WAM Theatre's Girls Ensemble seeks justice through new play; debuts July 25

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LENOX — Twelve teenagers from from five different Berkshire towns and eight local schools showed up to their first rehearsal of WAM Theatre's Girls Ensemble last Monday morning, and were asked by the directors to begin to devise work they could perform together that represents their views of "justice." By Friday afternoon, they responded with original synchronized step dance, several songs and dramatic monologues delivered with raw emotion.

During that rehearsal, guitar-wielding singer-songwriter, Kris Rock, led his fellow ensemble members through a rehearsal of "Build a Castle," a song he composed just for the group. In unison, accompanying themselves on their own guitars and ukuleles, they sat in a circle and sang, "... because this is now my battle / and I will fight to save / and rebuild what you've destroyed / to win peace that I crave ..."

This comes just moments after a dramatic scene of a young woman testifying before a judge and jury about being harassed while walking alone through a park. The protagonist, "Lucy," begins to explain how, "Instead of focusing on the act they decided to ask me ..."

To which the ensemble echoes in cross-examination, "Now Lucy, what were you wearing?"

It's a refrain victims of sexual assault pleading for justice know all too well.

These young people are neither ignorant of nor immune to the trials taking place in the world around them.

Body image, suicide, gender identity and activism are among the other issues they broach in their yet unfinished work.

They've got this week left to put their performance on solid ground before it debuts on the evening of July 25, at WAM's annual Midsummer Cocktail Party Benefit, before benefactors, guests and their friends and families. Organizers hope to raise funds, in part, to allow the ensemble to tour their show at local schools and community centers in the fall, and to continue to work together.

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WAM Associate Artistic Director Talya Kingston and WAM Teaching Artist Amy Brentano, who are co-directing the troupe, use words like "creative" and "brave" to describe their students.

"They have shared moving and personal accounts of injustice that they have experienced in their own lives," said Kingston. "I'm consistently surprised by the depths they're able to go to and the trust and faith they put into each other. That gives me a lot of hope."

The directors get to spend five hours a day leading the youths through theater games and activities and exercises, watching the teens teach themselves and teach each other how to put those techniques into practice using their own words and ideas and expressions.

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"It is thrilling to be witness to such empowerment," Brentano said.

The group has been meeting in downtown Lenox, both in the WAM Theatre offices and in the donated space of Lenox Yoga studio, located in what's known as The Curtis Hotel building. It's the third such group WAM has convened since the 2015-16 school year, and while called the Girls Ensemble, it includes people between the ages of 13 and 18 who may be cisgender or non-binary conforming.

Another way the group has changed since its launch is that the participants are now, in alignment with WAM's mission, paid a stipend for their performance work.

"I think the fact that they're putting time into talking with girls and that they're willing to pay them to do masterpieces, in their own right, is inspiring," said Bre Lytle, 16, of Pittsfield.

Both Brentano and Kingston say paying the young actors has raised the bar for the students' sense of responsibility to and ownership of their performance, which is devised without an initial script or assigned roles.

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"It was kind of intimidating at first," said 13-year-old Maddy LaRock of Lee. This summer marks her first foray into acting. Thinking she was going to work behind the scenes, LaRock is, at times, front and center, with movements and lines.

Tess Albee, 18, of Otis, felt another kind of intimidation at the beginning of the week. She said she wasn't sure how to interpret the theme of justice. "Sometimes it's hard for me to speak out for others because usually I try to just be quiet. But I'm happy I learned," she said.

"Devised theater is not only fun to be a part of, but it's meaningful too because we're able to spread a message," said 15-year-old Crystal Moore of Pittsfield, who plays that role of Lucy in the production. "This is an especially excellent way to make sure your voice is heard."

In addition to having varying levels of theater experience, few of the participants knew one another prior to beginning rehearsals last week.

Lytle said that while their ensemble is so different in terms of identity and backgrounds, they've worked well together because, "we were so open-minded to others' opinions and thoughts."

Tessa Hanson, 13, of Pittsfield said, that the group's members are at an age where they're particularly in tune to social media and how people can be both empathetic and helpful and also painfully cruel and judgemental.

"Yes, we are younger," she said, "but we're old enough to realize these problems, and we're old enough to start being able to do something about it, and help these problems to be solved."


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