Young actors tap into teen angst like seasoned pros in an explosive Odyssey Theatre production

By Christina Campodonico

When veteran director Lisa James set out to cast the Los Angeles premiere of British playwright Simon Stephen’s dark and explosive teenage drama “Punk Rock,” now playing at the Odyssey Theatre, she had to find actors who looked young enough to play high school students but were also mature enough to handle the play’s intense exploration of bullying, gun violence and teen sexuality at a private British school on the outskirts of Manchester, England.

While young-looking actors may be a dime a dozen in Los Angeles, finding the right combination of youth, talent and acting experience was a challenge during the casting process.

“I saw 90 people, then 30. Out of the 30, I plucked these people,” says James, referring to the seven twentysomethings who make up the cast of “Punk Rock.”

“I think they’re all amazing,” she continues. “I wanted to pick jewels, and I did.”

The ensemble cast of “Punk Rock” is a diverse and talented group of young adults — all under 25 and most fresh off acting in college, university and indie film and theater productions.

Jacob B. Gibson, a 2015 graduate of CalArts, plays school bully Bennett, and says that being not too far removed from his high school years has been an asset in developing his character.

“There can be a sort of ruthless nature to people in high school,” says Gibson. “You’re emotions are so deep, and these experiences you’re having — who you are and where you fit — it’s wild. I’ve seen it drive people wild. … High school, it can really make or break people.”

But it can also bring people together and build camaraderie. Much like surviving freshman year with your best buds by your side, the play has created its own class of devoted alumni.

“We fell in love with each other platonically,” says Miranda Wynne, 24, who plays Bennett’s girlfriend, Cissy.

“We haven’t known each other that long, but I think we’re obsessed with each other,” she adds, talking about how the group made a regular ritual of going to the San Francisco Saloon near the Odyssey Theatre to unwind and get to know each other after rehearsals — bonding time that James actively encouraged from the get-go.

“I picked the cast and I put them in the room and said to them on the first day of rehearsal, ‘You have nothing but each other. You have to have a connection like a finely-tuned machine. There has to be an unspoken sense that keeps this play buoyant. Get to know each other. The bonding has to be like Elmer’s Glue.’ They went out and that was that,” she says.

Now they’ll “sleep in piles like puppies” in the green room on breaks, she says, and surreptitiously text each other from across the room during rehearsals, like friends passing notes during class.

Those bonds have created an emotional safety net and “super strong foundation” of support for the play’s many tense moments, notes Gibson.

“I really have to spit in this girl’s face, and I have to mean it. Or I have to hurt this guy, and I have to mean it,” says Gibson. “We really have to be able to go there safely. We have to know each other off stage to make [this] transformation.”

“Punk Rock’s” exhibition of gut-punching lines, bashing and bullying behavior may belie the care and respect that the cast feels for each other in real life, but it also speaks to the group’s impressive ability to tap into teenage angst with the maturity of seasoned pros.

“There is no angst. No competition,” says James of the cast’s rapport. “They are open and willing for great and hugely intense friendships,” she says, adding “These actors, who are all so young, have a healthy outlook on their futures and I believe in them. I think they are going to make strides.”

“Punk Rock” continues at 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through May 14 at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A. Tickets are $15 to $34. Call (310) 477-2055, ext. 2, or visit odysseytheatre.com.