Two Perspectives on a Residency

The NPN Performance Residency program provides matching support to NPN Partners to engage touring artists in one- or two-week community-based residencies. Through its standard contract and fee structure, the program aims to take money negotiations off the table, allowing for deeper engagement between the artist, the NPN Partner, and the community.

"Caterpillar Soup"

 

 

 

Perspectives from a presenter and an artist:  Leslie Turpin, managing director of Sandglass Theatre in Putney, Vermont, presented the artist Lyena Strelkoff in a one-week residency.

 Leslie’s Perspective:
Lyena’s one-week NPN residency at Sandglass was part of our theater’s annual series Voices of Community. Through the series we sustain a dialogue within the community around the topic of diversity.  Sandglass is both a performing and presenting company and our artistic directors have toured extensively. Their vision of presenting has always been artist-centered. We strive to make our residencies hospitable and supportive.  We embrace our guests as colleagues, friends and fellow artists. We eat together, live together and work together. We talk a lot.

The NPN residency workshops have become central to our mission as they have forced and fostered our outreach in the community. Each performer seems to evoke a certain connection that begs to be made and we look at the residency workshops as a way of making that link. Residencies become opportunities for us to build or strengthen collaborations with schools, libraries, the Department of Corrections, or a homeless shelter.

We invited Lyena to Sandglass based on a glowing recommendation by OutNorth who spoke at length about her capacity to connect with a range of communities, Lyena and I talked for almost a year prior to her visit. We brainstormed workshop possibilities and planned possible workshop venues. This is not always possible, but working with Lyena made us see the value of these ongoing conversations as essential to the success of a residency. By the time Lyena arrived, I felt as though she knew us and the community, and as though the community was somehow anticipating her arrival. Her work, an autobiographical story of her healing journey after falling out of a tree and losing the use of her legs, was a beautiful and raw tale of healing and transformation.

The residency week began with a session for community healers. We invited doctors, nurses, alternative health care professionals, caretakers and others who have struggled with chronic illnesses and physical loss. Lyena performed a short segment of her piece, "Caterpillar Soup," which was followed by an open dialogue.  The raw power and eloquence of Lyena’s work, the intimate setting, and the common theme that had brought the audience together, evoked a deep and moving conversation. One long time doctor said it was the deepest conversation he had ever had with other people in his profession. Momentum began to build.

On Day 2, Lyena did two 90-minute workshops on personal storytelling at the local high school. After performing a small segment of "Caterpillar Soup," Lyena guided students to develop and tell a story about a time they felt excluded/included. Embarrassed and nonplused students transformed into bold storytellers, sharing poignant and intimate moments.  On day 3, Lyena did a workshop at The SIT Graduate Institute in a course on theater and social activism. On Day 4 she did a workshop at the New England Youth Theater for the multi-abled theater class for adolescents and adults.  On day 5, Lyena was a visiting guest performer in a statewide artist forum sponsored by the Vermont Arts Council. The forum addresses issues of access in the arts.

Sandglass has a small staff (2 part-time administrators and 2 part-time artists), but we try and go to the workshops with our artist guests. We see their work in the community as a vital part of their experience and our outreach. Seeing how they work enables a dialogue between us. It helps us to understand the different communities that we are trying to reach as a theater and, most importantly, it helps us consider and reflect on our own teaching.

Although Lyena’s workshops were fundamentally very similar in structure, each one began with a different segment of her work. The way she worked demonstrated how tuned-in she was to each group of participants—her teaching and healing qualities quite apparent in the way she guided participants to create and reveal their stories and find their own power as storytellers.

On days 5 and 6, Lyena performed "Caterpillar Soup" to sold-out audiences. The work was stunning in its beauty, honesty and intimacy. Her show evoked so many emotions in the audience that people were literally crying in her lap afterward or hugging each other in the parking lot. People called the theater to ask for her contact information because they wanted to thank her or send her an idea or just stay in touch with her. From the moment we waved her and Dean (her husband and tech director) out the driveway, we began thinking about how to bring her back.

Through an NPN Community Fund Residency we are now planning her return with a group of interested community members from various organizations. But that is not all.  Through our work with Lyena, we became aware of the access barriers in our theater and are redesigning the entry lobby and bathroom. For us personally, her performance has lingered in the air for many months. We refer to it, to her, and to the way her story personally affected us. I think I was unaware of how the fear of physical loss has closed us off from talking about it with others. Something shifted between us and I am hopeful that that shift will continue to reverberate elsewhere.

Lyena’s perspective:
I created "Caterpillar Soup" in 2004 intending to workshop it at a small theater in my area. When its scheduled three weekends turned into six-months, I realized I’d hit a nerve. "Caterpillar Soup" immediately began touring modestly but didn’t grow much over the next four years. Coming into the residency at Sandglass, I was aching to stretch. I wanted to bring something artistically new to the production and give it some encouragement to expand. I also wanted to maximize the potential of the community activities. In the prior few years, I’d offered a lot of workshops in conjunction with performances and found those experiences to be extremely rewarding. But I sensed that they could be even more productive, more satisfying both for me and participants. Between the show and the workshops, I wanted to make a deep impression on this community, one that would have a lasting, positive impact.

As far as the workshops, the opportunity of (many!) rich conversations with Leslie months prior to the residency really inspired me. In them, we mined my experience as an artist/educator, Leslie’s
deep familiarity with her community, and our mutual inspiration. We were constantly thinking of new ways I could serve the community: specific points of focus, material I felt competent and highly interested to present, particular audiences that might benefit. We talked on the phone several times and in between, shot off e-mails with new ideas. Her deep interest in what I might be moved to present was highly motivating, and her thorough familiarity with her community (and willingness to talk about it) empowered me to become really specific. As we got closer to the residency, I constructed excerpts that would speak to the particular audience or theme of a workshop and sought to develop workshop elements that were equally targeted. In the case of the New England Youth Theater workshop, I’d never worked with people with developmental disabilities but was already contracted to do it again several months after my residency. So it was a great opportunity to reach out to folks far more experienced than I at NEYT for some guidance. Ultimately, I think it was the combination of mine and Sandglass’ mutual engagement and inspiration that made it possible to offer very high quality experiences that were poignantly meaningful to those we served. And to me. The activities we planned encouraged me to share my life experience, my perspective and my wisdom. I had the chance to offer not only my artistry but for whatever it was worth, my humanity.

As for the production, prior to arriving I rehearsed with the intention of finding new nuances in the characterizations and new, meaningful stage business. Then we set foot (or in my case, wheel) in the wooden, former stable that is Sandglass Theater and were so inspired, we re-staged certain sections of the show to capitalize on the ambiance. "Caterpillar Soup" details a healing journey in such detail that viewing it can be a healing journey for audience members. We wanted to accent this function by highlighting the ritual nature of certain parts of the story and, at the same time, exploit the inherent theatricality of the space. The staff at Sandglass was extremely supportive of the artistic risks I wanted to take. They gave us unfettered access to the theater, mobilized to find (even create) simple props and set pieces that our new vision required, and offered feedback and creative ideas. They were attentive (though not stifling) and worked tirelessly to empower my inspiration. They are, themselves, artists and that facilitated inspiring, instructive, and thoroughly nourishing interactions. It didn’t even matter that the theater wasn’t entirely accessible. They’d prepared me well before my arrival and the quality of our interaction, combined with their sensitivity to issues of accessibility, diminished significantly the impact of any inconvenience. More than many, this residency was very collaborative and so offered superb support for my artistry.

"Catepillar Soup"My art exists to create opportunities for healing and transformation. I think, in fact, that’s why I exist. Sandglass Theater did a fantastic job utilizing the best of what I wanted to offer as an artist, an educator, and a person. Not only was the impact on the community clearly positive, but so was the impact on me. This residency captured potential I felt certain existed but had never had quite the right support to manifest, and in its reflection, I see that the potential was greater than I ever imagined. I can’t wait to go back.

The Community Fund is made possible by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts (a federal agency), the MetLife Foundation, and the Nathan Cummings Foundation.

published September 2009




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