In A Play (Mostly) Without Words, Otter Valley Students Explore Sexual Identity

Apr 16, 2016

The Vermont State Drama Festival was held last weekend in St. Johnsbury. The competition features one-act plays put on by high schools, which have advanced from five regional festivals around the state. Two performances, including an original piece by Otter Valley Union High School, were chosen to move on to the New England festival next week.

Between performances, the energy in the corridors of Fuller Hall at St. Johnsbury Academy is palpable. Students in various combinations of costumes and street clothes are bustling up and down stairs and in and out of doorways. Among them are a group of students up from Otter Valley Union High School, in Brandon.

They’re easy to spot, in matching gray T-shirts with a dictionary definition of the word “inevitable” printed across the chest. It’s the name of the original play they came here to perform.

Otter Valley theater director Jeff Hull explains where the name originated. "It was a monologue written by a student who had come out, several years ago, out in Arizona at his college," he says, "and we came across it and it really felt like what we were trying to do."

The play Inevitable is bookended by that monologue. But the lines are split between cast members, and sometimes spoken by all 18 performers at once. Between, there are no words. The story is told through movement. Music and lighting help convey the emotional plot.

A physical theater piece is something Hull has had his eye on for some time. Speaking at the festival with a group of cast members, Hull says he started selling his idea to the kids during a school trip last year to Edinborough, Scotland.

"Something I’ve wanted to do is a show that had less talking. And I got weird looks, from everybody," he says, drawing laughter from his students. "So when we were over there I found a show that I knew was going to be like that and I made them all go see it. And then they loved it. And they were very excited for it."

"I think they'll remember this project for the rest of their lives ... You don't get a chance to be a part of that very often, something that special." - Assistant Director Anita Hughes

Hull and assistant director Anita Hughes started working with the students last fall. And by the time the regional drama festival rolled around, they had an avant-garde show about love, sexual identity, peer pressure and inevitability. Hughes says the process will leave a lasting impression on the students who worked on the show.

"I think they’ll remember this project for the rest of their lives," she says. "I think that it’s that powerful. And you don’t get a chance to be a part of that very often, something that special."

St. Johnsbury Academy's Fuller Hall was home to the 2016 Vermont State Drama Festival. Plays by Otter Valley Union High School and U-32 were chosen to advance to the New England Festival.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

The bones of the story are: Guy meets girl, guy meets boy, guy must decide. And because there isn’t dialogue, those are how the characters are listed in the playbill: guy, girl, boy and the ensemble.

Ensemble member Jonna Keith says, like the vague character descriptions, the monologue that opens and closes the play is intentionally open-ended.

"It really spoke to more than just the experience of coming out," she explains. "It spoke to a lot of different things, so you can apply those lines and feelings to choosing what college you’re going to, or trying to choose if you should stay at a job or not. So we felt that the lines conveyed universal feelings and that’s why we chose the lines in our show."

Sierra Norford, who plays “girl,” says the movement-based nature of the play makes it stand out from other pieces at the drama festivals.

"Physical theater is something that’s not seen very often, especially at these festivals," she says. "So we’re definitely breaking new ground, which is kind of cool. And people are responding well to that."

Jacob Miner, who plays the lead "guy," says their first staging of the piece drew some strong reactions.

"At first it was shocking to those that came to see our show at Otter Valley when we presented it because they didn’t really know what the show was about," he says. "So, after the first show we went out into the lobby to see everybody ... and we saw some people crying. We saw some people confused on what had just happened and some people just amazed by the work that we had put into this."

The play also enjoyed a good reception at its regional festival. Ben Francoeur, who plays “boy,” says they got an invitation from Thetford Academy to perform Inevitable for their school.

"After seeing our play at regionals they were really moved by it, and they thought it was something that their whole student body should see, like ours did," he says. "So they invited us to go down there one day ... We went and performed it for their student body and got a pretty nice reception."

St. Johnsbury Academy welcomed students from around Vermont to last week's festival.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

Following successful productions at the state festival, Otter Valley and U-32 go on to perform at the New England High School Drama Festival, in Connecticut, next week. But those won’t be their last performances. Both schools will perform at the Paramount Theatre, in Rutland, on May 3 as a fundraiser for local foster care programs and LGBTQA alliances in Vermont.