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Estancia High School drama class pens an original play about the experiences of their generation

Pauline Maranian has been teaching drama at Estancia High School in Costa Mesa since 1996, staging shows like “Guys and Dolls,” “Letters from Sala” and “High School Musical.”

But this is the first time Maranian has asked her theater students to write and perform their own, full-length drama.

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“Raise your hand if you thought I was a whackadoodle for suggesting this,” Maranian said on a recent weekday to her class of sophomores, juniors and seniors.

Most of the students laughed, as their hands shot up.

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“To Whom it May Concern” — co-directed by Maranian and Estancia alumnus Carlo Odicino, with creative consulting from social studies teacher Jon Williams — debuts on Jan. 17 for a three-day run at the school’s Barbara Van Holt Theater in Costa Mesa.

“[I knew that] if nothing else, they will have learned so much about writing, about themselves, about each other,” said Maranian. “And this is educational theater, after all.”

Last year, Maranian was inspired to stage a different type of show, after she saw Lauren Yee’s play “Cambodian Rock Band” at South Coast Repertory. She called it the single most profound experience she’s ever had in the theater.

“I had to ask myself why,” Maranian, whose parents are immigrants from Lebanon and Syria, wrote in her director’s note. “The answer was quite simple: It spoke to me personally and helped me understand not only myself, but also my family. That’s what I wanted to create with my students.”

“I didn’t think we would do this,” said student Taylor Steadman, who plays two characters in the show. “And now seeing that we have a script, we have dance numbers, we’re doing run-throughs, it’s, like, crazy.”

Before they started writing, Maranian’s class circulated a school survey, asking two questions: What do you think people around you are struggling with? And what are you struggling with?

They picked the four most-common answers (immigration issues, money, anxiety/depression and fear of the future). They got into four groups and, using Google Documents, started writing four separate short stories that would eventually tie together.

It was important to the students to show aspects of their lives that they don’t usually see in stories about teenagers in the media.

For example, the first act “Under Pressure,” which features a dance number set to the Queen and David Bowie song of the same name, tells the story of a mixed-status immigrant family.

“There are a lot of lines in the scene in Spanish or Spanglish,” said Andy Herrera, who plays an undocumented father, John, who doesn’t understand why his kids want to go to college. “[We] want to give the audience members who don’t speak Spanish the real experience of a Hispanic household.”

“There’s this moment where [my character] is just devastated, and she says she’s sorry for being born in the wrong country,” said Jimena Pedraza, who plays Julie, “and it really gets to me.”

Katrina Kostruckoff, the child of Russian and Thai immigrants, was at first cautious about writing about a Hispanic family, because she is not.

“But once we got deeper, I got more comfortable writing because there’s a dynamic among immigrant families that’s really familiar,” she said. “Someone would say something, and I’d be like, ‘That’s me.’”

The second act, “Easy Street,” is about two classmates who come from different economic backgrounds. Kai, played by Sarah Reich, is from a wealthy family, though her divorced parents are never around. Joey (Ashley Frias) is the daughter of Kai’s family maid. She comes from a loving family, but they struggle with money.

In Act 3, “Dream,” Jess (Katherin Hernandez) and Jack (Makai Walker) bond over their struggles with anxiety and depression when Jess accidentally discovers Jack’s suicide note. Justin Marroquin plays Michael, a peer who is able to help Jess and Jack, by telling them that he’s dealt with mental illness in the past and he’s gotten help.

“He represents [the fact] that you’re not alone,” said Marroquin, referring to the entire play’s core message of hope. “He’s a survivor.”

And the last act, “Connection,” brings all the characters together.

The students are both excited and nervous to debut “To Whom It May Concern,” because in so much of the fiction, they lay bare their own real-life struggles, whether it’s their experience as undocumented immigrants, their own family dramas or struggles with emotional issues.

“I feel like my parents are going to be like, ‘That’s me,’” said Sydney Corrigan, laughing. She plays a mother of teenagers. “I’m scared.”

But most of all, they are proud.

“This is really for us, by us: our generation, our school, our community,” said Hernandez, who came up with the title of the show. “We’re saying, ‘We need to tell this story, so ‘To whom it may concern, if you have one of these problems too, we’re trying to help you and get this out to you.’”

“At least if our parents hear it and our friends know that we could be going through the same things, it might make them feel like ‘I can talk to you’ and open some new doors,” Steadman said.

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