Now that the Burning Passions Theatre production Jessie’s Song has completed its tour of Lanark County, with a final performance in Almonte, the play’s producers are already planning next year’s show, a new take on the challenges faced by rural teenagers.
Jessie’s Song, which focused on the impact of teen suicide on a community, inspired intense discussions after each of its six performances in the county, with everyone from teenagers to grandparents sharing honest and difficult stories about challenges they are dealing with.
“Time and again, we heard from teenagers that they feel disconnected from the community, not heard by adults or, when listened to, either not believed, or treated in a patronizing manner,” says the show’s director and dramaturge, Laurel Smith. “It was also good for the teenagers in attendance to hear from adults who do care, and to come away feeling that there are allies they can approach to speak about their concerns and obstacles. But it should come as no surprise to us that in today’s world, life is tough for a lot of teens, and services that are available are under-resourced and often difficult to access when they’re needed most.”
The troupe members themselves – performers Ruby Davidson, Kaija Evangelho, Tara Kreissler, and Garrett Pipher, technical assistant Vincent Bracegirdle, and social support worker Gillian Scott – found the whole experience a transformative one that allowed them to develop a close bond with one another while handling such a difficult subject matter.
Jessie’s Song came together based on a concept proposed by Laurel Smith; troupe members provided input, shared stories, improvised scenes, and wrote monologues, which were then put together, edited, and streamlined into a full play with additional scenes by Smith, who has written and directed similar shows for youth both in Lanark County and in Toronto.
“I had an amazing experience working on this project,” says Kreissler, who was a member of last year’s Listen Up, Perth! pilot project, and played the role of a conflicted bully in Jessie’s Song. “I got to meet wonderful people, I got to try a new type of role I’ve never played before, and overall it was a great learning experience. I feel that after working on this play, it gave me a better understanding of the stages of grief, and how a variety of different people would actually be affected by something as tragic as suicide. I’m very pleased at the outcome of this project, and I hope we touched many hearts and eased a few minds.”
Pipher, who played both a teacher and a grieving parent, agrees, adding, “The creative process of this show was unlike anything I’ve ever done before. I’ve written shows, and the very early steps were about the same: developing the characters and general plot line, but from there, the play came to life in a whole new manner. It was very exciting, and creatively challenging, and it’s an experience I will never forget. Not to mention how great it was working with such an awesome group of creative individuals. I look forward to seeing what the future holds for all of us.”
For Pipher, that future includes working as a member of the Classic Theatre Festival’s Youth Theatre Training Project this summer in two productions: the annual Perth through the Ages historical theatrical walking tour, which will run 5 mornings a week, 11 am to 12 noon, from June 22 to August 28, and the Friday night Lonely Ghosts Walk, July 1 to August 26 at 7 pm. The former will focus on early relations between the Algonquin people – who have lived in the region for more than 8,000 years, and whose advice and assistance was critical for the survival of the European settlers who colonized the area 200 years ago – while the Ghost walk will look at the ill effects of alcohol and Perth’s early history as a distillery town.
Smith is currently preparing final details for the Classic Theatre Festival’s mainstage season as well, which will feature two comedies – Neil Simon’s I Ought to Be in Pictures and George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man – as well as the gripping mystery An Inspector Calls, all part of an expanded season running June 22 to September 11. Early bird tickets with significant savings are on sale until May 15.