Treehouse Shakers

Treehouse Shakers
Hatched, BAM Fisher, Hillman Studio

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.

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