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At Kansas City's Coterie Theatre, Teenagers Face Dystopia Of Cancer With 'Courage'

J. Robert Schraeder
Courtesy of The Coterie Theatre
Roan Ricker as Waddy (left) and Jay Love as his best friend Jack McCall in 'The Secret of Courage.'

Playwright Laurie Brooks has tackled challenging subjects for young adults — from the Salem witch trials to bullying. Her latest play, The Secret of Courage, explores a teenager facing a health crisis ... with a little help from a magical world.

On a recent Tuesday morning, middle school classes filed in to the Coterie. It was the first day of previews for The Secret of Courage, and clusters of students were making their way to their seats.

Laurie Brooks is the playwright-in-residence at the Coterie. The Secret of Courage blends reality with fantasy as a teenage boy confronts a cancer diagnosis. 

"If we look at what young people are reading now, a lot of it is dystopian, a lot of it is fantasy. It's dark," says Brooks.

Credit Laura Spencer / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Playwright Laurie Brooks adapted fantasy novelist Terry Brooks's short story for a new production, 'The Secret of Courage.' The siblings watched the show together on opening night.

Early in the play, the audience learns that Jack McCall, played by Jay Love, has leukemia. His best friend, Waddy, played by Roan Ricker, reacts to the news: 

"You're sick, they'll make you feel better," Waddy says.

"You weren't here, you didn't hear Doc Mueller," replies Jack. "Mom was crying, Waddy."

"Well, I don't buy it," says Waddy. "Doc didn't say you're dying, because you're not." 

"This is certainly a play about friendship," says Brooks. "It's a play about a frightening diagnosis that leads this young person into a magical world, where he needs to find the courage to face it."

The Secret of Courage is based on a short story, "Imaginary Friends," by fantasy writer Terry Brooks — who's also Laurie's older brother. First published in the early 1990s in a collection called Once Upon A TimeTerry Brooks says the mandate was to tell a modern fairy tale.  

"So I was looking for something that had fairy tale-ish tropes to it, but that was also set in the modern world," he says. "And (I) decided to tell this story about a boy who has cancer and fights back against it, and what that might entail, in terms of what we know about ourselves and the capability to overcome just about anything."

When Laurie Brooks first read the story, she says she knew she wanted to adapt it as a play. And it incorporates some elements from Terry Brooks' long-running Shannara series, such as magic. 

"We don't see much epic fantasy on our stages, either for adults or young people," she says. "And I'm not entirely sure why that is, but I'm particularly thrilled that the Coterie is taking this on. 

Brooks describes the Coterie as her "artistic home." Producing artistic director Jeff Church says it's a relationship that's flourished for more than two decades.  

"Laurie's plays have always been bold and never shying away from issues," says Church. 

But bringing this play to the stage required additional funding, from the Mid-America Arts Alliance and the National Endowment for the Arts, for all the layers of tech: sound, lighting, and projections.

Credit J. Robert Schraeder / courtesy of The Coterie Theatre
courtesy of The Coterie Theatre
In a magical park, Jack McCall (Jay Love), far right, encounters an elf, Pick (Duncan McIntyre), and an owl, Deirdre (Heather Michele Lawler).

As Church puts it, it's not business as usual. 

"We are very stretched — in a good way — to rise to the challenge of doing fantasy and credibly doing it," says Church.

"I mean, this is a situation where you've got elves and trolls and a Native American ghost and fancy tech elements that are required."

Terry Brooks's works have been adapted for television, like the recent MTV show, The Shannara Chronicles, which moved to Spike TV.  But, he says, it's something special to have his sister, an acclaimed playwright, take his work and shape it for the stage — for the first time.

"And that's what I saw (on opening night), taking a short story of words on paper and representing it in a different medium entirely, the theater," Brooks says. "And so, I support her in her work, just as she supports me. And she's taught me a lot about collaboration."   

Laurie Brooks's 'The Secret of Courage,' a co-production with UMKC Theatre, runs through February 11 at the Coterie Theatre, 2450 Grand Blvd, Level 1, Crown Center, Kansas City, Missouri 64108. 816-474-6552. 

Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter @lauraspencer.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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