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On Stage: troubled teenagers in a special world

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Many writers and performers in the theater, usually out of economic necessity, balance their artistic work with second jobs such as waiting tables or temporary office help--employment that can be dropped or picked up as needed. But Jeff Berkson, a playwright and songwriter with five successfully produced shows to his credit, is a committed and seasoned professional in another, very demanding line of work. Since 1966, Berkson has been a practicing psychiatric social worker specializing in children; for the last 12 years he has been director of the inpatient adolescent psychiatry program at Evanston Hospital, a position that keeps him on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Rather than trying to juggle the two careers, Berkson is happy to let them nourish each other. Next week, Northlight Theatre presents Berkson's Pastel Refugees, a musical set in a counseling program for teenagers unabashedly modeled on the one Berkson directs.

"I have wanted to write something about this for a very long time," Berkson says. The world of troubled teenagers "is a very special world, and I have always had the sense that it's very different from what people think. It's not some sort of weird joint with people with wristbands lining up like zombies for medication and stuff like that."

What the people in Pastel Refugees resemble more than anything else is a family. That's very deliberate, notes Greg Fleming, coauthor of the show's script and a mental health worker in the hospital unit that Berkson runs. "The longer I work in this field, the more aware I become of the importance of family systems," Fleming says. "Often children become the 'symptom bearers' of a family--if there's a problem in the family, like an alcoholic parent, the child becomes the identified sick person." But, Berkson and Fleming emphasize, their job isn't to place blame on parents; rather, it's to rebuild a disrupted family unit, and helping a child learn to trust and to function in a family-style group can be the basis for that rebuilding process.

The central part of the program Berkson directs at Evanston Hospital is a group therapy session that meets for an hour and a half daily. When they began to write Pastel Refugees, Berkson and Fleming decided to set the show in a group session because of its important function in their program and because it was the most dramatically viable way to let their characters interact. "They tell their stories," Berkson says, "and they react to each other. They do a lot of that." Indeed, capturing the explosive and often humorous spontaneity of a group of teenagers bouncing stories off each other was the most challenging part of writing Pastel Refugees.

Music is a crucial component of the onstage group session, as it is in the real groups Berkson and Fleming lead. Indeed, the genesis of Pastel Refugees lay in the two men's use of music and verse as therapeutic tools.

"I've always written poems about the kids I worked with," says Berkson. "They were my diary, how I kept track of them. It became something I used in my work with them. I'll be with the kids for a while, get to know them a little bit, and then I'll write a poem about what I'm thinking about them, my impressions. The kids, for the most part, like it. Sometimes it says something about them they hadn't thought about--and it also feels like a gift."

"We use music too, almost constantly," adds Fleming. "Every week we would do a chorus of the '5 South West Blues'--the inpatient unit is called 5 South West--which would be made up about the kids. You'd go around to each one and sing something about them, and they just loved it. It's a chance to say something in a universal language that's very special and personal."

The 13 songs in Pastel Refugees, with music and lyrics by Berkson, function in three ways. There are songs played live by actor-guitarist, Peter Van Wagner, who plays the group leader, modeled somewhat on Berkson and Fleming--"the Singing Social Worker," Fleming cracks with self-deprecating humor. Then there are songs that, in traditional musical-theater convention, further the narrative and character development. A third group of songs takes us into the minds of the kids, to capture what Berkson calls "the transformational moments" of inner revelation that take place invisibly during a group session.

Rock, rap, "headbanger" heavy metal, blues, and punk figure prominently in Berkson's score (one song is called "What's Wrong With Slam Dancing on School Nights"). And the 44-year-old Berkson admits that whenever he tended to get musically old-fashioned--his own roots are in 1960s rock and folk--he faced candid criticism from his 14-year-old keyboardist son, Daniel, and Daniel's guitarist partner, David Myers, students at Evanston Township High School who contributed fresh and sometimes fierce tracks to the taped instrumental sound track that accompanies the onstage singers. "They kept me honest," Berkson says, a certain tension in his laugh.

Pastel Refugees marks a return to the Northlight stage for Berkson, whose musical adaptation of Nelson Algren stories, City on the Make (cowritten with John Karraker and Denise DeClue) premiered at the Evanston theater in 1985 (a revised version of that work is currently under option for an off-Broadway production). All of Berkson's productions were written in his spare time while he was teaching child psychiatry at the University of Illinois or running the inpatient adolescent program at Evanston Hospital. "I once took some time off just to write and came up with one one-act," he says. "I went back to work and produced all these full-length plays. I guess I'm a person who works best being busy."

Over the past year, Berkson and Fleming wrote Pastel Refugees in early-morning, late-night, and weekend sessions; they've continued to be involved with the show's rehearsal process most evenings. "Of course, we don't have the kind of jobs that allow us to say, we're not gonna take any new accounts for a while," Berkson laughs. "It isn't just fear of letting down coworkers--though I know I've been forgiven for many tired mornings. There is this ongoing parade of children who really do depend on us. We can't say, Listen, I'll get to ya, I know you're depressed, but we're working on scene two."

The characters in Pastel Refugees are synthesized from different cases. One boy is given to bursts of anger stemming from his father's abusiveness; another boy is obsessed with compulsive self-cleaning behavior. A girl whose father has died is admitted after taking an overdose of pills; another girl, the daughter of adoptive parents, is crippled by self-doubt ("We see a lot of that," Fleming says); another girl is plagued by episodes of schizophrenic psychosis.

"This isn't a play about I was sick and now I'm cured," Berkson emphasizes. "Nobody gets 'cured.' We don't want to blow smoke at the audience and say, 'Hey, it's OK!' There is no big miracle in this play. There is, I think, the smaller miracle of real closeness, connection."

Pastel Refugees opens April 12 and runs through May 14 at the Northlight, 2300 Green Bay Road, in Evanston (with previews April 7, 8, 9, and 11). There are special group rates for schools, youth groups, and social service agencies, and half-price single tickets for teenagers are available for all performances. For more information, call 869-7278.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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