The cast and crew of The Listen Up Project entered a month-long rehearsal bubble at Lyndon Institute on July 3.
For some of the teenage performers, it was their first live theater experience since the pandemic hit over a year earlier.
Miles Ellis Novotny, a 16-year-old from Burlington, remembered a moment early on when the performers assembled and sang for the first time.
“Yes, we still had masks on, but we were all singing. We were in person. And it was just this pretty incredible moment for me. It was like, theater still is happening, even through this pandemic that is rocking the whole world and turning everything upside down. We can still have something constant and that is our love for theater,” he said.
The Listen Up Project, an original musical inspired, written and performed by Vermont teens will begin its five-stop, nine-performance statewide tour at NVU-Lyndon on Aug. 4.
The production has given 24 teens (ages 13-19) from across the state the chance to rediscover their passion after an extended period of COVID-19 separation.
“We’re very lucky in the State of Vermont — at least in this little window — to work together and make this show come together in person,” said producer Bess O’Brien. “These last three weeks have been revelatory in remembering how great it is to collaborate with people, and be with people, and to see these young folks thrive.”
Among those thrilled to be rehearing in person were cast members Naomi Fitzpatrick, 14, of Killington and Sydney Singh, 18, of Brandon.
Fitzpatrick said “Since COVID started I haven’t been in the same room with this many people and its been really nice” and Singh added “It’s really great to make those connections again. I feel like I lost those [communication and social] skills because I’ve been talking to the same three people for two years.”
Work on The Listen Up Project began three years ago.
O’Brien embarked on an eight-month “listening tour” of Vermont in 2019, conducting extensive interviews with more than 800 teens statewide.
From those stories, a script was created in collaboration with teens. Youth also wrote the music, in collaboration with singer-songwriter mentors.
The production was moving forward. Then COVID happened. The day before statewide auditions were to be held, Gov. Phil Scott declared the State of Emergency on March 13.
As a result, the production was pushed back a year. The script was revised to include aspects of the pandemic and the social justice movement that occurred during COVID.
The show remains a work in progress. The “devised theater” production allows cast and crew to offer input, ask questions, and suggest revisions. This adds to The Listen Up Project’s authenticity.
Willow Rickert, 17, of Burlington is a set designer who suggested a script change based on her personal experience.
“I’ve been homeless before,” she said. “So there was a line about homelessness that was kind of glorifying homelessness because someone who wasn’t homeless wrote it. And I got to change it.”
That collaboration is possible because the 24 teens living and rehearsing at LI have created a warm and welcoming environment, said another crew member, 18-year-old Codi Aldrich of Williston.
“I’ve only known these people for about three weeks, and they feel like a second family to me already,” she said. “Everyone here is so nice and kind, and even when we’re stressed out, we’re all here for each other. We’re all one big community and it’s awesome.”
For many performers, rehearsal has been a time of personal growth and discovery.
Novotny, who was so moved by the performers’ first singing session, said being a part of the production helped him overcome personal barriers.
“This experience has really helped me find my voice. I’m by nature a very introverted person but throughout this experience, because the group has been so welcoming and everything, I’ve felt more empowered to speak up and interact with people. And that’s something I think I’m going to be able to take away from this experience,” he said.
O’Brien described the show and powerful, eye-opening, and great entertainment. She recommended it for anyone wanting a better insight into the lives of Vermont teens.
“People should come to this show if they want to know what teenagers are thinking, feeling, needing, and wanting. So if you are a parent, come to the show. If you are an educator, come to the show. If you are a grandparent, come to the show. If you are anyone, come to the show,” she said. “Plus, it’s awesome. The music is incredible and what these teens are accomplishing is something to be witnessed, especially coming out of COVID. I think it’s going to be really inspiring to people.”
She added that the show includes some things “that are tough to hear and maybe a little unsettling” but said, “that’s good too.”
“That’s good art to make you walk away questioning things or wanting to have a conversation,” she said.