In 1999, Chris Laro left the New York area, and headed north to his family’s country home in Chittenden to, in his words, “wrangle all this fiction.” An actor and filmmaker who had shared the screen with Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, Laro was searching for a “new delivery system” for his creativity – something more relevant.
So he wrote. Novels, screenplays, short stories, poems – Laro put his thoughts and experiences to paper, searching for his voice, and searching for people with whom to share his stories, and hear them tell their own.
“I was looking for like-minded, fearless people,” Laro explains, “I wanted to create a space where others could share their works – a place without any ego or competition, a place that built camaraderie.”
Laro found that common vision in Genie Rayner. Rayner, a freelance editor and writer, had been in Rutland since 1995, studying and mentoring writing at Vermont College. Like Laro, she believed in the power of the written and spoken word so in 2008, they founded the BirchDel Poets.
Taking its name from a combination of tree references in both Laro and Rayner’s novels, the collective sought to establish an open, inclusive place where individuals could gather to express themselves, to share their stories in a supportive environment.
“It’s more than reading to and at each other,” Rayner says. To that end, the group’s stated mission is “to stimulate all of the senses so that words take on a deeper meaning beyond the words themselves and those who recite them.”
This stimulation of the senses occurs in their combination of music, spoken word, the outdoors and even food. “There’s always food involved,” Laro says, explaining that it is part of the hospitality element of their events.
So what can one expect at a BirchDel reading? “These aren’t open mics,” Laro asserts, adding that they make a strong effort to blur the lines between the performers and the audience. Everyone is welcome to perform, and frequently, observers feel compelled to share. It’s part of the inclusiveness that is a cornerstone of their mission.
As for content, it runs the gamut – dramatic recitations, short vignettes, light-hearted poems, and often, plainspoken social commentary.
Indeed, “poetic activism,” as Laro calls it, is a large part of what he and Rayner do. That’s not to say BirchDel explicitly political or radical. However, its charge to encourage people to come tell their stories can in itself be a subversive action.
“We’ve made a space for people who haven’t been heard yet,” Rayner says. “Be inspired by yourself” is a kind of unofficial motto of BirchDel.
Poetic activism can, however, take a more pointed tone. As Laro settled into the Rutland community, he began to look around. He became aware of the many struggles people face here – those young and old in our neighborhoods that live on the margins of society.
“I saw what was happening socially in Rutland, and I wanted to talk about it.” Laro composed “Rutland Town” a lengthy, critical poem that takes an unflinching look at Rutland, warts and all (read the poem in this week’s issue). While it could be characterized as yet another disgruntled voice in the chorus of area negativity, the piece comes from a positive place.
“The audience for this poem is the people who built this town,” Laro explains, noting the years of indifference, low self-esteem, and negativity practiced by many area residents. “So many people just live here, they have no investment in the community,” he adds. The poem then, is a kind of state-of-the-city address, a call to action that asks people if they are willing to do something about it, if they’re willing to act.
“Rutland has a lot to be proud of,” Laro declares sincerely, “the history, all this great architecture, good things are happening here everyday.” Laro cites the work of the Downtown Partnership, the Creative Economy and the Farmers’ Markets as examples of the types of progress that create a positive environment.
Rutland may be a work in progress, but Laro’s critical eye is optimistic. “I’m not a glass half empty guy; I’m a glass is overflowing kind of guy,” he adds.
It’s that optimism that keeps Laro, Rayner and the rest of BirchDel always looking forward. In its almost two years of existence, BirchDel has grown into a notable collective of creative energy in the Rutland area. And it’s still evolving.
Recently, Laro’s cousin, Todd Spier, was brought into the fold. A musician, Spier has added a musical element to BirchDel events, accompanying readers and working to create dynamic, multi-faceted pieces.
In July, Rayner hosted BirchDel’s first writing retreat where participants got a chance to workshop their pieces.
Over the past year, Laro and Rayner have been working to add a youth education component to the collective. Acknowledging the number of young people on the margins in Rutland, they have been working with local arts organizations like the Chaffee to host youth workshops. Their goal is to give these kids a voice, to give them the opportunity to tell their story – to know that their story matters.
In January, BirchDel will again partner with The Chaffee to host an event at the gallery combining BirchDel performers with an exhibit of the Aldo Merusi’s photography from the “Rutland Herald.” The event, which will serve as a fundraiser for The Chaffee, is an example of Laro’s assertion that Rutland should look to its proud history for inspiration and carry that pride forward.
As Rutland moves into the future, it will need support. To be sure, there are many groups and individuals committed to the cause (again, the Partnership, the Creative Economy, the Rutland Area Farm & Food Link). But it will also need groups like BirchDel, providing a voice from the margins, tending to the soul of Rutland, and doing their part to keep this a viable and vibrant community.