Devised theater on the road

During this past August, 16 Vermont students performed “Listen Up” on a tour around Vermont, garnering considerable press coverage along the way. The play, an original musical focused on the multiple problems and challenges facing Vermont’s youth today, was produced by Kingdom County Productions and is the product of The Listen Up Project.
“[The musical] is giving voice to very important stories of different Vermont youth identities that need to be heard in this moment,” said NVU-Johnson Professor of Performing Arts Isaac Eddy, who directed the musical along with Sarah Lowry, the assistant director. “We tell the stories in a really engaging and exciting way, with ensemble tableaus and beautiful choreography and honest performances.”
Last summer’s tour was several years in the making, based on over 800 interviews with different Vermont youth from all parts of the state, according to Eddy.
Teams of teenagers worked on the script, the music, the design and technology side, and the actual performance of the musical.
Eddy explained that show was made through a process called devised theater, a highly collaborative and often improvisational undertaking.
“It is the tradition of creating an original work with the ensemble and with the designers in the room with you…it’s a flattened hierarchy where the director is a facilitator of this creative process, but not necessarily the one who says, ‘yes’ or ‘no, do what I’m telling you,’” Eddy said. “The show that we have is because of that process.”
The performers’ ability to influence the construction of the play itself appealed to the teen cast members, providing a much-appreciated level of independence and autonomy. “We got to put our mark on the script, make sure the language was something that a teen would say,” said Colby Newman, who was part of the ensemble of the musical.
For performer Codi Alrich, that freedom was essential to the entire “Listen Up” experience. “Us teens actually had a say in it, we can’t say that a lot,” they said. “First the adults wrote the show but then the teens got to revise and write some of our own scenes, and teens don’t get to do that a lot. Our voices don’t get heard a lot. We were literally called the ensemble, and it felt like we were actually included in something.”
The “something” to which Alrich refers was a musical conveying much more than melody and patter. “We talked about some serious and important subjects that teens face, like school lock-downs, drug issues, and relationships,” Alrich said. “We want people to listen to what we had to say, and we hope that they didn’t just listen, but that they heard us and that we can make an impact with this show for Vermont teens… not just Vermont teens, but teens everywhere.”
For crew member Phin Holzhammer, the power of the play lies in its potential to provoke and empower. “I hope [the musical] made people see the problems we presented them with as actual things that affect real people instead of some far-away prospect that they don’t need to think about,” he said. “I hope it made people uncomfortable. I hope it made people think. I hope it made people feel seen and empowered.”
While the performances wrapped in August, Eddy says that a film of the musical will be available throughout the state to allow more people to see the production.
“I’m just really excited for more people to see it, because this was a lot of work, and I think not a lot of things happen like this,” Newman said. “So, as [many] people as we can reach, hopefully, a lot of people will take in that information and hopefully make the world a little better.”
For NVU-Johnson students looking to get involved in the spring, Eddy is co-teaching Drama Therapy Practicum, a course influenced by the Listen Up project, alongside Lowry, who is also a mental health counselor.
“There’s no prerequisites,” Eddy said. “It’s open to all students on campus, and we’re going to take parts of the [Listen Up] project, but also develop our own new material with NVU students.”
To learn more information about the Listen Up project, go to their website at