Treehouse Shakers

Treehouse Shakers
Hatched, BAM Fisher, Hillman Studio

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Words of Advice For a Young Performer

Treehouse Shakers has spent the last month auditioning, hiring, rehearsing, and then auditioning and hiring again. We are hiring new company members. This is an elaborate process. We need not only talented actors and dancers, we need people who fit into the company. Who are reliable. And easy to work with! 

I have a few words of advice for everyone who walks through the Treehouse Shakers' audition door. I have been reminded this past month about all the mistakes performers tend to make when auditioning. So here goes.

Audition 101:

1.) Show Up. If you say you will attend an audition, then show up. It is a courtesy. It is a must.

3.) Show your personality at the audition. Don't be over the top, but do take a few minutes to let yourself shine through. 

3.) Appearance does matter. Even in the most open-minded environments, you will be judged on how you look. Dancers, don't wear your shabbiest movement clothes. Pull your hair back. Actors, dress appropriately.

4.) Send in a good headshot. If you are trying to get through the gatekeeper, a bad headshot won't be the key to unlock the audition door.

5.) End the audition with a compliment to the company. Kindness is golden in my book.

Once you have the job, congrats! 

Company 101:

1.) Don't be a blabber mouth. For a small company, rehearsal can be expensive. Every second counts.
Please save your talking until the breaks.

2.) If you had a bad day. Leave it outside the rehearsal room. You are here to Play, not to sulk.

3.) You are now part of a company. Be kind to everyone, be generous while working.

4.) Be on time. In fact, try being early. It is incredibly rude to everyone who maybe waiting for you.

5.) Do more than you have to. Giving 110% in every way, makes the company shine, makes you you look good, and in the long run will pay off.

Happy Auditioning!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Ode to the Early Days

Mara & Emily in the beginning years of THS; Outside of Kissing Rock
 I am noticing a lot of changes in NYC since we started the company in 1997. Alphabet City has been gentrified. Park Slope is more expensive to live than the Upper West Side. We moved to Hell's Kitchen to afford the rent, to be close to auditions, to live among the Broadway marquees. It wasn't glamorous. We lived between gangs of rats, prostitutes, and the occasional junkie. I found myself spending the majority of my time in the Lower East Side, performing on the stages of  theaters made out of storefronts. It was the era of The brand new Fringe, of Aaron Beall (*the founding father of the off-off Broadway scene), of fighting for the artists' way of life. The ghosts of the Yiddish Theater, of Bohemia, haunting the streets. Companies battled like bands. Actors seemed edgier, jacks of all trades, as they performed to sold-out houses at midnight shows. There was competition, accusations, high drama. It was no money, character strengthening, friendships forming. And then it ended, or most of it, or some of it. It changed slowly at first and then with speed. The LES is no longer the haunts I haunted, but high rises built upon high rises, built up. Gone are the tenements, the Noyoricans, the storefront theaters. The actors' stories beneath the glitzy new restaurants, suffocated beneath the pavement.
THS' Flying Through Rainbows (our first show for YA) 1999 Premiere 
Treehouse Shakers' Dancers 1999; Flying Through Rainbows
Katrina Hawley Emily Bunning, Lara Hayes-Giles, Marya Whethers
Treehouse Shakers had our first piece for young audiences rise out of that era. It has been a long time since those theaters held me, rocked me in its idealistic cradle. I took that dream, that collective dream, and pushed forward with our Treehouse Shakers' dream. I look at all of the hard work, all of the pain, all of the efforts that have made this company, and I will not let them go. We have come so far; twelve shows created, five shows touring, twelve fantastic company members, eight incredible board members, and countless donors and supporters who have held our dreams as their own.

I am always gnawing at the chance of making it better, even upon reflection of how far we have come. Of elevating this subway car, riding into daylight, and embracing the NYC landscape where our dreams can expand once more.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Vegetarian Lasagna: The Role of A Choreographer

This week's post is by Emily Bunning, Treehouse Shakers' Artistic Coordinator, Co-Founder, Choreographer, and Performer. Emily graduated from Stephens College in Missouri and is a Wyoming native. As a co-founder of Treehouse Shakers, she has choreographed, created and produced many dance-plays for children and adults.  Her work has been presented in the New York area at the Ailey Citigroup Theater, International Dance Festival, DanceNow/NYC Festival at Joyce SoHo, HERE Arts Center, Tribeca Film Festival, Westhampton Beach PAC as well as various theaters across the nation including Jacob’s Pillow (MA), Alden Theater (VA), and the Aronoff Center (OH). Emily recently earned a Master’s Degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine. To Read More About Emily Click Here. 

When Mara asked me to write a blog about being a choreographer and my role with Treehouse Shakers a year ago, I cringed and didn’t do it.  When she asked a few weeks ago, I cringed and promised with no intention of rushing into it. Finally, here it is. Welcome to my FIRST blog post. 

Mara’s catchy title on her last blog, inspired mine; Vegetarian Lasagna.  Life, like lasagna, is all about layering.  I also make a great lasagna.  For my lasagna recipe and secret ingredient donate $20 to Treehouse Shakers and I will send it to you.

I’m the choreographer and co-founder of Treehouse Shakers.  My working title is Artistic Coordinator, which seemed appropriate at the time we chose it, but for the most part Mara McEwin and I are Co-Artistic Directors.  I also like to call myself the CFC, Chief Financial Choreographer.  I do many jobs including bookkeeper, budget maker, and treasurer of the board.  I make the performers and numbers dance.

Performing in Animal Rhythms; Treehouse Shakers' longest running performances.
Emily, Her son and her inspirational Grandmother, Fan Hay.
Under Covers by Emily Bunning, at Ailey Citigroup Theater, NYC

I love to dance.  I started as a little kid in creative dance and was lucky to have had the opportunity in Rock Springs, WY.   My sister and I were encouraged to dance by my Grandmother.  She was part of the dance group at Smith College and taught at the YMCA in New York City and performed with a group in Boston.  When she was married at age 34, my Grandpa told her not to tell anyone that she was a dancer, they wouldn’t understand.  Needless to say, she is the reason I am still dancing today.
My college teacher once told me, “You have to dance while you are young.”  When I graduated Stephens College, I headed to New York and have been here ever since.   The rest is Treehouse Shakers' history.

The Treehouse Shakers’ process starts with Mara and I deciding on a story theme.  Then before knowing much more, I hit the dance floor to improvise and develop phrases using my own images and feelings on the subject.  Then we go into more structured rehearsals where they become dance sequences, eventually supporting, expressing, and furthering the story at hand.  And voila, a dance-play is made and baked nearly 1-2 years later.

My choreography is built by using momentum to make movement that flows in unpredictable patterns.  I am also really interested in shaping the space and relationships on stage.  In my lasagna I arrange the layers to create just the right amount of flavor for each bite.

Work/life balance seems to be a big topic these days.  I’m barely staying on the tightrope myself, but I love the word “balance” and a fine balance it is.  Being a new mom, wife, choreographer, dancer, Treehouse Shakers' administrator, acupuncturist/herbalist, and trying to exercise, is like making a good lasagna.  There are many exceptional layers to the recipe to make a truly tasty and fulfilling life.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Syncopated Music: The Role of An Artistic Director

I love when I am with a group of parents and inevitably someone asks, "What do you do?" I usually chuckle. Which sometimes has the questioner quickly rephrase, "Are you a stay at home?" To which I reply, "I am the Artistic Director of a dance and theater company."
"So, you are a dancer?" Usually, the same.
"Nope, actor by trade. I run a dance and theater company. We currently have five shows on a rotating tour."
"Oh." And silence. I then quickly hustle the conversation to the other parent.
Because in all honesty, it is a difficult question to answer.
It happened to me at least three times last week in the playground, at a bookstore, on a play date. Even some of my closest friends seem lost in the mystery. What is it that I do?

When I was younger I wanted to be a jazz musician. I listened to John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald. They were my soul sculptors. I named my favorite blue bellied lizards in their honor. By the time I reached High School I may have been immersed in theater, in writing, but my thoughts were like ragtime itself. Syncopated. Ragged. I was envisioning the rhythm of my future.

Myself and my mom, by the river. Close to where I used to catch lizards.

Myself in High School.
Treehouse Shakers is home to my writing. A place for me to act and say those words out loud. A home to give reverence to the music that raised me. My words broken down like rhythmic poetry, sometimes trading fours with the dance.

My job as an artistic director is as a composer for the bigger song. I wear different hats, my leadership hat, my development hat, my artistic hat, I riff and descend through my tasks and back to the through line again. I never let the company linger too far from my thoughts. I am always organizing the key notes, alternating between instruments.

And this, this job is sometimes, like the music, too complicated to explain.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Role of A Company Member: Sarah Young

This week's post is by longtime company member, and our wonderful Education Coordinator, Sarah Young. Sarah, originally from Wisconsin, received her BFA at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, with an International Arts minor. Sarah is the founder of Flying Art, an international exchange of art among youth, that continues to link young artists throughout the USA and worldwide. She has been a company member of Treehouse Shakers' since 2003. Complete Bio

Treehouse Shakers has become my family. This isn’t an exaggeration. They were one of the reasons that I originally decided to move to New York City. In 2003, while I was an intern at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, I met Lisa Neidermeyer, a former Treehouse Shakers company member. When she learned that I was interested in dance and youth education, she put me in touch with Emily Bunning, who invited me to a rehearsal. That rehearsal was reason enough to locate to New York.

Our first Treehouse Shakers’ rehearsals were at Awkward Studio in downtown Manhattan, which earned it's name for the uneven, broken wooden floor and the smells of Indian food that would waft up from the restaurant below. In those early days, I'd often get on the wrong train and was constantly apologizing for showing up late to rehearsal. Somehow, they kept letting me come back.

I have always appreciated the caring, relaxed, rehearsal environment and admire the way  Emily and Mara collaborate with each other and the other performers. They create a space where it is comfortable to joke, gossip and vent, but we still manage to develop dance-plays that are thoughtfully designed. Each one of our productions is engaging and enjoyable for us to perform, while being well suited for our young audiences.

Company on tour in Arizona 2005; L-R: Sarah Young, Stephanie Angelil, Mara McEwin, Kristy Kuhn, Karen Oughtred, Emily Bunning
Front: Roderick L. Jackson

Treehouse Shakers has performed just about everywhere during the nearly ten years that I've been with the company: from grand, beautiful theaters, to overcrowded street festivals. One of the more memorable experiences was performing Animal Rhythms three times a day in an outdoor festival in Jacksonville, Florida. I was wearing the furry, woolen jackal costume and it was unbearably hot. Needless to say, the costume was redesigned shortly after those performances. Another time, one of the actors had an unexpected emergency, and I, who had never done the actor’s part, filled in her role. Being a last-minute decision, I didn't have time to be nervous. It was an exciting opportunity to act out the characters that I had performed only as a dancer so many times before; it is now one of our favorite Treehouse Shakers' stories to recount.
Sarah (in her original Jackal costume) post-performance of Animal Rhythms dancing with young audience members; Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival.

From 2003 through 2008, I learned roles in Animal Rhythms and Desert Travels; I was a part of the development of Coyote's Dance, Lost Arroyos, Undercovers, and the beginnings of Let's Talk About IT! Over the years, I had watched performers and collaborators rotate in and out of the company. After several years in the company, it was time for me to leave too. I needed to experience life in ways that I couldn't in NYC. In September 2008, I left to serve in the Peace Corps in Morocco. I went knowing that I could return to the Treehouse Shakers when I completed my service.
Coyote's Dance: Wyoming Tour 2006. L-R; Sarah Young, Kristy Kuhn & Emily Bunning

Two years later, after having a rich and meaningful experience in Morocco, I came back. I returned with a renewed sense of commitment and appreciation to the company – and so I promptly elbowed my way back into rehearsals and snatched back my rightful roles!

But I also recognized that my roles had changed. I wasn't the youngest one in rehearsal as I once had been. The newer company members didn't even know who I was, and the company had continued to grow and change while I was gone. Mara invited me to be a part of Hatched, our newest production, which was an unexpected foray into the world of theater for toddlers. I started to gain a broader sense of what we've all been accomplishing. After fifteen years, Treehouse Shakers has become a thing of its own. It's not a specific company member or one particular show. Clearly, it exists because of the devotion of Emily and Mara, but it has developed in such a way that all of its history and all of our commitment has contributed to its identity. We've reached thousands of kids over hundreds of performances, and meanwhile we've been through marriages, divorces, new babies and lots and lots of laughs and shared memories.
Sarah with Lamby from Hatched: Life on the Farm, Long Island Children's Museum, 2012
I feel privileged that Emily and Mara have begun to share with me a few of the responsibilities of managing the company. Okay, maybe most administrative tasks aren't thrilling, but I value the opportunity to witness how they work. They are clever, good-humored and extremely hardworking. I've learned a lot from them.

Recently, we started discussing the possibility of bringing the Treehouse Shakers to my hometown of Beloit, Wisconsin. That means a lot to me. It would be a truly special way for me to give back to my community and to inspire the youth there. After all, the Treehouse Shakers is one reason that I left my hometown; it's only right that it helps to bring me back!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Generosity: The Daily Act

This June, Treehouse Shakers was fortunate to have Kathy Le May of Raising Change lead a dynamic workshop in how to make the big ask in fundraising. We invited colleagues and donors to join us, as she poignantly led us in a three hour workshop on how to ask for larger gifts and become better fundraisers. As those of us in the non-profit world know, we have to constantly ask for donations in order to keep our organizations afloat. Kathy's workshop was everything I had hoped for and so much more. Her story on the act of generosity is so powerful, it brings home the belief that generosity is not only monetary, but a way of being. Generosity is how we volunteer, give towards our neighbors, our communities. Generosity is what keeps our country and world glued together.
Our very generous board president, Geri Pell introduced me to Kathy last year at a networking event. I was incredibly moved by Kathy's personal story, and her philosophy on donor giving. I was overjoyed when Geri secured Kathy to donate her services to our organization. Kathy is a woman of inspiring character, helping wherever she can.

Kathy Le May, CEO of Raising Change
After reading Kathy's book, The Generous Plan, I too began to ponder my own philosophy on giving. I often look at the way I was raised, and what philanthropy meant growing up. As a child raised in a small town in Wyoming, I didn't know what this word meant, but I often witnessed acts of generous kindness. I grew up next to one of the most generous families in our town. They had seven children, and yet every week the mother babysat children to help out neighbors who worked (this was my case). I spent a good portion of my childhood in that home, where generosity was a daily act. If someone needed something this was the family to call. The mother was always checking in on elderly neighbors, people who were out of work, volunteering, giving to their church. She generously gave to her children; patiently answering questions, playing, teaching. The father was a leader in our community. He was always charitable. Being generous was their family's way of life.

As for my own family, there are examples; not in the way that I saw my parents giving to causes per say, but in the way of their character. My father taught me to be kind to all people. I always felt that it didn't matter who someone was, how much money they had or didn't have, it was never our place to judge. I remember standing in the grocery store line, with barely enough to pay for our own items, when a man asked him for money. My dad without hesitation asked him what he needed and bought his groceries. I'll never forget how proud I was of my father as we walked out of the store. Over the years, I saw him repeat this act of giving over and over again.

As an adult, I have known unlimited generosity. The many, many people who have supported Treehouse Shakers over the past fifteen years, have been unbelievably generous. From our hard-working board, to our donors who have given and supported us, to our company members who have tirelessly worked for our company, to the audience members who return season after season, it has been through great generosity. We have had wonderful people support us, who have allowed us to grow, and helped us continue to make the work that we love. They have taught me firsthand how to live more generously. 

BKS Students post-show Hatched with cast members Amber Ford & Josh Tag.
Every year Treehouse gives away hundreds of low-income tickets to our performances.

Kathy's workshop not only motivated me to make a better ask, but it once again reminded me how fortunate Treehouse Shakers has been. I am taking stock in the giving spirit that allows us to make the work we do, and continue to reach underserved communities. I am working harder to live in generosity, making it part of my own daily practice.

About Kathy Le May:
Kathy LeMay is the founder, president, and CEO of Raising Change, which helps organizations raise capital to advance social change agendas and individuals create Generosity Plans to help change the world. LeMay, who began her global activism in war-torn Yugoslavia where she worked with women survivors of the siege and rape-genocide camps, has been a social change fundraiser for 15 years, raising more than $150 million dollars in the fields of women’s human rights, hunger and poverty relief, and movement-building. In addition she has directed an additional $100 million in philanthropic dollars to organizations working to make a difference. LeMay serves as an adviser and consultant to Fortune 100 companies, universities, international NGOs, and the United Nations. She is a sought-after speaker on strategies for social justice and empowering women to come into their voice. In the year 2000 LeMay was nominated for a Reebok Human Rights Award for her 15 years of service as a human rights activist. She was just named one of Business West Magazine’s “40 Under 40” and, in January 2010, she released her first book, The Generosity Plan, published by Simon & Schuster/Atria and Beyond Words. Kathy has appeared on numerous television and radio shows including Oxygen TV and The Oprah Show. She is a contributing columnist to World Pulse Magazine, where she also serves as the Board Chair.

To Donate to Treehouse Shakers
And click on "Support Us"
All donations are fully tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law.
Thank You!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Nest, the Egg, and the Chick That Hatched

"Well paced! Poetic and set in a child's mind." -Mary DiLucia, 
Parent of 20 month old child

"Love it. The guitar player and performers were amazing! Brought out the child in us." -Karen Shorter, Audience Member

"It was so much fun. I thoroughly enjoyed it! My son loved it!" -Edina Kovaleuse, Parent of 8 YR Old

Hatched opened at The Ailey Citigroup Studio Theater in New York City on May 3rd and closed on May 19, 2012. Hard to imagine that a year of rehearsals led to performances that opened and closed in only a few weeks time. We developed, we rehearsed, we premiered, we closed.

For over a year, my life has been all encompassing around the imaginary world of Hatched; the nest, the egg, the farm and our wonderful puppets. Not only was I making the show, I was helping to raise money, publicize, develop audiences, and lay the groundwork for future tours to come.

Amber Ford and Hatch
What a New York premiere it was. We sold out every house. We were chosen as Time Out Kids Pick of the week, featured on NY1's Parenting Report, created new partnerships with schools, had a world of new audience members, and held one of our longest NYC performance runs.

Anthony Rizzo, Hatched composer and Live Musician, Photo by Dan Ozminkowski
The work of course is never done. We have costumes to fix, puppets to maintain, and future tours to book. For now though, I am taking a momentary breath, basking in the accomplishment, before the next journey of the show begins.

BKS' Tompkins Center after a performance with some of our cast members
After the show with students from Brooklyn Kindergarten Society and Hatched Performer Amber Ford

Monday, May 14, 2012

Fundraising Success

Treehouse Shakers was named for the wonders of nature, the power of imagination and the excitement of dance. Like the theater, the treehouse is
a sacred space where imagination is the most potent currency and stories are the roots of the world.

This spring marks Treehouse Shakers' 15th NYC performance season. Whoa! When we began in 1997 we  had only a dream. We didn't have a business plan, a board, or even company members. We had lived in New York City only a few months. And yet, Emily and I passionately knew we wanted a company of our own.
Cupcakes by Empire Cakes, NYC for our Annual Spring Benefit
Twelve original shows later, here we are. How far we have come. We have an extraordinary board, comprised of professionals from all different fields, we have a talented company who works hard, enjoys collaboration, and takes risks. We have two directors who have somehow learned a balancing act of running a business, being creative artists, collaboration, and fundraising. Oh, yes fundraising. We never stop fundraising.
Before the Fundraising Event:: L to R: Linda Novak; Board Member, Mara, Emily, Josh Tag; Performer, Amber Ford; Performer, Sarah Young; Performer and Education Coordinator, Emily Regas; Board Member
Every spring Treehouse Shakers' hosts an annual benefit. Originally started by our then board president at his home, it has since grown by leaps and bounds. This year we held the benefit at the wonderful Moore Brothers Wine Store in Union Square. Need wine, go here. The wine is amazing! Our wonderful friends at Whimsy and Spice catered the event, Chocolate Nation had a divine tasting of chocolates, Empire Cakes donated cupcakes, Moore Brothers' David Moore was our somalier for the evening, serving some of the best wines on the planet for a tasting. This year we also had a live auction; Italian Lessons, Wine, Dinner for Two, Opera tickets, auctioneered by our board member Michael Walsh. And we were honored to have Pat Kiernan from NY1 give us an amazing introduction.
Spring Benefit 2012:: Emily, NY1's Pat Kiernan, and Mara
Over the years we have given thousands of free and low-income tickets to underserved students and families to see our work. We have seen our work performed at theaters across the nation,  created residencies in schools and even provided art workshops to teachers. Our company continues to grow, sustain and build. We sometimes stand in awe of the company, and our efforts, which doesn't last long; there is always so much to do.

Treehouse Shakers' Packed Benefit
This year's party though was a success. Long time supporters, new friendly faces, performers, board members and committee members filled the space. All of these supporters helped us reach our fundraising goal for the evening. Yet we can't stop. There is always more to raise. More tickets to give, rehearsal pay increase for our performers, performance expenses and administrative fees to pay.

Here's a few fun facts about Treehouse Shakers:

In 2010, Treehouse Shakers served 6,000 students; in 2011 we served 9,865 students. 70% of which were from Title One schools.

68% of our budget goes directly into program expenses, with the remaining allocated to general operating and fundraising.

Each year the company dedicates over 1,850 hours of rehearsal to ensure high quality programs.

For now though, we are happy to be celebrating our 15th season, premiering our new work Hatched: Life on the Farm. We continue to enthusiastically imagine where our company will branch out next.

Tax-deducible donations to Treehouse Shakers can be made online at:
Treehouse Shakers

Or send a check to:
Treehouse Shakers, Inc.
Radio City Station
P.O. Box 186
New York, NY 10101-0186

Thank you for supporting the power of imagination!

Monday, April 2, 2012

Hatched: Life on The Farm, Premieres

Hatched: Life on the Farm is almost here. We premiere the piece at Long Island Children's Museum April 20 & 21, 2012, and then to the lovely Ailey Citigroup Studio Theater in NYC for performances May 3-4, 10-11 & 19, 2012. Tickets have been selling quickly, and we are contemplating adding more dates.
Hatched Cast Photo By Christopher Duggan, Puppets by Patti Gilstrap
What a farm we have built. My idea for our young seedling drama sprouted last January. From that point, Treehouse Shakers began fundraising, writing grants, proposals, and solidifying the idea. When Jim Packard, the theater manager from Long Island Children's Museum, expressed interest, I was more than excited. He immediately wanted to partner and help in whatever way possible. To have a producing theater express interest in the work, offer us a space for rehearsals, to be able to show the work in development on a live audience, and to premiere the piece, has been a dream. 
Hatched in Development at Long Island Children's Museum, Sarah Young with Audience Members Feeding the Lamb (Photo by Tara Pallisico)
Making a show takes time. Especially a piece that isn't scripted. Making it well developed, takes even more time. Beginning last June, several of our wonderful company members agreed to develop the piece. We went to rehearsal without puppets, a script, or even a true beginning. I knew I wanted live music, the story to revolve around a newly hatched chick, movement, and to be geared to the youngest audience members. With these seeds we improvised, talked, moved and began creating the storyline.

I love the European performance model of making work for babies to age three, but since Treehouse Shakers' needs to be able to market to a slightly larger audience pool, we compromised on making the piece for members of a young family. Hatched is marketed to ages 0-6, and I know that the whole family will enjoy the work.

Hatched Postcard Design by Appolllo Bey
We have developed Hatched to be intimately staged. Audience members are encouraged to interact with the newborn animals as they explore their worlds. Through movement and music, the calf learns to walk, the baby birds attempt to fly, and the lamb makes a new friend with the curious hatched chick. Audience members interact and play with the characters on stage; they give the chicks their feed, milk bottles to the lamb, are licked by the cow, and feed worms to the baby birds. Babies in the audience will be enticed by the animal sounds and textures, while toddlers will love watching and imitating their favorite farm animals as they come to life. Preschoolers will delight in learning about life on the farm and older kids will be entertained by the delightful storytelling, live music and dance.

Over the next month, I want to highlight aspects of Hatched; from our amazingly talented musician Anthony Rizzo, to Patti Gilstrap's beautiful puppets, and Lauren Rockman's well designed set. Not to mention the fantastic performance company who has put in so many hours as we explore, change, and grow the piece into the vision I saw last January. It takes a true artistic village to make a piece come to life!

I hope you can join us for one of the upcoming performances.

Tickets & Info:          (212) 715-1914

On May 10 & 19 in NYC, we will have a Treehouse Shakers' Playdate after the show: Reception, Meet the Cast, and Take Photos.
The New York City program is supported, in part, by public funds from the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, The Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Design Enhancement Fund, New York State Council On The Arts, Puffin Foundation and Individual Contributions to Treehouse Shakers. 

Special Thanks To: Company Members; Amber Ford, Josh Tag, Miranda Wilson, Sarah Young, Emily Bunning (Treehouse Shakers' co-founder), Jim Packard (LICM), Nancy Moon (Publicist), Chrissie DiAngelus (Artist Manager), Appolllo Bey (Graphic Designer), Christopher Duggan (Photography), Alaric Hahn (Ailey Citigroup Theater), Patti Gilstrap (Puppets and Costume), Joey West (Our amazing intern who helped last summer) Lauren Rockman (Set), Dan Ozminkowski (Lighting), Brent Hankins (Video Diaries), Valerie Green (GreenSpace Rehearsal Studio).

Monday, March 26, 2012

Creating A Creative Child

Teaching my daughter to be creative comes easily to me. I was raised by a painter, so in many ways I am raising her similarly to the way I was raised. Except instead of watching her mother paint, my daughter sees me pretending for a living. She also sees me directing, writing, negotiating.

22 months, exploring homemade playdough
I wasn't sure how I would juggle motherhood with a career in the arts, but I knew I wasn't going to give up what my business partner, Emily and I had created and built. Shortly after my daughter was born, I found out what that juggling would exactly mean. I wrote the majority of our dance-play, Let's Talk About IT! with my daughter in my lap; mostly nursing, and the sound of her sleep machine set to the ocean. She returned to rehearsal with me at three months old, strapped to my stomach, as I caught the subway to our rehearsal space in Queens. At rehearsal, I jumped back and forth between nursing and learning the choreography for Let's Talk About IT! I also relied so much on Emily (an entire blog could be dedicated to all she has done for us) and company members. They helped me gear back up for the subway, held her, cooed and rocked her back to sleep. They were the ones who visited us back home, took me out of the apartment in the early weeks, and helped with babysitting. My overall sanity nurtured by their laughter and support. They are our family.

My daughter backstage with Emily and myself at 18 months at Victoria Theater Association
By six months old my daughter had already been to two arts conferences, tours in Massachusetts and Wyoming, board meetings, business meetings, mailings and many performances by colleagues. I introduced her to art museums, music, yoga classes, read to her, and had her explore textures; shaving cream, feathers, fabrics. I told her stories, rehearsed my storytelling performances for her, and danced with her in the living room while remembering my steps.

Stretching with Aunt Emily at 2 in the dance studio, Wyoming
Now three, she has been to more performances than most adults will ever be in their entire lifetime. She loves performances, and will quickly shush the other children should they break the code of theater etiquette. She pretends to write grants for her fairies while I am on a deadline, helps put stamps on the mailings, and plays director in her room. She also dresses up, uses voices, and is already reading a variety of words. She loves taking pictures and rushes to her art sets daily to paint and draw. She immerses quickly into creative play, can tell a story with a clear beginning, middle and end. It is an understatement to say she is obsessed with folklore, myth and fairy tales. We spend hours contemplating mermaids, dragons, and witches.
After a show of Desert Travels, age 3
Playing Wizard of OZ dress-up, age 3
As she grows, we will continue to support her into whomever she becomes. For now, though, I hope her creativity continues to lend itself to a life that is inquisitive, thoughtful and caring. This creativity will help foster problem solving, create emotional health, and support her to make strong choices in life. It is also a delightfully fun way to parent.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Wyoming: Forever Home

We returned late Tuesday night from our annual pilgrimage tour to Southwest Wyoming. This was our 8th year working in these communities. This year we primarily targeted 500 second and first graders. We led workshops in dance and storytelling in the elementary schools. At the college in Rock Springs, Roderick Jackson led two master classes in Afro-influenced dance, and Emily Bunning led a master modern dance class. We performed Desert Travels: Tales from the Middle East for two performances at WWCC's theater.
Desert Travels: Tales from the Middle East at WWCC's Theater
Desert Travels: Tales from the Middle East at WWCC Theater
We also were hosted by Nancy and Mark Anselmi at The Outlaw Inn. They threw us a lovely reception and benefit. Friends, family and supporters from the community attended. At one point, while Emily and I were giving our speech, I couldn't help but flash to our childhood; Saturday art classes, camping trips, the many art events we attended, the people who influenced us. In some ways, we were always destined to be artists, made from these people, this place, this land, the events of our childhood.
Food at the Outlaw Inn, reflected our Treehouse Shakers' characters.
Treehouse Shakers' Company at the Outlaw Inn Benefit
Emily Bunning, her son, and Mary Hay at Benefit
Going home always brings out such deep contemplations on my past, present and future. As soon as we drive into the High desert mountains, I feel my NYC layers making way to the deeper memories of sagebrush, antelope and mountains. Sometimes cracked, these memories are like the desert itself. Did I really play with lizards once, skipping rocks into the river by myself, laying nestled in the dirt staring at the blue skies and watching the clouds? Could I, now long-married to New York City and her skyscrapers, have once been the child of this desert?

My daughter out for a walk by the Green River
My daughter, now three, kept saying, "Momma take me to the top of the mountains." I repeated their names as we drove, wanting them to be etched into her memory like the red rocks themselves. Kissing Rock,  White Mountain, South Mountain. And here is where mommy found her first lizard. There I rode my bike, I hunted for arrowheads here. The town now has paved roads where I used to play, but my memories will forever be etched between shale and sandstone, beneath the open blue skies. Wyoming, forever my home.
Playing Dress up in Mommy's costume post-performance
Thank you to Sweetwater County BOCES, Western Wyoming Community College Faculty, Students and Staff, Bernadine Craft, Outlaw Inn, Nancy & Mark Anselmi, our amazing performers; Roderick Jackson, Miranda Wilson, Ashley McGill, Sarah Young, Emily Bunning, Amber Ford and Sarah Milosevich. Special thanks to all of the many family,  friends and supporters who help make our trip so wonderful! 

Performance photos taken by Florence Alfano McEwin.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Taming the Story: Part II

Last week I posted a piece about Folklore seeming too edgy for youth audiences. This week I want to delve into the bigger issue of the structure of folktales for our youth.

Oral folklore is by nature not a gentle package. There are high stakes, sometimes death, trickery, characters who are greedy, selfish and others who are kind, gentle and generous. Folklore, put simply, is human nature. Every culture has its tie to oral storytelling. Since the invention of the printing press, we have had the unique opportunity to distribute world stories from different cultures, in print. This of course, is a condensed explanation.

Since folklore has so many dangerous story elements, it doesn't always work well within the American psyche. As a culture we want to shield our children, exposing only the goodness of life; even though we know that our children will find violence, sadness, exploitation in other ways. Life will make its way to our kids.

Mara's 2 Year Old Storytelling Class, It is never to young to start telling stories!
As a storyteller, I also know it  is my job to play into the American psyche to some degree. I know that I can't always go into a school and tell the "actual" terrible ending to a story. Instead, I might change aspects of the story, while trying to remain sensitive to the cultural, style, and rhythms of the story. When I rewrite tales for our Treehouse Shakers' dance-plays, I have to rework many of the endings. In Animal Rhythms, for example, one of the stories from West Africa involves a frog and a hen. For most of the story the frog is lazy and refuses to help the hen gather food, make a shelter, build a fire, or even to make a bed. In the end a hawk carries off the frog. Or so is our ending. In the other versions I have read, the hawk rips and shreds the frog into tiny, bloody pieces. This ending warns humans of not doing our part, and how we will be punished. In American society I can only imagine the storm of angry parents walking out from the theater with their young children crying and traumatized in tow. In our ending audiences can imagine what happens. I have also kept the story intact, for the most part, breaking it up with live-drumming, and the melding of choreography. We do a lot of call and response with the audience, in line with the traditional oral telling.
Animal Rhythms: Frog and Hen Here Arts Center 2007
I don't always change the endings though. In Coyote's Dance, we have left most of the story endings intact. Coyote is the masterful trickster who has been given many lives by the Great Universe. Coyote, during one of his foolish, boastful feats, falls from the sky into tiny pieces. He dies not only once, but twice. And then is reborn again. I kept the ending. The show is darker in feeling than our other folklore trilogy. The ending is kept in its sacred format. The response; audiences love Coyote. Young audiences love seeing that Coyote, no matter what, prevails.
Coyote Being Put Together Again in Coyote's Dance
Our children need the darkness. It is essential that they witness characters overcoming great obstacles and succeeding. They need to know that life will give us problems. It is how we manage these problems that makes us who we are. Sometimes it is even our own selfish blunders that get us into trouble. There are messages, deep human messages; treat others with kindness, don't be jealous of your neighbor, generosity can go a long way. As a parent, I love telling my daughter folklore, fairy tales, myths. She eats them up. There is love, death, conflicts, spells, birth, and magic. These stories have become a part of her. She plays stories when she is by herself, working out the conflicts and resolutions, finding the characteristics of the story, learning story structure. She is 3 years old and developing her sense of self through story.

I have also told these stories to children who have seen and felt too much in their young lives; who may have been abused, neglected, and raised in unbelievable poverty and circumstances. These kids need to hear that when when one character takes advantage of another, consequences happen. They can imagine their own path out of the dark shadowy forest, into the sunlight path and home to the warm cottage. They need to hear stories of bravery, success and kindness. These stories become helpful tools in their own survival.

For every critic who tells me that folklore is too scary, too dangerous, an unnecessary tool in education, and not a selling point for the theater, I say this; tell a story to a young person. Watch their face. See their excitement and then visit this child in a week. I guarantee that they will be begging for the story to be told again!
Students after seeing Animal Rhythms

Performance Animal Rhythms Photo: Mercedes McAndrew
Performance Coyote's Dance Photo: Dan Ozminkowski

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Taming the Story: Part I

In American Youth Theater, the trend is to find a book, make a play, preferably a musical, and make an easy sell for audiences, mostly school groups. Welcome to America. We have a bottom line, and that bottom line looms large. We are pushed from all areas to go bigger, increase yearly earnings, and make giant leaps in all ways. For the arts this is nearly impossible. As a culture we don't spend enough on arts programming. The arts aren't a priority. The bigger performing companies and organizations get the bigger funders, while the mid-size get fewer, and the small non-profits usually go out of business from the constant struggle. All organizations, no matter their size are also limited as to where they can apply. It is no wonder that the larger presenting theaters want to book work that sells. As a producer, fundraiser, and non-profit co-founder, I get this. Presenters want to contract work with name recognition, that can sell tickets and prove to their immediate superiors and funders that the theater seats will be filled on the day of the performance.
Animal Rhythms, Here Arts Center, NYC 2007
Treehouse Shakers is the antithesis to this performance model. In 2002 we introduced Animal Rhythms: Two African Folktales. My work as a storyteller was deeply influential to the work we were creating. I was immersed in storytelling residencies, performances, world folklore, and a community of other professional and talented storytellers. It was no surprise that I wanted to make Treehouse Shakers' work with some of my favorite tales; blending our trademark style of dance-theater and live music. I love the idea of introducing young audiences to new cultures, new stories, new parts of the world. I love bridging young minds to new places through story. I also love the deeper meaning within the story. I have watched students of all ages become engaged by story, passionate through story, exhilarated by story. To witness human listening to story is truly magical. Animal Rhythms, I am happy to report, has been one of our most popular shows in the New York area since its premiere. Since 2002 we have also created Desert Travels: Tales from the Middle East, and Coyote's Dance, coyote stories from the indigenous cultures of North America.
Coyote's Dance at The Ailey Citigroup Theater

These pieces are our now part of our older repertory, but even today we often hear from theater presenters outside of NYC, that folktales don't sell. The presenter nods nicely, eyes wandering off to the looming show posters of remade top-selling children's books, citing that the work becomes too edgy when we use folktales. It just won't sell. Really? Edgy? I have seen amazing, even brilliantly edgy work from our European colleagues, but I don't think many any letters to the editor from an angry parent or school board will appear from one of our pieces. I do believe that the work in our folktale trilogy are culturally influenced, original, exciting, and well-done, but I do not think they are edgy.

Over the past 13 years, as a storyteller in residence, I have known many educators in numerous schools. Teachers love folklore. They love to use folklore to tie into their geography, literacy, and even science curriculum. They enjoy connecting the oral traditions of the world to their students. Folktales make sense in education. I believe it is the theater presenter's job to understand the connection between folklore and the educational curriculum. It is also their role to present how folklore powerfully connects to the school curriculum. When I have sold our work to schools directly it becomes an easy pitch.
Mara Storytelling at Stephens College
America, please listen up. If we want to be better, be bigger, be a powerful part of the world, then we need to start thinking of our children as part of the global community. This is the real bottom line. We need our children to have empathy, understand geography, understand story structure, so that they can not only imagine their own story, but the story of our future. Dear Presenter, despite the pressure to sell tickets, please consider the power of one of the oldest elements of human art forms. Give our children access to folklore, and I promise you that the seats will fill themselves.