The Risks of Being Unique

'There's a number called 'Confusion' in which all the girls are finding all the contradictions in the magazines and saying, 'We kinda wish we didn't care about this,'" says Rancho Buena Vista High School student Kaite Nelson. "It's really accurate to what you feel when you're reading magazines." Nelson plays Luann in Luann: Scenes from a Teen's Life, a musical based on the syndicated comic strip Luann and written by the strip's creator, Greg Evans. At 16, Nelson is the same age as the character she plays. "Luann says, 'My closet is full of clothes that I bought, I try to look cool and I try to look hot, I don't want to wear what everyone wears, but I don't want to wear what no one else is wearing.' She wants to be unique and stylish in how she dresses, but she doesn't want to be so unique that everyone makes fun of her, like, 'Nobody wears that!' The first day we learned that song we just all sat around and laughed, all the girls -- like, yeah, this is true."

Luann's creator, Evans, has been a San Marcos resident since 1980. "My daughter Karen was the inspiration for the strip 22 years ago," he says. "I was watching her one day, she was at the age where she'd put on Mom's lipstick and high heels and walk around, and I thought, 'I'm going to do a strip about a saucy little girl.'"

Now that his children have grown, Evans must find other ways to stay current with the issues teens face. "My daughter is an elementary school teacher, and my daughter-in-law is a junior high school teacher. They're constantly telling me what's going on, and I get teen magazines and check in on teen shows now and then," he says. "I'm always struck by the hypocrisy of [fashion] magazines -- one page will have an article that says, 'Be yourself and accept your body image,' and the next page is filled with skinny models and notes on how you should look."

In the song "Confusion" (inspired by the fashion magazines passed along to Evans by his daughter-in-law), several girls sing, "Your hair should shine but never your face, your lips are full but not your waist. Your bust is large but never your feet, your eyes are big, your bottom petite. You're perfect just how you are...almost. Confusion!"

"Some issues I really can't touch on, like, I can't go near sex," explains Evans. "My characters are 16, and, well, real kids at that age are having sex, but I can't talk about it in a comic strip. I did do a whole story line about MySpace and cell phones." To assist the story, Evans created a web page, "not as myself or as a fan page, but it's Luann herself who has her own MySpace page." In the "About Me" section of her page, "Luann" writes, "I was named after my uncle Lou and my aunt Ann -- and that pretty much describes me: a mishmash. My emotions are roller-coasterish, and my decision making like a Ping-Pong ball. This, apparently, makes me normal for a 16-year-old girl."

Avery Henderson, another Rancho Buena Vista student, plays Luann's friend Bernice and identifies with many aspects of the musical's characters. "Bernice is very quirky and sarcastic," she explains. "She's also the brain of the trio. I think I'm pretty quirky like that, but I don't think I'm the brain. Luann's character is kind of in love with this guy who she knows she's never going to get. Personally, I've experienced that, where you fall in love with some guy, and then reality sets in and you [realize], 'Oh, that's never going to happen.'"

Parents may relate to the song "Prematurely Gray" in which Luann's mom and dad croon, "Years ago when we were young -- vigorous and sturdy -- we wondered if we'd make it past the ancient age of thirty."

"It's almost life threatening to be a teenager these days, whereas when I was a teenager, it was more of an annoyance," says Evans. "Kids these days are so connected but so disconnected at the same time, but the adults are too. I did a strip where Luann was in her bedroom, and she's been grounded, but she's all hooked up with her computer, iPod, and cell phone. The irony is, she's not in the world at all -- she's all alone, confined to her bedroom. [Teens] tend to be a little bit isolated, a little bit stunted in their social growth. They can communicate with each other through devices, but you really have to wonder if, someday, when they go out to apply for a job, they won't know how to face people and talk."

Luann: Scenes from a Teen's Life Friday, September 15, 7 p.m. Saturday, September 16, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday, September 17, 2 p.m. California Center for the Arts 340 N. Escondido Boulevard Escondido Cost: $10 Info: 800-988-4253 or www.artcenter.org/educationfamilyperf.htm

Evans notes that some changes have been for the better. "I don't think kids these days carry around as many built-in, automatic prejudices as older generations have. Given the opportunity, they are much more open to new ideas." -- Barbarella

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