Fifteen years ago, Vermont filmmaker Bess O'Brien helmed an ambitious project in which teens from across the state worked together to write and perform an original musical. Touching on topics from peer pressure to racial identity, The Voices Project — from Kingdom County Productions, with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont as its main underwriter — toured 11 Vermont towns and was the subject of a New York Times article. This year, O'Brien presents a new reiteration of the project. After making six films in a row, including Vermont-based documentaries The Hungry Heart and Coming Home, O'Brien said she was eager to switch gears and "use a different artistic muscle." In the summer of 2018, she pitched the Listen Up Project to the Vermont Department of Health and Blue Cross and Blue Shield. They committed $100,000 and $150,000 respectively.
Then O'Brien got to work. "You can't write a show about teens unless you talk to teens," she said. So, for seven months, she crisscrossed the state interviewing more than 900 teens from diverse backgrounds at schools, community centers, afterschool programs and youth conferences to find out what was happening in their lives, what they valued and what they wanted others to know about them. Next, she and cowriter Gary Miller recruited a team of 15 youths from around the state to help write the musical. Now O'Brien is looking for local teen actors and musicians to be part of the production, which will be directed by Northern Vermont University theatre professor and Blue Man Group alum Isaac Eddy and musically directed by Lyric Theatre collaborator Nate Venet.
Teen musicians will come together in April to write the songs for the show. Actors will be cast in March and rehearse at Lyndon Institute for three weeks in August. The show will premiere on September 12 and tour for five weekends at 12 locations across the state.