Little does anyone know, but this average kid had famous ancestors, and they’re destined to do great things. That’s an evergreen theme in stories for young adults: Heroes come from unlikely places, inheriting a history previously unknown even to themselves. A connection to the Force, to the Wizarding world—or even the Greek pantheon.
Rick Riordan’s 2005 novel The Lightning Thief found an irresistible angle on this theme: At summer camp, 12-year-old Percy Jackson learns he’s the long-lost son of Poseidon, his friend Annabeth is the daughter of Athena, and they embark on a quest that leads them to the underworld and back.
The novel spawned four sequels, two spinoff series, two feature films, and The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical, now playing at San Diego Junior Theatre.
Jason Blitman has been working on this show for the better part of six years—as the casting director of its original off-Broadway run, on a one-act touring version, and as director of this full-length version. Some of the cast were already familiar with the books. (Ava, who plays Annabeth, recalls going through a Percy Jackson phase and reading them all “in, like, a week.”) Some had even seen the play.
This is a double-edged sword for up-and-coming actors, who might assume they should imitate the performance they’ve already seen. But Blitman encouraged everyone to find their own take on their characters. While casting, he looked for people with a strong sense of who they were as individuals, who wouldn’t be afraid to make bold choices.
It seems his message has sunk in. Quincy, who plays Percy Jackson, says the play has taught him that when it comes to acting choices, it’s better “to be strong and wrong than to not try at all.”
Likewise, Ava says she’s learned that everything a character does must have a purpose. “Even little things, like crossing downstage or just getting to the spot you’re supposed to be in, have meanings behind them. It’s kind of like real life: You don’t just walk to the middle of the room randomly so you can start your conversation; everything you do, you do for a reason.”
Blitman specializes in teaching theater by and for young people, and he believes much of that discipline is about cultivating their sense of empathy—to fully imagine themselves in another person’s circumstances and adopt their perspective—as well as what it means to work as a team and take constructive feedback.
Taking on these roles in particular is a way of proving to themselves that they, too, can overcome monsters—the minotaurs and cyclopes are literal, yes, but they’re also “a not-so-secret metaphor for the monsters in the real world,” Blitman says. “The characters are 13 years old and dealing with problems that are bigger than themselves.”
That doesn’t mean The Lightning Thief is only for kids, he argues: “I think adults sometimes look at theater for young audiences and think, ‘Oh, this isn't for me. But we were all young once; we can all relate to what it was like to be an outcast. Plus, it’s fun, contemporary, and has a really great pop-rock score.”
It may also inspire you to learn more about Greek mythology, as it did Quincy. “There are so many references in the script about things I didn’t know about,” he says. “It makes me curious. I was already a big Percy Jackson fan, but there’s always more to learn.”
The Lightning Thief runs April 29 through May 15 at Casa del Prado Theatre. Tickets are available at juniortheatre.com.