On July 3, some local writers and readers checked their inboxes and found a piece of sad news. "I'm writing to inform you that The Write Place is going to be discontinued as a program of Burlington City Arts," wrote Susan Weiss, coordinator of the nearly 3-year-old program housed at Burlington's Firehouse Center for the Visual Arts.
The Write Place was Weiss' brainchild when she started at BCA as a volunteer. With the support of Director Doreen Kraft, she became a regular employee. In addition to developing and teaching a panoply of inventive writing classes, Weiss established weekly open readings, known as "Write to Read," and organized special events such as last May's "Free Verse," a daylong celebration of poetry.
A fiction writer with a Master's degree in counseling, Weiss says she's always been interested in blending the two worlds of writing education and community building. "I like to do things that aren't usually done . . . I'm elbowing my way through to having people pay attention to literature in another way," she says in a phone interview.
This year, Weiss' desire to work with "underserved populations" gave birth to the high-profile "New Americans, New Voices" project. Beginning in March, the program guided 11 local refugees and immigrants through the process of recording their stories. Participants worked both one-on-one with volunteer writing partners and as a group. Because of their involvement with the program, several have been profiled in an ongoing series about immigrants in The Burlington Free Press.
"The stories are quite different. Some are disturbing to read," says Weiss. Overall, she found the attitude of the writers "very thoughtful and philosophical," she says. "I've been most struck by how receptive they are to people, given the experience that most of them have had. I marvel that they're still so sweet and open, not jaded."
Now that the workshop part of the program has wound up, Weiss plans to collect the new Vermonters' narratives into a printed booklet that she says could be "widely distributed." A reading by the authors at the Firehouse is in the works for September, to be followed by more readings around the area.
Kraft stresses that Weiss' departure from BCA is amicable, but that the latter's outreach programs have "expanded beyond City Arts' capacity to manage" their fundraising needs. The decision to dissolve The Write Place reflects the municipal arts group's need to "fine-tune its mission," she explains. However, Kraft calls Weiss a "tremendous creative thinker" and promises, "We'll keep working with her and try to help her. Part of what she does will continue."
For her part, Weiss speaks passionately about her mission to bring writing to the community -- including people who might not think of themselves as potential authors. "A lot of people like to write because they want to be heard, they have something to say," she suggests. "They don't have to have high IQs. Language is very basic to us. Speech is more primary than reading. Because of the way it's taught in school, [writing]'s sort of thought of as an academic subject, like math. People have a phobia of it."
At the "New Americans" workshops, Weiss encouraged participants to develop "a good, clear voice that feels like it represents them." The group didn't linger too much on technicalities such as subject-verb agreement.
"Some people are adamantly against the notion that everybody should be a writer," Weiss acknowledges. But "being a writer doesn't necessarily mean being a product of what's classically construed as literature," she explains. "It's somebody who explores, experiences and processes with written language. It's a way of discovering beauty and joy, making peace with things that have happened." Weiss cites the example of one of the participants in "New Americans," who "said that he had been changed by the experience; he's not the same person he was when he started -- he's starting to see his strength."
Weiss is currently at work on a novel about "the development of the atomic bomb and the dissolution of a marriage." She also has plenty of future plans that combine writing with what she calls "community integration" -- for instance, a program that would bring homeless and non-homeless people together in a workshop setting.
Before she can get those ideas off the ground, though, "I would like to find a home [for The Write Place]," Weiss says candidly. While she's ready to "piece together this and that" to fulfill her goals, Weiss says, "What I'd really like is for some business or private donor to say, 'Yes, this will be our pet project.'" In the meantime, she adds, "We're looking for pennies under rugs."
While one innovative program devoted to literacy is looking for a place to hang its hat, another one is going strong this summer. Now in its fifth year, the Burlington-based Very Merry Theatre bills itself as "Vermont's only children's traveling theater company." The nonprofit is holding its first-ever "tea party fundraiser" on August 3, in conjunction with one of several performances of a musically enhanced version of Alice in Wonderland.
Like the traveling players of yore, who stowed their costumes and props in carts, the young actors of the Very Merry Theatre tour and perform at outdoor venues, such as Battery Park and Shelburne Farms. But the program's core is education. The company is offering four sold-out camps this summer at the Staige Hill Farm in Charlotte, where kids from 6 to 18 learn the ropes of acting and stagecraft.
That's not all they learn. To handle the company's classic literary material, which ranges from Shakespeare to Carroll to Kipling's The Jungle Book, kids have to become good readers as well. "I make sure that the story is at the center; everything else complements that," says Director Donald Wright, who founded the company and adapts the plays himself.
As anyone who's seen a college freshman struggle with Hamlet can attest, interpreting Shakespeare's wordplay is no walk in the park. Why does Wright choose such challenging material? "My background is in the classics," he explains. Wright remembers attending performances of the now-defunct Royall Tyler Shakespeare Company and "loving them, even if I didn't always understand what was going on."
When Wright's own three children were young, he began producing theater in an educational setting and "found that kids were really drawn to the great stories," he says. "When kids got on stage, they were very close to their imaginations. If you gave them a character that had some richness to it, they would quickly be able to find something to connect themselves with."
At Very Merry's camps, Wright fosters that sort of identification through a stepwise process. He encourages families to read the book or play in question with their children, giving them "some familiarity going in." Next, "I describe the story and characters before we do auditions," Wright says. "I like kids to almost cast themselves. If they're playing someone that they're comfortable with, it makes the story richer for them."
Formal auditions and read-throughs are followed by theater games in which the kids might be asked to reinterpret their character as an old man or a baby, or to identify the stakes in a given scene. "The characters [in classic literature] are so big," Wright says. "So much to think about."
Like Weiss, Wright is passionate about making the written word accessible. He likes to mix things up: The company has performed The Tempest as a circus and King Lear as a Western. Wright believes that kids who have the Very Merry experience aren't intimidated when they meet the Bard in high school -- "They realize that Shakespeare meant to write for the masses," he says.
With free public performances of A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Jungle Book already behind it, the company is entering the home stretch of its summer season. Still to come is an "original musical version" of Alice in Wonderland, scripted by Wright and performed by teenagers. "Like all theater, you have a little miracle at the end," he says. Still, Wright makes sure to remind his Very Merry actors: "The performance is just a reward; the process is where the learning takes place."
Adults who want to continue their own literary education may want to check out a couple of other local events. If you're interested in seeing leather-bound books, old Vermont postcards, or an illustrated 1977 edition of Tolkien's The Hobbit, head to the New England Booksellers' Summer Book Fair on August 13 in Woodstock. Or if you have fond memories of novelist Russell Banks' visit to Burlington last fall, ferry over to Westport, New York, to see him read on August 17 as a fundraiser for the local Literacy Volunteers. Banks isn't scheduled to return to this fall's Burlington Book Festival, but a recent press release says his slot as Big Name Guest will be filled by poet and Iron John author Robert Bly. Get those drums ready.