize they’re all fucked up. Some see they have problems, and others don’t see what the big deal is.
"It’s not something that’s easily resolved, which is kind of true to life."