Worst First Kiss Productions is the newest and most successful youth voice in theatre as of late. Based in Los Angeles, it is a company of teens, with four teen producers and an all-teen cast, that recently put on Dog Sees God. DSG is the story of Charles Schultz’ classic Peanuts characters as high school students, originally written by Bert Royal. The lives of these characters are now plagued with serious things like sexuality, suicide, and finding your identity when in the warped world of high school. With new mature names to go with their new “mature” personalities, the whole gang is represented. CB (Charlie Brown) is played by Chandler David, CB’s Sister (Sally) is played by Joey Maya Safchik, Beethoven (Schroeder) is played by James Sanger, Tricia (Patty) is played by Charlotte Weinman, Matt (Pigpen) is played by Gabriel Nunag, Marcy (Marcie) is played by Judy Durkin, Van (Linus) is played by Corey Fogelmanis, and Van’s Sister (Lucy) is played by Zoe D’Andrea. The four producers of the company are Safchik, Weinmen, David, and Durkin. Affinity reached out to ask them questions about the messages of the play, the characters themselves, as well as being actual teens playing teens in a world that often hires 20 or 30-something-year-olds to tell teen tales for us.
I have to confess, my interest in you guys peaked due to Corey’s involvement (I know, I know, I’m one of those people), but when I actually got my hands on the script, I was blown away. What made you guys choose this play with its sort of edgy plot and script?
Joey Maya Safchik: The play authentically depicts the high school experience in a really unique way. There are truly only a handful of plays and musicals that really manage to accurately convey the high school experience without falling into cliche traps. The material for this play is gritty and so different from what teenagers are usually given to perform. It’s raunchy and genuine and, unfortunately, you do hear kids speak like this in the scary hallowed halls of a real high school.
Chandler David: We also wanted to give our fellow teen actors a better space to strengthen their craft. There is a lot of great acting training for youth out there, but not a lot of resources when it comes to finding meatier roles for teens.
Charlotte Weinman: Like Joey said, the subject matter dealt with in the play is so deeply moving for young people because it is so true to our lives. We have loved performing it for young and old audiences alike; for fellow kids and teenagers, it’s something to relate to, and for the adults in our lives, it hopefully evokes a stronger sense empathy for what we go through as a young generation separate from theirs.
Judy Durkin: I think the main thing that made this show so appealing was the all-teenage cast which is something we young actors rarely get to see. Who better to play teens than teens?
What was the audition process like to find the rest of the cast? Were you shocked with the maturity level of the young talent you saw?
JMS: The decision to start this company came about pretty abruptly. We started by just doing a read through of the play in my living room. We called our most ridiculously talented friends and we were so blown away by what they brought to the table in such an informal setting that we offered the roles to most of them. We only really auditioned to find one actor and we got so lucky that we found them.
CW: We have always had a lot of faith in the capacity of fellow teenagers. The audition process was not necessarily surprising (though the talent was immense), but it was definitely affirming of that faith.
Judy and Charlotte, your characters in DSG are kind of stereotypical mean girl airheads, what made you drawn to those characters?
JD: I really don’t think that Marcy and Tricia are airheads—sure they’re drunk at school a lot (not good role models), but they are extremely manipulative and calculating. I think it would be impossible to be dumb while scheming the way they do. Marcy, or Marcie, as her name is spelled in the Peanuts comic strips, is the bookworm with glasses. So seeing her all these years later when Dog Sees God picks up makes it seem like she is radically different. Unfortunately, Marcy and Tricia try to live up to what they think the male characters expect of them, but I think that they are still those outspoken little girls deep down inside. Marcy is extremely insecure and neglected by her religious parents. Her only friend, Tricia, is equally insecure, and they can’t really validate each other or support one another in a stable way. I think it’s good when I hear audience members tell us that they feel kind of bad for Marcy and Tricia. It shows that we made these characters as three-dimensional as possible. During the rehearsal process, Charlotte and I had many interesting discussions about femininity, peer pressure, and friendship. The humor, of course, is something that Charlotte and I were drawn to, but I think we have found so much gritty reality beneath the surface of these jokes.
CW: I agree! What’s so interesting about these characters is just how nuanced they are. Tracking their characters from their Peanuts origins, these are two girls who were sort of outcasts from the rest of the group. Peppermint Patty is a total tomboy and yet an emotional nonstop flirt as a young girl, a dichotomy that Tricia compensates for in her teenage years by exhibiting an incessant desire to fit in and be “feminine”. Where we catch up with them in Dog Sees God, they are two deeply insecure girls pressured into finding an identity in the limited confines of femininity. In high school especially, girls grow up thinking they can only be one type of the girls they see in media — a flirt, a nerd, or a naive girl. Navigating high school is hard enough without pigeon-holing yourself like that! I was drawn initially to the humor in the character, but what stuck with me the most was the depth of the young women. Judy and I had a lot of fun exploring these characters, and I think it gave both of us a desire to listen to, understand, and empathize with people we might otherwise write off as shallow villains.
Joey, what made you want to go after the ever evolving, CB’s Sister? Also, is there much to say about how she doesn’t actually get a name in the play? How did you channel being able to play someone that on the surface has little to no depth due to her lack of name and constant reinvention?
JMS: I really appreciate you asking this question. Initially, I was kind of freaked out by the fact that CB’s Sister doesn’t have a name. I really didn’t want her to just be identified as her brother’s pesky younger sibling. She’s a really fascinating young lady and has a lot to offer. But I think it’s important to her character that she wouldn’t want to go by Sally anymore, because that has such an innocent connotation, and she really wants to be taken seriously as a mature young woman. She’s definitely not as mature as she thinks she is, but I adore being able to play someone who is constantly searching for who she is, which is entirely reflected in the fact that she’s not even sure what she literally wants to be identified as. I made the decision that she’d ultimately end up going by Sal. That’s a kind of edgy and cool version of her real name, right? Whether she’s in her Wiccan phase or totally punk, she’s very much the same caring and insecure person underneath, and I try to make sure that it surfaces despite her outward appearance. It’s a fun challenge to make sure that shows. The myriad of costumes is pretty fun too!
And Chandler, how does it feel taking the classic Charlie Brown and turning him into CB, someone with lots of depth and a sexuality that is completely the opposite of what Peanuts fans would expect from Charlie?
CD: Well, as someone who grew up watching the Peanuts cartoons, I find this play to be strikingly different yet strangely familiar. Bert V. Royal, the playwright, did a great job of transcribing these characters from 8-year-olds to teenagers. However, there is a 10-year gap where we have no idea what happened. So, it’s my job as an actor to fill that gap with details that enhance my understanding and relationship with the character. I would like to keep those details to myself but let me tell you, I had a lot of fun imagining CB’s journey from then to now.
Now onto some more broad questions. Why do you think it is important for a youthful voice, like the actual voices of youths, not just 20 or 30 somethings playing high schoolers, to be a part of the arts?
JD: We were all warned by many people that Dog Sees God is usually done with adults, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. I think that, yes, adults can bring knowledge of their teen years to inform their performances, but there is nothing as authentic as watching a group of teenagers onstage playing characters that are their ages going through the same trials and tribulations that high school is throwing their way. We’ve gotten so much positive feedback from teenaged audience members who are excited to see people their age playing these parts. We aren’t asking adults to completely stop playing teenagers (I mean, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is pretty great), but I hope that we have proven, through our hard work, just how capable and informed we are. Art is such an important way to express and discover so much about oneself, and our mission with this company is to spread and encourage creativity with people our age.
With the heightened public interest in stories involving suicides, with things such as 13 Reasons Why gaining such momentum, how do you hope your show impacts people?
CW: This new presence of mental illness in popular culture really is a double-edged sword — on one hand, we are so proud to be doing our part in tearing down the stigma around the topic. We think mental health should be a continuous conversation in every family and school, and support for people struggling with mental illness should be accessible across the board. But it is a dangerous topic because each person’s experience with mental illness is different- one example shown on stage or on screen may not resonate the same for every person living with a mental illness. We don’t want to claim to understand what it’s like to struggle with mental illness for everyone, but we also don’t want to evade the topic altogether. We hope our audience takes away from our show that suicide is not something that should be glamorized by it’s presence in pop culture, but rather something that we should be actively preventing every day by de-stigmatizing mental illness.
How does inclusivity affect what projects you guys choose to take on?
JMS: We made it part of our mission as a company to always choose shows that have a relevant social message, and we donate 15% of our ticket profit to an organization that supports whatever that issue might be. So far, we have mainly focused on LGBTQA+ equality and tolerance, because this is one of the most prominent issues directly impacting teens. We hear people called derogatory terms in the halls every day merely because of who they love. We think it is of the utmost importance to (literally) put these issues under the spotlight. I know other topics we’d like to ultimately address are gender equality, xenophobia and mental illness.
Finally, is there anything you want people our age to know about pursuing the creative arts? Anything to say to people who may not fully believe in a future in it?
JMS: I think the arts are one of the most powerful tools to reach the masses, especially young people. Whether you want to pursue a career in theatre or writing or drawing, or you just have a deep passion or appreciation for it, please don’t ever stop supporting the arts! Especially in this political climate, the arts and the media are crucial to helping people stand up for what is right, and they are not going anywhere.
CW: I fully agree with Joey. Also, for anyone who thinks their art isn’t as good, as truthful, as powerful as somebody else’s: your art is your experience, and nobody tells that story better than you.
CD: The arts are how I truly discovered who I am and who I want to become. Through the artistic process, I constantly go through a journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance. I find bits and pieces of myself in everything I create. Everyone should be able to go through that process and grow into themselves.
JD: I know that having a life in the arts has given me a voice and an outlet for my beliefs. The beautiful thing about theater and performance is that there is no wrong way to do it—what you create is wholly unique and special. We need young people now more than ever to write, act, direct, produce, paint, sing, and dance our stories, because, we may be young, but we are important, and the stories we tell can change the world.
Keep up with Worst First Kiss producers and cast on Instagram for news about future projects!