Bess O'Brien's 'The Listen Up Musical' Sets the Stage for Destigmatizing Tough Conversations Among Teens | Theater | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Bess O'Brien's 'The Listen Up Musical' Sets the Stage for Destigmatizing Tough Conversations Among Teens

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Yeshua Armbrister rehearsing with cast of Listen Up - STEVE LEGGE
  • Steve Legge
  • Yeshua Armbrister rehearsing with cast of Listen Up

Sixteen teenagers stood onstage in a school gymnasium at the Lyndon Institute in Lyndonville and sang an emotional rendition of "Lockdown." Written and inspired by Vermont teens, the song describes an experience that's familiar to virtually every member of Generation Z: active-shooter drills in school and what it feels like to practice hiding for their lives.

The all-teen cast of The Listen Up Musical had been rehearsing for barely a week when this reporter visited, but they already knew all the lyrics and were incorporating dance moves. They sang in unison:

Lockdown

Stop and look around

Get down on to the ground

Want to yell but we're not allowed.

Lockdown

Just run and go hide

Don't know if it's even safe inside

The silence seems so loud.

The Listen Up Project and musical is the brainchild of documentary filmmaker and producer Bess O'Brien of Kingdom County Productions and associate producer Mitch Barron. Barron is the executive director of Centerpoint, a mental health, special learning and substance treatment center in South Burlington.

The musical is based on the same concept O'Brien used to create her 2005 show, The Voices Project. As with that award-winning musical, content for this one came from interviews with more than 800 teens around the state.

O'Brien described the archive of interviews, in which Vermont youths spoke about their lives, hopes, fears and ambitions for the future, as "a huge anthropological dig into what kids were thinking and feeling — and that was before COVID and George Floyd."

While The Voices Project touched on serious issues affecting teens, such as bullying, gender identity and mental health, Listen Up has a somewhat darker and grittier edge, O'Brien said. It wrestles with existential questions about gun violence, systemic racism, negative body image and the climate crisis.

"The future for young people is very daunting," O'Brien said. "There's a sense of innocence that's been taken away, that kids have to grow up a lot faster now and ... take charge of their own future."

Listen Up's statewide tour debuts on August 4 at Northern Vermont University-Lyndonville and concludes on August 15 with a performance on the Statehouse lawn in Montpelier.

The entire production, including teen interviews, hiring professional staff and fundraising more than $500,000, was three years in the making. Auditions were originally scheduled to begin in March 2020 for a tour last fall, but the pandemic sidelined them.

So, O'Brien and her team quickly pivoted to scriptwriting on Zoom calls and scoring the music via online document sharing. The production was redesigned as an outdoor show to abide by social-distancing guidelines from the Vermont Department of Health, one of the project's major sponsors.

On the recent July morning, four weeks before opening night, the cast and crew of 13- to 19-year-olds were working on a rigorous schedule. Living together in dorms at Lyndon Institute allowed them to rehearse eight to 10 hours a day, six days a week.

Isaac Littlejohn Eddy - STEVE LEGGE
  • Steve Legge
  • Isaac Littlejohn Eddy

Though other participating teens and theater professionals were still producing costumes, sets, lighting and music, the show was coming together nicely. That was evident in the smiling faces of codirectors Isaac Littlejohn Eddy and Sarah Lowry, who watched rehearsal from close to the foot of the stage.

Despite all the work they needed to accomplish before breaking for lunch, Lowry paused the rehearsal to ask the actors what was going through their minds while they sang "Lockdown."

One cast member said he was silently singing along with the soloist. Another said she was counting her steps and trying to remember where to position her body.

But Lowry's question was more than just a theatrical training exercise. A drama therapist and mental health clinician based at Centerpoint, Lowry works predominantly with adolescents and their families who suffer from trauma. As she explained later, routine check-ins are essential when dealing with emotionally intense material.

"We want to make sure that the truth is not something that we're scared to talk about, because that is the cultural norm," she explained. In fact, the posters and ads for Listen Up include mature-content warnings, lest anyone mistakenly assume that the show is as kid-friendly as Annie or Beauty and the Beast.

Lowry's question suddenly elicited a visceral reaction from one of the actors. Max Couture, a 16-year-old from Essex Junction, shared his experience of surviving a school shooting in Texas before moving to Vermont two years ago.

"I was thinking about how it felt in that moment and really putting myself back there, because I had to hide in the closet," Couture said. "You don't even know what's happening until you go on your phone and look at the news."

Soon, the entire cast was in an animated discussion about what the show's adult audience members might think of active-shooter drills. As one pointed out, most adults likely have never experienced one themselves.

"I've been doing active-shooter drills since I was 5," another teen said. "They told us, 'It's in case someone comes in to kill you, you know where to hide.' At 5 years old! This song makes me so angry!"

"Wow! OK, thanks for sharing that," Lowry said, gently reining in the conversation without stifling an essential component of the creative process: tapping personal experiences and emotions and then conveying them to the audience.

But powerful emotions must be harnessed effectively, warned Shani Stoddard, the show's choreographer. As he told the cast, if making direct eye contact with an audience member during a difficult scene breaks your concentration, "Look elsewhere but still keep that same intensity."

Next, Eddy and Lowry transitioned the rehearsal to a more uplifting song, "My Person," a ballad about young love and romance. It came out of an interview with a couple, O'Brien explained; both teens are transgender. When she had asked whether they called each other "boyfriend" or "girlfriend," they had replied that they use the nonbinary moniker "my person." O'Brien was so taken by their response that she suggested it be the theme of a song. The young writers, cast and crew agreed.

"It's amazing how we've allowed ourselves the space to have multi-hour discussions with the ensemble about what it means to represent other people's stories, while at the same time representing yourself onstage," said Eddy.

A 12-year veteran of the internationally acclaimed theater company Blue Man Group, Eddy is now assistant professor and chair of performing arts at NVU-Johnson.

Wanting to represent many teen voices onstage, Listen Up assembled a diverse ensemble of more than two dozen actors, musicians, designers, and stage crew of various races, ethnicities, gender identities and physical and mental abilities. All seemed deeply committed to their roles as "ambassadors" for their fellow Vermont youth.

Yeshua Armbrister is a 17-year-old cast member and songwriter living in Berlin. Armbrister, who is Black, described the multifaceted elements of his onstage persona. He wants to represent his own challenges as part of a racial minority in Vermont "while also bringing positive energy and light into the mix," he said.

In addition, Armbrister wants to represent other young people of color who were interviewed for Listen Up but weren't cast. "A lot of people of color feel like they can't express themselves," he said, "or they feel they have to act a certain way in order to be accepted."

Sadie Chamberlain, a 19-year-old actor and writer from Burke, described a similar experience as a performer with a disability. Chamberlain, who has a mild form of cerebral palsy, said she didn't join this production aiming to represent other teens with disabilities. In fact, in past productions she felt as though she had been "put on this unnecessary pedestal" as an actor with physical limitations.

That hasn't been her experience with Listen Up, Chamberlain emphasized. On this production, she said, everyone has created an environment where "compassion doesn't border on condescension."

Part of establishing that safe space stems from the show's creative process itself. Early on, Eddy and Lowry decided to give the cast and crew plenty of room to explore and reinterpret the material. Using a nonhierarchical leadership structure and a collaborative approach called "devised theater," the codirectors left large swaths of the play unwritten. It allowed the teens to continually rework the script, music, choreography and set design throughout the rehearsal process. As one cast member put it, "The creative process is the play itself."

Abi Perlah-Hard (left) and Raye Brevdawells - STEVE LEGGE
  • Steve Legge
  • Abi Perlah-Hard (left) and Raye Brevdawells

"I've never worked in a scenario where my voice was so heard in the production development," said Abi Perlah-Hard, 18, a member of the stage crew from Burlington who will study technical theater production in college this fall. "I have the ability to be like, 'What if we did it like this?'"

Stoddard, a professional choreographer, dancer and performer from the Northeast Kingdom, said that Listen Up has been unlike any of his previous productions. Coming into the rehearsal space, Stoddard said he initially assumed he would act as the teacher, and the teens would be his students. Oftentimes, however, he has found their roles reversed.

"I've never been slapped so aggressively in the face — in the best way — by my own expectations of what I thought was going to happen," Stoddard said. "Every day it's a learning experience, and it humbles me."

Eddy agreed.

"Theater is a political act, and how we run the rehearsal world is part of that political act," he said. "The more that we give members agency and say in how and why we're doing what we're doing, the stronger the piece will be."

But allowing for such artistic freedom takes a delicate balancing act.

"It's exhilarating," Eddy said. "It's also terrifying, because we do have a deadline and a show to put on."

O'Brien, the show's directing producer, has a well-earned reputation for taking on the weightiest of subjects with sensitivity and tact — without pulling punches. Her award-winning documentaries have delved into issues such as domestic violence, sex abuse, racism, incarceration and the challenges of growing up in foster care. O'Brien's 2013 documentary, The Hungry Heart, inspired then-governor Peter Shumlin to devote his entire 2014 State of the State address to discussing Vermont's opioid crisis.

Then, after completing All of Me, a 2016 documentary about body image and eating disorders, O'Brien decided to return to live theater and the process she had developed for The Voices Project.

The hired professionals — everyone on the project eschews the word "adults"— admitted that, at times, they felt an urge to protect the teens from exposing too much onstage about their own identities and personal experiences. But as they quickly discovered, the youths arrived at the rehearsal space with high levels of sophistication to talk about the complex intersections of race, gender and identity. Often, it was the teens themselves who pushed to dig deeper into a particular topic to explore its complexities.

"We do have a choice [about] how much water to let out of the fire hose. It's our audience that sometimes we wonder about protecting," said Trish Denton, artistic director of In Tandem Arts in Burlington and Listen Up's production designer and art director. "But we're going to put as much as we can into the mix and be as truthful as possible."

Like all of O'Brien's projects, Listen Up is aimed at starting conversations around the state. After the traveling performances are finished, O'Brien and her team will create a video of the show, filmed live at Shelburne Museum, for public screenings this fall. She plans to send copies to schools throughout Vermont. (Due to pandemic-related guidelines, O'Brien won't host her usual post-screening Q&A sessions with the cast and crew.)

At its core, the musical is about exploring the adversities Vermont teens face: poverty, isolation, alienation and family trauma, as well as the everyday stresses that come with teens' ubiquitous online identities. (When The Voices Project came out, smartphones didn't even exist yet, O'Brien noted.)

But as associate producer Barron pointed out, Listen Up is also about finding ways to improve young people's mental health, wellness and resilience in the face of adversities. Looking beyond the live performances, he hopes the show helps destigmatize conversations about difficult topics, a process he likened to a form of therapy.

"What's most important is not what happens that day in treatment," he said. "It's what happens the day after, and the week after, and the month after, and the years after."

Even given the weighty subject matter, the show has numerous moments of levity, happiness and inspiration. In fact, all of the teens interviewed for this story said their participation in the production was joyful, rewarding and fun.

"Outside of work time, we're like a big family, both functional and dysfunctional," Armbrister joked. "Honestly, it's been a great time."

Couture added, "And having our voices be heard is the best part of it."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Raising Their Voices"