Last fall, at the end of a reading of “Reflections of a Rock Lobster,’’ a new play by Boston Children’s Theatre artistic director Burgess Clark, the audience gave the cast a standing ovation. Then they turned to a man sitting shyly in the back of the room and gave an ovation just for him.
The man was Aaron Fricke, 50, and “Reflections of a Rock Lobster,’’ which opens Saturday in a world-premiere production, is adapted from his 1981 memoir of the same name. The book chronicles his experiences as a Cumberland, R.I., teenager who in 1980 sued and won the right to bring a male date to his high school prom, held at a country club in Sutton, Mass.
Fricke, who was visiting from San Francisco, admits the ovation left him feeling “a little stunned.’’
“It was strange and thrilling to see my story in the hands of actors,’’ he says, “and kind of overwhelming to get that enthusiastic response from an audience.’’
And yet, more than three decades after his groundbreaking lawsuit against his high school principal, Fricke says he doesn’t think it’s any easier for kids growing up gay.
“We seem to think we’ve risen above the problems of homophobia,’’ he says, “but intolerance is still an issue. I do think the difference today is that people are talking about issues important to gay youth, and bullying at every level, and that’s a huge step forward.’’
The book chronicles the relentless, often violent persecution he experienced as a gay teen, his struggle to come out to his family, and finally his efforts to stand up for his rights. It resonates particularly with teens, he says, because they’re trying to figure out where they fit in.
“I wrote the book when I was 18, so it’s filled with the kind of sarcasm and immediacy that speaks to kids,’’ he says. “I got hundreds of letters from kids who read the book, and I’m hoping to create a kind of sequel to ‘Rock Lobster’ based on the exchanges I’ve been able to have with them.’’
One of the teens who was profoundly affected by “Reflections of a Rock Lobster’’ was Clark, now also 50, who says he had been thinking about adapting it for the stage ever since. This season, Boston Children’s Theatre is focusing on experiences told through the eyes of teens, including “The Diary of Anne Frank’’ and “To Kill a Mockingbird.’’ Fricke’s tale, Clark says, fits neatly into that group.
“There are themes that every teen will recognize,’’ says Clark, “struggles we all went through in high school, whether you are gay, straight, weird, or popular.’’
The story reflects attitudes that were prevalent in the late 1970s and early ’80s, Clark says. “My challenge was to tell a story set in recent history, be as true to it as possible, and make it engaging for both students and adults.’’
Although Fricke’s book takes place over a two-year period, for the stage adaptation Clark collapses that time frame to the six months leading up to the prom, and creates composite characters from various individuals in Fricke’s life. One of Clark’s favorite characters is one he invented: Aaron’s friend Claudia, whom Clark describes as a bit of comic relief.
“She’s the walking wounded,’’ he says with a chuckle. “Her problems and pain, whether real or imagined, are always bigger than Aaron’s, so he can never really feel sorry for himself,’’ he says. “At the same time, she’s one of the few people who’s always there for him, no matter what.’’
Making changes and editing events can be tricky when the dramatization is based on a true story, but Clark says Fricke was very generous, telling him, “This is your story now. Do what you need to do with it.’’
“Aaron is really a hero,’’ says Clark, “but I think it’s important for audiences, especially teens, to see that ordinary people can be heroic. I tried to honor the various shadings of good guy and bad guy in the story so that the characters were not just recognizable stereotypes but complicated human beings.’’
Among the audience members at the reading were several of Fricke’s Cumberland High School classmates, including Shelley Morgan, who is now New England coordinator of admissions for Bard College. “I met Aaron when we were in seventh grade,’’ she says, “and he remains the funniest guy I know. His humor came through pain, but he was always so quick.’’
Despite their closeness, she says she never knew about the bullying until she read the book. “I don’t think there was any safe place to talk about it,’’ she says. “Now, the high school students I talk to as part of the college admissions process are much more open to talking about subjects that were taboo when I was their age. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve solved all the problems, but getting things out in the open is certainly a huge step forward.’’
Even though it’s taken 30 years to get Aaron’s story to the stage, Clark says he believes the timing is right. While new plays often go through an agonizing development process, it’s been only two years since he first called Fricke to ask for the stage rights to “Reflections of a Rock Lobster.’’
“The momentum of this project has been amazing,’’ Clark says. “There’s been tremendous word of mouth within the theater community, and we’ve been getting lots of encouragement from far-flung places.’’ (The production’s press materials include quotes of encouragement from Academy Award winner Susan Sarandon and Broadway star Gavin Creel.)
And for some of those who see the play, Morgan suggests, it will be a chance to revisit their own past in a more positive way.
“I can’t wait for opening night,’’ she says, “because I know there will be a strong showing of support from classmates who couldn’t support him 30 years ago.’’