Igniting new theater: Weston Playhouse’s Artist Retreat

Provided Photo
“… with Pam and Gill” features Sam Lloyd Jr., Jill Tracy and Paul F. Perry.

By Jim Lowe

Most folks attending the theater don’t give a thought to where the play they’re enjoying came from. But Weston Playhouse, Vermont’s oldest professional theater, not only considers it, it plays a major role in the creation of new plays.

On May 6, Weston’s 10th annual Artist Retreat culminated in excerpts of four works-in-progress before an invited audience. They were written and performed by artists who had spent the previous week living and working on the Weston Playhouse campus.

And these works couldn’t have been more diverse. “Yo Miss” shares the experience of teaching refugees and incarcerated teens; “Knyum” tells of a young Cambodian man preparing for his first trip to the land of his parents; “We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time” remembers a particularly volatile British childhood, including songs, and not without humor; and a “concert” is performed by a has-been country band of real “characters” in “… with Pam and Gill.”

“The theater is still one of the only places we can come together as a community around a story and listen with our hearts,” Matt Gould, director of “Yo Miss,” said in an interview before Saturday’s presentation.

“Yo Miss” began as a radio show, written and performed by Judith Sloan, a teaching artist in the New York schools and colleges. Her students include refugees as well as incarcerated teens. She initiated the show as a way of relating to her students.

“As I was working on it, the national discussion about race, ethnicity, class, immigration, us-them, got more and more heightened,” Sloan said. “I started peppering in a reflection of where my family fits in with immigrants and new refugees. My grandmother’s whole family was killed in the Holocaust, and she came (here) by herself — at age 18.

“Who was she then, and who are these kids now? What happens when people leave behind an entire world?”

Sloan started writing stories about her teaching, the experience of being in those many worlds. And she added musician Andrew Griffin, who came in and played viola.

“We’ve been doing a lot of experimenting with colors,” Griffin said. “A huge thing she told me was, ‘I really want to explore soundscapes outside of just what people might think the viola is capable of.’ She would say things like, ‘I want to hear laughter here.’ ‘I want to hear a scream.’ ‘What does that sound like on a viola?’ It’s a part of your mind you don’t get to use much as a musician.”

“Judith had a really fantastic first couple of drafts of the piece,” Gould said. “This has been about paring it down to its essential elements, and figuring out how the story moves — also with a musician on stage who’s not just sitting on the stage, but actually part of the storytelling.”

Saturday’s excerpt was a deeply affecting story about connecting with wary incarcerated teens through juggling. Along with Griffin’s emotive viola, technology — including music and sound effects — gave the effect of a much larger show than the two on stage.

“The goal is to create a piece that we could load into the back of a trailer and set up in every regional theater around the country,” Gould said. “We have to bring it to the people.”

“Knyum,” a one-man autobiographical piece by Vichet Chum, is told by a young Cambodian-American who works the graveyard shift at a hotel in New York City. While he’s working, he’s learning Khmer, the Cambodian language, in preparation for his first visit to Cambodia. His parents were survivors of the genocide there, so he’s navigating his legacy of tragedy and survival, while also preparing for this momentous experience of going to Cambodia for the very first time with his parents and older brother.

“It’s a very important piece to me,” Chum said. “It’s based on my parents’ stories of survival. I sort of interrogated their story.”

At Weston, Chum rethought his ending of the piece.

“I recently went on a trip to Cambodia for the first time,” he said. “So I felt that it was pretty crucial to the story. Previously, the play was all in preparation for going to Cambodia. Going to Cambodia certainly made me believe the story wasn’t finished. I had to integrate more of that into the story.

“I was just so emotional the whole time,” Chum said of his time in Cambodia.

“Knyum” is scheduled to premiere in early 2018 at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, Mass., home of the second-largest Cambodian population in the United States.

David Cale’s “We’ve Only Got a Short Amount of Time” is also an autobiographical one-man show, but perhaps a bit darker. It tells of the events that prompted his move to America on his own when he was 20. And it has songs — intended to be accompanied by a string quartet. (The songs are a mix of theater and folk, some with a Kurt Weill flavor.)

“A large part of the show is a portrait of my mother, who had a very short life and, as accurately as I can,” Cale said. “So I have basically been trying to jog my memory of her. I want to play her. I was 16 when she died. It’s about remembering — so I’ve been contemplating, and writing.

“She was murdered — by my father,” Cale said. “I’ve done 11 solo shows, but I’ve never been very private about myself. I want this to be ultimately life affirming. It’s difficult.”

At Weston, Cale has particularly enjoyed the use of the Lloyd Rehearsal Studio.

“It’s really valuable for me to be in a rehearsal room,” Cale said. “When I get on my feet with it, I get ideas in a different way than I do at a desk. I’m just acting it out and writing — I’m like a secretary to myself.”

“We’ve Only Got a Short Amount of Time” goes next to a workshop production at the New Stages Festival at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.

“I’ve done six shows at the Goodman, so I have a long relationship with them,” Cale said.

Closing Saturday’s program were two uplifting and humorous country songs by Sam Lloyd Jr., Jill Tracy and Paul F. Perry, part of their new musical comedy, “… with Pam and Gill.”

Pam and Gill (Sam and Jill) are a has-been country music duo. In the ’90s, they wanted to be the next Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, but never made it. They split but stayed pals. One night, they got together with too much alcohol and the quasi-mystical self-help DVD “The Secret.”

“They got a little too excited, and in their drunken stupor, made a bulk order of 10,000 CDs they thought they’d be able to sell,” Lloyd said. “So they now have boxes of CDs — and the only way to get rid of them is to go back on the road. So, the band gets back together, and the show is one of their concerts.

“Pam and Gill are not the headliners,” Lloyd said. “So there are people in the crowd heckling Pam and Gill, yelling for the next band, that sort of thing. They’re opening that night for big Daddy D and the Longhorns.”

All the band members are real “characters,” so the Weston time was filled fleshing out those characters, as well as refining songs. Those band members include a Roy Orbison wannabe, and a preteen girl from the local middle school. “It’s so great that we’ve been able to all be in one place for a week,” Lloyd said. “We all have different schedules. Jill has four kids.”

The three hope to be able to workshop it around when they return to Los Angeles.

“This has really taken it to a significantly different level,” Tracy said.

Weston Playhouse

For information about Weston Playhouse, its 2017 season, its Artist Residency, go online to www.westonplayhouse.org.