A man and women sit at a kitchen table, and the room is as tense as the clash of the freight train passing in the dark. Their teenage daughter is alone in her room. She has gone upstairs, coming home late from they don’t know where, and they’re afraid.
“Let’s stop this conversation right here.”
He’s the minister in a midwestern town where dancing is illegal. He got the bylaw passed years ago, and his daughter is becoming friends with the new kid who wants to turn it over. Now his wife is looking him in the eye, trying to call out the man she used to recognize.
And tonight they’re all teenagers. The new boy from the city and his mother, the reverend’s daughter and her friends, and the reverend Shaw and his wife — all appear this weekend in Berkshire Theatre Group’s youth production of Footloose.
It’s known as a high-energy comedy with a soundtrack of 1980s hits, about a group of friends bringing new life and energy to a community, and it is, say Alex Boyd as Ren McCormack, Kate Goble as Ariel Moore and Izzy Brown as Lyle — and for them the play has a new resonances in this unpredictable pandemic spring.
It feels relevant as the story of a community going through grief and loss, said director Kathy Jo Grover, and she is buoyed by the energy all the cast bring in with them.
“We were not able to have kids in for so long, for any kind of work,” she said. “(When the pandemic began) we were in a rehearsal, and we had to just stop.”
As soon as safety allowed, the theater began talking about bringing them back. She and executive director Kate Maguire began talking about a performance for older kids who could be vaccinated. And through it’s comedy and friendship, for her Footloose touches on the toll of the pandemic — “the loss of people, which is huge, and the loss of all of what we do.”
When the pandemic hit, she said, she knew young people who had been heading into the world, who left the city to go home, often to small towns with different world views, just as Ren does in the play.
Ren’s father has left without warning, said Alex Boyd, sitting on stage at the Colonial Theatre and thinking over his role. Ren’s mother has struggled to find a job, and after unstable months they are leaving Chicago and moving in with her sister and brother-in-law.
‘In a way it expresses a lot of issues in the world now — diversity, freedom of speech, and grief, especially.’ — Alex Boyd
“… He’s angry,” Boyd said, “and his way of expressing it is through dancing and the arts. In Chicago he can go out to clubs.”
Now he can’t do that, and he challenges the people who are trying to control him.
“He likes stirring up drama,” Boyd said. “But inside he doesn’t. He doesn’t know how else to deal with the sadness of his father leaving. He needs Ariel and Willard and Rusty, his friends. He relates to Ariel because they have both lost someone — not in the same sense, but still, he has to get through grieving.”
“Alex and I have been talking about the differences and similarities in the losses,” said Kate Goble as Ariel Moore, the minister’s daughter. “His father left, and my brother died.”
In the play, restriction comes from a shared loss. In Bomont, five years ago, four teenagers drove off a bridge. They were coming back from a party late at night, all of them drunk and high. And that grief shook the whole town.
“While you’re watching the show, you’re also watching a town that had something horrible happen to it learn how to heal from trauma and right some wrongs,” said Izzy Brown, who plays Lyle, a friend of a Bomont teen with a hard past.
‘While you’re watching the show, you’re also watching a town that had something horrible happen to it learn how to heal from trauma and right some wrongs.’ — Izzy Brown
“In a way it expresses a lot of issues in the world now,” Boyd said — “diversity, freedom of speech, and grief, especially. … Each character shows different stages of grief — lashing out in anger, shutting down, keeping silent, rebelling.”
He thinks of the country in Covid, grappling with death, losing control, trapped in our houses for two years.
Goble looks at the Footloose teens with their curfews and intense social pressure and thinks of sheltering in place and collective mourning, and wanting the world to go back to the way it was.
“It’s not only Lyle’s personality that can be related to modern day,” Brown agreed — “It’s the whole story.”
All three trace themes that feel intensely timely to them today, in teenagers standing up for pleasure and expression, and the freedom to live the lives that feel natural to them — and in the pressures against them.
Goble sees her own character, Ariel, challenging her distant father. She wants him to see her. She wants to dance, learn five languages, get on a train and leave town.
“I need adventure,” she says. “When Ariel rebels so much, she wants to feel something.”
Her conflict reminds Goble of colliding worldviews in her own life and at school, in conversations around pleasure and the body, including gender identity, and LGBTQ+ identities and experiences.
‘Teachers don’t understand the same way we do. We’re navigating different perspectives.’ —Kate Gobel
“Teachers don’t understand the same way we do,” she said. “We’re navigating different perspectives.”
At moments in the play, that navigation can lead to stark confrontations, often when men refuse to talk and turn anger on women who do. Grover finds a power and sadness in Learning to be Silent, as the two mothers, Vi and Ethel, and Ariel all sing together.
“It’s a strong theme, the silencing of women’s voices,” she said, in this play and in this country today, in women’s private lives and in public. “I’m hearing Kamala (Harris) say ‘I’m speaking.’”
“The world we’re living in is trying to change,” she said, “and I think rightly so, and the change is motivated by the kids. … This group of 25 kids, their ability to be accepting is amazing to me. At a time when it can feel as though everyone is yelling at each other in the world they’re accepting and talking and learning.”
The play holds an answer to that silencing, she and the actors said — in human connection.
“People think they’re doing the right thing,” Goble said, “and if you just fight, nothing will get done. If you talk and see each other’s point of view more kindly, then things will get done.”
When she first heard Ren talking to the town council and speaking Shaw’s language, quoting Ecclesiastes, there is a time to mourn and a time to dance, his argument moved her powerfully.
‘The world we’re living in is trying to change, and I think rightly so … This group of 25 kids, their ability to be accepting is amazing to me.’ — Kathy Jo Grover
“That inclusion of Biblical text, but not Biblical text that excludes,” she felt that, she said — “Biblical text that includes everybody and makes the argument that life should be beautiful is what my family tries to live by.”
Shaw himself, played by Hayden Hoffman, is is an intelligent, conflicted and charismatic character. He walks on quoting Walt Whitman — the poet of young men singing at night, drum beats scattering congregations, “… If any thing is sacred the human body is sacred” — a poet who can embody the freedom the bylaw is trying to suppress.
“Shaw is also controlled and silenced by grief and responsibility,” Goble said.
“He’s working through his own pain, and he’s a leader,” Boyd said. “It’s hard to express your own pain when you’re supposed to be helping other people, especially when you’ve lost your own son, someone you raised and knew so well. And he had to keep it together for his community, because if the leader loses it, everyone else does.”
And then he feels a shift when Ren and Shaw finally talk, face to face.
“It’s the first time you see Shaw at a weak point,” Boyd said. “They start off in pure anger, yelling back and forth, and then he tells Ren he wants to be alone — and Ren says he already is. And we see Shaw’s emotion changing, and we can see through the character who’s been built up the whole time.”