Matthew Chilton ’16 talks to Nadya Potemkina (Nov. 16)

Matthew Chilton ’16 talks to Adjunct Assistant Professor of Music Nadya Potemkina about directing the Wesleyan University Orchestra, who will perform Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Overture to “Don Giovanni” and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 at a free concert on Saturday, November 16, 2013 at 8pm in Crowell Concert Hall.

Adjunct Assistant Professor of Music Nadya Potemkina. Photo by Pavel Terpelets.
Adjunct Assistant Professor of Music Nadya Potemkina. Photo by Pavel Terpelets.

Russian week at Wesleyan reaches its apex tonight when the Wesleyan University Orchestra performs under the direction of Nadya Potemkina. Ms. Potemkina has deep roots in the Russian classical music tradition, and this will be her inaugural performance as conductor of Wesleyan’s student orchestra. We sat down in her office to talk about her musical life, the formative experience of Tchaikovsky’s symphony, and making music from both sides of the podium.

When you were growing up, did classical music feature into your home life? How did you find your interest in it?

My parents were musicians, and I grew up in a very small town in the Leningrad region. My family moved to St. Petersburg when I started school, but when I was a kid I was growing up in a small town. There wasn’t much to do there for children, but we were fortunate enough to have a music school, a small program. I had a choice of violin, piano, choir singing, and playing accordion. Violin just seemed closest to me at that point. I was five at the time, and it went pretty well. I changed to viola when I was twelve. Pretty soon I couldn’t see myself doing anything else besides music.

I’ve been in a similar place since I started playing electric bass at the age of eleven, then getting interested in more and more instruments as I came along.

How did you get your start in conducting, more specifically? Were there any concerts or moments when you realized “this is my calling, this is what I want to do?”

Well, it’s interesting. This moment sort of relates to the program that we will be playing tonight. When I was studying at the Pedagogical College in St. Petersburg, we all had to take classes in choral conducting. And I liked it, but I never thought even of trying my luck with a symphony orchestra. At that time, it wasn’t something a woman would do easily in Russia. But when I came to the United States for my Master’s Degree in Viola, taking conducting lessons was easy – you didn’t have to be anybody special, you could just sign up for class and practice with a teacher and a full group as well.

For one of my final tests in that class, I had to conduct the first few pages of the first movement of Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4. I remember the opening brass fanfare just had such an impression on me that I had never experienced this feeling of being in the center of the sound. I was very impressed and thought that, “wow, this is something that I would like to try again in the future!” So I decided to continue my studies in conducting.

I’m really interested in that notion of the relationship between the conductor and the performer – like what goes on on either side of the podium, and the fact that you were able to experience the sound in a different way as a conductor. What’s it like to create music from both sides of the podium, and how has it influenced the way that you think about music?

Conducting most definitely changed me as a performer, and I’m trying to keep my viola playing skills in shape. I continued playing through my six years of study for a doctorate in conducting. It has its own pros and cons, you learn so much about the technical side of conducting that you see each and every nuance in another conductor’s work. You see all the things that go bad also, so at times I started to notice that I find myself following conductors a little too closely. A section is staying more like a group, they at times ignore some of the stupid things conductors do and save the performance [chuckles]. You know, we all make mistakes but I had to consciously think about staying with a section while I’m playing, not just following all the little things I see out there.

As a conductor, I think it’s very important that I do play an instrument actively, because I know what to ask for from players. I’m trying not to demand something that I feel might not be possible at the moment, and chances are that I know the technique of a string section better. I can word my requests in a more precise way.

You’ve touched on a lot of things that I find very interesting about the classical ensemble, but there are certainly some people I speak to who don’t understand the role of the conductor. Which is pretty interesting having played in an orchestra and realizing how much work goes into getting an ensemble ready in rehearsal.

Any words for people who may think that a conductor is just a “timekeeper?”

Timekeeping most definitely is a very important part of the process. You do need to be able to keep time, keep in certain tempos, and start in a certain tempo right away. But performance consists of so many other parts – it’s a very complex puzzle, and the younger the orchestra is…When you’re working with professionals, chances are that they already know how to play certain things, and all they want from you is to tell them what you want to hear – what quality of sound, what mood, what tone color, and all that. But with students, it’s very important to be able to explain to them what technical tricks and tools may help them to get that certain sound and mood, as well as to be able to demonstrate them. Also, on the other hand, we wouldn’t want to be too technical, dry, and robot-like. So when the concert comes, it’s very important to just be able to let it go. To let them be artists, and stop dictating every note and everything.

In light of that, what are some different types of groups you’ve worked with? How does that background approach how you lead the Wesleyan Orchestra?

I was very fortunate to have worked with both youth orchestras and professional orchestras as well. I served as an assistant conductor in summer festivals with professional musicians, and participated in workshops conducting professional groups. But also, I directed a couple youth orchestras over extended periods of time. It teaches you both the technical and educational side of things, as well as the performance and artistic-creative process. At Wesleyan, we have students who are in the orchestra who come from very different backgrounds, and they are at different levels of technical abilities. I feel like having experienced both worlds, I hope I’m able to bring it all to one common, golden median – to bridge any gaps there might be.

Wonderful! Striving for unity, that big cohesive orchestra sound. Moving back to Saturday’s program, there’s the “Don Giovanni” overture, then Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4 – are there any notes or experiences you’ve had with this music that inform your interpretation, or any sort of working moments where the students have taught you new things?

Hmm, interesting. I feel like whenever you work on a piece with a new group of musicians, it’s different. It doesn’t matter how many times you have done it. As I said, I first started studying Tchaikovsky ten years ago, and I have done the whole piece for the first time last year. So it’s my second time approaching the entire composition. And it’s never the same, you can never say, “I’ve played it before and it’s not fun for me anymore.” Players always bring something from their side of the music. They all have different difficulties with certain spots, and they treat solo melodies differently also. It’s all new for me once again, because all the players are different and they are new. So it’s a completely fresh reading of the piece. I’m not sure even how to compare it with the past, because it’s always new.

I love how there’s always that changing relationship between the stable notated materials and the music brought to life by the orchestra. Thanks so much for your time and words, Nadya.

You can find out more about the music and the people bringing it to life in the program notes for the Wesleyan University Orchestra’s Fall Concert.

Aileen Lambert ’16 talks to Emmie Finckel ’14 about “The Seagull” (Nov. 13-16)

Aileen Lambert ’16 meets with Emmie Finckel ’14 to talk about her time at Wesleyan, her senior thesis in scenic design, and her involvement with the Theater Department production of Anton Chekov’s “The Seagull.” Directed by Associate Professor of Theater Yuri Kordonsky, the play explores the question of “What defines art and how can we create something new?” In order to further exemplify this theme, Professor Kordonsky is leading a production set in an unusual environment where the boundaries between the actor and the audience member dissolve, designed by Ms. Finckel.

Photo by John Carr
Photo by John Carr

Give me some basic background on your theater experience here at Wes.

So I transferred here, that’s a thing that happened. Second semester of sophomore year I stage-managed Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights (directed by Associate Professor of Theater Cláudia Tatinge Nascimento). Which was really nuts that I stage-managed a faculty show after only being here a couple of months. That was really a crash course in Wesleyan theater. And then first semester last year I designed The Tempest (directed by Nicholas Orvis ’13) And then second semester last year I stage managed Eurydice (directed by Sivan Battat ’15) for Second Stage, and I also designed the set for Under Milkwood, which Nick also directed.

Your thesis focuses on breaking the boundaries between the audience and the actors. What prompted this idea?

The whole way through I had been planning on doing either a directing thesis or writing something, because I’m a sociology double major, and I think there’s a lot of interesting theoretical overlap between performance studies and sociology. And then I took set design, and Marcela (Oteíza, Assistant Professor of Theater) stole me. Marcela really showed me how the set is a mediator in the audience/performer relationship. What is most interesting to me about theater is that it’s the only art form that you really can’t do without an audience; the audience is an absolutely essential part of that. So, that’s why this idea of the audience/performer relationship became what I wanted to focus on.

Then in taking that class with Marcela, we did a lot of reading, a lot of Richard Schechner stuff, which is all about environmental theater, and trying to make the audience and performance space one cohesive thing. Richard Schechner was this guy in the 1960s who came up with this idea for environmental theater, which tries to treat the space as it is, and not trying to hide it in any way. You go and see these shows that have these painted flats up against the walls very clearly pretending to be something they’re not, so the idea behind environmental theater is that you’re not trying to pretend—the set is the environment. So it’s a lot of thinking about how different pieces function rather than how they look. And it’s also a lot about trying to use the space to impose upon and affect the audience in a way that will serve the play.

All the pieces fell into place, when that was what I decided I wanted to focus on theoretically, and Yuri (Kordonsky, Associate Professor of Theater) decided that was what he wanted to focus on physically. I was talking to Marcela about designing whatever this show that is happening right now as my thesis, and then it all just kind of—I mean, Jack (Carr, Chair of Theater Department) always says that he got my thesis proposal and Yuri’s concept idea for The Seagull at the same time, and was just sort of like, “Wow, ok cool.”

What has been your greatest lesson learned so far in the production process?

This has made me realize just how important communication is, and that means a lot of different things. On one hand, there’s just the fact that theater is a collaborative art and everyone needs to know what’s happening at the same time, and that can be tricky. Then, when you’re trying to talk about these visual elements, I can say that I want a blue chair over there, and the blue chair that I have in my head is definitely different than the blue chair that you have in your head, which is different than the shade of blue that the guy who is going to paint the blue chair is thinking of. So trying to establish a language to communicate about these more abstract ideas is definitely the biggest challenge, but also sort of the most fun thing to try and figure out.

Is scenic design something you want to go into? Do you have career aspirations that relate to this?

Well, I think I definitely want to do something in theater because I think that theater is really important, and I think that you can communicate things through theater that can’t be communicated any other way. But, I think that a big problem is that people don’t really know how to engage in theater, so they get thrown off by these more abstract productions that I think have a lot of power to do things. One of the greatest things about theater is that you don’t have to know how to engage with it, you just have to let it happen to you. I don’t know what avenue it’s going to take, but I want to help people to understand that. I could see myself trying to do the design route, but, for me, the idea of having to jump from project to project and not have an actual job—I don’t like that. But then I could also see myself going into theater management and the business side of things, and I could also totally see myself going the academia route and working towards being a professor, and really getting into the theory/performance side of it.

What has been your favorite class so far at Wes?

Any class?

Any class.

Linear algebra was totally my favorite class. I actually initially was going to be a triple major, with math also. I love math. Linear algebra was the first class I ever took that made me realize how little I know about everything because we were learning how to add and subtract and divide and multiply again but with different things, instead of just single numbers, which made the world of math go from being this big to being just so much you can do with it that I have no idea what it is. That was really cool.

What has been your favorite moment so far in the production process?

My favorite moment was definitely that first day when we got everything in the space. It was all lined up against the back wall of the theater, and then Yuri gave his little spiel—the whole cast was going to play, and were going to figure it out. Then he said, “Emmie, can you tape out the platform?” That took about 10 or 15 minutes, and then I stood up and looked around, and the whole set was there. And it was awesome! It was awesome because I didn’t actually have to touch a single piece of furniture to make it move, but it was also cool because the thing that’s most important for me in thinking about this process is that the work that I’m doing is happening with the work that is happening in rehearsal. There were a bunch of times when Marcela would say to me, “You’ve really got to think specifically about how this is going to look visually.” I would go to my room and start sketching and I would feel really weird because I was like, this, whatever I’m coming up with right now, is going to be so radically different from what they are coming up with at rehearsal, and it seemed very disconnected. It was really nice to have that moment where it felt like the work that I was doing was happening with everybody else, and happening collaboratively, and knowing that all these people who were moving stuff around the space were working with this material in rehearsal and were being conscious of how the things that they were doing were working with the play. That was the first moment when I felt that my world and the actor world were really coming together, and it happened so seamlessly.

Sewon Kang ’14 on the “Blood, Muscle, Bone” intensives and performative teach-in (Nov. 11)

Creative Campus Intern Sewon Kang ’14 discusses the intensives that have been part of the Creative Campus course “Blood, Muscle, Bone: The Anatomy of Wealth and Poverty,” as well as the free “Blood, Muscle, Bone” Performative Teach-In which will be held on Monday, November 11, 2013 from 7pm to 11pm in Fayerweather Beckham Hall. (The doors will open every 30 minutes—come and stay as long as you like.)

2012 residency of "Blood, Muscle, Bone" in Tallahassee. Photo by Aubrie Rodriguez.
2012 residency of “Blood, Muscle, Bone” in Tallahassee. Photo by Aubrie Rodriguez.

Having recently emerged from the “Blood, Muscle, Bone” intensives, adjusting to the rhythm of school again is almost like switching brains.  For five days, I employed a radically different mode of thinking and processing than I ever have before.  I moved, thought, and felt about many different issues surrounding wealth, poverty, and the body, and collaborated with my instructors and fellow students in surprising and new ways.

Our first few intensives were committed to the creation of a collective toolbox.  Our guest instructors, Professors William Arsenio, Wendy Rayack, and Lois Brown, gave lectures related to wealth and poverty through the lens of their particular fields.  From recent fiscal and experimental data, to the days of early American slave trading, the range of information presented to us walked us through an issue that transcends time and place, and affects all humans.

While listening to these lectures, Liz, Jawole, and their associates Vincent Thomas and Keith Thompson encouraged us to take on the role of the artist in addition to the role of the student. While listening, we posed questions and problematized the information, but we were also challenged to explore the information in ways that we would not necessarily have the freedom to do in other classrooms.  We paid attention and took note of the visualizations and soundtracks floating through our heads, and responded to the lecturer’s body language and cues with our own bodies.  Such prompts helped me realize that there are hundreds of angles from which this issue could be addressed which got me excited to further develop some of them with my classmates.

The lectures were punctuated by creative exercises and movement studies designed to give us more tools for our arsenal.  The artists devised activities that allowed us to explore deeper and respond to what we learned with our thoughts and emotions.  I was able to use my intellect and my body in combination to process the weight of the information.  Wealth disparity in the U.S. is at an all time high; the richest 400 individuals are worth $2.02 trillion dollars, more than the net worth of the bottom 50% of the population.  The immediacy of creative opportunities to process and react to such information was incredibly beneficial for me, as it’s sometimes difficult to take in facts, figures, and histories without taking into consideration their humanity and reality.  There was an amazing collaboration between the artists and guests lecturers, allowing us to experiment and process with total freedom and comfort that I deeply appreciated.

I find the prospect of communicating and translating my ideas into movement a bit daunting, but mostly thrilling.  Throughout the remainder of the intensive, Jawole, Liz, Vincent, and Keith had us create in small groups within limited timeframes.  Working like this helped me get more comfortable with the act of communicating my ideas in an artistic way.  I also got a taste for how creative and talented my peers are, and am excited to see what I can learn from working closely with them.

At one point, we all sat around in a circle and conducted an “asset inventory.”  Everyone in the room shared a skill or an aspect about themselves that makes a contribution to the community, and the diversity of responses and experiences in the class opened up so many possibilities.  I shared that I love to backpack and that I enjoy the challenge of carrying everything I need to survive on the strength of my own back.  Using this idea as a metaphor, a small group of students and I got together to figure out how to create a backpack for change and reported back to the group.  We created a movement piece that reflects on the meaning of carrying and sharing weight, and the necessity of being prepared for the tough times ahead.  Since then, we’ve been workshopping the piece with Keith and other students who have joined in on the process.  I’m really looking forward to where it will all go from here.

My fellow students and I have explored a lot of difficult problems and ideas in this course, some of which really hit home.  We’re continuing to process the material creatively through songwriting, photography, and movement among other things. We’re currently honing in on ways to articulate what we’ve learned to a wider audience.  As concerned citizens who are deeply disturbed by these inequities, we’re finding ways to express how to respond both personally and intellectually to the fact that there is something seriously wrong here.  We’ve become witness to these problems in our country and are determined to do something about it. We’re carrying this heavy reality on our backs.  We’re trying to deal with the weight of what it all means.

Our efforts will culminate in a special performance-based teach-in that will take place on Monday, November 11, 2013 from 7pm to 11pm every half hour in Fayerweather Beckham Hall. This teach-in is inspired by the activist movements that came before us, which emphasized the importance and need for knowledge first.  This experiential event is going to be multifaceted, with elements that enlighten, shock, and ask the audience to participate and think with us.  We’re going to use our bodies and various art forms to demonstrate the physicality of these issues to make issues of disparity tangible.  We’ll invite participants to move, feel, explore and engage in dialogue with us, because the only way we can address these issues is to do it together.

Rebecca Seidel ’15 reviews the “Faces of China” exhibition (through Dec. 6)

Rebecca Seidel ’15 interviews the free exhibition “Faces of China, 1981: Photographs by Tom Zetterstrom,” on display at the Mansfield Freeman Center for East Asian Studies Gallery through Friday, December 6, 2013. The exhibition will be closed from Tuesday, November 26 through Tuesday, December 3, 2013.

Tom Zetterstrom, "Combing," Shanghai, 1981, original gelatin silver print.
Tom Zetterstrom, “Combing,” Shanghai, 1981, original gelatin silver print.

In an interview this past August with curator Patrick Dowdey, photographer Tom Zetterstrom spoke about the approach he took to capturing everyday life in China through portraiture—a project for which he was commissioned by the Yale-China Association back in the 1980s, and whose results are now on display for the first time in nearly three decades. Above all, he said, he tried to get as up-close to his subjects as possible, ideally shooting at arm’s length.

“Dangling around my neck were three cameras, so I presented myself as the obvious photographer and not someone who was trying to sneak a shot on the run,” he said. “So I was able to engage with the subject on an individual level, one on one.”

Mr. Zetterstrom’s focus on one-on-one engagement shines through quite powerfully in “Faces of China, 1981,” a collection of photographs now on view at the Mansfield Freeman Center for East Asian Studies Gallery. His physical proximity to his subjects makes for portraits that are both intimate and inviting. But by interspersing these portraits with photographs of billboards, religious artwork, and other relics he encountered during his visit to China, Mr. Zetterstrom also steps back far enough to capture a bigger and more complex picture—that of a culture in flux.

In the early 1980s, China was still emerging from the shadows of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. In 1981, when Mr. Zetterstrom and members of the Yale-China Association landed in China and started traveling from city to city, the country was moving towards a large-scale transformation, following the path set by Deng Xiaoping’s “Reform and Opening Up” policy. As this process unfolded, China became open to foreigners in a way that it hadn’t been for years.  Given this new access, many people were eager to get a closer look: what was China like in the midst of these changes? What were the people like? What kind of effect was the reform having on them?

Mr. Zetterstrom’s photographs (some in black and white, some in color) offer answers to these questions—or at least fragments of answers—in a rich and evocative way. His portraits document people of all ages and occupations, catching snapshots of simple moments from their lives: a woman gathering tea from the countryside, two friends smoking together, a man caught in the middle of eating a popsicle.  A common feature among these portraits is that many of their subjects are looking straight into the lens, creating a line of communication between the subject and the viewer that is almost startlingly direct.

None of the images seem stiff or posed—even though, as Mr. Zetterstrom emphasizes, “these are not candid shots.” The sense of mutual trust between photographer and subject radiates from the page. This rings true with something Mr. Zetterstrom noted in his interview: that he went into this project without any preconceptions about the people he was photographing. As a result, his photographs have a simple and organic quality to them. Though the scenery might be foreign to many Western viewers, the expressions on the subjects’ faces are deeply familiar.

While these portraits are timeless in many ways, the other images interspersed with them—images of advertisements, older socialist art, religious artwork—provide a more concrete time frame, offering information about the historical and cultural crossroads in which these people are living. It would be impossible to draw complete conclusions from these images alone, but they do show China in 1981 as a place where residue of an earlier time remains, even as the society as a whole is taking steps forward.

The photos, arranged in a single row along the periphery of the gallery, are accompanied by only a minimal amount of text: after every five images or so, there is a list of each photo’s title and the location where it was shot. Mr. Zetterstrom reveals additional information about some of the photos in his interview with Mr. Dowdey, but walking from photograph to photograph without this supplementary knowledge is like progressing through a story with some general themes and key details but no fully tangible plot. This works perfectly given the content of some of the photographs—particularly the portraits, where the subjects and scenery speak for themselves. The objects that are showcased—religious artwork, billboards, a mannequin in a storefront—also tell their own stories, but it was difficult to fully discern their significance at first.

A few laps around the exhibition start to reveal more layers of meaning: a photograph of a dilapidated billboard depicting socialist art, for instance, presents a counterpoint to a newer, better-kept billboard showcasing commercial art. Contrasts and discrepancies like these hint at the direction in which Chinese culture was evolving at the time.

Still, for a viewer with minimal knowledge of the historical context of the photographs, more supplementary information might be helpful. The video of Mr. Zetterstrom’s interview is available for viewing in another room at the Mansfield Freeman Center for East Asian Studies, so that’s a good place to start. Some transcribed excerpts from this interview are also printed in a pamphlet available in the exhibition room.

Mr. Zetterstrom’s approach to photography in China was both deliberate and impulsive: he noted in his interview that he was always carefully and thoughtfully observing his surroundings, but when the opportunity for a meaningful photo arose, he was prepared to seize the moment and act on it immediately. This effort translated into photographs that are at once fleeting and timeless—photographs that give immediacy to sweeping cultural shifts, especially when put in conversation with one another.

By piecing together this conversation for us, Mr. Zetterstrom offers a compelling lens through which to view this pivotal era in China’s recent history.  More than thirty years later, given all the transformations China has undergone since those early stages of reform, this lens is more valuable than ever.

Sewon Kang ’14 on the course “Blood, Muscle, Bone: The Anatomy of Wealth and Poverty”

Creative Campus Intern Sewon Kang ’14 discusses her experience in the Creative Campus course “Blood, Muscle, Bone: The Anatomy of Wealth and Poverty.”

Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Liz Lerman. Photo by Bess Paupeck.
Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Liz Lerman. Photo by Bess Paupeck.

This semester I’m taking “Blood, Muscle, Bone: The Anatomy of Wealth and Poverty,” a Creative Campus course taught by Liz Lerman and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar. In my time at Wesleyan, I’ve had the privilege of interning for Creative Campus, an initiative that unites ideas and gets people thinking outside of their comfort zones.  Creative Campus hosts a wide variety of artists on campus, inviting them to employ their creative processes within the university setting for the mutual benefit of the artist and the Wesleyan community. Artists can participate by co-teaching courses with professors, experimenting with students in the classroom, creating commissions, and collaborating in community-based projects.  Liz and Jawole are choreographers, both heavily engaged in interdisciplinary work and community/cultural organizing.  In the spirit of Creative Campus, they are also teaching with professors from the fields of African American Studies, EconomicsEnglish and Psychology.  “Blood, Muscle, Bone” is designed to train and support students interested in discovering the bridge between academic and artistic research through the vehicle of a new performance work of the same name.  The course and the work explore the human price of socioeconomic inequalities, with particular emphasis on how to unveil and address hidden inequities through artmaking and various forms of activism.  Such collaborative Creative Campus projects allow artists to utilize resources that are unique to the university setting throughout the critical period of conceptual research that informs and drives their work.  The artist-university partnership is also designed to engage students and faculty members from diverse academic areas, bringing their different ways of knowing in communication with the arts.  The other students enrolled in “Blood, Muscle, Bone” have backgrounds in chemistry, music, and American studies, while my background is in Art History and History. The goal of the course is to open up traditional academic boundaries and encourage the exploration of a profoundly complex issue from multiple and varied perspectives.

I’ve found that the professors, artists, and students who tend to participate in Creative Campus projects are interested in exploring topics that are deeply multifaceted, so much so that it is virtually impossible to study these issues from one perspective alone.  I enrolled in “Blood, Muscle, Bone” because it addresses subject matter that is, in my opinion, impossible to study without taking the body into consideration.  Socioeconomic conditions/realities take place within the individual and collective body and should be explored within the context of the body and its social environment. The ideas that are compelling and asking to be probed require collaboration that is open to questioning from all possible angles and areas of expertise.  Creative Campus gives people a safe space in which to ask these questions and bring seemingly disparate ideas in communion with one another.  This method has been so liberating that participants of Creative Campus have found themselves completely changed upon being encouraged to think and do in this way.  Because of my work in this program, I’ve been witness to these very real transformations.  I read one student assert that the artistic element of a course “helped [her] to embody and reflect on our more traditionally academic material, and incorporate motion and emotion into a realm that is all too often static and emotionless.”  Another student said that the opportunity to consider something as complex as climate change through both artistic and academic impulses “has completely altered [her] understanding of the world.”  These are the kinds of intense impacts that Creative Campus has been able to instill in Wesleyan students, and I’m very much looking forward to experiencing it for myself.

“Blood, Muscle, Bone” was also appealing to me because of its emphasis on activism and the utilization of various activist tools to explore topics.  When it comes to academic pursuits, Wesleyan has always encouraged me to think about the whole picture, giving me the tools to consider all facets of an issue.  There are whole fields of study on campus dedicated to this idea that learning can only truly be achieved through input from multiple channels.  Creative Campus projects have taken this approach one step further by allowing me to embrace this way of thinking in my personal life, in addition to my pedagogical outlook.  Since I’ve been here, I’ve been lucky to meet and talk to many interesting artists like Eiko Otake, of Eiko + Koma, and Lucy Orta, of Studio Orta, who have generously taken the time to show students how to create with intention.  Artists employ research methods and ask questions that are challenging in ways that thrill and excite students who are in the process of discovering their own interests and passions, which is a major reason why I decided to take this course.

The issues that I’ve been challenged to think about and feel in my body at Wesleyan have forever changed me as a thinker and as a human being who aims to make an impact.  Since getting involved, I’ve been inspired to find my own form of political activism.  “Blood, Muscle, Bone” deals with the realities of wealth inequality, a topic that has always been on my mind.  Growing up in New York City, I’ve been exposed to both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum and have been amazed by how polarized the experiences of the rich and the poor can be.  Oftentimes I find this issue intimidating to talk about because of how pervasive and global the problem seems to be.  How does one begin to approach being proactive about poverty and how it affects the human mind/body?  How can one person, or a small group of people create something that speaks to these issues and affects communities in a positive way?  These are the questions I bring to the table before our first class intensive and I look forward to being able to explore these issues with my instructors and peers.  I know that the knowledge and experience gained from this course are going to give me the courage and motivation to tackle issues in ways that extend way beyond the scope of the classroom and long after I graduate in May.

Interviews With Alumni Artists: Gabriela Herman ’03 and Juliana Romano ’04

Rebecca Seidel ’15 interviews Gabriela Herman ’03 and Juliana Romano ’04, two of the featured artists in the free exhibition The Alumni Show II, on display in the Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery through Sunday, December 8, 2013. Both Ms. Herman and Ms. Romano will also be attending the Homecoming/Family Weekend Reception for the exhibition on Saturday, November 2, 2013 from 2pm to 4pm in Zilkha Gallery.

As anyone who has stopped by the Zilkha Gallery in the past few months already knows, the current semester-long exhibition hosts a truly unforgettable body of work.

The Alumni Show II celebrates the artwork of four decades of Wesleyan alumni. The exhibit, arranged by guest curator John Ravenal ’81, P’15, showcases a huge range of media, styles, and subjects—reflecting the infinite number of paths Wesleyan students take after graduating. This Saturday, November 2, 2013, Mr. Ravenal will be joined at 2:30pm by ten of the fifteen artists featured in the exhibition for the show’s Homecoming/Family Weekend Reception, which will last from 2pm to 4pm.  Over the past week, I got a chance to interview a few of these artists.

For the first installment of this interview series, I talked to Gabriela Herman ’03 and Juliana Romano ’04. Highlights from these interviews are featured below.


Gabriela Herman, "Natural Selection," 2011, archival inkjet print
Gabriela Herman, “Natural Selection,” 2011, archival inkjet print

Gabriela Herman ’03 is a freelance photographer who divides her time between Brooklyn, Martha’s Vineyard, and Brazil. For the collection on display in the exhibition in  Zilkha Gallery, she photographed bloggers sitting alone in dark rooms, with their faces bathed in the glow of their laptop screens. “Passion and inspiration thrive in these dark corners as blogs change the way we interact, literally linking us to one another,” she writes in her artist’s statement. I spoke to her about the inspiration behind her work, what she’s up to now, and the art of storytelling through photography.

What drove you to this particular subject matter?

Well, it was sort of organic, but the first part of it was just something with the lighting and then it developed into the blogger idea. But the first part was just that a friend of mine was at her house, and she was leaning over her bed on her computer, and I just noticed the light from her laptop screen lighting her face—it was just this beautiful light. And I was like, “Oh, my God! Stay right there for one sec.” And I grabbed my camera, which I happened to have over there, and I took three frames, and then I came home and I looked at what I had shot, and I thought, “There’s definitely something really interesting going on here.” So that was definitely the bud of the idea. And that picture used to be in the collection—it got edited out, but it was in there for a while.

So that was the start of the idea. And then I came up with the idea of photographing bloggers in that way, with the light from their laptops being a metaphor for the tunnel, sort of—the light as a tunnel from being alone to this other connected world where we’re all together, online, and using that light source.

All my projects are very personal, and involve things that I’m very tied to. I am very involved online in the blogosphere, I have many blogs, I read and consume tons of blogs, and I think blogs are sort of our go-to center for information these days, and that bloggers can be our curators of information. I wanted to highlight that fact.

How did you go about finding bloggers?

So originally the idea was to shoot one blogger, and then the next blogger was going to be someone that they recommended, so that the photos would all be linked up in the same way that blogs link to other blogs. It didn’t end up being totally linear in that way, but every time I did a shoot of someone, I did get them to recommend a set of people, and so that’s how I found most of the bloggers; it was almost always through the recommendations of other bloggers.

As a blogger yourself, do you see yourself in these photos?

Yeah, I guess in the way that the online blogosphere influences my own photography. I know there are certain photographers who don’t want to look at anyone else’s work, don’t want to be influenced by anyone else, just want to be pure and shoot what comes into their heads, but for me it’s quite the opposite. I take in everything online; I read all the blogs, and every time I’m going through and I’m looking at other people’s work, I get so inspired. You know, it’s not copying what you see, but you just get inspired here and there. I love going to the blogosphere to motivate myself.

So you’ve been blogging for a while?

Yes. It’s changed, though, because when I first moved to New York, I used to blog a ton about the scene, and I used to go out all the time to gallery openings and to photo events, and I would write up who I ran into that night, and blog about what I saw and that kind of stuff. But now everyone’s moved to Tumblr, and Tumblr’s much more visual and less word or text-driven. Blogging has become much more about posting images and maybe a line or two about the images, and less about text.

What was it like using computer screens as the main source of light for these photographs?

I made [my subjects] turn off all of the lights. That’s not to say there wasn’t outside light from the windows—I couldn’t control that—but the light from the Apple icon makes this beautiful, soft, sort of diffused lighting. It was really easy to do the shoots, because [the lighting] really helped to simplify the factors going into the shoot: all I really needed was the laptop and the person, and I knew going in, 20 minutes in, that I got the shot. It was a very easy, sort of in-and-out kind of shooting.

And was there a lot of post-production work involved as well?

Not really at all. I’ll pump up the blacks and the contrast a little, and take out a couple distracting things here and there, but for the most part, they’re pretty true to what was shot in raw.

Were most of the photos taken in New York?

The majority were in New York, but when I was shooting at times when I was traveling, I would always have reached out to some bloggers. So there is a girl from Boston in there, and there’s one from San Francisco, from when I was out there. When I was in Paris, I happened to find a photo blogger, too.

Any other projects you’re working on right now?

I’m currently working on my next big project, which is portraits of people who are in college or older, who have or were raised by at least one gay parent. It has some audio components—I’m doing audio interviews of the subjects and having them share their stories. I’m talking to people who were raised from birth by a gay parent, or by two gay parents, as well as people who were raised by a mom and a dad and then later had a parent come out. So I’m getting the audio into their stories, and then a portrait of them that somehow relates to the moment when they found out about their parents.

So you really like to convey stories through your photos.

Yeah, it’s much more powerful, and I think people are much more receptive when you have something to say—you know, when I have a story to tell, versus just looking at a pretty picture.

And you work full-time as a photographer?

I’m a full-time freelance photographer. I’ve been very focused on editorial photography, which is for magazines. I’ve literally been traveling right now since August, just on different assignments; I’ve been doing a lot of travel photography for several magazines.

What is your favorite type of scenario to photograph?

My favorite scenario to photograph would be when I can spend two to three days with a person—not just show up for a shoot for two hours, in and out, but spend a few days with someone, and photograph not just them, but also everything around them: what they’re doing, where they’re living, where they’re working. I get to encompass the whole story by hanging out with someone for a couple of days. That’s my favorite kind of work.

Juliana Romano, "Taylor Swift Walking," 2012, oil on linen
Juliana Romano, “Taylor Swift Walking,” 2012, oil on linen

Juliana Romano ’04 is a painter whose love for portrait and figure painting dates back to her time as a Studio Art major at Wesleyan. She now lives in New York, but she also now teaches studio art here at her alma mater. Her work in the exhibition in Zilkha Gallery features portraits of “young women who are noticeably cute or pretty.” Two of her three pieces on display are paintings of Taylor Swift. She writes, “I’m interested in the tension that surrounds this kind of girl, the anxiety about whether or not she will be consumed by her own image.” I talked to her about the creative process behind her artwork, the facial expressions of her subjects, and what it’s like to be back at Wesleyan to teach.

What drove you to pursue this subject matter?

I’ve been painting figures since I was an undergrad at Wesleyan. I used to paint the models who we used in the art classes, but they were professional artist models, and I wanted to pursue a more personal subject matter—but then that was problematic for me in other ways. And so I started trying to bring things that I didn’t think necessarily belonged in an art context into the art context.  I spent a lot of time reading Us Weekly, and tabloids, and fan sites, and so I thought it would be fun to start grafting the space between that kind of fan fiction area and what I designated as art. And that was how I started playing with the pop culture figures. And there are these incredible image archives of all these people. So once I started thinking that Taylor Swift was pretty and would be a fun subject, I was able to find amazing pictures of her—everywhere she goes, she’s photographed. And that became its own kind of element within the work, which I thought was interesting.

And you combine the photographs while you’re painting to form a composite image?

Sometimes I’ll like one thing about one picture and another thing about another, and I’ve practiced enough that I can use multiple sources for one face.

You wrote that your work “brings together portraits of famous and non-famous people in an unsystematic way, creating instability for the viewer.” Can you tell me a bit more about that?

I’ve found that people often, even if it’s totally just a stray picture of someone I know and whom nobody else would know, people always think it’s somebody famous. It’s like the chicken and the egg: I don’t know which came first, but people always have a sense of familiarity with these subjects.

I noticed that the women in these paintings have pretty neutral and interiorized expressions on their faces.

I always work with this really neutral expression. I think it’s probably a mirror of my own “concentration” face, that sense of meditation that happens when I’m working. I’m not having an ecstatic, hyperbolic moment—maybe if I was, that would come out in it—but I like that: it gives them a sense of interiority. And I’ve talked about that even since I was an undergrad; I remember [Professor of Art] Tula Telfair talking about that with me. When I had my first body of work, the first time I saw a bunch of my paintings of people together, I was really surprised by the really strong effect that I had that they were, all together, looking out of the canvas. I think if you look at the actual pictures that I work from, you might not get that sense as strongly. So I don’t know where it comes from.

How much time do you typically spend working on a painting?

I don’t spend a lot of time; usually a couple of days of about five hour sessions. But with these ones that are in the show, you can see—the one that’s of Taylor Swift in a sweater was made in one day, in a couple hours, but the one of her walking in the white dress took probably about a week. You can see the difference in the material—the hair took a really, really long time because I had to keep letting it dry, and the face took a really long time, but the one on the right was super fast.

What’s it like to be back at Wesleyan to teach?

I mean, it’s the best. It’s so great. I love my classes, I love my students, and it’s just so fun to be back. It’s such a special place.

After taking studio art classes here, it must be strange to suddenly be the one teaching.

It’s not weird. Being a student is so closely linked to being a teacher. It’s just a really easy transition. It’s funny, because when I came back for my five-year reunion, I hadn’t been back in a long time, and then my ten-year reunion is coming up this year, and that’s a really different feeling. That first gap was really crazy, and now I’m much more used to it. It doesn’t feel like ten years. It doesn’t seem to make sense, but it’s the truth.

Fall Thesis Dance Concert: Interlocking Chains and Interlocking Disciplines (Oct. 31-Nov.2)

Michelle Agresti ’14 interviews Sally Williams ’14, Elle Bayles ’14, and Naya Samuel ’14 about their works on the Fall Thesis Dance Concert, taking place Thursday, October 31 through Saturday, November 2, 2013 at 8pm in the Patricelli ’92 Theater.  

Photo by Andy Ribner '14.
Photo by Andy Ribner ’14.

Walking into the Patricelli ’92 Theater late one night last week, I was greeted with the sight of a giant web made of gold chain that stretched from floor to ceiling—no, Second Stage is not running a haunted house, it’s just a set piece for the Fall Thesis Dance Concert, another big event that’s happening this weekend. The concerts this weekend will showcase one half of three dance majors’ theses, since a thesis in the dance major means creating two works, one for both semesters of your senior year. Sally Williams ’14, Elle Bayles ’14, and Naya Samuel ’14 are all premiering their first dances starting Thursday, October 31 and going through Saturday, November 2 at 8pm in the Patricelli ’92 Theater.

The giant gold web belongs to Ms. Williams. Her dance is depicting the way cells in the brain act when effected by Alzheimer’s disease—portraying in dance the neurophysical side of Alzheimer’s. The dancers will be repeating dance phrases, but mutating them and mixing them up during the course of the dance, representing how memories and tasks are scrambled. The dance was choreographed by giving the dancer prompts and asking them to come up with these dance phrases on their own, and then Ms. Williams subsequently took their movements and patterned them how she wished. The gold web is meant to evoke the interconnected web of neural pathways in our brains, and it will come apart during the dance, just as it comes apart in a brain afflicted with Alzheimer’s.

“In Alzheimer’s—it’s interesting, you have both an accumulation of new proteins or products in the brain as well as death of the actual neurons in the brain,” illustrates Ms. Williams. “So it’s this kind of interesting complex of degeneration but also accumulation.”

Ms. Williams choose the topic because it has both personal and academic importance to her, as she has done clinical research on Alzheimer’s as well as has two grandmothers with the disease. The reason that Ms. Williams has been in a lab working with Alzheimer’s is because she is a Molecular Biology and Biochemistry major in addition to Dance. She’s choosing to express the more clinical aspects of the disease through dance in her thesis because she believes that as a teaching tool, this performance will reach a wider audience—and be more entertaining.

“I’m trying to use dance as a way to illustrate this very complex biology in a more accessible way,” says Ms. Williams. “Because when you’re sitting there listening to a fifteen minute long lecture on dying cells and dying neurons, no one’s gonna listen to that. I’m trying to use dance as a medium for people to listen and learn. “

Studying both dance and science at once at Wesleyan have definitely contributed to her academically mixed thesis. The two subjects have encouraged her to think about how the unlikely pair are connected to each other. Additionally, the Dance Department itself has had a strong effect on her choreography and subject choice.

Ms. Williams explains, “The biggest thing about the Dance Department that’s influenced my work is how open it is and how receptive it is to different ideas. My work is really very interdisciplinary and they are very very receptive to that.”

Ms. Williams’ dance this semester is part of a larger project about dance and disease. For her spring piece, she’s going to be examining Alzheimer’s effects from an emotional and lifestyle perspective.

Ms. Williams says “My whole big general thesis is exploring intersections of illness in American contemporary dance.”

For this project, aside from her own choreography on Alzheimer’s, she is researching Bill T .Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company works during the AIDS crisis, and Mark Morris Dance Group, who teaches dance classes to people with Parkinson’s.

Ms. Bayles is also exploring illness and dance, but from a quite literal psychological perspective. As Ms. Williams put it earlier, these inter-departmental projects are “so Wes.”

Ms. Bayles describes her thesis as “exploring psychiatric methods through exploring choreographic methods.” She is looking at how the psychological process of talking to and treating patients is related to how dance choreographers created their pieces with their dancers. She does this by using different choreographic methods with her own dancers and studying the process. For her first dance, she is looking at the choreography of Merce Cunningham and Pina Bausch.

Mr. Cunningham was a dancer under the famous Martha Graham. She was influenced by her psychologist father, who was of Freud’s psychoanalytical tradition. Ms. Bayles explains that Mr. Cunningham’s choreographic method, which was “very movement for movement’s sake,” in her words, was effected by psychoanalysis.

Ms. Bausch, on the other hand, approached choreography a different way.

“[She] is very inspired by emotion, and she asks her dancers very elaborate questions and then their choreography comes from their actual dance,” says Ms. Bayles.

For her thesis, Ms. Bayles has mixed these two methods together. This combination of styles to find your own choreographic voice is something that she says the Dance Department definitely emphasizes in its curriculum.

“I was just playing around with the two types of choreography,” she says. “[It] turned into sort of more about relationships and emotions changing.”

Ms. Samuel, in a bit of a departure from the more scientifically oriented theses of Ms. Williams and Ms. Bayles, has choreographed a dance with an eye towards social commentary and resistance.  As a double American Studies and Dance major, this topic is something that Ms. Samuel has academically studied as well.

Ms. Samuel describes her thesis in an email: “I’m looking at the production of individuality [and the production of difference] on the American body, and how this is achieved under/helpful to the project of capitalism and the sustainment of our hegemony.”

For her dance this semester, however, she is not attempting to portray abstract philosophical ideas. She is using her dancers to demonstrate and explore how the body is involved in these identity-construction battles, and how the body and dance can push back against theses forces.

She writes, “[My dance is] a literal use of bodies in relation to each other and the space they’re sharing to demonstrate different power relationships and normalizations.”

For the Fall Thesis Dance Concert, each choreographer has brought her own perspective to their dances. In a “very Wesleyan,” as Ms. Williams put it, way, each dance brings together the teachings of the Dance Department with each person’s academic interests. Between the works of Ms. Williams, Ms. Bayles, and Ms. Samuel, the Fall Thesis Dance Concert this weekend is sure to be an educational and entertaining night.

Fall Thesis Dance Concert
Thursday, October 31 through Saturday, November 2, 2013 at 8pm
Patricelli ’92 Theater
$4 Wesleyan students, $5 all others

Introducing “Sonic Introductions” (Oct. 17)

Matthew Chilton ’16 previews the free concert “Sonic Introductions: Graduate Student Composers at Wesleyan,” which will be held on Thursday, October 17, 2013 at 8pm in CFA Hall.

Wesleyan’s musical diversity is one of the most celebrated facets of its student life. Float between conversations as the weekend begins and you’ll inevitably hear talk of the next great show at Eclectic, Buddhist House, or another notable space on campus. But listen a little closer, and you’ll hear a quieter buzz—tune in—it sounds a little like a homemade oscillator, or a circuit-bent stylophone, perhaps a clarinetist falling down a flight of stairs. You really don’t know what it is, but your intellectual and musical curiosity implore you to check it out—after all, that’s why you’re here in this narrative, right?

Photo by Derek Morton

Bring your curiosity and sharpened ears to the CFA Hall tonight at 8pm for “Sonic Introductions,” a concert dedicated to new works of Wesleyan music graduate students. This is a special type of concert that often falls under the radar for undergrads, and certainly not one to miss. Fortunately, that weird sound got your attention earlier. Each of the artists who will present their work tonight embodies part of what makes Wesleyan such a vibrant musical environment. Each composer brings a distinct background and developed musical persona, ensuring that no two pieces will sound alike.

The musicians’ approach to composition is not limited to the standard dots on paper. Peter Blasser and Daniel Fishkin, both instrument builders, liken their methods of composing to building new instruments. Mr. Blasser focuses on building a core composition, and then transforming it as if manipulating the knobs on a synthesizer. He describes his piece as something of a “product demonstration,” challenging the common performer-audience dynamic by focusing on the principles of his instrument rather than codified notions of form and intention.

Mr. Fishkin builds daxophones, bowed, amplified wooden tongues whose sounds are oddly human grunts and moans, as well as varieties of electronic music. He challenges notions of traditional composition by eschewing the pen-and-paper methods of conventional music for something more personal and intuitive. His composition is intimately bound up in his experience with tinnitus, the hallucinatory hearing disorder. In order to cope with the incessant whining in his ears, his response is to “compose himself.”

Nathan Friedman began his musical life as a classical clarinetist, before transitioning his playing into the worlds of experimental improvisation, contemporary chamber music, and klezmer. His work searches for a sound that is non-idiomatic, well beyond the reaches of a single style. He seeks to make the complex sound simple, while denying his listener a definite stylistic point of reference. The piece he premieres tonight is entitled Four Domestics for voice and piano, on texts by the Canadian socialist poet F.R. Scott. It will be sung by Stephanie Trotter, a wonderful vocalist and frequent collaborator.

Like Mr. Friedman, soprano saxophonist Jasmine Lovell-Smith is striving for a music that renders stylistic boundaries irrelevant. However, she takes a different approach, focusing on strong melodies and naturally unfolding harmonies that invite the listener to take refuge in her soundworld. Her jazz background informs her writing and improvisations, yet her composition relies on the ear rather than the analytical mind. Tonight, she premieres a setting of a poem by e.e. cummings for an ensemble of voice, clarinet, and guitar.

Violinist Dina Maccabee comes from a varied stylistic background of folk, pop, classical, and improvised music. She cites the chameleon-like versatility and easy portability of her instrument as her portal into many musical worlds. Her compositions for this concert revolve around the melodic and timbral interactions between her voice and violin, refined into short pop songs. Taken out of their original theatrical context, Ms. Maccabee uses this new setting to explore the intentionality behind her work.

Gabriel Kastelle, the other violinist on the program, eschews his instrument of choice to direct one of Wesleyan’s finest student vocal ensembles – the Mixolydians. Mr. Kastelle’s background has deep roots in everything from folk fiddle music to the avant-garde. His piece this evening is rooted in the American art of shape note singing, a simple and easy-to-read notation system for vocal ensembles that developed at the beginning of the 19th century in New England. Mr. Kastelle doesn’t complicate this accessible language, working with the interesting sounds possible within the scope of one key. His brief piece utilizes what he calls a “narrative form,” avoiding overly linear developments while letting motifs elaborate and unfold.

Also presenting works tonight are Hallie Blejewski, Sam Dickey, Sean Sonderegger, Cristohper Ramos Flores, and Jason Brogan, all powerful composers with backgrounds and stylistic aims as varied as those mentioned above. “Sonic Introductions” promises to be an unforgettable showcase of some of the most creative and groundbreaking work in music happening at Wesleyan this year. I’m excited just writing about it.

Not An Exploration of “Hunger,” But of “Who”

Aileen Lambert ’16 attends a puppetry workshop with performance artist Dan Froot. Dan Froot and Dan Hurlin’s “Who’s Hungry” will receive its Connecticut premiere at Wesleyan on Friday, September 27 and Saturday, September 28, 2013 at 8pm in World Music Hall.

Aileen Lambert '16 at a puppetry workshop by performance artist Dan Froot. Photo by Erinn Roos-Brown.
Aileen Lambert ’16 at a puppetry workshop by performance artist Dan Froot. Photo by Erinn Roos-Brown.

“I’m not a puppet artist, but I really like puppet artists. I aspire to be a puppet artist.”

This is how Dan Froot, a performance artist who, in collaboration with puppet artist Dan Hurlin, presents the Connecticut premiere of “Who’s Hungry” in World Music Hall on September 27 and 28, introduced himself. At the time, I was attending his “Oral History Through Puppetry” workshop this past Monday, September 23. After that experience, I can now personally say that while my career goals have not changed to “puppet artist,” I do have a newfound appreciation for the craft.

Mr. Froot is a performance artist with a long history of work with international theater and dance companies, including the avant-garde theater group Mabou Mines (who Wesleyan presented on the Outside the Box Theater Series in February 2013). In 2008, after previously having worked mainly in theater and dance, Mr. Froot turned to puppet artist Dan Hurlin to create a puppet theater piece about food insecurity in America called “Who’s Hungry.”

The words “food insecurity” are carefully chosen. Despite the title of the piece being “Who’s Hungry,” Mr. Froot is explicit that his piece focuses on a more complicated concept than hunger. While “hunger” is defined as the chronic inability to eat the basic three meals a day, “food insecurity” is the chronic inability to be properly fed. It can mean malnutrition, lack of access to proper food, an inability to pay for both food and rent, or an inability to afford food for all family members. Food insecurity intersects with plethora of social issues such as poverty, homelessness, drug addiction, and mental illness. Usually, it is the people who are marginalized from our society who suffer.

When “Who’s Hungry” was created, Mr. Froot’s goal “was to bring these stories from the margins into the center of society and art.” To gather material, Mr. Froot spent months volunteering in homeless/hungry sectors of cities, building relationships with people and their environments. He then found five individuals and conducted ten one-hour interviews with each of them about their experiences. Each interviewee gave him about 250 pages of usable transcript. The 55 minutes of “Who’s Hungry” was collected from this research.

Ironically, the concept of food insecurity is hardly mentioned in the piece.

As Mr. Froot says, “The title tells you these people are food insecure, their stories do not.”

Food insecurity serves only as a common thread connecting these people, not a central focus of the piece. This is because Mr. Froot wanted to use each person’s story to help others see the humanity in these people who are often pitied, dismissed and ignored. His main goal is to reduce stigma—eliminate the “us versus them” feeling and allow the audience to empathize and identify with a score of different people who all are facing issues with being able to consistently obtain enough food.

The use of puppets is targeted to elicit this empathy. Puppets are small and intimate. They are also handcrafted and imperfect. There is no illusion of trying to create something realistically human or the distraction of having a monologue filtered through an actor; the focus can stay on the stories. Most importantly, puppets, as they are obviously representations, require an active audience imagination. In order to be moved by the stories, the audience must be willing to forgo some reality and project some of their own emotions onto the puppet. In this identification with the puppet, the audience can empathize with the main character of each story and will hopefully leave the theater with a greater understanding for the traditionally looked-down-upon people depicted.

Sitting on the floor of the Zilkha Gallery classroom, at Mr. Froot’s workshop we transitioned from listening to him explain his process into sharing our own stories about one memorable meal. Students told stories about sharing a “wheat dessert” in Serbia, sushi with fathers before freshman year at Wesleyan, and impeccably planned bargain lobster dinners. Mr. Froot shared his first experience with raw oysters. If any of us felt awkward discussing food after just hearing about people who struggled to feed themselves, Mr. Froot put an end to our discomfort before we even started.

“I am not food insecure,” he stated. “Having the ability to adequately feed yourself is not something to feel bad about at all.”

Instead, he encouraged us to use the privilege of our food security as a platform to help those who are not. Our casual conversation about food turned into a mini-creative process of our own. After sharing our quick stories, Mr. Froot broke us up into two smaller groups, where we could interview each other further.

The puppets we made in the workshop were a “down and dirty” version of Japanese Bunraku puppets, which are jointed puppets controlled by three puppeteers. Traditional Bunraku puppets are engineered with exquisite detail; ours were made lovingly out of newspaper. A puppet built from newspaper may sound a little “summer camp arts and crafts,” but when stood on a table with three puppeteers working all of its parts to maneuver the body, the paper doll came to life before our eyes. These puppets were able to move in surprisingly realistic ways, and I was surprised to see they could even portray emotions in their physicality.

Do not get me wrong—puppeteering is extraordinarily difficult. If one person is out of sync with the other two, the puppet’s movement shatters into awkward inhuman contortions. The illusion is only one misstep, one inept readjustment of the puppeteer’s hand, from breaking. It’s quite a bit of pressure on those people in black behind the dolls!

If I learned anything from Mr. Froot and his work, it is the feeling of fulfillment one gets when their puppet is able to crouch down from standing, lie down, sleep, and then be woken up, all without losing that tiny flame of life present inside the newspaper. It is wonderfully satisfying to be able to push your own life into an inanimate object and to express a character through something as simple as the Tuesday edition of The New York Times.

Class of 2017 Common Moment

Photo by Sandy Aldieri, Perceptions Photography.
Photo by Sandy Aldieri, Perceptions Photography.

As part of New Student Orientation on Friday, August 30, 2013 at 7:30pm, over 500 freshman in the Class of 2017 participated in the Common Moment on Andrus Field, led by members of the internationally renowned company Doug Varone and Dancers. Wesleyan’s First Year Matters program focuses this year on issues related to diversity and inclusion, specifically exploring these expansive issues through the many lenses of access. The Common Moment experience helps demonstrate the exploration of these issues through music and movement. Led by choreographer Doug Varone and two company members, the first-year students made a once-in-a-lifetime collective expression about accessibility.

Doug Varone and Dancers will perform “Stripped/Dressed” featuring “Rise” and the Connecticut premiere of “Carrugi” on Thursday, September 12 & Friday, September 13, 2013 at 8pm in the CFA Theater. There will be a pre-performance talk by Wesleyan DanceLink Fellow Naya Samuel ’14 on Thursday, September 12 at 7:30pm in the CFA Hall. Tickets are $25 for the general public; $21 for senior citizens, Wesleyan faculty/staff, and non-Wesleyan students; and $6 for Wesleyan students. Click here to purchase tickets online.