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The Arts

Bringing the past to life

Jem Wilner’s directorial debut celebrates the stories of a generation

The show plays at New England Youth Theatre, 100 Flat St., Brattleboro on Friday, April 27 at 7 p.m., and Sunday April 29 at 2 p.m. Tickets will be by donation and are only available at the door. Suggested donation of $5; profits go to the Hilltop House activities fund and the Angels in the Wings Scholarship Fund, which helps children enjoy the programs that New England Youth Theatre created for the children of the Brattleboro area.

BRATTLEBORO—Jem Wilner believes some tales must be preserved.

In collaboration with New England Youth Theatre (NEYT) and Hilltop House, Wilner wrote and is directing Stories of a Lifetime, a compilation of monologues and dialogues based on the interviews that he conducted with residents of retirement communities.

Stories of a Lifetime is the first play that Wilner has written and is his directorial debut, although he has an extensive background in theater.

Long involved with New England Youth Theatre, Wilner has called on students of NEYT to perform the 17 monologues and dialogues of his play, which he will narrate.

Wilner moved to Vermont from Manhattan when he was two years old. His father had been a commodities trader who decided it was time to leave New York after his car was blown up in the first World Trade Center attack in 1993.

The family landed in Putney, where Wilner’s father built a house. Wilner’s British mother is an artist who owns Penelope Wurr Glass, which is soon moving to Main Street in Brattleboro.

Wilner started the project that ultimately became Stories of a Lifetime by working to create personal monologues with the residents of Hilltop House, a residential care home in Brattleboro for individuals who are still independent, but who may benefit from assistance with the activities of everyday life.

Wilner talked to the residents and compiled a collection of their personal stories, transcribing word for word what they told him. Accuracy was his passion.

“I wanted to be so detailed as to include the pauses and note the inflections,” he said. “This was to be as authentic as you could get.”

His plan was to return and read to them their stories. However, what he had not accounted for was that they might not remember the event.

Many of Hilltop’s residents suffer in varied degrees from short-term memory loss. So when Wilner came back many had no recollection of telling him anything, and “it was a shock to some of them” how he came to know their stories, he said.

Dialogues that mark a generation

Nonetheless, he become more and more convinced that his was an important project. He next went to California, where his aunt and uncle lived in a retirement community called Saratoga Retirement Home. He spoke with numerous couples who were still able to live together with nearby assistance. Wilner transcribed lively dialogues between people who have often shared a long life together.

Wilner said he believes what he has collected is a document of a generation.

“Our collective history is important to remember, and to re-live,” he said. “It is sharing stories that reminds us of each other’s humanity, and the joys and struggles that come with living.”

“These stories are the memories of [my] grandparents’ generation, a generation whose stories we hope to ensure will not be forgotten,” he added. “As authentic memories of real people, these monologues are all unique and captivating.”

Wilner soon realized that these stories could be the embryo of a compelling play. By using the memories of the residents of Hilltop House and Saratoga Retirement Home, he said he could bring back to life the history of a generation. He arranged the monologues and dialogues in block format so as to present an arc of an entire lifetime, from youth through old age.

“These people all have compelling tales to tell,” Wilner said. “Stories of a Lifetime is about heroes, scholars, and lovers. These may be ordinary people, but they had incredible lives.”

“Some of the residents are nearly a century older than I am,” he continued. “I cannot begin to fathom all they have experienced, the changes they witnessed over a century. For instance, imagine what it must have been like seeing television for the first time. It blows my mind.”

“However, the event that so many kept going back to was World War II,” he said. “That war had a tremendous effect on these people’s lives.”

Wilner said that though we are at war now, only a small percentage of people are fighting, and many Americans feel very removed from it.

“This simply was not the case with World War II,” he said. “It was an event that united the entire country. Even if some of the people I spoke with did not actually serve, they knew many who did or those who died.”

“Take, for instance, Bob, who was 19 when he worked on a ship in the war carrying the wounded and the bodies of soldiers who died,” Wilner said. “He was doing that at the age I am now. With my privileged life, I cannot fathom doing anything like that.”

Wilner said one of the most remarkable aspect of his project is that monologues and dialogues by some of our oldest citizens will be performed by some of the youngest.

“There are 14 kids involved,” he said. “The youngest is 13, but he has a mustache, which really threw me off. These kids are people who have not yet bitten into their lives, just nibbled on it.”

Wilner plans to take the actors to Hilltop House to meet the residents they are going to portray in “Stories of a Lifetime.”

“What I want audiences to take away from this project as a whole is that the residents of Hilltop House and Saratoga Retirement Home experienced so much in life that should not be forgotten,” Wilner said.

“The message of my play is to cherish and enjoy life to its fullest. Each and every day is an opportunity to create a story that will remain with you the rest of your life.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #149 (Wednesday, April 25, 2012).

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