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New Musical From NEK Filmmaker Offers Glimpse Into Vermont Teen Life

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Erica Heilman
/
VPR
The cast of the musical The Listen Up Project.

The Listen Up Project is the latest production of Vermont filmmaker Bess O'Brien. It’s an original, live musical based on interviews and conversations with teens from all across Vermont. The show is touring around the state right now, with performances from Aug. 4-15.

Independent producer Erica Heilman visited with some of the teens in their third week of rehearsal, and asked them to explain what the show is about, in their own words.

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Cora: It essentially takes you into the world of a teenager. Like lockdowns, for example, or your walk home ... just these very alone moments — it takes you into the minds. Our minds are private. And so, it kind of opens a window into the minds of teens … who hide so much.

Erica: Is this a documentary or is this a musical? What is this?

Theo: It's a little bit of both. Through the many interviews, a lot of stories were heard and these are some of the more prominent stories. So it's all taken from the real words and lives of Vermont teens. And teens so often are a voice that doesn't get listened to or [is] dismissed. And I think this show is hoping to somewhat change that.

Oak: It's kind of like ... kind of like a window, even though the glass might be a little bit blurry. But it’s a window into what it is like to be a teen in Vermont.

There was one line that I actually really appreciated. In our first read through of the show, there's this scene … we talk about things we carry in our backpacks. And at the end, there’s a line, something along the lines of, "In my backpack, I carry my politics — conservative politics — hidden. There aren't many at my school and I'm kind of scared for that. And I feel like I'm just an old-school, working class Vermonter. But the Flatlanders look down at me for that. Is that bad?" So I feel like it's an honest window.

"Our minds are private. And so, it kind of opens a window into the minds of teens … who hide so much."
Cora, Listen Up Project participant

Yeshua: I went to the Bahamas for a few years of my life. In that school, they constantly called me "white boy," just because I was lighter than a lot of them. When I came to Vermont, I lived in St. Johnsbury, and going to school, you're constantly being told, "Oh, you need to join the basketball team. You need to join the track team," solely based on the color of your skin, with them not having any idea of your actual sports skills or even desire to play sports and get into those teams.

Also, living in St. Johnsbury, my father visited. He walks around the neighborhood and he was called a n-----, just from a pick-up truck that was driving on the street. This show actually presents that. It becomes an avenue through which I can actually express that to the general public, so that they may actually be aware that this stuff happens. Like, all the things written in this play are based upon our real life experiences.

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Oak: I haven’t done any illegal drugs, but a lot of my friends have. So I've been in and around that and just seeing the effects, good and bad. And so there's a section of the show that deals with drug use and abuse among teens and that probably hits me the hardest.

Finn: I'm a transgender man and I'm not always feeling very accepted, especially by the other men. Just being mis-gendered and having people refuse to see me as male, even after I've transitioned medically … every time it happens, it's like a big thing because it's really hard to not have it be a big thing.

And there are a few scenes with trans teenagers and they talk about their experiences coming out and their experiences not being accepted or being accepted. And I feel like it will be educational for people who want to know more about what it's like to be a trans kid in Vermont.

"I haven’t done any illegal drugs, but a lot of my friends have. So I've been in and around that and just seeing the effects, good and bad. And so, there's a section of the show that deals with drug use and abuse among teens and that probably hits me the hardest."
Oak, Listen Up Project participant

Erica: What's been the funnest part of this so far?

Theo: Definitely the people. It's not an environment that you get normally in school or regular life. In normal school, the theater kids are the outsiders, but now we're the main people.

Erica: What is the scariest part so far?

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Miles: For me, honestly, the scariest part was the first day, being like, "Oh, I'm going to have to be working with these people for six weeks and I have no idea if they'll like me or not." I was terrified that this wouldn't be a group that I could thrive in, which has proved to be completely incorrect.

Erica: What makes this show different from Oklahoma?

Oak: This show? It's a lot of things, honestly. I mean, our primary goal here isn't to entertain. Although that’s part of it.

Erica: I hope so. I like a good show.

Oak: Everyone likes a good show.

Erica: So am I going to get a good show?

Oak: I think you will! Yeah!

"There’s a line, something along the lines of, ‘In my backpack, I carry my politics -- conservative politics -- hidden. There aren't many at my school and I'm kind of scared for that. And I feel like I'm just an old-school, working class Vermonter. But the Flatlanders look down at me for that. Is that bad?’ So I feel like it's an honest window."
Oak, Listen Up Project participant

Silas: There are two different types of uncomfortable. There is, "I am uncomfortable. Get me out of here." And there's "Oh, I didn't know that and I probably should have before." That is a valuable type of uncomfortable. This is not your traditional musical, but it's also fun. You're going to get the singing and the dancing and the lights and you're also going to get learning about yourself. It contains multitudes.

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Gianna: This show is sort of almost like if the audience is going to school and learning about teens in Vermont now and our experiences. If you're in school and you just have a teacher who stands up there and gives you a long lecture, you're not going to remember any of it. It's going to be boring. You're not going to enjoy yourself. We hope that you remember this as a good experience and also remember what we've talked about.

Erica: Are you a kid?

Silas: It depends. If an adult is being creepy to me, I'll go, "Whoa! I'm a kid!" If I'm babysitting, then I'm an adult to them. Sometimes I'm a kid and sometimes I'm not. It really depends.

Erica: What do you want to be?

Silas: Everything.

For more information and tickets, go to Listenupvt.org.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet us @vprnet.

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