PUTNEY—Potent teen voices ripple through Listen Up!, an original music theater piece currently touring Vermont, created by multi-award-winning director and producer Bess O’Brien and a company of teen and adult collaborators.
“Just because you knew me doesn’t mean I’m still the same,” they sing in collaboratively written lyrics. “Just because I’m born and raised doesn’t mean I’m going to stay./Just because I’m gay doesn’t mean I want to dance./I never had a dad but that don’t mean I’m not a man./Just because I’m young doesn’t mean I’m dumb and ignorant./And your ignorance don’t mean I’m not intricate.”
Most know O’Brien for her documentary films. A resident of Peacham and a graduate of Middlebury Union High School, O’Brien majored in theatre arts at Mt. Holyoke College before launching her career in New York City in the early ’80s as a theater producer.
She founded the Vermont Ensemble Theatre in Middlebury, presenting professional theater with actors from New York City before being hired in 1988 by her now-husband Jay Craven to produce films.
As fulfilled in theater as she is in film, O’Brien chooses every decade or so to immerse in a live project. Having dug deep into teens’ lives with the Voices Project 15 years ago — an undertaking that yielded a highly acclaimed musical followed by a documentary of that project, Shout It Out! — she realized it’d be a good time to revisit Vermont teens and their issues.
The resulting Listen Up! — to be presented Aug. 10 and 11 at Landmark College — has been in the works for over two years. It launched in 2019 at a press conference with Gov. Phil Scott but was then delayed due to COVID-19.
With seminal, rich life stories derived from interviews with 800 young people across the state, the timely piece includes two Brattleboro youth in its 16-member cast: Silas Brubaker, 14, and Amar Vargas, 17, both students at Brattleboro Union High School (BUHS).
On Zoom, 65 teens auditioned; 16 were cast as actors, six as crew and three in the pit band.
The selection of the company was intended from the start to be broadly representative of Vermont geographically. The cast, O’Brien notes, is also very diverse, with teens from “all different backgrounds: LGBTQ, PoC, new Americans, and both rural and urban youth, ages 13–19.”
This was “creating theater from the source,” O’Brien explains. After eight months of talking to hundreds of Vermont teens in individual interviews, at roundtables, and in listening sessions, she adds, “We were basically collecting anthropological material.”
The themes that emerged run the gamut: gender identity, Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ, health, mental health, climate change, love, gun violence, the world at large. And more.
“Listen up,” the teens call: “I can’t afford to go to college anymore,” and “Can I breathe the air?” And of the future: “What will Vermont be like?” “And will we be able to live on this planet?”
With poignance, audiences hear weighty concerns: “I’m just a kid. I just want to go to school. Why aren’t adults looking out for us? Why are adults not taking action?”
“The show is like an anthem,” O’Brien observes. “These are young activists shouldering the burden for the future wondering, ‘Where are the adults?’”
Add to it all the dystopian impact of COVID-19, and this 90-minute show is by design raw and real, often funny, very human, sometimes uncomfortable.
“We hear them speak about issues affecting them about which they don’t typically have a voice or vote,” O’Brien says.
From gleaned material, a show emerges
The process, O’Brien, notes, has been “devised theater” — collective creation in which the script originates from collaborative, often improvisatory work by a performing ensemble.
Layer upon layer of input and material was sifted, sorted, used, trashed, recycled: “It’s the Bernie Sanders socialist approach,” O’Brien quips. “Youth musicians paired with mentors to write nine original songs for the show, while adult-student writing teams crafted the script.”
“I don’t have a home to walk to. Unless you count my foster homes. I’m from three states, ten towns, and have switched houses about 68 times in 17.5 years,” one of the young actors says.
“On my way home, I walk into the Mini Mart. I can feel the manager’s eyes on me. He gets up in my face, like ‘I don’t trust you,’ and the cashier woman watches my every move,” says another.
“Winooski is my town. The smell of my grandmother’s spices from [Somalia] mix with the deli pickles from Mr. Hazel’s corner store,” another actor says. “I’ve been here for eight years, and I call this home.”
The group of 25 teens and the adult team — Isaac Eddy and Sarah Lowry, directors; Alyssa Kay Thompson, music director; Shani Stoddard, choreographer, and O’Brien — gathered in early July at Lyndon Institute in the Northeast Kingdom and worked intensively there for four weeks creating a production out of the gleaned material in preparation for a statewide tour.
The two Brattleboro performers, who spoke to The Commons just after having come off a 13-hour tech rehearsal, clearly found the process arduous but immensely rewarding. The company has gotten to know each other deeply; when the tour is done, they’ll have to deal with the letting go.
Of the process, Brubaker says: “It was challenging [...] working together to make something we are all proud of.”
Understanding that they were all coming to the collaboration from different perspectives, Brubaker adds: “It’s been hard. The adults have different ideas about how it should be,” but they’ve done well, Vargus and Brubaker agree, at finding common ground through a collective spirit.
Very involved with the New England Youth Theatre in Brattleboro, Brubaker adds that the experience has been “really great: we’ve gotten very close very fast.”
Vargas, who was urged to audition by BUHS theater director Rebekah Kersten, adds, “A lot [in the original script] needed to be edited. It didn’t look good or feel good at first,” but working together has yielded a richly textured collaboration.
“The whole company has learned from each other,” reflects O’Brien.
Vargas, who’s been thinking about becoming an elementary school teacher, adds another benefit of the process: “This was my first time living in a dorm and being alone — taking care of myself.”
Both students recount the group’s insistence on authenticity whenever possible: “If there was a line about being trans, a trans actor took it,” explains Brubaker, who considers himself a storyteller above all else.
“I love telling stories, writing, acting,” he says. “I want to write a book or be a journalist. I want to talk to people and learn their stories” and, perhaps, go into documentary work.”
O’Brien points out that “This was the kids’ first time in a social environment in over a year — without masks and social distancing.”
Together and close knit for six weeks, the company’s leaders have ensured that in production and on the road the group and audiences are as Covid-safe as possible.
All performances are outdoors, and the Shelburne show will be filmed. O’Brien expects, and hopes, that teachers will use that film in the classroom to prompt discussion.
O’Brien’s work has been heard often on Vermont Public Radio, and she’s been recognized widely — statewide and beyond — for excellence, vision, and impact.
Her films include All of Me, The Hungry Heart and, most recently, Coming Home, which focused on five people returning to their Vermont communities from prison.
Augmenting a long list of acclaimed work, O’Brien co-produced the feature films Where the Rivers Flow North, starring Rip Torn, Tantoo Cardinal, and Michael J. Fox, and A Stranger in the Kingdom, starring Ernie Hudson and Martin Sheen.