Girls and the crush of popular culture
'Reviving Ophelia' offers a dramatic exploration of a fact-based book on societal pressures placed on today's teenagers
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Mary Pipher's 1994 nonfiction book Reviving Ophelia, about the negative effects of popular culture on the self-esteem of teen girls, became a bible for a generation of parents.

Playwright Cherie Bennett's adaptation is an up-to-the minute exploration, told through the lives of four childhood friends, of such adolescent themes as friendships and relationships with peers and parents, multicultural adoption, drugs, alcohol, body image and suicide. It has its world premiere in a Youth Theatre at the U production directed by nationally renowned children's theater expert Moses Goldberg.

Goldberg and Bennett have been working for several years to develop first a 55-minute touring version of the play intended for high school audiences, and now this expanded version for older teens and adults. Goldberg, who recently retired after 25 years of running Stage One, the Louisville Children's Theatre, is author of TYA: Essays on the Theatre for Young Audiences and other classics in the field. Bennett, a Salt Lake City playwright and actor, also writes popular youth novels, including A Heart Divided, and with her husband, Jeff Gottesfeld, TV scripts for "As the World Turns" and "Smallville."

To mark the "Reviving Ophelia" premiere, we asked Goldberg about fashioning a work of reportage into a play and the power of arts to change young people's lives.

Reviving Ophelia is a book of reporting. How do you fashion a play out of facts?

We've zeroed in on four girls who happen to interact with each other. It's almost a story about an echo effect, about how mothers were affected by the culture of their day, and now the daughters are being affected by the culture of their day. It's a play, it's not a sociology lecture. If you don't care about these four girls, then we've failed at some point.

Why is this such an important topic for you?

I have a daughter and two granddaughters. I made sure both my son and my son-in-law read the book, because I think it's important, and wanted them to be aware of the pressures society puts on girls. It's just as bad for boys - I grew up with different sets of pressures - but that's not what this book is about. Cherie did put two young men into the play, so you get some of the sense of what they're going through, as well.

Tell me what draws you to the work of Cherie Bennett.

She's an old friend and professional colleague. I've done several of her plays, and I have great faith in her writing. She has an incredible ear for how teenagers talk, think and communicate with each other behind their parents' back. And she understands theater.

How did you come to explore youth theater?

I have a master's degree in development psychology, and theater was going to be my hobby. But I just decided rather than to cure kids after they became mentally ill, I was going to help prevent it by using the arts to help them grow and become emotionally solid human beings.

You think that the arts can be that important? That sounds very idealistic.

To me, the arts are incredibly important in life, not only in emotional development, but in social development and in learning how the world works. Every drama teacher can tell you stories about this kid who has succeeded in nothing in life until he got into the theater.

What can you say about the cast?

The training here is just incredible. I don't consider them teens, I consider them young professional actors. I can give them a subtle directing note, just as I can an actor with 20 years' experience and an Equity card, and they know what to do with it.

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* ELLEN FAGG can be contacted at ellenf@sltrib.com or 801-257-8621.

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The girl next door

* "REVIVING OPHELIA," playwright Cherie Bennett's adaptation of Mary Pipher's influential 1994 book about how popular culture affects girls' self-esteem, plays Wednesday through Sunday and May 9-12 in the University of Utah's Babcock Theatre. Curtain is at 7 p.m, except for the Sunday matinee, which is at 2 p.m. An encore performance, featuring a talkback with Pipher, will be at 7 p.m. May 17 at Kingsbury Hall. Babcock Theatre is in the basement of the Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 200 S. 1400 East, University of Utah campus, Salt Lake City. Kingsbury Hall is 1395 E. Presidents Circle, U. campus, Salt Lake City.

* TICKETS ARE $12 ($8 youth) for the Babcock Theatre performances and $22 ($16 youth/$30 for pre-show reception) for the encore performance. Both are available by calling 801-581-7100 or visiting www.kingtix.com. The play contains mature language, and producers say it's not intended for youth younger than 12.