Boston — `HOW do you go about herding 2,000 kids into an auditorium when 1,000 of them are positive they are going to be bored out of their minds? Do you know what a challenge that is?'' Spring Sirkin says with a laugh. ``That's what we do.'' What Ms. Sirkin does, as founder and producing director of Chamber Repertory Theatre, a Boston-based national touring company, is adapt literary works into stage fare for teen-aged students. Her goal: to educate and entertain. She has spent 12 years figuring out what will hold their attention. So far, she's found that mainly to be loud noises, flashes of light, and lots of horror and suspense, as well as something to giggle at, like a kick in the pants. Having a good story helps.
In ``Tour de Force,'' which played in Boston in October, the bill included Edgar Allan Poe's ``The Fall of the House of Usher''; Ambrose Bierce's ``An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge''; ``The Mouse,'' by Saki; ``The Most Dangerous Game,'' by Richard Connell; and ``The Ransom of Red Chief,'' by O.Henry. The company has two other tours, ``Triple Billing'' (stories by Poe, Shirley Jackson, and Twain), and ``Encore!!'' (Poe, Washington Irving, W.W. Jacobs, and Guy de Maupassant).
On one morning of theater, a man gets pulled into a house infected with evil, another man has to take his clothes off in front of a sleeping woman on a train to get rid of a squirming mouse, and a pair of numbskull kidnappers find their prey is more than they can handle.
The students seem to like it, the cacophony of gum-cracking is temporarily stilled. ``Awesome,'' one student mutters. ``That guy [Poe] is really evil,'' says another.
That's a payoff that makes Sirkin smile. But getting there hasn't been easy, she says, sitting in the auditorium after the show while actors and technicians strike the set. From book to stage is a long process.
``We ask the teachers what they're studying with their students, because we're interested in assisting them in their classroom. We generally know that if students have read the work, they're apt to enjoy it more staged. Then we try and determine if the story is dramatic enough to lend itself to an adaptation to the stage. Some aren't.'' That was true for ``Great Expectations,'' an adaptation that just didn't fly.
``I had phenomenal actors,'' recalls Sirkin, ruefully. ``I had an actress who went on to win the Tony Award on Broadway this year play the lead. It was a great story, a fabulous adaptation, a beautiful production, great costumes, great scenery. And the kids were bored. Because there was no action in it, people just talk to each other.
``This is probably the most demanding age group. They are very vocal. They see so much television, so many fantastic technical things in the movies.''
So there's a chase scene through the jungle in ``The Most Dangerous Game,'' and a hanging in ``Incident at Owl Creek Bridge.''
Aren't these plays a bit dark for this audience? ``Sometimes I do worry about it,'' Sirkin acknowledges. ``It really does seem that the darker stories lend themselves better to the kind of staging that we do. We ask teachers to help us. And the No. 1 request from them is `The Lottery' [Shirley Jackson's chilling story about a small town's annual rite].
``When I read it, I thought we can't do this, this is not a child's show. But this is what they study. Finally, we decided that what kids see on TV is much worse than what we can imagine we would present in `The Lottery.' We ended up doing it, and I can tell you, the students are not horrified at the end, the way I was. They just see too much on TV and in the movies to be stunned or upset by a story like `The Lottery.'''
But sometimes they surprise her. Once was with ``The Necklace,'' de Maupassant's story of a woman who at great cost replaced a necklace she'd borrowed and lost - only to find out years later it was imitation. ``We held our breaths on that one. We felt it was such a delicate piece. But it's one of the kids' favorites. It's amazing to have a 16-year-old boy totally mesmerized by the story of the necklace.''
Building in chills and thrills is only part of the challenge, she says. There's the little matter of getting actors; nonunion talent enough for Chamber Repertory's five companies that are willing to tour. Sirkin and her assistant, Patricia Sankus, hop planes every two weeks to attend auditions around the country. And getting rights to stories is a problem, Sirkin says. ``For years, the teachers have begged us to adapt Ray Bradbury. There's no way we can get rights; we can't get permission.''
The stories have to be adaptable into technically do-able productions that break down easily for touring.
``We come into this theater at 8 in the morning, put up the set, and go up at 10:30,'' she says. ``That's it. Our design staff at one point told me we couldn't do `The Most Dangerous Game' because the set would not allow for it. I said, `We have got to do it, it is one of the best stories. You've got to find a way.' Sometimes when you throw that kind of challenge back to the drawing board, they'll come up with it. And I think they did. It's a learning thing for us.''