An original production will bring youth and elders together in a Hopkins musical focused on peace.
The collaboration centers on two groups whose perspectives are often overlooked and puts them at center stage.
Sandy Boren-Barrett and Michael Matthew Ferrell came together with their respective organizations, Stages Theatre Company and Alive & Kickin,’ to create a show called “Peace 4 the Ages,” which debuts in March.
Stages has produced youth theater productions since 1984; Alive & Kickin’ has celebrated performers ages 60 and older for 10 years. Both organizations prioritize giving a voice to people who don’t always have one, said Ferrell.
“Oftentimes in both of those worlds, those voices are stifled, they’re discounted. People don’t take them seriously,” Ferrell said.
The cast of 28 people ranges in age from 11 to 87, making their perspectives on peace complex and varied. “For many of these young people, they’re not often asked what peace really means to them,” Boren-Barrett said.
The 90-minute show consists of writings, songs, video and dance, among other elements. Its heart comes from friendships formed through a pen-pal connection. Each participant wrote three letters to their pen pal before their first meeting.
“We decided the best way for them to connect was to be paired up and begin letter-writing,” Boren-Barrett said. Each group was given a prompt, she said, “that started the conversation in a really nonjudgmental, nonthreatening way.”
All the pairings put pen to paper to write about what peace felt like to them — or what peace wasn’t.
“We’re not telling them what their perspective on peace should be,” Boren-Barrett said. “We are just engaging them in conversation to figure out what it is to them.”
While their first letter was fairly formal, cast member Mary Ponthan of St. Louis Park said the second letter allowed her to open up about her travels, funny songs and her experiences.
“The farther on with the letters we got, the more articulate we got and the more truthful he got,” Ponthan, 75, said of her peace partner, Sayer Keeley, 15, of Shoreview.
“And so at the end of the letters, the letters were intensely human.”
“I remember saying something like peace is just overall togetherness,” Keeley said. “Just being a part of one huge diverse group of people that all accept each other and care about each other.”
Ponthan took a different spin on peace.
“I said that I thought peace was listening to a bird outside of my window with the TV off and no radio and conversations about nothing,” Ponthan said.
Eric Paulson, 59, of Bloomington, was paired with 15-year-old Samara Koshiol of Eden Prairie.
“It was very important that we physically wrote the letter,” Paulson said. “We really had to think about what we were writing to a person we didn’t really know,” he said, adding that he hadn’t written an emotional letter like that in a long time.
Koshiol’s reaction was similar. “This is unlike anything I’ve ever done before,” said Koshiol, who said she had never handwritten a letter.
“I knew that I was getting to know a kind person, but I couldn’t visualize them at first,” she said.
To read their final letter, the elders met in one room and the young people in another to read them separately. Then all the cast members came together to meet their partners.
“It was really beautiful,” Boren-Barrett said, and surprisingly humorous.
“It was so funny, because so many of the elders were like, ‘I kept laying out different clothes thinking this is like a first date, what am I gonna wear?’ They all wanted to get to know this person on a really unique level,” Boren-Barrett said.
The pairs then embarked on a face-to-face partnership that will last several months. With elders who have served and children who have been bullied, these rehearsals can be tear-jerkers, said Ferrell.
“I literally just sobbed right in the rehearsal,” Ferrell said. “Regardless of where you’re from, how you grew up, your economic status — peace is something that is universal, that every person can talk about.”
The choose-your-own adventure nature of the production has been in the works for more than a year. The process got fully underway with a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board in June 2019.
Keeley and Ponthan have been involved with theater for years but there are no shows like this one, they agreed.
“This show is just very different, because I’m really used to being in shows with a very set story line,” Keeley said. “This is more just like an overall, ‘Let’s enjoy what we are together and not focus on where we’re going or what we’re doing.’ It’s just us together, showing you guys peace together,” Keeley said.
“They’re not asking us to be someone that we’re not,” Ponthan added. “So it’s not a lot of work to be a character because we’re already characters enough.”
The creators hope attendees feel reflective, inspired and challenged — just as the cast members have been — about peace, age and having a voice.
They also hope the intergenerational production will attract a diverse audience.
“I think it will be very reflective for people,” Paulson said. Ponthan agreed.
“It’s real easy to clump everybody together and say the big word ‘they,’ ” she said.
“And what this does is it gives us a chance to not only individually see someone, but an entire group.”