Treehouse Shakers

Treehouse Shakers
Hatched, BAM Fisher, Hillman Studio

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.