A youth theater troupe asks what happens 100 years after we build the wall

Leah Forest and Cece Mulcahy rehearse for 'Song of Silence.' (Photo by Heather McBride, of HMCB Photography.)

There are some ideas only children’s minds can conceive, and with Yes! And… Collaborative Arts, the kids are gearing up to bring one of those ideas to life: a musical without music aptly titled The Song of Silence.

Yes! And… Collaborative Arts is a Philly-based nonprofit organization that teaches children through arts and theater, ranging from summer camps to high-school mentors to the group’s annual Winter Sort of Thing show. The Yes! And… name comes from that famous rule of improv: never say no. Instead, the camp fosters an atmosphere of collaboration — which is how The Song of Silence was born.

Can art endure in an isolated society?

The Song of Silence happens in the busy metropolis of Colliwomple. Fearing mass emigration as well as the stream of outsiders constantly coming and going, the townsfolk decide to erect a wall separating their town from the rest of the world. The play then skips forward 100 years to examine the results of that decision, while a group of children question the need for the wall and, in the process, reignite song and dance in the town. 

“The idea for all of our shows comes from conversations and workshops that our resident playwright and artistic director Brooke Sexton has with the kids in this program,” says Yes! And... executive director Michael Brix. “The idea of ‘no music’ came from the idea that, if a society was completely cut off from others, would it begin to lose important things like music or art? If this society celebrated ‘sameness,’ would imagination and creativity be considered dangerous?”

It’s a not-so-subtle riff on the current political climate and conversations happening all over the country. Brix describes the story's progression as taking the idea of a “wall” and the isolation it brings to its logical conclusion. “One of the things that makes old Colliwomple a 'great' town is how much activity it has,” he says. But fear — of loss, of the other, of change — eventually stamps out that activity. 

Key questions from the kids  

Of course, The Song of Silence is still very much a musical, so there’s only so much silence it can maintain. Music director Timothy Hill, a Germantown folk musician, uses variations of rhythm and tone, each building on the other, to demonstrate the process of relearning music as the children of Colliwomple challenge its isolation. Fittingly, the cast will play instruments onstage for the first time in Yes! And...’s 10-year history. Gavin Whitt directs, with an original score by NYU's Tisch School of the Arts alum Sarah C. Butts-Manzo.

Whether they’re playing the instruments or conceptualizing the plot, Yes! And...’s kids are at the heart of the play. To Brix, their perspective is critical in pulling off the story's key message. “At the first read-through [with the children], there were a lot of questions,” he says. “We talked about what they would do if faced with a lifetime of no music, no art, no dancing. We talked a lot about how sometimes decisions get made because people are scared and try to do the right thing.” 

“There is a particular gift the audience receives from seeing the world through [the children’s] eyes. This story would not be the same if it were a bunch of older people, stuck in their ways, full of fear themselves. We definitely trade on the passion and unearned confidence of these youth to see that a better world is possible, in Colliwomple and here, too,” he says.

The Winter Sort of Thing performance from Yes! And… Collaborative Arts, The Song of Silence, runs for four performances February 22 through 24 at Manayunk’s Venice Island Performing Arts Center (7 Lock Street, Philadelphia). Advance tickets ($15 for adults; $12 for seniors and kids) are available online

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