Julia Kitonis is ambitious, thoughtful, and has a keen understanding of the importance of art as a catalyst for connection. Through the Nexus program at Champlain Valley Union high school, where she is a senior, she and her friend and fellow student Caroline Pastore have produced a play that is performed in two languages simultaneously—English and American Sign Language. “Songs for a New World” runs this weekend at the Flynn Space on May 26, 27, and 28.
Pastore and Kitonis describe the show as “a theatrical collaboration of Deaf and hearing talent here in Vermont. Our cast is made up of a diverse group of individuals of varying ages, experiences, and places on the hearing spectrum. Our goal is to bring the vibrant Deaf community and arts community of Vermont together.”
The Nexus Program at CVU is a flexible program that offers students the ability to pursue individual projects and develop learning experiences based on their interests. In Kitonis’s case, that included theater, human rights, and American Sign Language.
The first semester of the project, Kitonis said, focused on studying the “language, history, and culture of the deaf community, but I kept coming back to theater.” Inspired by a revival of “Spring Awakening” by the American Deaf West Theater in Los Angeles, she decided to tackle a play of her own.
Written by Jason Robert Brown, “Songs for a New World,” Kitonis said, is a series of vignettes that link together to tell a story.
“It’s not a traditional show in that there’s a storyline going through it,” she said. The songs are each performed by two actors, one singing and one signing. The challenge, Kitonis said, was for her and the actors to communicate with each other despite the language barrier, and for all of them to figure out what they wanted to say and how to say it.
“Part of what makes art really important to human culture and society is that it invokes empathy, and it doesn’t have to be interpreted in the same way,” Kitonis said. While working on the play, she said she was “thinking about accessibility of theater, and how important it is in my life, and how I can’t imagine not being able to hear it.”
Figuring out a way for others to hear it became a mission for her and Pastore, and Kitonis said they both learned an important lesson about art and communication during the process. “The best way to understand a community and get rid of fear or trepidation is to see them from an artistic standpoint,” she said.
“Songs for a New World” was sponsored by Dealer.com and is presented through special arrangement with Music Theatre International. The show was also funded through private donations.
Pastore will attend SUNY Purchase in the fall, majoring in theater technology and design with a concentration in stage management, and Kitonis will attend the University of Vermont and pursue a double major in theater and history.
“When you see someone performing, acting, telling a story in stage, whether you understand the exact language, it invokes, ‘I’m human, you’re human, I understand that,’” Kitonis said. “And it helps bridge that gap.”
Tickets for the show can be purchased through the Flynn Box Office or online through Flynn Tix.