Last November, Joey Maya Safchik, 18, a senior at Charter High School of the Arts in Van Nuys, gathered some of her closest theater friends in the living room of her Tarzana home.
They sat on the floor, ate popcorn and read through one of Safchik’s favorite plays, “Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead.” Bert Royal’s racy dramedy, which ran Off-Broadway in New York a decade ago, finds Charles Schulz’s Peanuts gang in the halls of high school dealing with sex, drugs, suicide, bullying and LGBTQ issues.
Safchik knew the play was good but, after studying productions on YouTube, she also knew that much older actors typically played the teen roles. After the reading, she sensed that her young cast could pull it off onstage.
“We just thought, let’s do it as a play,” Safchick recalled recently at a Sherman Oaks cafe.
Seated beside her, 30-year-old Jonah Platt, a West Hollywood-based actor and older brother of Tony Award-winning Ben Platt, beamed like a proud parent.
“That’s the cutest thing I’ve ever heard,” he said, hearing Safchik recount the reading for the first time.
Soon after the living room session, Safchik and three close friends created Worst First Kiss Productions, a socially conscious theater company run by teens for teens. They acquired the rights to put on Royal’s play, raised $3,000 and staged a few performances over a February weekend at the Blank Theatre in Hollywood.
Half of the funds came from a Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles program called “The Teen Innovation Awards,” which supports teen ventures that educate and enrich the Jewish community. The program also connects participants with adult mentors like Platt.
After getting paired with Safchick as her mentor, Platt came to the final performance in February and said he saw potential.
“I got to see everything these kids were bringing to it, but I also got to see everything that wasn’t there yet,” Platt said. “I knew exactly what to do. That really meant digging deeper into the subtext, the character relationships and the individual arcs of the show.”
Platt, who previously played Fiyero in “Wicked” on Broadway, agreed to direct the teenagers, replacing the original director. The transition went smoothly, said Safchick, who plays the character based on Sally, Charlie Brown’s sister, in the production.
As rehearsals with Platt began, he instantly breathed new life into the work, said James Sanger, 19, an Oakwood School alum who plays Beethoven, based on the piano-playing “Peanuts” character Schroeder.
“The more we did this play and the more we worked with Jonah, we found more and more places that could get better,” Sanger said.
The young people’s production company staged six sold-out performances during a two-week run in June as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival.
“We had to turn people away, and I even had to boot my mom out of one,” Safchik said. “She’d already seen it several times, though.”
Coming off the success of that run, the group has scheduled additional shows at the Blank Theatre on July 15, 16, 22 and 23. Worst First Kiss Productions has been donating 15 percent of ticket proceeds to the Genders & Sexuality Alliance Network — formerly the Gay-Straight Alliance. So far, the company has raised $800.
A central storyline of the play is the Charlie Brown character’s questioning and exploration of his sexuality. Safchik believes that performing the play with a cast of teenagers, some of whom are gay or bisexual, can help bring into the open certain topics that are taboo for their age group.
“Part of our company’s initial mission was to choose works that are socially relevant and that we can easily connect to issues that teens face on an everyday basis — and that we see our friends struggle with, especially in school,” she said. “This play really focuses on LGBTQ tolerance and inclusion. I think putting this onstage will really help to remove the stigma of some of these issues. It helps to have young people like us playing the roles too.”
The play is normally performed by older actors in their mid- to late 20s. In fact, Royal, the playwright, has discouraged younger actors from attempting the raunchy, adult-themed material since it premiered at the New York International Fringe Festival in 2004.
At Platt’s invitation, Royal attended one of the June performances and said he was impressed.
“Seeing your beautiful production of the play yesterday made me realize that — in the right hands — this play SHOULD be performed by younger actors,” he said in an email to Platt. “Granted, IF they are as insightful and nuanced and talented as your lot are.”
“I was crying in a restaurant when I read it,” said Safchik, who plans to study journalism at Northwestern University this fall. “I printed it out.”
“Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead” will be performed beginning July 15 at the Blank Theatre. For more information, visit http://wfkdogseesgod.brownpapertickets.com.