MIDDLEBURY — Ten Westover drama students, joined by eight guest performers, took to the virtual stage on May 20 to present a live Zoom production of an original play, “OUR TOWN 2020,” that they helped create this spring to document the school community’s experiences of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“OUR TOWN 2020” was a compilation of true stories from the Westover community collected through interviews. This “Verbatim Theater” model is a type of documentary theater based on the spoken words of real people. The devised virtual theater production captured “snapshots” from this momentous moment in history.
The inspiration for “OUR TOWN 2020” came from the famous play “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder, which focuses on the residents of Grover’s Corners, a small town in New Hampshire at the turn of the 20th Century.
During the first three days of the term-long production, Westover Director of Drama Marla Truini had the students read the Wilder play aloud in a virtual rehearsal space, then
reflect on its themes that are still so resonant today: “how we often go through life without an appreciation for the things that really matter, oblivious to the importance of life’s little moments until it is too late,” she explained.
“The goal of ‘OUR TOWN 2020’ is to bring people together in a shared humanity through capturing the moments of our lives,” Ms. Truini said, “so the students crafted interview questions to reflect life in this time of coronavirus self-isolation practices, such as: ‘What do you miss the most?’ ‘What are you most afraid of?’ ‘What was something you wished you had done when you had the opportunity?’ and ‘Is there a silver lining to this situation?’”
The students interviewed each other, then reached out to classmates, teachers and other members of the community.
“The process worked very smoothly,” said Ms. Truini, who served as director and producer for the play.
The recorded interviews were first transcribed verbatim by the students, then edited slightly into performance pieces. Rehearsals continued to take place in the virtual rehearsal room, with students learning on-camera technique from guest teachers — professional actresses Glynnis O’Connor (who had played Emily in a groundbreaking NBC production of “Our Town” in 1977) and Aran Savory, who studied Verbatim Theater at Vassar College and the Konstantin Raikin School in Moscow, Russia.
Ms. Truini also connected with a colleague, Molly Triveline, a theater educator at the Raymond S. Kellis School in Phoenix, Ariz.
“We were in touch about a month ago and shared stories about what our students were doing,” she said. “Hers were writing short plays about issues surrounding the pandemic, so I invited her and her students to come to one of our rehearsals and the students all shared their work. It was a great session.”
Student actors/writers include senior Kasey Ingerson of Watertown; juniors Madeline Abate of Naugatuck, Wava Chan of Brookfield, Sabina Wilson of Southbury and Katy Wolff of Westport; sophomores Jillian Brown of Bronx, N.Y., Laetitia Heyne of Dornaeckerweg, Germany, JaMara Jean of West Orange, N.J., and Beldine Atieno Wasonga of Nairobi, Kenya; and freshman Alexis Mays of Oxford.
The students were joined by members of the Trinity Pawling School community in Pawling, N.Y., including Director of Theater Arts Kent Burnham, his wife, Tracy Liz Miller, and their daughter, Vivian Burnham.
Rounding out the cast were Kate Truini, a member of Westover’s Class of 2009, Technical Director Ian Diedrich, Glynnis O’Connor and her brother, actor/director Brian O’Connor, and Jane Sparks, a tutor and former teacher from Salisbury School.
Ms. O’Connor also coached the students in on-camera acting.
“Unlike the students’ experience working on stage, these performances are all closeups,” she said. “What I could offer them from my experience, basically, is that it is all in the eyes. So, you bring the acting down. If you do all your prep work, all your homework, it will come across and you don’t have to accentuate it.”
The creation of “OUR TOWN 2020” came about after Westover’s original spring term production had to be canceled because of the pandemic.
“OUR TOWN 2020” truly is living history,” Ms. Truini said.