Each of the artists walks, one by one, to the center of a rehearsal room at Arena. They crouch over one another, building a bigger pile of people, and breathe in and out in unison. One organism. .
Voices of Now is a program for young artists to create and perform works of non-narrative theater that address questions of their choosing; at the five-day Voices of Now Festival beginning May 15, each of the 13 ensembles will perform and host talkbacks about their work in the Kogod Cradle at Arena.
Under the direction of three teaching artists and two grief counselors, the artists in the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing ensemble — Taylor Herndon, 15, Jessye Jairrels, 16, Ashley Gaddis, 16, Ben Green, 15, Alexis Von Utter, 13, and Tyneika Winston, 15 — are crafting a performance they hope will illuminate the feeling of grief for those who have yet to encounter it.
“I’ve heard the kids say it before: [at VON], you’re instantly in a group of people where you’re not the only one who has experienced a loss,” said Pam Lieber, one of the grief counselors from the Wendt Center. “They know, ‘I’m in this group to tell my story. I’m not holding my breath hoping no one asks me a question’ . . . They wanted the opportunity to be asked to tell their story.”
Jairrels, a high school junior, is in the ensemble for the second year in a row. “My father passed away, and I never really talked about it with my friends,” she said. “Most teenagers don’t really want to think about losing their parent. And I understand, but I’d really like to share my story with everyone. It’s nice to get my story out there and get it off my chest.”
‘The water isn’t
as blue at the pool’
Ashley Forman, VON founder and Arena’s director of education, has a relationship with the Wendt Center that dates back to her time as an Arena intern. After her father died, Forman received counseling at the Wendt Center. Arena started doing workshops at the Wendt Center’s Camp Forget-Me-Not, a weekend-long summer camp for young people who have experienced loss, in 2003. The VON grief ensemble was founded in 2009, first as with Capital Caring (then Capital Hospice) and, from 2010 on, as a partnership with the Wendt Center.
“It g[ives] the artists an additional tool to talk about their grief,” Forman said. Plenty of students balk at the idea of traditional talk therapy, she said, but “that’s not the only option.” Something like VON “can empower everybody there to be able to deal more safety with their feelings.”
The artists in “Present Tense” take popular misconceptions about grief and invert them. They rage against the oft-trotted-out tropes people say to the grieving: “He’s in a better place.” “Your dad wouldn’t want you to be upset.” They express frustration at the family members who tried to “protect them” by shielding them from the truth. They find surprising humor in mourning as depicted by Hollywood, wherein the Sad Character has a breakdown in the cafeteria until A Life-Changing Moment — she falls in love, he joins the basketball team, an adult appears who finally understands — erases the pain from Sad Character’s heart, so happiness and normalcy can resume as before.