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Yoga-inspired play considers the 'whiplash' of living in modern society

Women strike yoga poses inside of a studio space.
Kevin Trevellyan
Vermont Public
Michole Biancosino leads a rehearsal for the play Yoga With Jillian at the Mahaney Arts Center on Jan. 17, 2023.

This weekend, a group of Burlingtonians will head downtown — yoga mats tucked under their arms.

But they won’t end up in an asana class. Instead, they’ll unroll their mats at the Main Street Landing Performing Arts Center. There, they’ll be audience members in an interactive, pandemic-inspired play called Yoga With Jillian.

The show is stopping for two nights in Burlington before an off-Broadway run in New York. The people who made it promise: “You’ve never seen a play like this.”

Yoga With Jillian only has one set — and one character. She enters rehearsal smiling widely at the students sitting on mats in front of her.

"I’d like to get started … Let’s get some music going. I like to use music to set a really tranquil vibe," says actor Michole Biancosino, who plays Jillian, before accidentally turning on a heavy metal playlist and uttering an expletive.

Kevin Trevellyan
Vermont Public

Quickly, we learn Jillian isn’t exactly the peaceful yogi who’s going to guide you through a gentle sun salutation. It becomes clear that she’s a little unwell — a little uneasy.

“You can wait an hour before you read about the latest wildfires, or police brutality, or fascist coups, because the next 60 minutes are a time to focus on yourself," Jillian tells the assembled yogis.

The play is funny.

“Can’t pay rent, let it go," she cries. "Spent the past few weeks living on celery juice, and you’re telling everyone it's to cleanse the toxins from your colon, but actually it’s just because celery was on sale at Walmart — let it go. It doesn’t matter."

As Jillian unravels, the audience begins to understand yoga’s not gonna fix it.

Biancosino, who teaches theatre at Middlebury College, says the play, which was created during the pandemic, isn’t just a product of that time.

She says she hopes to explore what happens to someone who’s presenting themselves as completely fine from inside a burning building.

Kevin Trevellyan
Vemront Public

"How do we have this positive, shiny, insisting things are great part of our society, in the face of great injustice, and global sickness, and wars and crisis?" Biancosino says. "That sort of whiplash we feel on the daily.”

The play was first performed in a tiny, old barn in Middlebury. Biancosino set up cameras, invited 10 people, opened every barn window and streamed the first performance.

"Suddenly, many strangers were filling my barn to see free weird theatre, and I feel like if you say to anyone ‘Hey, I’m doing this weird art thing in Vermont’ people will show up for it. And I just love that," she says.

And the play is kind of weird. TMI is Jillian’s MO.

She riffs on everything from her sex-crazed roommate and lack of health insurance, to sharing that she’s currently incubating a $66 jade egg in her vagina. All the while, forcing herself to stay upbeat.

“I think about laying there all day with my pillow over my face, maybe screaming into my pillow from time to time!" shouts Jillian. "But I don’t do that. I get up, I get on the mat so I can work towards being my happiest healthiest self… Exhale… down to the mat.”

Kevin Trevellyan
Vermont Public

Middlebury College student Annabelle Iredale, who turned out to participate during a recent rehearsal, says she’s experienced a lot of theatre, but nothing with this level of interactivity.

"It brought a lot of different feelings for myself, and emotions and connections to the material… because you’re in it," she says. "You’re in the space, surrounding by people also having this experience. And everybody’s doing something physical, and things are being asked of them beyond sitting in a chair and watching something."

Director Andrew W. Smith says that’s deliberate. During the pandemic, the play’s collaborators couldn’t work in the same room, and Smith says that inspired them to get creative with form.

"It begged us to engage in an act of reinvention," he says.

That means attendees of Yoga with Jillian can expect things to look a little different. A group of audience members at the front of the theater — who volunteer — will actually be doing yoga poses.

Kevin Trevellyan
Vermont Public

And at one point, Jillian instructs them to pivot to the back of their mats, forcing both parts of the audience to confront one another face to face.

The show is about our strategies to cope with a world that seems to be getting more unhinged by the day. But Smith says it’s also about the sense of connection and adventure people carry as they leave their self-imposed pandemic caves.

"And this for me celebrates all the things we love about each other," he says. "It gives us permission to laugh. It stretches our bodies. It opens up our minds. It touches our hearts, and it allows us to engage in community in a way that’s unexpected and fresh.”

Yoga With Jillian plays Friday and Saturday at the Main Street Landing Performing Arts Center. The show is also traveling to New York City in June.

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