In 'Off the Grid,' students explore technology, relationships of past, present, future

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Jenn Smith — The Berkshire Eagle

RICHMOND — "Maybe there's more to the world than our iPhone," quips eighth-grader Joe Weinberg. Or is there?

This is just one of the themes audiences are invited to explore when "Off the Grid," an original devised intergenerational theater piece debuts this weekend at Richmond Consolidated School. The script is devised from the conversations generated through a months-long collaboration with senior residents of the town, several of whom have volunteered to take on roles in the play.

It began back in October, with 20 middle school students and eight residents participating in an intergenerational workshop. Guided by director and educator Amy Brentano, through prompts, research and theater games, the group explored generational stereotypes and issues of ageism, as well as perceptions of the effects of the digital age on communication and relationships.

"As kids, we're always thinking about what will happen in the future, but this workshop got us thinking about what happened in the past too," said eighth-grader Cate Bennett.

Eighth-grader Cassidy Kenney said some of her peers admitted they were "scared of old people," and generally avoided talking to them in their daily lives. But put in room week after week, the two generations opened up to one another, developing friendships, and a newfound mutual respect after sharing their dreams and fears with one another.

Eighth-grader Cate Bennett offered the example of the "courage" it took for the previous generation to have to work up the nerve to ask someone out on a date, face-to-face. "They couldn't just text each other from a phone," she said.

They also learned about the different kinds of jobs and technologies the residents used when they were in their middle and high school years, like typewriters and party-line telephone systems.

Sixth-grader Brooke Tripicco said that prior to taking part in the the workshop, "I wasn't that interested in the previous generation."

"Now," she said, "I'm kind of curious."

Richmond resident Linda Morse said that, after listening to the students and watching them as they worked on their play, she's been "surprised and impressed at the maturity of the kids."

Volunteer Ann Larkin said that despite the fact that their devices — like iPods and smartphones — are never too far from reach, the students are "so generous and kind to each other. That's the spirit and energy I feel from them."

In "Off the Grid," the students take on the heavy lift of dialogue, song and dance, but the seniors will have a presence playing a grove of redwood trees that the kids stumble upon. In this form, the elder generation echoes their wisdom and advice based on experiences past.

Sixth-grade cast member Madeleine Holmes said the workshop and play rehearsals have "made me look at the older generations in a different way. These people are really cool. I feel more connected to them."

Brentano said she hopes the students have become aware of the tendency for seniors to be "devalued" by some societies and younger generations. She said that she hopes the kids now understand the value in hearing the experiences, humor and history from those who have gone before.

"There are stories to be told," she said, "which is so important right now, with the way the world seems so divided."

Volunteer Richard Rosenfeld has been among those adults who show up to help at rehearsals even when they don't have to rehearse their scenes. He says it's a chance to learn more.

"To me, it's a reminder that there was a past life and time and there is a future life and time, and that it goes forward," he said, gesturing to the mix of youth and adults before him. "There's humanity going on here, and such energy."

Brentano said she hopes audiences pick up on this energy and enthusiasm to share their own experiences with each other. After each performance, which runs about an hour, guests are invited to stay afterward for a "talkback," during which they can ask questions and share feedback with the cast and crew.

"It has been an inspirational experience and one I would like to repeat with others," said the director. "So much came up that was relevant and the implications of such a workshop reverberate beyond the schools' walls."

If you go ...

What: "Off the Grid," an original devised intergenerational theater piece.

When: Friday at 7 p.m.; Saturday at 3 and 7 p.m. A talkback follows the hour-long performance.

Where: Richmond Consolidated School cafeteria, 1831 State Road, Richmond.

Tickets: Admission is $3 for students, $5 for adults, to support the theater program.


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