By Riley Robinson/VTDigger
The song was about the world being on fire. And as they rehearsed the musical number on an athletic field in Lyndon, they watched haze from the Manitoba wildfires obscure the mountains, the trees and the moon.
At one point, Silas Brubaker, 14, and a couple of other actors sat in a parked car to get away from the bad air quality. They started talking about climate change. Fear and anger set in.
“It’s not fair because the people who have made decisions that have made this happen aren’t gonna have that much life left, and I hate to say that because it sounds rude,” Silas said. “If you’re not gonna have to live with this for as long as we are, that’s not fair… I’m mad at them.”
Brubaker and other Vermont teens will tackle big issues, including climate change, on stage this month in a new musical created and performed by young people from across the state.
Cast members say the show tackles economic inequality, gun violence, LGBTQ+ identity, racial justice, dating, mental health and social media, among other things.
The musical, titled “Listen Up,” is the newest project by Vermont filmmaker Bess O’Brien. Starting in March 2019, O’Brien and her team interviewed more than 900 teens across the state to learn what issues they’re most passionate about, and what it’s like to be a Gen-Z Vermonter.
Those interviews were adapted into the series of vignettes that make up the show. O’Brien said more than a dozen teens contributed to the script or worked with professional songwriters to craft the lyrics and score.
They started the writing process during winter 2020, right before the pandemic set in, so they soon shifted to online collaboration. Auditions and rehearsals were delayed due to the pandemic.
After spending the past few weeks rehearsing at the Lyndon campus of Northern Vermont University — where the cast and crew lived in the dorms and rehearsed outdoors, in a sort of pandemic pod — their performances kicked off this past week. On Aug. 4 and 5 they performed at NVU in Lyndonville, Aug. 7 and 8 in Norwich, Aug. 10 and 11 in Putney, Aug. 13 and 14 in Shelburne and will complete the tour Aug. 15, on the State House Lawn in Montpelier.
Other than pandemic-induced adjustments to remote work, the process behind “Listen Up” is nearly identical to that of O’Brien’s 2005 show “The Voices Project,” for which she interviewed more than 1,000 teens and adapted their experiences into the theatrical script. O’Brien said she noticed teens are more attuned to world events than they were 15 years ago. They also mentioned worries that directly affect their own lives, such as how they will pay for college.
“I would say the big difference is the world,” O’Brien said. “So many young people, as many of us right now, are dealing with a world that is out of joint in many ways, and this country that is really struggling with its identity, who we are and where we’re going.”
O’Brien conceptualized The Voices Project after BlueCross BlueShield of Vermont approached her to work on a statewide public health initiative.
“I thought they would never go for [this idea] because it was so out of the box,” O’Brien said. But they did. This new production was underwritten by both BlueCross BlueShield of Vermont and the Vermont Dept. of Health.
The day before opening night, actors were still making edits to the script, aiming to make it authentic to their actual slang and speech patterns.
“Teens don’t often get the microphone to tell their stories,” said Miles Ellis Novotny, a 16-year-old cast member from Burlington. “But this is a chance, especially with the way we’ve changed so much, everyone performing and tech-ing and playing music is getting a chance to share a bit of their story.”
They’ve grown up in a pop culture landscape filled with teen characters written by adults — and many of them think the adults get it wrong.
“Everything about teenagers is very sexual, like almost fetishizing,” said Joy Holzhammer, a cast member from Middlebury. “It’s always adults playing the teens.”
O’Brien said she hopes the show is insightful not only for parents and educators, but also the general public — especially in a state where policymakers worry about an exodus of young people.
“It’s an entry point into conversation,” said cast member Faith Awotho, 17. “If there’s an issue you care about, it probably affects teens.”