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Child Play 

State of the Arts

It's 10 o'clock -- do you know where your kids are? Kingdom County Production filmmaker Bess O'Brien believes that not enough adults do, not even those whose teenagers are right there in front of them. She also believes that kids wish this wasn't so -- even those who affect disinterest, or deliberately hide what they're up to. That dual message underlies the just-released multimedia packet entitled, Listen: Collected Works From the Files of The Voices Project.

You can read it in the unattributed poem "Lies We Tell Adults," which seems like a list from a brainstorming session. It includes: "About sex, smoking, drinking, drugs / What we do after school / what happens during school / About our health / About our well-being / . . . That we're happy." Another poem, the heartbreakingly matter-of-fact "Lies," suggests that miscommunication cuts two ways. It reports, "When my mother says she'll pick me up, it hurts when she calls and says she can't make it, but it is OK because she lives so far away, but I don't care because I'm so used to being lied to."

Conceived and spearheaded by O'Brien and funded in large part by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Vermont, the $150,000 Voices Project was launched in December 2003. O'Brien and co-producer Abby Paige heard from more than 1200 youth from across the state through interviews, poetry workshops and web submissions. The words of residents at the Woodside Detention Center are included along with those of honor students.

The process yielded two products. First to be unveiled is Listen, which anthologizes the best of the teenagers' original material. Primarily a poetry collection, it also features a DVD of five short films, including Jake Perkanen's very affecting documentary, "Open and Out," about the anguish and eventual triumph of a gay youth, and a CD with half a dozen original songs. Copies are going to all the state's libraries and high schools, and are available for sale, including at Borders.

Teenagers weigh in on peers, parents, politics and personal trials and triumphs in writing that ranges from raw to refined. English teachers and poets such as David Budbill and Leland Kinsey ran workshops, and many poems use specificity with aplomb. "I'm from soda bottles, empty cigarette packs, ashtrays filled with butts, and PlayStation that is never turned off," write Kayla Rousseau and an anonymous collaborator in "Another Day at Shea's."

In her poignant "Cleaning My Car," Rachel Kauppila reinvents the age-old theme of lost love: "your black Hard Rock Cafe Tokyo T-shirt / crumpled in a ball in the darkness of my trunk / still smelling like you . . . I search for little remnants of you / under the seats / near the gear shift / in the cushions. / Little reminders of what / we have been / together."

Some of the most memorable works convey their creators' unique perspective, straddling the worlds of child- and adulthood. Jeni Bishop's antiwar screed is distinguished by its utterly unaffected tone. "This war / Is driving me insane," she comments. "Everywhere I go / I hear about it /. . . The radio / The TV / the newspapers / The magazines / The Internet / the talk on the street / I can't get away / I can't escape. / I just heard on the 6 o'clock news / That US troops have killed over 1,000 Iraqis / In the last 72 hours. / I almost threw up."

It's not all anger and angst. Some poems even present positive relationships with adults, such as a sweet piece by Clayton Butler that describes, "My dad and I / With our heads under the hood of a car / sitting together at fire meetings / test-driving my first truck."

While the public absorbs Listen, the Voices team is preparing for the project's major event: an original musical-theater production that will tour the state in the fall. Inspired by the situations revealed by their "research," O'Brien and her group created 16 fictional characters. "It's not a downer play," she says, although it does take on "issues of depression, cutting, a gay character, peer pressure, bullying, body image, world at large, the war."

O'Brien adds, "It's not a watered-down version. It's poignant, heartfelt, intense, funny and ultimately really about the kids' courage and ability to rise above many challenges in their lives. It's not Hello Dolly. It's Rent goes to Vermont."

As moving as the production is likely to be, The Voices Project will probably have its greatest impact on its participants. On August 1, 30-some teenaged actors, musicians and tech-crew members begin a three-week residency at Johnson State College. The tour opens on September 10 in Barre and closes in Burlington a month later, hitting eight other venues in between. Local families will house the kids and donate food along the way. "We are going to be in a different theater every night," O'Brien notes. "These kids are going to have an experience of a lifetime."

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Ruth Horowitz

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