It’s an uncomfortable topic, one that had Pittsburg High School junior Ariana Daniels in tears Thursday morning as she saw it brought to life on stage.
That is precisely why it needed to be written about, performed and talked about, noted a best-selling author and a theater director.
“It’s the third most challenged book of 2012,” said Jay Asher of his novel, “Thirteen Reasons Why,” which tells the story of a high school teenager who committed suicide. “It’s difficult to think about, difficult to discuss, and that’s why it needs to be read.”
Asher was at PHS on Thursday to see director Greg Shaw’s theater class bring the novel to life in a stage adaptation of the story.
“I had tears, I was so moved,” Asher said during a lunch with the cast and crew after their morning performance for juniors and seniors. “I was nervous the whole time, but at the end ... it was amazing.”
Asher’s inspiration for the novel came from a close relative’s attempted suicide as a junior in high school. He spent three years on the book. Published in 2011, it quickly rose to the top of The New York Times best-seller list, where it stayed for 72 weeks.
It is an especially timely topic, Shaw said: In 2010, 5.9 percent of Kansas teens attempted suicide one or more times, which translates to 47 students in a school the size of Pittsburg High.
“We like to do theater that educates, that starts the conversation,” he said. “To look at the fact that what we do as humans has an effect on others is an important lesson.”
In 2011, 21.9 percent of Kansas teens reported feelings of persistent depression. Translated to the PHS student body, that’s 175 students.
In 2012, the number of suicides reported in Kansas rose to 505 — a 30 percent increase over the total for 2011, according to recently released data from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Kansans ages 15 to 44, after unintentional injuries, according to the data.
In Asher’s novel, high school student Clay Jensen returns home from school to find a mysterious box with his name on it on his porch. Inside he discovers several cassette tapes recorded by a classmate, Hannah Baker, who killed herself by taking pills two weeks earlier. As he listens to the tapes, he hears Hannah explain the 13 reasons she decided to end her life. He is one of them.
While the topic has none of the foot-tapping, singalong fun of “Grease” or “Footloose” — two recent musicals that packed the house at PHS — it’s one Shaw knew was important to produce.
“Our high school librarian brought to my attention a year ago that ‘Thirteen Reasons’ was the most checked-out book our library has ever had,” Shaw said. “That gave me the confidence that it was something we needed to do.”
The challenge, he said, was to deliver it in a way that paid tribute to Asher’s book and was powerful to those in the audience. The technical aspects of such a production also were difficult.
“We had to come up with a unique way to stage it so the audience could follow Hannah’s path,” Shaw said. “That was our No. 1 design element, because it is central to the story.”
Jensen, in listening to the tapes, also needs to follow that path, which includes a scene at a party involving the rape of a fellow student, a class in which Hannah’s anonymous suggestion to discuss suicide as a topic doesn’t go the way she hoped, and a scene at an ice cream shop in which Hannah is left waiting to wonder why she had been stood up on a date.
Shaw’s staging choices were designed to support that path. Other technical choices he made to underscore both the tie to the novel and the seriousness of the topic included dressing the cast in shades of black, white and gray to represent the book’s cover, with pops of red on each character and in a few key set pieces “to represent the blood on their hands.”
He said that as both the parent of an almost-teen and as a teacher, it’s a topic about which he worries.
“Absolutely, because it’s happening,” he said. “There are hurtful intentions happening on a daily basis in our schools, and it’s happening at a younger and younger age. These are learned behaviors, either from home or from TV. This show is about that accountability. You must, I must, everyone must be accountable and be aware that everyone else can be affected by the things you say and do.”
Asher said that although the book and play focus on a teen perspective, it is a topic that is applicable to adults.
“Things are not that different between teens and adults,” he said. “Our initial response to things — hearing a rumor — is going to be the same.”
Daniels, who said she cried during the performance, said the play caused her to want to re-evaluate her actions toward others.
“I felt it,” she said. “I think a lot of times teens are misunderstood. I think everyone needs a good friend they can go to any time, and after seeing this, I definitely think I’m going to be there more for people.”
Asher said he’ll be forwarding a videotape of the PHS performance to actress Selena Gomez, who has been cast as Hannah in the film adaptation.
While at the school, he also spoke to literature students who had read the book as part of their class curriculum. He did a book signing at the Pittsburg Public Library and again at the high school before Thursday’s evening performance.
Want to go?
THE FINAL PERFORMANCE of “Thirteen Reasons Why” will be at 7 p.m. Saturday in the Pittsburg High School theater, 1978 E. Fourth St. Tickets will be sold at the door for $7 for adults and $5 for students.