‘Present Tense” begins with a heartbeat. Six teenagers, all of whom have experienced a death in the family, create what the Arena Stage Voices of Now program calls “a group breathing tableau.”
Imagine what your body would do if you exaggerated how it felt to breathe. Inhale: bend down, shoulders hunched, arms in. Exhale: press shoulder blades together, arms out wide. In, out, in, out.
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.”
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.
There is no “as before,” the ensemble says. Before is another place, a place that no longer exists.
They say: “People think grief is an active thing you do after someone dies and when you are done it is over. But it is not that easy.”
“In my house, nothing feels the same. It’s really quiet and you just know that something is missing.”
“The water isn’t as blue at the pool.”
“Now I wake up to say, ‘Good morning,’ and I don’t get an answer.”
Ten years ago, when Forman founded VON, the program had just one ensemble of students, from neighboring Jefferson Middle School.
“At the time, there was some tensions between the [adult] populations and the younger generation,” said Forman. “There was a little more gang activity, a little more of a disconnect.” Forman wanted to “create a conversation that would knock the socks off the older generation, to show what the students were capable of, [and] would also reflect [the younger generation’s] voices and experiences.”
The program has since expanded to include 174 young artists. Some ensembles are school-based while others, like the Wendt Center group, are tied to a common interest or experience. A handful of rules and a shared physical vocabulary govern all VON performances: everyone is onstage for the entire performance, everything is blocked down to the minute, there are no props or costumes. Plays should be able to be performed anywhere, at any time. VON choreography is a hybrid of yoga, various movement theories, dance and American Sign Language.
Physical discipline is a crucial part of the performance, said Forman. “The more committed that artists are physically, the more likely the audience will take seriously what they’re saying.”
During weekly two-hour rehearsals, artists take part in a number of writing exercises — scribbling free responses to a question on a “graffiti wall,” keeping journals, sharing personal stories in group therapy-style sessions — and the teaching artists pull from all that material and craft a 30-minute script.
“We go over every line [with the artists] and make sure it’s bringing us closer to the conversation,” said Forman. “Those students really get heard.”
Jairrels had never done a play before joining VON. At the Wendt Center, “I did the group for teens [where] you sit around in a circle and talk about our stories. . . . It felt a little more forced. It was very uncomfortable.”
VON, she said, engages artists on a different level. “When you’re doing a play, you’re using everything. . . . You use your emotions, your mind, your voice. You speak, you move your body with it, and I think that’s what’s really profound about it. And people watch you, so they get the message directly from you.”
All VON ensembles hold a special performance just for their community, which means “Present Tense” will be seen by some of the very people with whom the artists express frustration, anger and hurt: parents, classmates, counselors.
Jairrels was nervous about that performance last year, she said, and the group has to be “gutsy” to get through some of the scenes, like one in which Ben Green describes how a counselor completely failed at helping him. “These guidance counselors will be there. I think it’s a dose of reality about what does go on. It’s the truth. The truth is hard. But I think it needs to be said.”
She thinks her ensemble is ready. “I’ve never been able to share my story in this or any kind of way,” she said. “I love it. I feel like it’s very empowering.”
May 15-19 at Arena Stage. 1101 Sixth Street SW, www.arenastage.org. : 202-488-3300 Tickets are free, but reservations are required.