Paradise City
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Paradise City

Photo by Katherine Verendia.

If you’ve been looking at the upcoming shows listed on the Toronto Centre for the Arts’ website, you might have been perplexed to hear that Axl Rose was going to be tying on his bandana one more time for a three-night engagement at the North York theatre. But it’s not actually Guns N’ Roses, sweet children of ours, but Guns and Roses, a new play by local actor, playwright, and director Julian DeZotti.
Featuring a talented and exciting young cast (including Ben Sanders and Hannah Cheesman), Guns and Roses explores today’s high school culture as it relates to drugs, sexting, and just what exactly is wrong with these kids today. It promises to include video projections, a live DJ, and some math class masturbation. Ah, high school…
After the fold, we chat with writer/director DeZotti about drugs, teen angst, and Gossip Girl.

Torontoist: This play is about teenagers. What makes you interested in this age group? How are the teens in your show different from the teens you see represented in popular culture?
Julian DeZotti: What interests me in this group—and has for a while—is the sheer fact that teenagers really aren’t teenagers anymore. Or aren’t allowed to be anyway. At the risk of sounding cliché, high school is definitely a microcosm of the real world, with a social hierarchy where everything is life-and-death for those living in that world. But they don’t have the luxury of distance, or the patience of a forty-year-old, to assess, deliberate, and breathe. It seems to me the stakes are higher in high school than in “real life,” because everything is more real for teenagers. They feel just a bit more because they are growing up and changing. From my own experience in high school, I remember working pretty damn hard, and having an anxiety connected to this need and expectation to succeed and an inability to accept failure. University was actually quite a bit easier for me than high school. I don’t think my characters are necessarily that different from the ones portrayed in teen popular culture—they’re still assholes—but I think the dialogue and language rings a bit more true in my play. I tried to steer away from the “just say no to drugs” teen-issue play that kids might be used to seeing. That just doesn’t fly and teenagers tune out. It was important for me that I show them that the theatre is an important place for their stories to be told, as much as TV, movies, or the internet, and I hope that they will return to the theatre because they enjoyed themselves. I would say the characters in this play are less apathetic and vapid than some of the people I see in popular culture—particularly “reality” TV. My characters are suited to compelling drama because they are living life-and-death circumstances, but are holding themselves back. They are hiding quite a bit, which is more realistic. They are not the made-up, glossy, camera-seeking douches you see on all reality TV nowadays (thanks, Spencer Pratt) and they have problems that are realistic, not Gossip Girl high drama (sorry, fans).
Some people are saying right now that while it used to seem like a new generation came along every ten years, these days, culture changes much more quickly, and new generations pop up every three to four years. How different do you think it is to be a teenager today, compared to how it was when you were in high school?
I wouldn’t begin to speak for teenagers these days (even though I’ve written a play about them), but from my observation, I couldn’t begin to imagine being a teenager in high school now. Back when I was there, I think you had a bit more time, just in a general sense. Now, everything happens in the instant, because the status quo is determined by what phone you have and how connected you are to popular culture thanks to the immediacy of the internet. We had ICQ and MSN Messenger, but they have Youtube and Myspace. People had cellphones when I was in high school, but now everyone and their grandmother has one, and texting is the go-to mode of communication. I think teenagers have more room to express themselves—which is great—thanks to the internet and cellphone cameras, but with that comes the problem of over-saturation, overexposure, and mediocrity.
What kind of research did you have to do to begin work on a project like this?
I started just writing the play while I was in university, so high school was still fresh in my mind. As it developed over the past few years, I would tweak the dialogue to reflect what I was hearing (conversations between teenagers on the subway are just brilliantly entertaining to me). Pop culture references kept changing, and then I added a texting scene in there, which wouldn’t have happened years ago. Then I did research, and interviewed people about ecstasy and made sure certain scenes were realistic in terms of characters’ behaviour and interaction on ecstasy. Since it’s a drug that makes you empathetic and puts you in a sharing mood, that both makes for some tricky work as well as frees you up as a playwright. Characters speak their minds, but where’s the conflict and drama if everyone is just “sharing” all the time?
Now, let’s get serious. What is your favourite small-screen teen drama of all time?
I have to confess I don’t watch too much teen drama. My So Called Life would be the go-to choice, but I am a fan of the early OC and the old 90210 as much as the next person. I haven’t seen Freaks and Geeks, which is supposed to be pretty dead-on. If anything, I love to watch the unrequited teen love story unfold. Maybe because I’ve had personal experience with that subject matter (I know, poor me), but that’s always been the thing that draws me to that age group—it always makes for a touching story.
Guns and Roses opens tonight and plays until January 15 at the Toronto Centre for the Arts.

CORRECTION: FEBRUARY 2, 2010 The photo in this post was originally credited, in error, to Darcy Hoover. Hoover is the one who emailed us the photo, but the photographer is Katherine Verendia. Our apologies.