Whether or not all the world's a stage, more and more real-life experiences of Vermonters have been fueling original theater fare of late. Last summer, Bess O'Brien's Voices project dramatized the lives of Vermont teens, and Kim Bent's Lost Nation Theater did the same for the Barre granite industry with Stone -- a new and improved version is now playing at Montpelier City Hall. In January, Robin Fawcett and Joan Robinson helped the Flynn Center celebrate its 25th anniversary with Bigger Than All of Us, based on the performance, and audience, experiences of area residents.
The latest evidence of the reality-theater trend is Bill's Bill and Other Stories of How We Got Here: Our History of Special Education in Vermont, which premiered last weekend at the Vermont History Expo in Tunbridge. Bill's Bill was created by Emily Anderson, who brings drama experiences to adults with developmental disabilities through Awareness Theater and Champlain Vocational Services' Can-Do Arts. The latter is a program of Very Special Arts Vermont.
In the past, the CVS group has staged works familiar to the cast: modified versions of The Sound of Music, The Wizard of Oz, the fairy tale "Snow White" and Romeo and Juliet. This year, they're trying a different tack. "We got tired of doing other people's stories," says Anderson. The adult-age students "had their own stories."
To bring those narratives to the stage, Anderson began by inviting her charges to share their recollections of school. "We did lots of discussions and homework and drawings, and then within the class we did scene-making sessions: graduation, favorite teachers, games, goals people had for their lives," she says. "It was interesting to me to see that this topic is really alive."
Along with those personal stories, the play chronicles the passage of H55, which in 1977 enabled Vermonters with special needs to continue studying in the public schools after age 21. One of Anderson's students was directly involved in that fight. Bill Villemaire, who was then in high school, was the issue's "poster child" -- Burlington Representative Lorraine Graham, who introduced the measure, nicknamed it "Billy's Bill," after him. Now 49, Villemaire plays himself in the show.
Also figuring in Bill's Bill, and played by other CSV cast members, are: Graham; Bill's mother Theresa Villemaire, who resisted expert advice that her son be shipped off to the Brandon Training School; Sister Janice Ryan, who began the state's first program for special education professionals, at Trinity College; and Ellie Potash, a beloved Burlington special educator. Several of the cast members remember Potash, who died in 1999, as the teacher who introduced them to theater when they were kids. VSA Director Judith Chalmer did the research for those characterizations by interviewing teachers, parents, special-ed advocates and legislators about their involvement in the passage of H55.
Anderson combined the transcripts of Chalmer's conversations with the themes raised by her students to create a script. A Bread and Puppet veteran, she chose cantastoria, a theater form that originated among traveling storytellers in 6th-century India. A narrator tells a tale, usually with instrumental embellishment, while successive illustrations are displayed on banners. A chorus fleshes out the story.
In Bill's Bill, Anderson plays the part of the narrator. A cast of roughly 15 VSA students serves as the chorus, or "introducers," who also act out one vignette in each of the show's five scenes. Versified texts by local storyteller Peter Burns intersperse the stories. A saxophone, an accordion and drums provide musical accompaniment. The banners are based on artwork created by Villemaire.
In keeping with the show's civic theme, people will be able to sign up to vote at every performance, according to Chalmer. Since 1993, officials have been required to make voter registration available to people with disabilities. However, in a 2004 Harris Poll, 20 percent of U.S. adults with disabilities reported that they wanted to vote but were unable to. Chalmer says that in addition to showcasing the performers' talents, she hopes Bill's Bill will "encourage the public to get engaged like the advocates in the show, register to vote, and affect the laws of governance. That's a really big piece of this."
Anderson concurs. "My philosophy for 10 years has been wanting to put people with disabilities on stage," she says. "It's political, and it also gives people their own context in which to be themselves."
Bill Villemaire puts it more directly. Asked what he wants audiences to take away from the performance, he replies, "I'm hoping they'll learn that I'm nobody's fool."