Defining the Role of the Arts in Dangerous Times


(Image: Street art in Lisbon, photographed by Maria Panichelli)

That we are living in times which are both insane and very dangerous can’t be disputed. That such times have occurred throughout human history is also indisputable.

As Founding Director of Hidden River Arts, I think it’s essential to examine the role we play, as an arts organization, in supporting artists and the arts at such a time. Our mission has always been to “serve the underserved artist”, and we’ve done our best to live up to that mission. There are so many kinds of underserved artists, however, that it feels overwhelming. Still, this mission seems even more important, during times when the budgets for arts funding are stretched to the limit, when grants for individual artists have all but disappeared across the United States, when other countries – most whose funding for the arts has far outstripped that in the U.S. – are also falling victim to neoliberalism, austerity and the winds of authoritarianism. Art is always under attack in such times, and this is no exception.

What also seems important in these times is to explore the kind of art we, at Hidden River, are supporting and promoting.

Diversity is increasingly important, both in the artists we support and in the art that we are helping to fund through our competitions, our live events, our publishing. A chorus of voices, a multiplicity of perspectives, a growing community willing to honor and celebrate each others’ differences – that is very much a part of what we hope to build. This is an area where I feel we still have a lot of work to do. We will be working harder than ever this year and onward to reach out to communities of artists both here in the U.S. and internationally, which are more racially and religiously diverse. It’s true to say that we have always tried to do that; it is also true that we need to try harder.

This autumn, I left my academic work in order to focus more of my time on Hidden River Arts and its programs. I did this for several reasons, all which constellate around the idea of hope. I left academia because I no longer have hope in the possibility of restoring American higher education by fighting from the inside. I plan to work as an educational activist now, standing outside the institution. I choose now to focus on my own creative work and on the important work we can do through Hidden River. That is where I feel an enormous amount of hope. As an individual, I have come to a crossroad, and I believe that Hidden River has come to its own crossroads as well.

On a personal level, I am no longer willing to allow useless negativity, victimhood or learned helplessness to exist in my life. That there is negativity, that people are victimized, and that feeling helpless or hopeless has become a kind of default state – all this is true. It’s actually a normal reaction to the abnormal conditions we find ourselves in. But I’ve personally lived weighed down by such negativity, with a sense of victimization and helplessness for too long. I know I’m not alone; I think that far too many of us have, in the last several decades, fallen into this kind of despairing state. There are some who would say that this is part of an intentional crushing of the human spirit that comes in times of great inequality and growing authoritarianism. So, as an individual artist, I want my work to stand in opposition to that which crushes the human spirit. That doesn’t mean that the negativity we observe and experience shouldn’t be addressed. Quite the contrary. What it means is that addressing the negatives is only part of what must be done. Seeing beyond them to the newer visions, to possibilities for rebirth, to the rebellious and the revolutionary – that is essential. Art is essential to rebellion and revolt as Chris Hedges says so beautifully. That’s why authoritarian governments work so hard to control it and to crush what can’t be controlled. Vercors believes that the very source of art is man’s revolt against his own ignorance, and his desire to create a universe over which he has some sovereignty.

And as Director of Hidden River, I want to rededicate our organization to that same goal: to stand against that which crushes the human spirit. We want to call forth rebirth, rebellion, and yes, even revolution.

What This Means for Artists

That means that we stand against that which crushes the artist. In this economy, that means the invisibility, the desperation and the struggle which are likely to be the realities of those wanting to live creative lives. This year, we are expanding our programs to offer more supports to artists: that includes interviews, craft discussions and reviews on this blog. It also means a brand new series of podcasts, online classes and an online interdisciplinary arts journal. We are going to be very busy.

We are also expanding our competitions, offering more awards and publication possibilities to writers in a variety of genres from literary fiction to historical fiction, to speculative fiction to YA. We are offering new playwrighting awards, poetry competitions and non-fiction competitions. We will also be offering awards to visual artists and musicians, filmmakers and animators . Our online journal will include all these genres, and will be published bi-annually. It’s about growing our community, providing platforms for artists to speak with each other, to discover and build their audiences, to create transformative networks.

We are growing our internship program, which is already robust, so that more students and interested beginners of all ages will be able to work with us, and will have opportunities to work with the many artists with whom we hope to be building community.

Hidden River Arts has never pursued grants or funding from organizations that would then claim the right to have oversight of our choices or our activities. We have only held one small fundraiser in our entire 20 year history. That will change this year, since the expansions will require that we hold some crowd-funding activities. But pursuing that kind of fundraising means that the power remains in the hands of the people who are members of our community, not in some hierarchical power structure to which we have to answer. It also means that the power to make their own kind of art lies within the purview of the artists themselves. Art by and for the people, not for the powers that fund.

For The Community

First of all, it means that we are looking to make our programs more accessible to the larger community. Out of financial desperation, there are arts organizations, theaters, performance venues and programs which are now “rebranding” themselves for exclusivity, charging exorbitant ticket prices to guarantee that the audience is filled with members of the 1%.

We will never turn ourselves into a luxury brand. We are here to provide, as best we can, for the 99%.

This restated focus means that we will do our best to make our programs available to as many people as possible. We have always offered free live arts events and readings, and will continue to do that. Our podcasts and craft discussions online will be available to everyone. So will our online journal. In other words, we stand against anything that crushes the spirit of our arts audience as well, or anything that would turn audience away for lack of funds.

It also means that we will be looking more actively for art that speaks to the human spirit and the social predicaments, the economic struggles, the issues of human rights. It does not mean that we will be looking for preach-y or pedantic work. Nothing crushes the spirit more than that! We want work that looks closely at the human experience, the social worlds within which we live, the governments, the economies, the power structures and how we can navigate our way through them, as individuals, as families, as societies — maintaining and acting through our many strengths.

We want art that presents truth while reminding people of their own power. We want the energy of the trickster to be alive and well. I was asked recently, “Do you want to be a victim or a trickster?” I think the answer should be obvious to all of us. We want artists and art to reflect the ways we can remain unvanquished, resilient, buoyant, rebellious, triumphant. That is our re-clarified mission at Hidden River Arts, and we hope that you will join us.

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“Love Sucks. Let’s Sing!” A New Cabaret at L’Etage

heart-and-music

Join two of Philadelphia’s favorite daughters, Jean Brooks and Debra Leigh Scott, for their new show, “Love Sucks. Let’s Sing!”, a cabaret song cycle about the beautiful, the poignant, the funny and the just plain awful aspects of love.

Jean Brooks (www.jeanbrooks.net), is a multi-faceted artist whose many talents have been seen in theatre, film, and television. “My favorite theater role was Vivian Bearing in “Wit”,” Jean says. “The complexity of the character and the honesty of the play made it a great challenge. I’d happily shave my head again if given an opportunity to reprise the role.” Her preferred acting medium, however, is film, where her favorite role was playing a drug dealer named Chico Slime! She had a small role as a ghost in “Sixth Sense”, with one of Philadelphia’s most famous filmmakers, M. Night Shyamalan. This was her first major motion picture and the experience helped her finally understand why movies cost so many millions to produce.

Jean started singing at the age of three when her mother stood her on a piano bench so the people could see her. So singing in a cabaret is rather a natural progression! She has performed as a cabaret artist over the years on a variety of stages, and considers the “here and now” to be the best. “I think it takes maturity and experience to sing cabaret. These songs have to have been lived. They can’t be just sung.”

In addition to her work in the arts, Jean has designed a program called Retire To Life®, aimed at helping Boomers rediscover lost passions in order to create vibrant and exciting lives in retirement. “I developed this workshop as the result of a conversation I had with a former college roommate who told me she was afraid to retire because she didn’t know what she was going to do with her time! I always knew I would go back into the arts fulltime, and wanted to be able to help others find an equally exciting path.”

Debra Leigh Scott (www.debraleighscott.com), is a writer, playwright, educator and documentary filmmaker who has recently returned to singing after years of art-making off-stage. Her short story collection, Other Likely Stories, was published by Sowilo Press in 2010. She has a few collections of short stories in progress as well as several novels in the works, including her first YA novel about her own Mayflower ancestor, Elizabeth Tilley. Her plays have been performed at The New Light Festival, the Shubin AprilFest, and the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. Her documentary, ‘Junct: The Trashing of Higher Ed. In America, is in post-production. Clips can be viewed at 2255films.com, and portions will be screened at this year’s Left Forum, on Saturday, May 21, at the John Jay College in NYC. “I’ve never stopped singing – but for years it’s been at home, behind closed doors. I have returned to singing publicly only in the last few years,” Debra Leigh said. “since performance and travel are difficult when raising a family.” Her family grown, she’s been able to turn her attention back to theatre, and to her own performance work. Before her marriage and family, she toured with Eastern Jam, a jazz/rock fusion band, as their lead singer. “Even after I had the freedom to do it again, I was a little fearful – it had been so long! It took a little bit of time, and the encouragement of good friends, for me to get back to a microphone. I had become used to being behind the scenes – to writing and directing.”

Jean and Debra Leigh met years ago at a cabaret workshop, with long-time Philadelphia and New York cabaret professional, Doug Anderson. They have worked together since on a variety of theatrical projects, including several of Debra’s own plays, in which Jean had leading roles.

“As we got to know each other better and better, we were stunned at the many ways our lives paralleled each other. Jean was, literally, a farmer’s daughter from Nebraska, and I was the typical child of the suburban East Coast. But our experiences, especially in marriage and love were shockingly similar.” So, they started brainstorming, and collecting some of their favorite music, to create a story cycle which eventually became their two-woman show. “The title was the easiest part,” Debra Leigh said.

“Love Sucks. Let’s Sing,” is a wry look at the many experiences of romance and love, exploring the beautiful, the poignant, the funny, and the just plain awful aspects of it all.

“I love the theme of the show,” Jean said, “because I feel that it is a familiar story to so many people; they can relate to the ups and downs of relationships. At the same time, it’s very personal to us; it gives folks a look into our souls.”

Jean and Debra Leigh plan to open the show with a few performances in their hometown of Philadelphia, and then to begin traveling the many cabaret festivals around the U.S. The venue for their first two shows is L’Etage Cabaret, a very popular nightclub spot in the Queen Village area of Center City Philadelphia, which has become something of a hot spot for cabaret in the last few years. After that, the plan is to launch the show by touring the various cabaret festivals through the U.S.

Jean said, “My hope for the show is that is reaches a wide audience, and that people will realize that regardless of their individual stories, we all have pretty much traveled the same rocky road of love.”

Dates and Times for the Show: Friday, June 10, 2016 and Friday, July 22, 2016. Both shows begin at 7:30 p.m. Doors open at 7:00.
L’Etage Cabaret is located at 624 S. 6th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19147
Tickets for both Philadelphia performances can be purchased at Brown Paper Tickets, at the link: LoveSucksLetsSing.brownpapertickets.com

Hidden River Arts Live Arts Summer Event!

Hidden River Arts will host a Live Arts Event on Sunday, July 26 at 2 p.m. at Cavanaugh’s Head House Tavern, 421 South 2nd Street in Philadelphia. We will be celebrating the wrap-up of our summer writers’ workshop, and our workshop members will be offering some readings of their work. We’ll also be celebrating the work of our first Eludia Award winner, Tree Riesener, who will be reading a bit from her winning collection of short stories, Sleepers Awake, which is forthcoming on our Sowilo Press imprint.

We’ll also be having some live music — more details on that as they are available!

We’ve had some wonderful live arts events both at Cavanaugh’s and at other venues around the city. Terrific readings and wonderful musicians, like Rosa Diaz at Live & Lit, or Alex Kruchoski and Zeke Francis, or Teresa McCann. It’s always a joyous event, with a focus on celebrating art and artists.

This event is free and open to the public. Come, and bring friends!

Hidden River Arts 20th Anniversary Celebration and First-Ever Fundraiser!

Please join us at our biggest-ever celebration at Hidden River Arts’ 20th anniversary. Tickets are available here.

Twenty years ago, I used a portion of a writing award I won for my own fiction and established an arts organization dedicated helping other writers. The mission, from the very first day, is summed up in our motto: “Dedicated to Serving the Unserved Artist”. We’re committed to finding, supporting and celebrating those outsider artists because there are so many creative people deserving of more recognition and help.

I named the organization Hidden River, after the Schuylkill River, which flows through the Philadelphia region of Pennsylvania, which is my home. “Schuylkill” is Dutch for “Hidden River”. It seemed to perfectly describe our mission, which is to search out and support the hidden creative talent all around us – to celebrate that living, vital, powerful creative force that is the river of talent flowing among us. To support the artists.

This year, Hidden River Arts is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Over those years, we’ve grown steadily. We’ve expanded to become an inter-disciplinary arts organization. What began with one yearly fiction competition, grew to include a yearly full-length playwrighting competition, residency programs, educational outreach, live arts events, gallery events, performances, a first-book competition for women over the age of 40, even production activities. We’ve run a robust internship program, and have watched many of our wonderful interns go on to jobs in publishing, theatre, performance. They’ve established their own literary journals, run their own arts companies, written their own books, taught their own workshops. We now have an independent small press, with several imprints, so that we can offer the possibility of publication to deserving writers struggling for recognition and support. There are other goals and hopes for even more growth as Hidden River moves into its next phase.

In marveling at just how long we’ve been here and at how much we’ve grown, it occurred to me: In all these twenty years, we’ve never once held a fundraiser. Hard to believe, right?

So this year, as we acknowledge this happy anniversary, we’ll be reaching out to the arts community to whom we have been so dedicated, and scheduling some celebrations as well as some fundraisers. We’ll have a local fundraiser in Philadelphia and an online crowd-sourcing fundraiser. We’ve decided to do this because, what also occurred to me is that, with just a bit of help, we could grow our programs bigger and faster, we could bring our workshops, classes and performances to more people, reduce our already-low fees even more. We could travel our programs, build a greater platform for online workshops and classes. The growth that took twenty years could now continue; in fact, we could expand in less time and reach out to support more people. A yearly words and music festival is one of our dreams. A re-established and expanded residency program. More theatrical and film production. More publishing. And always, the core of our mission remains to support the unserved artists among us whose talent and vision make the world a much better place. They are the primordial wellspring from which all of this flows.

So, those who will be in Philadelphia this summer, please join us for our 20th Anniversary celebration and first-ever fundraiser on Sunday, June 7 at 7 p.m. or 9 p.m. It’s going to be a wonderful event. We are gathering at L’Etage, the nightclub above Le Beau Monde, at 624 S. 6th Street, Philadelphia. The evening will include a cabaret performance with (in alphabetical order) Jean Brooks, Leon Carelli, Debra Leigh Scott and Denise Shubin. We’ll also be doing some readings of our award-winners’ work, and perhaps even a bit of reading from some of our many beloved interns! But most of all, it will be a time to gather together with people who love art, music, language and creativity to meet, mingle and celebrate.

To read more about Hidden River programs, please visit our website. To buy tickets for our 20th anniversary event, please click here.

Arts and Activism

What is the role of the artist during times of social upheaval and tumult? Elie Wiesel said “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” This is even more true, when it comes to the role of the artist in society. The problems of our society are extensive, and the voices of artists – playwrights, poets, musicians, performers – are essential to raising public awareness and giving voice to the issues, raising the call of dissent.

Founding Director of Hidden River Arts, Debra Leigh Scott, has been invited to give a presentation at The Davinci Art Alliance at 704 Catherine Street, Philadelphia, PA, on Thursday, May 21, from 7 to 9 p.m. where she will discuss the importance of activism in the arts.

Since its founding way back in 1931, the Da Vinci Art Alliance has been a dynamic organization presenting artists and their work, focus on community-based arts, cultural and educational dialogue for artists, individuals and families.

Da Vinci currently has over 140 members and holds exhibitions of members’ and non-members’ artwork as well as special events, workshops, performances, poetry readings, and lectures, and keeps its members informed on community events, news and opportunities. The mission of the non-profit artists-run organization is to support its members and to further community-based arts, cultural, and educational exchanges. I am proud to be offering my presentation there, since I’ve been fortunate to work with the many artists of Da Vinci, and admire the work that they do in supporting artists, the life of art, and the community.

Please join us at the Alliance. For those who are not in Philadelphia, Debra will be developing the program and offering the presentation in an online format – so stay tuned!

Meet Lee Edward Colston, II, winner of the 2013 Hidden River Arts Playwrighting Award

Winner of 2013 Hidden River Playwrighting Award

Winner of 2013 Hidden River Playwrighting Award

We are proud to announce Lee Edward Colston, II, as winner of the most recent Hidden River Arts Playwrighting Award for his play, Solitary.

Lee is a prison guard turned actor, playwright, director, acting teacher and author. After leaving his job at the Department of Corrections, Lee trained classically as an actor, receiving a BFA from the Brind School of Theatre at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is currently pursuing his MFA in Acting at The Juilliard School, as a member of Group 45. In addition to his talents as a playwright, Lee has appeared in over twenty-five productions, including Avenue X (7 Barrymore nominations), Cradle Will Rock (Irene Ryan nomination), Romeo & Juliet, SANKOFA, Once on This Island, and Katori Hall’s Hoodoo Love. He also starred as Harpo in the Broadway National Tour of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, and as Othello for the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival.

Lee is also a second-generation Meisner trained actor and is a founding director of The Philadelphia Meisner Technique Intensive where he teaches acting technique. He has taught over 170 actors in the Philly, DC, & New York region.

In 2014 The Juilliard School named Lee as a recipient of the Jonathon Madrigano Entrepreneurial Grant to provide funding to PMTI to help offer more access to theater arts training in the Philly region.

As a playwright, Colston’s play Solitary was a 2009 winner of the Philadelphia Theatre Workshop PlayShop festival, where it received intensive workshop attention: work with a dramaturg, director and actors. His newest play Roost won the 2010 Life Media Award for BEST NEW PLAY in the Philadelphia Urban Theatre Festival. In 2012, Roost was later revived for further development by Ritual Theater Company for a reading starring veteren actor Tony Todd (Candyman, Final Destination, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) and Cheryl Freeman (Disney’s Hercules, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Dead Presidents) at the Ars Nova Theater & PS 122 in New York City.

His book of poetry Phenomenal Brotha: Blood, Sweat, & Ink was released in 2005.

Our Founding Director, Debra Leigh Scott, caught up with Lee on his summer break from Juilliard, here in Philadelphia where he is running his summer sessions of the Meisner Intensive, to talk a little bit about this play, and about his work.

DLS: “Solitary” was your first play? Can you give us a bit of its backstory?

LEC: 
Solitary was born during my time working in the prison system. I had the privilege to come in contact with a lot of different kinds of people. Those experiences helped to shape my artistic sensibilities tremendously. I wanted to tell the stories of the men and women I met. I not only wanted to tell the stories of the incarcerated men at the prison but also the people in my neighborhood of North Philly. I wanted to tell my story.

DLS: Before heading to college, you worked for a time as a prison guard in Philadelphia. How did that experience color your feelings about Jamal and Lucius*, two of your characters in “Solitary”?



LEC: I felt like working in that environment helped me to find where my voice lived and what stories I was interested in. Jamal’s story is not unique. It’s so easy to pass judgment on him. But I often wonder what were the environmental conditions that created him. Men like Jamal don’t just ‘happen’. There are outside forces that forge men like that into who they are.

DLS: The play is largely about the interior and exterior realities of Jamal, but it is also about the times in which we live, the prison pipeline, poverty and desperation. So, can you talk a bit about the atmospheric elements of the play – the prison, the decimated community, poverty, desperation?

LEC: I wrote those elements as I experienced them. I was raised in the neighborhood Jamal describes. I’ve seen what severe poverty, drugs and educational apartheid can do to both a person and a community. It’s heart-breaking. In neighborhoods like the one I grew up in, it’s difficult for anyone to see beyond the hurt and broken glass strewn about.

DLS: Are you familiar with Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow? She talks about the ways in which the mass incarcerations in this country quite successfully replaced the old Jim Crow society and culture. How do you see your play in light of Alexander’s work?

LEC: Yes, I am familiar with the book. I actually finished it recently. I feel like much of what Ms. Alexander states is spot on and Solitary is a poetic manifestation of that. I also feel like Solitary echoes the Allegory of The Cave by Plato. Both personal responsibility and institutional racism and inequity are in a constant tug of war with one another. While men like Jamal do have to take responsibilities for their action and overcome tremendous circumstances, we cannot dismiss the handicap and booby traps placed in front of them. 



DLS: You have a therapist in the play who attempts to interact with Jamal, to collect data, to make an “assessment” – what role would you say does psychiatry and psychology play in “pathologizing” our young men, especially young men of color, of impoverished conditions? 



LEC: Young men of color, especially those growing up in inner cities, face near impossible odds. In the age of Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant, it almost feels as if we’re living in a real world version of ‘The Hunger Games’. PTSD among inner city youth is real. These kids are growing up under similar conditions that soldiers at war face. But, unfortunately, there is no VA Hospital or any other kinds of services (other than incarceration) to help these young men cope with being constantly taught that their lives have no value in America. These young men are not anomalies or monsters. They are behaving the same way anyone of any race or ethnic background would when you take away access to good education, healthcare & social services, when you offer minimal employment opportunities, when you strip arts, sports, and music programs from schools, when you cram 45 kids into a classroom, pump drugs into the community, and train the police to shoot first and let the system sort everything out. I don’t care what your race or ethnicity is; if you live under those conditions, what can we expect to happen other than the results we see every day on the news?

DLS: What are your hopes for the play? What are your hopes for the young Jamals trying to grow up in the very difficult times of 2014 America? 



LEC: In all honesty, I’m not sure what I hope for with this play. What I know is that it has the power to start a conversation— with not only the Jamals of America but also those who have the power to tear down the structures in place that help to create them.

DLS: What are your own hopes? As a playwright. As an actor. You are about to enter your third year at Juilliard, to finish up an MFA in acting. Can you talk a little about your own personal journey, and about your visions and dreams for the future?

LEC: Every time I think about my personal journey I start to cry. I’m very fortunate. I could have very well been Jamal. Actually, now that I think about it… I am Jamal. I’m who Jamal could be if we remove even just two or three cards from that deck that’s stacked against him.

I don’t know what the future holds for me. What I do know is that whatever it will be, it’s going to be a hell of a ride.

The Hidden River Playwrighting Award offers $1000 to the winning manuscript as well as a public reading of the winning play. Please check back for updates regarding the scheduling. Our next round of Hidden River Arts writing awards, including the playwrighting award, will deadline June 30. Please see our guidelines for further details.

Hidden River Playwrighting Award Finalists and Winner Announced

Hidden River Arts is happy to announce the finalists and award winner for our last cycle of the Hidden River Arts Playwrighting Award.

Our finalists are:

Cole, William, “Odyssey’s End”
Reynolds, Andy, “Dark Hole”
Spector, Donna, “Manhatten Transits”
Sutton, Chelsea, “The Dead Woman”
Zimecki, Michael, “Negative Velocity”

We would like to offer our sincere congratulations as well as our thanks for sharing their work with us.

The winner of the 2013 Hidden River Arts Playwrighting Award is:

Lee Edward Colston, II for his play, “Solitary”.

The Hidden River Arts Playwrighting Award provides $1000 to the winning manuscript as well as a public reading of the winning play. Please check back with us about the scheduled date(s) for the reading.

Again, we wish to thank all of our playwrights for their generosity in sharing their work with us. We feel nothing but love and respect and gratitude for all of you, and your incredible talent.