Treehouse Shakers

Treehouse Shakers
Hatched, BAM Fisher, Hillman Studio

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Let's Talk About IT!, Making A Work For Teens

Let's Talk About IT! (LTAI) performs January 2012 at The Ailey Citigroup Theater, NYC. This will be LTAI's 3rd performance run in NYC. We premiered the piece in 2009 on tour in Wyoming, and then the same year at Playwright Horizon's Peter Jay Sharp Theater in NYC. Until this point, we had made work primarily for young audiences through 5th grade. We didn't want to lose the audience members who had grown up with Treehouse Shakers, we wanted to sustain our audience. We also weren't seeing work being specifically made for teens.

It was *Emily who first came up with the idea to make a work for teens. She came across a book while in Serbia called, "Sex for Beginners." The book has two grannies talking about the body, its physical changes, and the beginning conversations about sex. She kept saying, this could make a great show and we need to make it. A few years went by, we made other shows, and then circled back to the idea. In the fall of 2007 Let's Talk About IT! began development rehearsals.

Let's Talk Abut IT! at Playwright Horizons Peter Jay Sharp Theater, NYC
Originally, the performance was to focus on the teen body, the exploration of the body, and sex. Who better to make this statement than a dance-theater company. Emily could use choreography to describe the physical changes, and the emotional ones. Through development, we brought in other aspects of the teen world; bullying, self-esteem, media influence, peer pressure and finding one's place. Soon we began interviewing teens and filming their answers regarding these subjects. These filmed interviews are now interwoven throughout the performance.

While writing the script, I wanted to include a folktale that explored teenage angst. I was soon pondering the classic, Little Red Riding Hood. This is a societal tale told to many of us since toddlerhood, and yet it feels much more appropriate for the young adult who is navigating for the first time through the thick, shadowy forest as to which path will best shape their future. What would happen if we met these well-known characters in High School. Little Red becomes the most popular girl, while the poor wolf is shunned for his physical attributes. I also loved the idea of this tale because it is universal and well-known. I'm not sure it would have worked as well if I had used a more obscure folktale. Little Red Riding Hood is ancient world pop culture. And speaking of pop culture, for the record, LTAI was written well before MTV's Teen Wolf.
Little Red Riding Hood & The Wolf, Let's Talk About IT!
One of our wonderful and long-time company members, Sarah Young, found a 1950's  McCall's Guide to Teenage Beauty. I kept the message of this book, and we made it into small game show segments that are woven within the piece. Next, we explored free writings of our teen experience with our bodies, first dates, love relationships, experimentation. I deconstructed these writings, weaving them between the other stories. In the end, the script blended together many different writing styles, stories and theatrical elements.

It was the blending of the company's creative forces that truly brought the show together. Once in rehearsal we continued to make changes. We wanted to explore coming of age in every sense of the meaning. It is more than the body’s physical changes, but is the heightened emotional and the often psychological investigation, that parallels the changing body. Emily deconstructed her movement phrases that she had developed over the year. She had the performers continue to create movement based on words, feelings, experiences. She added partnering, and her own spin on hip-hop. She played with the symbolism of an apple, which appears both in the dance and the story lines. The result is a 50 minute performance extravaganza. 

None of us will ever forget when a NYC Public High School teacher stood up at the end of the performance, told us it was her second year bringing her class, and how deep the conversation had continued in the classroom weeks after the show. We also won't forget the mothers who brought their nine and ten year olds so they could begin the conversation about the next phase of  adolescent life.
Let's Talk About IT! at Peter Jay Sharp Theater, NYC
We envisioned how kids would react while making the piece, but it wasn't until we brought the show to Middle School students from small towns in Wyoming did we have an idea. They got it! They loved it! They wrote to us, they treated us like stars after the show. But what about High School students from some of New York's toughest schools? In the end, they have proven to be our most enthusiastic audiences, they clap, they shout out, they react! And they love the show. Some of these same kids continue to call us, write to us, and email us. The show makes an impact, it begins discussions, it helps this age figure things out, reflect on their peers' experiences and ponder their own experience.
Performer Malinda Crump in Let's Talk About IT!
So for now we continue to tweak the show. We have to constantly update pop references and this fall we have been teaching new company members the piece. We look forward to our January audiences seeing the show, and how we can continue to expand our outreach work for this age.

If you would like tickets to the January shows please contact us at: 212-715-1914 or
To find out more:

Photo Credits: Dan Ozminkowski

Special Thanks to all the Company Members who have worked on this piece since 2007; Caroline Edeline, Kristy Kuhn, Sarah Young, Amber Ford, Josh Tag, Elise Smith, Malinda Crump, Maxx Passion, Sarah Milosevich, Ashley McGill and Miranda Wilson.

*Emily Bunning, for those new to our blog, is Treehouse Shakers' co-founder, artistic collaborator and choreographer.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Exploring the Farm

We have made it to the next phase of Hatched. On Thursday, May 20, we traveled to the Long Island Children's Museum (LICM) to have our first workshop. We have twenty minutes so far. Every day we inch closer to the product I have envisioned since last February. This is also the first time that Treehouse Shakers has had the opportunity to workshop in the theater where we will premiere.

When we arrived at LICM, Jim Packard, the theater manager, had created some lighting for us, and let us run through the piece on his stage (it really is the perfect stage for this piece). Every moment in the space, I couldn't help but become more and more excited. When the audience arrived, the energy was simply electric. The kids, ages 0-6,  sat onstage with parents (as requested) to be closer to the experience. Yet, there were enough audience members who also sat in the seats.

What came next, was everything I had dreamt about. We couldn't have asked for better audience members. The actors nailed it, and it was fun to watch how each of them handled all of the extra attention the kids gave to the puppets. Afterwards, I had parents approach me with how much they appreciated being so close and how much their children not only enjoyed the show, but how attentive even their 14 month, 3 year old, 6 year old, etcetera (simply fill in the age.) I had parents, grandparents and caregivers all tell me the same things. I can't wait until we show them Hatched in April when we will have reached our greater potential.

My husband, Brent Hankins, filmed the piece and made us a short video of the performance. Amber Ford is Hatch the chick, Sarah Young and Josh Tag play the farmers, chick and calf.

After the show we interviewed Jim (what a great sport!) Below is the interview. At the last minute I decided to do the interview as Callie Cait, the Calf. Callie as a puppet is still unfinished; soon she will adorn blinking eyes, more weight underneath her fur, and a perfected walk. But as you can see, she has already become a Rockstar both on and off stage.

The show has many more levels to be added. We will be adding live music by Anthony Rizzo, Patti Gilstrap is busily creating the many cast of puppet characters, and soon our set designer, Lauren Rockman will be busy building our farm. We still have lights, more development work, and twenty more minutes to create. I wish every day I could be working on this show. One rehearsal a week seems barely enough, but that is the reality of a non-profit. Our other rehearsal time is focusing on our other shows, and keeping them up to snuff.

Last Friday during rehearsal, we worked on a few elements form the workshop that I wanted to distinguish. We then took a break, and dressed up our characters for Halloween. Luckily Patti's studio is filled with the most gloriuos and interesting set pieces....she really did have a small hat laying around, miniature houses, a black feather boa...what doesn't Patti have at Home Ec?

Hatch with his Trick or Treat Bag, compliments of Sarah Young, Worm and Puppet created by Patti Gilstrap
Callie Cait (Puppet by Patti Gilstrap)as mid-Town Cabaret Star
 Hatched Trick or Treating

Happy Halloween, from the cast and creators of Hatched.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Hatch Comes Alive

During the past month, I have been stopping into Patti's incredible studio at Home EC, to check up on the progress of the puppets, play, and discuss our next steps. Hatch, our main chick, is nearly completed, and the calf is almost in her final stages. Every time I have a production discussion, I am blown away by Patti. She is innovative, creative, and making it all on a shoestring budget. Hence, why we have worked with her for so many years, on so many Treehouse productions. And to top it off, she is a wonderful person to be around.

We have 3 new video diaries that Brent has since finished. Check them out, tell me what you think, spread the word. We begin our 2nd round of development rehearsals tomorrow. I can't wait to work on this show with our puppets coming to life. Hatched is coming ALIVE!

Thank you to Brent Hankins (video/editing), Test Child :), and Patti Gilstrap.

Want to help us get Hatched into production? Check out our Bidding For Good Auction, Donate an item today, and then come back to bid October 5-19, 2011.
Treehouse Auction Site

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Hatched: The Concept

Last week I met with Patti Gilstrap, our Hatched puppet and costume designer. She has been hard at work in her studio Home EC figuring out the kinks with Hatch, the curious chick, and his notorious nest, that are the stars of our young seedling drama. We also spent the day discussing the rest of the puppets and what expectations may have changed while the company has been in development rehearsals.

I brought my family along to the meeting.  My husband, also an actor, moonlights as a film editor and cameraman, and generously offered to step up the quality of my video diaries. My daughter, the best critic when it comes to Treehouse Shakers, came to play with Hatch. If she responds, I know we are on the right path of accomplishing my vision for the show.
My daughter with Hatch inside his egg and nest. Puppets Created by Patti Gilstrap.

Mara, Patti, My daughter and Hatch (still in his prototype format).

After meeting with Patti, I spent a few moments on camera talking about my overall concept for Hatched.

Thanks for watching! Look for more video diaries coming soon.

Special thanks to Brent Hankins, editor and videographer, and Patti Gilstrap of Flirt-Brooklyn and her studio Home EC.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Video Diary #1

As many of you know, Treehouse Shakers began our development rehearsals for our seedling drama, Hatched in June.

Calf Sketch for Puppet. Concept by Patti Gilstrap, Drawing by Florence McEwin
Calf Model by Patti Gilstrap using ties and pipe cleaners

During our process I began a video diary. Unfortunately, our THS video camera has one mighty defect and is lacking on sound. Much of my fine footage has been lost. Nevertheless, I was able to use my digital camera and record Patti Gilstrap at work on the calf puppet in her studio space, Home Ec in Brooklyn. In the following video diary, Patti explains the skeletal frame of the puppet.

Special Thanks to Brent Hankins for volunteering his fine editing skills.

I hope to have more Video Diaries up soon!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Summer of 2011: Being an Intern with Treehouse Shakers, by Joey West

For the past two months Treehouse Shakers has delighted in having Joey West, a graduate student at Minnesota State University, Mankato, serve as our intern. Lucky for us he has been attending our development rehearsals with Hatched, and shares his experiences below. We hope he will return and work with us once he graduates. -Mara

I arrived in New York City on June 4th after finishing my third year at Minnesota State University, Mankato to begin my internship with Treehouse Shakers. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was ready to learn what it takes to run a professional company in New York City.

Soon after I arrived I was invited to attend a birthday party for Mara’s daughter. While there I felt I had entered an incredible world of highly intelligent and wonderfully talented artists.  It was as if I had returned to The Liverpool Institute for the Performing Arts in the UK, only this time the artists I was socializing with were a little older, wiser, and each had learned how to forge their own paths in order to create art.

While attending Southern Virginia University as an undergraduate, one of my acting teachers shared this thought; within every single human being is a desire to create. During our life, some of us tend to lose sight of this insatiable desire.  We finish school, take whatever job that comes our way, and pay our bills. Eventually, during the daily monotony that becomes our lives, we unknowingly lose our passion. I didn’t want this to happen to me. I didn't want to wake up in twenty years and think, “Where am I?” The birthday party for Mara’s daughter taught me that it may be difficult to live the dream, but it is possible.  You can even have a family, and you don’t need to choose between the two.  You simply have to decide what you want, and then go for it.  Trust yourself and live passionately.
Joey as Eddie in Rocky Horror Show Minnesota State University
Joey in You Can't Take It With You Western Wyoming  College Theater
A few days before the birthday party, I had an evening free.  Since I’m currently residing in Forest Hills, only twenty minutes by subway from Times Square, I decided to check out the biggest musical scene in America. I bought a ticket to see a Tony Award winning musical (the show will remain nameless).  I was so excited, I arrived promptly at the theater, and as the house lights were dimming, I was full of anticipation. Unfortunately by the close of the opening number, I was already sorely disappointed.  The singing and music may have been well executed, but as a cohesive unit, the show just didn’t work. The contrasting musical styles within the show didn't blend, the dancing lacked precision, and the set, although massive, was most unimpressive.  I’m a graduate student, and an intern, so I don’t have much money, but I shelled out over a good seventy buckaroos to see a musical that was at best mediocre. As I was leaving the theater, I was deeply saddened. I kept thinking is this really all there is? Where’s the passion? These thoughts kept churning around in my head during the birthday party.

After the birthday party, having met all these incredible artists who have worked in the experimental scene, including Off-Broadway, I decided to attend the matinee Off-Broadway performance of The Fantasticks, one of the longest running musicals in the history of musical theatre. One of my first theatrical memories was from the Fantasticks. When I was five my dad took me to a rehearsal in Wyoming.  He was playing El Gallo and I was mesmerized as soon as he began singing, “Try to Remember.” The Off-Broadway theatre that houses the NYC production is small; alongside the stage is a piano, a string bass, a large trunk, a few boxes, chairs and a canvas curtain on which the title of the show is painted.  It is by far the simplest set I’ve ever seen for a musical.  During the overture, the cast came out and greeted the audience, creating an intimate experience between the audience members and performers.  I sat in my seat and when El Gallo began singing the song, “Try to Remember” I was profoundly moved.  From that very first moment, the cast had me. I’ve been thinking about that performance ever since.  

After the performance Off-Broadway, I was so excited to return to Mara and discuss with her ideas that came to me during and after the show.  The technical elements of the Treehouse Shakers baby drama, Hatched are simple. Being able to observe and take notes for the initial development period for Hatched has caused me to ponder the ideas of story creation through the rehearsal process.  Setting up a scenario or a framework for improvisation, and then allowing your company the freedom to explore and create within this framework, has been an incredible learning experience.  The creative environment has allowed every company member the freedom to speak and to contribute in a collaborative creation.  The guidance that Mara has provided has been interesting to watch. 
Treehouse Shakers' Sarah Young & Amber Ford "Improvising a Calf" during Hatched development rehearsal.
During the first rehearsal Mara sat the cast down and showed them pictures of the sketched puppets and pulled out stuffed animals who would stand in for the puppets during development.  Mara shared the story of the baby chick Hatch, and then shared a DVD of a company in Canada that is making experimental, site specific works for young audiences.  It gave the entire cast several images to ponder over the next few weeks.  Mara wasn’t just talking about what she envisioned this show to be, she showed something that added inspiration.  This creative process has never felt like a dictator saying to their underlings, "This is what I want, now go and do exactly what you’ve been told!"

I took a 6-week class in narrative improvisation from a good friend and mentor in the UK. The wisdom I learned during the class, Mara is doing with this show.  The framework in which the story is being created is through plot and narrative storytelling.  The inciting incident leads to the rising and falling of action, which leads to the climax, then the resolution denouement.  The initial rehearsals for Hatched have been exploring the inciting incident and the rising and falling of action.  Even before the performers enter, the show begins with the audience setting the stage.  Everyone, including the audience members, are an integral part of the show.  The entrance of the Rooster, followed by the birth of Hatch and then Hatch’s interaction with all the farm animals, is just so exciting and dynamic. Every moment is explored through the skeletal framework of a story, creating layers that enhance the story.  This creative collaboration has been amazing for me to watch. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.

As an intern for Treehouse Shakers I’ve learned so much about how to make your dreams become reality.  This organization started when two friends came together to create a theatre/dance company that worked in a style that they created and played to their individual strengths.  I was able to learn how to fund a company, donor cultivation, research and write grants.  I learned how one manages a board of directors, and how they function with the artistic company. I created a mailing list of  preschools in and around New York City to increase the target audience for Hatched. I was also able to be on the cutting edge of a baby drama in this country, to see how it is created, and how to market it.  I’ve been able to meet and work with some of the most creative and talented individuals I have ever known.  The strength of Treehouse Shakers lies in its company members and their unity.  It has been an amazing summer, and I can’t wait to return and work with Treehouse Shakers again.  

Joey 4th of July in NYC

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Egg that Hatched

This month Treehouse Shakers begins making its 12th original piece, Hatched. Its a piece for our youngest audience members 0 to 4. Welcome to the genre of Baby Drama. These Baby Dramas were first introduced to me at the International Performing Arts for Young People. A few years later I began bringing my own daughter to see them. The ones I have seen have been European, spell binding, moving, and incredibly artistic.

It just so happens that for the past couple of years I have seriously been contemplating the direction of the company. I also have been wanting to write something new to perform, and wanting to work with new collaborators. I wrote the final version of Let's Talk About IT! shortly after my daughter was born, three years ago. I desperately needed a creative jumpstart. This happens to me a lot. I make something, send it off, and then get bored. Usually when this happens, I emerge myself in other mediums; visit museums, see a play, go to a reading. During my contemplative gestation period last fall, I went to see the new Albee play at Playwrights Horizons with a friend. Albee, one of my favorite playwrights, was my teenage obsession. I used to skip school just to watch Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf, I quoted him for any hardships that emerged, and would have kissed the pavement he walked on. So after seeing him interviewed one night, was ecstatic when I was given tickets to see his new work Me, Myself & I. The show was a huge disappointment and it didn't help that I was going through my own artistic turmoil. The piece was stale, the spontaneity sorely gone. The piece simply withered on the vine with each new scene. We left during the second act.

The next week though Chrissie (Piccadilly Arts), our kids, and my despondent self, experienced a gem of a Baby Drama at the New Victory. It was such a sweet, beautiful piece, and made the whole theater burst alive with magic. It was my much needed inspiration. For weeks after I couldn't stop thinking and talking about the piece. I began saying that perhaps Treehouse should make a Baby Drama. Suddenly, I had to make this piece. Then January rolled around with another IPAY. I started talking about making an American Baby Drama at the conference. I wasn't sure yet what I was making, but I had a few ideas brewing. Jim Packard of Long Island Children's Museum asked if I was serious about making the Baby Drama and if so he wanted to help the piece through development.
Initial Calf Sketch for Treehouse Shakers' Hatched. Puppet Design and Concept by Patti Gilstrap,
Sketch by Florence McEwin.

I came home and thought.

And thought.

And thought.

And then it came to me. The new piece came as an image, a vision, and then a title, and then we began writing grants for the piece. I called Jim again to see if he was serious. He was. Excited, I put together a proposal and brought it to him. His theater is the perfect place for this piece to be "hatched." Hatched is the story of a baby chick who discovers his world and meets many new baby animal friends onstage. It is in part a please touch museum, theatrical experience, and a petting zoo all rolled into one. The vision is to meld puppets, live music, and some movement. For the first time Emily is not choreographing the piece. Her own baby is arriving in September, and she is also branching out to start an acupuncture practice. I immediately knew who I wanted to choreograph, Roderick Jackson.

Roderick has been collaborating musically with Treehouse Shakers since 2001. He has worked as a teaching artist for us both in music and dance, and I can honestly say he is one of my favorite people. He is hard working, artistically inspired while being open to suggestions, but his work ethic is as strong as steel. When he agreed I knew this piece could be something amazing.
Roderick onstage during Coyote's Dance at Ailey Citigroup Theater 2011

Patti Gilstrap our longtime costume designer and the owner of Flirt boutiques stepped on board as the puppet designer, and we are currently in talks with a wonderful musician. Our performance company is already in place; Josh Tag, Amber Ford, Sarah Young and Myself (yes, I will always be an actor at heart).

This Friday began the first of our development rehearsals. My plan is to play with the vision during the summer and have something concrete by fall that we can then rehearse. We will present Hatched first at LICM in April and then in NYC in May. The show is already being shopped around for its touring season 2012-2013 by Piccadilly Arts.

Last fall I wanted to try something new, I wanted to try working with new collaborators (not that I don't love the collaboration process with Emily.) I was making plans to keep the company alive and thriving. It is thrilling to think that this idea is finally coming to fruition.

I will keep everyone updated as we begin this inspired artistic journey.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Post Show Blues

Coyote's Dance had its third run in New York City at The Ailey Citigroup Theater at the beginning of this month. And now it is over. We know it will continue touring, as it has since 2006, but part of me is still figuring out how to make the next run in NYC longer and better. All the while, the next Treehouse project lays percolating in my mind, desktop, and soon to be rehearsals, as I try to mend myself from overall burn out.
Coyote's Dance at The Ailey Citigroup Theater
I often wonder how so many of my colleagues, friends, collaborators, and mentors continue every day in this business when the hard work we put into one show seems to go unnoticed most of the time. That's not to say I don't love what we do. What seems to keep bothering me is that after having produced work for young audiences since 1999, and building our audience base since then, I wasn't totally thrilled with this season's public performance turn out. Chalk it up to the fact that for the past two years we have been producing shows primarily for school groups and our teen show, Let's Talk About IT! for general audiences. This made it a harder climb for Coyote's Dance to return to NYC to sold out public performances.

We are at a turning point. We have to produce longer runs in this city. I see what our competitors do, and they are presenting their shows every weekend. Since we began touring more, we have cut back on our public performances in NYC, building our school audiences instead. This run made me realize that we need to at least take an entire Spring month and perform a few of our pieces. Sustain and build.
Sarah Milosevich, Ashley McGill, Miranda Wilson and Malinda Crump
Miranda Wilson as Coyote & Mara McEwin as Bluebird 

Next May we are slated to present our newest piece Hatched, for ages 0-4. My mind is already racing as how to make it successful, how to have the help we need in promoting, producing, and creating. We are thrilled that Jim Packard of Long Island Children's Museum has asked to partner with us during development, and has given us access to LICM's audience members and theater. We will premiere the piece at Jim's beautiful space next spring.
Students from Brooklyn Kindergarten Society after seeing Coyote's Dance
So for now, burn out or no burn out, I have to march forward and finish the post show work. And I am hoping that sometime soon, the work we make will have a longer run in NYC, selling out our houses, and achieving artistic risk at the same time. I look forward to a day when I can stop worrying about the audience development, and instead focus solely on making the best piece of theater for family audiences that Treehouse Shakers can imagine. 
Photos by Dan Ozminkowski

Checkout The NY 1 Link from The Parenting Report
NY 1 Parenting Report Coyote's Dance

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Sharing The Stories

Graphic Design By Appolllo Bey
I have always been drawn to Coyote stories. I have always been drawn to the first people of our land. I grew up in a place where being close to nature was part of my every day. As a child I hunted arrow heads in the red desert cliffs near my home. I climbed the rocks when I needed an escape, solitude, a place to imagine. Both of my parents taught me a deep appreciation for the Earth, her beauty and what she offers. The Wyoming landscape became our church. We spent our free time hiking, picnicking, riding, camping, and enjoying her beauty.  My favorite hide out was in the cliffs above our town. I used that place to imagine myself living among the first people. My grandmother always reminded me that one of my great Irish grandfathers had wed into the Ojibway. She has these lineage lines written into the Family Bible, marking the marriage and the children, and eventually these lines lead to my birth. Where I grew up, the reservations were all around us, the unjust stories of the land being taken away from the people, still fresh in the collective conscious. I feel connected to this community.

Coyote's Dance At Ailey Citigroup Theater

When I first started storytelling in New York City, I pulled from my collection of stories from my childhood, and Coyote stories. I found that Coyote was a great teacher, and I could relate to his antics. He is a risk taker, a dream maker. Something I can only hope to be.

When we premiered Coyote's Dance in 2006, we had a wonderful response both from the Wyoming community and from the New York City community. The New York Times even wrote a compelling review. As we have toured the piece over the years (Virginia, New Mexico, Ohio, Illinois, New York, and Wyoming) we are often told we can't tell these stories. We can't dance in this way. Emily choreographed the piece with such sensitivity to the first people. And Treehouse Shakers makes it clear in our study guides and press we aren't trying to be Native Americans. We want to share these powerful and moving stories. We have chosen ways that are artful, tasteful, and respectful. Sometimes, all non-Native Americans mind you, have told us we can't do what we are doing. And to these people I want to say, these stories must be shared. These stories are as valuable to every living person as they are to the people who live by these stories.

2008 Performance of Coyote's Dance
For the original program, and every program since, I have included this note "Having grown up in Wyoming, and eventually living in New Mexico, I observed coyote countless times. Coyote is often viewed as a feared menace amongst ranchers and as often, revered in Native stories as a shape shifting sacred trickster.  Coyote is the only animal in North America who continues to adjust to the ever-growing human population. Coyote reaches new territories using an intelligent mind; surviving on meals from all links on the food chain.  Coyote, the animal, is not that different than his story depiction.  Tale after tale, Coyote adjusts to circumstances with uncanny response and his wiles. In Native cultures Coyote is a great teacher, a clown, and notorious trickster. His adventures instruct, inform and warn us human beings about our foibles and brilliance. The tales of Coyote are profound and sometimes wildly funny.   

The tales in Coyote's Dance are retellings of adapted versions still shared by the Pima, Cheyenne, Okanogan and Shuswap tribes.  Some of the sources I found were in American Indian Myths and Legends by Richard Erdoes and Alfanso Ortiz.  They were carefully crafted and retold for all audiences, native and non-native.   Inspired, I went on to discover as much about Coyote, the animal and the mythic creatures, that I could feast upon. I crafted the essence of four stories into theatrical pieces.  I chose what felt universal and also redolent with Native knowledge. I hope that their spirit, wisdom and compassion remain true to the oral flow of shared language that has kept them alive and significant for a very long time.  After working on Coyote's Dance, I have become a great believer in the mischief and magic of Coyote. Children everywhere love these tales."
Coyote's Dance, 2006
I am so thrilled that Coyote's Dance is returning to New York City this May. We started the year touring this piece in New Mexico and then onto Wyoming for the third time. As we have been performing, I have been reminded that these are very wonderful and rich stories. The best way to keep them alive is to continue to bring them to our children and their families. I love what Laura Simms my mentor, the amazing storyteller, humanitarian, and author wrote of this piece, "Our children need nurturing good stories. Awareness of the existence of indigenous cultures of the American West, rich with oral tradition based on respect for  our interdependence with the natural world, is extremely helpful to our children who often live removed from direct knowledge of ancestors and nature and diversity. In the traditional world, stories such as these tales would have more specific cultural, and often secret meanings shared among a People.  However, their inherent wisdom, humor, compassion and fundamental teachings are relevant to everyone; because wisdom is based on insight and appreciation. I am so moved by the gathering of these tales, adapted respectfully from four native sources that make up Coyote's Dance.   I am so moved by the generosity of traditional peoples who share what they can of their culture for the benefit of all children. My hope is that as many children as possible experience the joy and meaning of this wonderful theater event. In these deeply troubling times we need to expose our children to dynamic experiences of happiness, diversity and hope."

I hope you too will come and bring your families to appreciate the stories, to experience the dance, to hear the music. It is a performance that is dear to Treehouse Shakers, and is one, we feel, of deep importance. We hope you will join us!

Treehouse Shakers

Coyote’s Dance

Written By Mara McEwin
Choreographed By Emily Bunning
Original By Music Roderick L. Jackson & Ulali

Join Treehouse Shakers with their original dance-play, Coyote’s Dance, written by Mara McEwin, choreographed by Emily Bunning and music by award winning musicians Roderick Jackson and the First Women’s Nation a cappella group, Ulali. Coyote’s Dance leads audiences into the remarkable world of Coyote, the infamous mischief-maker from Native American cultures. Follow Coyote as he humorously tries to turn himself blue with the help of a songbird, outwit a sly and handsome Fox for his eagle feathered-robe and dances with the mesmerizing stars in the universe. The set, compiled of several trampolines, keeps audiences thoroughly awe-struck as Coyote and friends fly, jump and dance through the air. The engaging contemporary dance, live music and beautiful costumes will have even the youngest of audience members dancing and laughing in their seats.

Coyote’s Dance is geared to be immediately digestible by younger children, but has enough cleverness and wit to win over audiences of all ages. This May, don’t miss the return of Coyote’s Dance, it will be unlike anything you’ve ever seen before!

Upcoming Performances


Date/Time: May 4, 5, & 6 @ 11 am (School Performances)
                   May 7 @ 1:30 pm (Public Performances)
Where: The Ailey Citigroup Theater
Joan Weill Center for Dance
405 West 55th St. (Corner of 9th Ave.)
Tickets: $15 General Public,
            Call for Student Discounts and Group Rates
Box Office & Info: 212.715.1914 or
To Buy Tickets Online: Go to Tickets
Subway: A, C, 1, B, D to Columbus Circle or Q, N, R to 57th St./7th Ave.
Performers: Ashley McGill, Malinda Crump, Roderick Jackson, Mara McEwin, Sarah Milosevich, and Miranda Wilson
Original Music: Roderick Jackson & Ulali
Costumes: Patti Gilstrap
Lighting Design: Dan Ozminkowski
Treehouse Shakers Info:

Coyote’s Dance is made possible in part with public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and by the New York State Council on the Arts 


Thursday, March 24, 2011

No place for "cute" in Family Programming

This is a re posted from an entry I wrote for Piccadilly Arts in February 2011 regarding her month on Risky Programming. I encourage you to check out Chrissie DiAngelus' blog, she has been posting some wonderful pieces,

My mother is a painter. We weren’t allowed to use the word “cute” in the house, let alone when describing artwork. I have grown up not wanting to watch “cute” either. I don’t think we should want it for our family programming. We want work that doesn’t dumb down the audience. We want work that speaks to us on many levels. 
Let's Talk About IT! at Playwright Horizon's Peter Jay Sharp Theater

Recently I returned from the International Performing Arts for Young People (IPAY) conference. Now that we, Treehouse Shakers, have Piccadilly Arts as our arts manager, I don’t think it is so pertinent that the other co-founder and I attend these performing booking conferences. This year I went though, primarily because I wanted the artistic inspiration. Every year I experience a performance that I love, that inspires me on all levels: as a writer, performer, director, and producer. This year wasn’t any different. Towards the end of the weeklong conference, I fell in love with two pieces, one from Italy that was dark, brilliant, and aesthetically juicy. I also loved a piece from Canada that I found more on the fence of performance art for kids, and I LOVED it!

I came home inspired. I wrote. I began the production planning for a new project. I even began writing the grants. And then I wrote some more. Risky programming, it maybe, but I feel alive and excited to make something new.

Treehouse Shakers has always strived to make interesting work. Every time we make something new, we push our own concept of dance-theater, our style of storytelling, and what youth programming can look like. In our nearly fifteen years of making work I have never wanted to make work like other people’s. I also don’t want to watch work that is the same. I want to watch work that is enthralling, visual, and stimulating. 

Sometimes my collaborating partner, Emily, jokes we might as well rename our shows after a famous children’s book title so that we can contract more work. It is indeed frustrating as an artist to see the presenting theater rosters packed with not so great shows, but sellable titles. I am also beyond bored watching companies that make work following the “rules” on how to tell a story, play a story, and act a story. I am also tired of watching companies “sell-out”. And I am terribly disappointed that other companies use grade B performers because the show is for children. We need high quality work that pushes us creatively as audience members, no matter our age. That makes us think, stirs our thoughts, and makes us go WOW! That was an experience! Otherwise, why not just turn on the TV and tune-out to a not-so good cartoon? Our society, let alone our kids, needs a jumpstart artistically. We are in the triage center when it comes to art. If we don’t do something that heals the situation fast, we are going to have generations of children who think live performance is boring!

C’mon! Live performance should be anything but boring!
Treehouse Shakers' Let's Talk About IT! at Playwrights Horizons' Peter Jay Sharp Theater, NYC

Not only do I create work for young audiences, but also I have worked as a professional arts educator for 16 years. I have developed pre-school and elementary curriculum in storytelling, creative drama, and dance. I know kids; I work with them every day. I have one of my own. They are beyond “cute”. They are deeply insightful, even when they might not have the vocabulary to match, they are highly thoughtful, playful, and they are most of all responsive. They want work that makes them feel, think, challenges them, and makes them grow. Children want experiences they can soak up. That is what good artistic programming should do. Leave the tired-out, dried-up, crusty performance work for the birds.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Home Again Home Again

At the beginning of March, Treehouse Shakers was on the road again, or really traveling the skies, and then the road again to find ourselves in Southwest Wyoming. For three days we led workshops in dance and storytelling-creative drama, to 3rd graders in Green River and Rock Springs. 500 students to be exact. And then on the fourth day we shared a performance of our dance-play, Coyote's Dance, and a public performance on Saturday. Our percussionist, Roderick Jackson, led an incredible African dance workshop for the public and the students from Western Wyoming Community College. One of our dancers, Malinda Crump, also led a yoga workshop. The tour was funded by Sweetwater County BOCES, WWCC's theater and dance departments, and the generosity from friends and family who fed and housed the company. This is our seventh year  to perform in Southwest Wyoming at Western Wyoming Community College's theater.
Company Backstage before Public Performance of Coyote's Dance

Roderick Teaching African Dance

I was born there, raised there, grown there. It is a powerful experience to come home to Wyoming, to give back. It was pure magic to walk into the elementary school where I went, and teach the 3rd grade students. My own memories dancing in my head; the scorpion who ran into our fourth grade classroom, the classroom where I told my entire second grade class that Italians come from the country of Boston (my mom is Italian, she was born in Boston, I hadn't really heard about Italy), the friends who helped shaped me. In one of the schools, my former principal was still hard at work (only at a different school). After having spent so much time in NYC's classrooms, it is so fascinating to tell stories to kids from Wyoming. When I pulled out my special goat-hooves rattle, someone in every class quickly guessed what it was. In NYC, my students usually guess something more along the lines of "shells" or "rocks." My Wyoming kids loved hearing the story of coyote, they know his antics first hand. They have grown up with coyote, he fills the landscape, his howls are to the towns as car horns are to the city.
Myself as Bluebird in Coyote's Dance (photo taken by Mercedes McAndrew)
It is magical to look at the desert landscape and remember crawling the mountains, hiding in crevices, skipping rocks in the river, playing dolls in the sagebrush. I am raising my own child in New York City,  and sometimes I forget that there is a place where children can play freely; that they can climb, explore, and imagine away from parents or watchful eyes. When I was growing up we came home at dusk to the sound of our parents calling us, each of us filtering from our own dusty spots. Our imaginations led us in every direction; sometimes to the "North Pole" where we would build igloos and forts in the middle of the snowy streets, to playing ant ambulance and rushing the mound of red fire ants to the hospital, to swinging on swing sets and creating our very best shows for the neighborhood to attend. I went home this time knowing that without Wyoming in my back pocket, carved into my memory, chiseled like an arrowhead, I would never been able to dream an imaginative life.

Coyote's Dance with Fox in Eagle Feathered Robe
This posting is dedicated to Jeffrey Hoyt, my childhood neighbor (1970-2011). I will always fondly remember our childhood days.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Home to Stephens College

I have been home a week since returning from Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, and I am seriously missing it. I was invited by president, Dianne Lynch, and VP of Philanthropy, Shannon Blankenship, for perspective students’ weekend. I was thrilled at the prospect of speaking to the future students and sharing how Stephens has graced my life and career. Being a Women’s college, they so graciously agreed for me to bring my two-year old daughter. I have been traveling quite a bit since the year started, and couldn’t bear the thought of leaving the little one home again. Plus, one day I am hoping she may want to go to this special school.

Mara and Daughter at Macklanburg Playhouse
So we took a plane to St. Louis and drove to Columbia, college town USA, to find my dear Alma Mater, looking quite historically beautiful. The campus is mostly comprised of brick buildings from the 1830's, walkways, and lots of green spaces. There are horse stables and tennis courts. A wonderful theater facility, dance studios and a renown fashion department. I think the school used to own a lake and golf course, but not sure if that is still part of the property. I was giddy with excitement as we drove to the visitors’ center. As I got out of the car, I couldn’t stop imagining the day when my daughter will be off to Stephens, unpacking into her own dorm, making lifelong friendships, and beginning her own journey into adulthood. The Visitors center is so beautiful, newly renovated, and awarded by the US government for its solar power unit, I was beaming with pride by the time we checked in.
President Dianne Lynch, Karyn Meek Class of '95 (Currently on National tour with 9 to 5), Orelia, Annie, Shannon Blankenship and Lamby Hedge.
Over the next several days I spoke to two classes of theater students, led a staff development in the Early Childhood Department on how to integrate storytelling into the classroom, taught two storytelling workshops to the 3-5 year olds in the Children’s Center, and spoke to the perspective students and their parents. I got to eat with students, catch up with old professors, see dear friends, and spend time with Dianne and Shannon. I also got to see first hand all of the improvements and amazing things that are happening on the campus. Currently, Dianne and Shannon are in the process of raising funds to preserve the President’s Home built in 1926. It is falling down, and the last thing the new President wants to do is to tear down another historical building on campus. Music to my ears! The president’s home has such meaning to me. It was one of the last places I was with my mother, her sister, and my grandmother, during my college graduation weekend. The building must be saved! Right next door is a sad reminder of what happens when those funds aren't raised; the empty lot where the original theater stood, and where Maude Adams, the queen of the American Stage, was the head of the drama department from 1937-1943.
Telling Stories at the Children's Center
I also had the pleasure of having lunch with my former theater professor, Addison Myers. He retired shortly after I graduated, and still he remains such an influence on my life and work. At Stephens, we were taught by working actors. Addison had worked in NYC, regionally, and in Europe. He taught us about NYC. In fact, he inspired me to go to NYC. I remember after one spring break he had visited NYC and returned with a subway token and taped it to a note in my mailbox saying, “For your first ride when you move to NYC!” I still have it.  He was the first to tell me about the theaters on the Lower East Side, Katz deli, Experimental Theater. Who knew only a few years later I would be getting my start in the NYC Fringe Festival. It was there on the Lower East Side that I helped produce the Nino Nada Festival, for families, with Adam Koplan under Aaron Beall’s Nada. The festival was acclaimed by the New York Times, and Treehouse Shakers premiered its’ first performance for Young Audiences, Flying Through Rainbows.

Mara and Addison at Stamper Commons
I spoke to the theater students in the Arena Classroom, the same place where I premiered an independent directing piece using various women’s writings, several theater students, and slides of women’s artwork. Emily Bunning, who was a dance major at the time, choreographed. So truly and really Stephens College is the birthplace of Treehouse Shakers.

My daughter had her first preschool experience while attending the Children’s Center. NYC is seriously competitive when it comes to preschool, and to finally see her socializing and playing with kids her own age was priceless. She has yet to stop talking about her wonderful teacher Miss Michelle, the sandbox, and the water fountain. She also has been wearing her Stephens College t-shirt my mother in law bought her before the trip and boasting to anyone who will listen, "I went to Stephens College!"

Stephens College helped seed Treehouse Shakers, has an incredible alum network, and is where I made the bestest of friends. I came home thinking, men can have their 150,000k golf memberships, just give women a college degree from Stephens College and they can make it anywhere!
Mara, Lamby Hedge (Current Theater Professor & My director in Dancing at Lughnasa) and Shannon Blankenship (VP of Philanthropy, and class of '93)

Thank you to everyone who made this trip so wonderful, for being so gracious, and the Stephens Community who continue to work so tirelessly to make Stephens College a truly magical place for women.