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No Recess

Stoop Storytellers' summer radio show comically explores how we remember high school--and how it really was

The Stoop Storytelling creative team doesn't get summer off.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 6/2/2010

Cool. Cruel. High School

June 3-5 at CenterStage

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In the summer of 2008, Brian Gilbert, then a soon to be high-school freshman, had the brilliant idea to take PE and health over summer school so that he could take art and chorus as electives. Now, chances are you've created a mental image of a young man who wants to take art and chorus his freshman year at a public high school. That image wouldn't be entirely inaccurate. Today, Brian is a precociously game 16-year-old with an unruly shrub of light brown hair sitting atop his gangly weed of a lean frame. He has performed in school plays and musicals. He has his own YouTube channel (PlasmaP: featuring his original, sometimes humorous songs, which he sings and performs--on ukulele. He already speaks with a knowing sardonic streak about the surreal reality of being a teenager in America. And perhaps because he's an obviously geeky high-school kid bitten by the performance bug, he had no trouble getting onstage at Stoop Storyteller's 2009 live radio show "Baltimoored: Summer in the City" as an audience storyteller to recount his summer-school experience, where "one girl was married and had seven tattoos--I don't really want to go into how I saw them all" as he recalled that night, and the only thing the entire class could agree upon was kickball.

"It was a really weird experience to be there," Gilbert says during an interview at his parents' house in Howard County. "And I talked about how all the people there, they weren't the most clean-cut of characters. I mean, I was expecting that there was going to be a lot of other kids who were going to be like me, just wanting to have more electives. And there were maybe two or three. The rest were seniors in high school, or people who had failed PE and health."

Brian's story became the germinating seed for Stoop's second annual live radio show, Cool. Cruel. High School., which runs this week. "It was this total overachiever thing, and you can imagine what it was like for him," Stoop co-founder Laura Wexler says by phone. "It was all about playing soccer with delinquents and running track with burnouts. It was hilarious. And we were all talking about his tale, and we just realized that as universal as summer in the city is, so is high school. Everybody connects to high school experiences. As it turned out, most of us who are the writers were geeks in high school, so we bonded over that. And you know, tragedy plus time is comedy, so there's a lot of that."

In many ways, an audience member's story sparking a idea in the Stoop creative team's mind is part of the storytelling series' entire enterprise. Since staring in February 2006, Stoop has organically evolved into a cherished local event. In one very specific way, though, Brian's creative input is a little unorthodox because he is the son of Janet Gilbert, a woman who went from Stoop audience member to invited storyteller to being part of the creative team in under a year. As Wexler points out, Stoop is "a community of listeners who know that they can also be tellers," she says. "So on any given night, the roles are interchangeable. On the other hand, Janet is really talented. She's just one of those people who's just a gem, and her talents have never really been on display professionally, but she has professional-level talent. And once we discovered that, we basically grabbed hold of her and we never plan to let go."

Fifty-year-old Janet Gilbert is one of those female forces of nature everybody knows. The suburbs are filled with women whose creative talents have been shared only among family and friends. She's a compact jolt of witty energy, and "nice" underestimates her playful demeanor. In recent years, Gilbert has had the opportunity to showcase her comedic gifts, writing a weekly humor column that she downplays as being "in the back pages of the regional section of The Baltimore Sun," she cracks.

Her husband, who then sat on the board at CenterStage, sent her a flyer about an upcoming Stoop performance, the November 2008 installment "Money Changes Everything," where she ended up onstage as an audience storyteller. She made her official Stoop debut as an invited storyteller at the February 2009 installment "Love Hurts," in which she told a hilarious story about going on a date with an upstanding young man who showed up at her parents house driving a modified mail truck with a cocaine spoon on a necklace around his neck.

After that, "we invited her to come sit in with the writers last year," Wexler says. "And she showed up with a song--['Baltimoored']--and the song turned out to be the theme for the [summer] show. And she just kept on going."

"So then, we started meeting and all of those people--they're in the Baltimore Improv group, and they're hilarious," Gilbert says. "So it really doesn't feel a lot like work. It's like a business, 4-6 [p.m.]--we start at 4, we end at 6. They give you an assignment--everybody's got to come up with stuff about high school, and we all go there and sit around. But at 6 o'clock they say, 'Time's up, we're meeting next Sunday.' And it's been a great, really fun experience."

Because Gilbert's song worked so well last year, Stoop asked her to write another one. "Nothing like a little pressure," Gilbert jokes, "but I was thrilled. So I thought, when you're in high school, it's usually not so great. And then when you're out of it, you somehow think it was great. What happens? Where is the truth in that? And since Stoop is really based on truth, I wanted to address that in the song. And so I thought, What if there was a guy--and I had heard Aaron [Henkin] sing in Caleb Stine's kitchen, so I knew he could sing. And I thought, What if Aaron is singing and there's a back and forth between a young Aaron? And then I thought, I live with someone who can be a young Aaron."

Yes, that's right: Janet Gilbert has recruited Brian to sing a duet she's written with Aaron Henkin about the emotional and psychological divide between how you remember high school being and how it really is. "Because we know it's every young high-school student's dream to be in a show with his mother, right?," she says.

The song, which Janet and Brian performed in their living room for a reporter, is a dialogue of a duet between Henkin as the older, wiser version of his younger self, played by Brian. The older man romanticizes his youth ("I went out with Amy Evans") that the younger version deflates ("Are you dreaming? This is you"), and the younger man idealizes a future ("I can't stand this boring routine") that the older man dispels ("wait till you work for the corporate machine"). It's entertaining without being sentimental, and establishes the tone for the radio show's mix of comedic sketches and storytellers spread over the three nights.

This song introduces all three of the radio show's performances, and to make the Henkin and Brian look more visually alike, Gilbert asked Brian to make a few subtle changes to his appearance. "My mom's like, 'Hey--do you want to cut your hair and dye it black?'" Brian recalls. "So I'm getting my hair cut really short and dyed black."

Gilbert, ever the optimist, smiles: "I'm just glad Aaron doesn't have a Mohawk."

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