Bobby Bermea: Devising the future at Hand2Mouth

The Portland theater company's Youth Devising Residency program teaches young people stage skills and more. The show they created, "What Brings You Here?," is at PSU March 7-9.

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Hans2Mouth's young devisers for "What Brings You Here?" Back row: Aurelius Lillie, Finn Burney, and Calypso "Cal" Kupper. Second row: Mila Lammers, Seth Kirlin, Alabaster Richard, Arlo Austin, Vivian Ellis, Lynn Ledgerwoood, Milo Knoke. Front row: Miles Franklin, Cristina Purkey, Vesper Malony, Photo: Roy Arauz
Hand2Mouth’s young devisers for “What Brings You Here?” Back row: Aurelius Lillie, Finn Burney, and Calypso “Cal” Kupper. Second row: Mila Lammers, Seth Kirlin, Alabaster Richard, Arlo Austin, Vivian Ellis, Lynn Ledgerwoood, Milo Knoke. Front row: Miles Franklin, Cristina Purkey, Vesper Malony, Photo: Roy Arauz

Sometimes creating theater isn’t about making art. It’s about making people. Or rather, about helping these people take an active hand in creating their own lives and their best selves.

For Jenni GreenMiller, Hand2Mouth Theatre’s education director, that company’s Youth Devising Residency Program is on one level about giving 14–18-year-old students an opportunity to make art and express themselves via means they might not normally have at their disposal. On another level it’s about giving them a chance to make connections and work with professional artists. But on a deeper, more significant plane, it’s an opportunity for those same young people to look to themselves to find creative answers to questions that are shaping their lives, now and in the future.

The 2023/24 cohort of YDR will present their original piece, What Brings You Here? this weekend, at 7 p.m. Friday-Sunday, March 7, 8, and 9, at the Boiler Room in Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall.

The Youth Devising Residency was borne out of a question GreenMiller once asked of her Hand2Mouth colleagues. “What if we had,” she remembers saying,”‘a year-round ensemble for youth that was centralized around devising?”

For GreenMiller, the need went beyond filling the gap where schools were cutting their arts programs (though that is also a tremendous concern). “I’ve been working with kids forever in theater,” she says, “and I find especially after the pandemic that there is this ’just tell me what to do’ attitude from students. ‘Tell me where to go.’ My goal for the program is to provide kids a place of expression. But also, to say to them, ‘There is no script yet. It’s not a test. There are no answers. We together in the ensemble are going to figure it out.’ I think that that’s a really unique experience … I worry that if our youth don’t have a chance to be innovative, then what happens with our future as human beings?”

“It’s a learning experience for everyone involved,” says Isabel McTighe, What Brings You Here? co-director and Hand2Mouth teaching artist, “but it’s not class. In the public school system you move through the day and through your life being told where to go and where to stand and how to hold your body and what the right answer is. It’s been really fun to work with this group of young artists and give them the opportunity to explore and make these decisions for themselves.”

The young people in question tend to agree. For YDR ensemble member Miles Franklin, the most fun aspect of the process is “the amount of freedom they give us to create a whole story … the whole devising process and the amount of ideas that we’re able to process through.”

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Another ensemble member, Vivian Ellis, says, “In the very early stages of the process you have no idea what anyone else is thinking and you’re in the mode of just creating and creating and creating; you’re having all these different perspectives, you’re in this fog of creativity and you’re just living it. I think it’s an incredibly valuable experience to not know what’s going on and still create the art.”

Likewise, Seth Kirlin says: “When we were devising and brainstorming and doing our improv thing and putting things together there were a lot of ‘Ah ha!’ moments where, like, ‘That fits together with this’ and the puzzle pieces were connecting and it was really cool because you could see everyone have a switch flip in their head and have a light bulb turn on.”

Poster for Hand2Mouth Theatre's Youth Devising Residency show "What Brings You Here?"

The Youth Devising Residency Program takes place over the majority of the school year. The process begins during Hand2Mouth’s annual summer camps. “Our summer camp pays teens to not only be camp counselors but to also be artists,” says GreenMiller. “We pay them to create. From that pool of students from around the greater Portland area, we invite them back to be part of the year-long ensemble.”

Once the participants have been found, YDR is divided into three phases. “The first phase,” says McTighe, “was workshop devising and skills learning. The second phase was writing the script. The third phase, that we’re coming to the end of now, is rehearsing the play that they’ve created.” 

According to GreenMiller, the first year was slow. They had six kids and the pandemic was still dictating everything, so they were forced to make a film. The next year, they were down to five students. And then this season, the cohort exploded to fourteen students. “It’s a lot of voices and a lot of energy,” says GreenMiller, laughing. “I remember at the beginning we asked how do we facilitate creating something around all these fabulous ideas?”

Not every student is called upon to perform, but there are students involved in every aspect of the project. “Some people who have not been able to make it to as many rehearsals still have a role of equal importance that is adapted to them,” says YDR participant Alabaster Richard.There are [jobs] like technicians or assistant directors, or people who are primarily writers.”

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“It gives you a little taste of professionalism,” says fellow student-artist Lynn Ledgerwood, “and of what the real world is like before you leave high school.” There are other life lessons as well — some, more constructive and applicable to professional life. “You have to fight for your ideas,” continues Ledgerwood. “Otherwise they’ll get tossed into the trash bin.” And some more mundane. “I hate driving to work.”

What Brings You Here? is part drama, part comedy, and a large part horror. It’s borne out of the very real trepidation the young people have about their place in the real world they are soon to become a part of. The overarching metaphor of the play is a labyrinth. “Not a physical labyrinth,” says Richard, who plays the Administrator, mastermind of the labyrinth, “but it’s a series of challenges.” 

“That’s the basis of the show,” says GreenMiller, “an uncanny labyrinth of fears that just cycle through the brain over and over and over again.”

Seth Kirlin (green hair), Isabel McTighe, Jenni GreenMiller, and Michael Cavazos during a Youth Devising Residency session. Photo: Bobby Bermea
Seth Kirlin (green hair), Isabel McTighe, Jenni GreenMiller, and Michael Cavazos during a Youth Devising Residency session. Photo: Bobby Bermea

What Brings You Here? the play follows five characters who are contestants in they-know-not-what, and what happens to them when they are forced to face their deepest fears.

“They’re talking a lot about fear and moving into the unknown and not knowing what’s coming next and the fear that that brings up,” says McTighe. “Some of the students are having the opportunity to embody those fears, how they move, how they might talk back to us. Other students are having the opportunity to stand there in front of someone who is portraying that fear and talk directly to the fear.”

When talking to the students, words like “community” and “collaboration” come up a lot. This speaks to the environment that GreenMiller, McTighe and the rest of Hand2Mouth have established over the years. All of the young people talk about having made friends through the program.

“Originally, when I got into this process I was scared because I did know some of them but not super well,” says Alabaster Richard. “But as I’ve been able to see them on stage and as I’ve been able to see them act, and as we’ve been writing together I feel like not only do I get their writing styles and their way of acting better, but I have a better onstage and offstage chemistry with them, where we can push the boundaries a bit more and take more creative risks.”

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For several of the students, this was a repeat Hand2Mouth experience. YDR alumnus Reine Bieker has kept returning to participate even after graduating. “I didn’t think I’d ever be a teacher,” says Bieker, “but it’s great getting to work with kids and maybe inspire a love for theater later on. It’s good employment and I get to do what I like.”

These young people have had to overcome a lot to get to where they are. All of them experienced societal isolation during the pandemic (isolation is another big theme of the piece). This year there was inclement weather and a teachers strike disrupting their daily lives. But through it all, Hand2Mouth has given them something to come back to, and the  students have responded. They have taken that disruption and the fear it engenders, the confusion it causes, and turned it into art.

“I like that aspect of taking things in our lives and putting them into the piece,” says Franklin. “I’m so happy to have been a part of it. It’s really easy to make a lot of friends here and to collaborate with a bunch of people and grow as a writer and a human being.”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bobby Bermea is an award-winning actor, director, writer and producer. He is co-artistic director of Beirut Wedding, a founding member of Badass Theatre and a long-time member of both Sojourn Theatre and Actors Equity Association. Bermea has appeared in theaters from New York, NY, to Honolulu, HI. In Portland, he’s performed at Portland Center Stage, Artists Repertory Theatre, Portland Playhouse, Profile Theatre, El Teatro Milagro, Sojourn Theatre, Cygnet Productions, Tygre’s Heart, and Life in Arts Productions, and has won three Drammy awards. As a director he’s worked at Beirut Wedding, BaseRoots Productions, Profile Theatre, Theatre Vertigo and Northwest Classical, and was a Drammy finalist. He’s the author of the plays Heart of the City, Mercy and Rocket Man. His writing has also appeared in bleacherreport.com and profootballspot.com.

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