Mira Treatman and the finger wag, Curate This, photo by Lauren Karstens

In the Studio

All-Consuming Zealotry

I met director and dancer Mira Treatman at a workshop series on Grotowski technique run by Scott Rodrigue. At first I thought, who is this quiet, intensely internal person? And then I thought, wow, who IS this quiet, intensely internal person? Though we only worked together in five workshops, I was struck by her unusual seriousness and determination, and was extremely pleased when she agreed to collaborate with Curate This. Mira has performed in works by Sylvain Emard, Renee Archibald, Gina T’ai, Chris Johnson, and Cie Carabosse/Teatro Linea de Sombra. Other long-term collaborations include three full-length narrative dances with Corinne “Marilu” Wiesner (Mod Nut, Cinder Ella, and Protestant Reggae Ballet) and Rejected Thoughts with filmmaker and actor Irina Varina.

-Julius Ferraro, co-founder

For the last six months I’ve had the privilege of working with Irina Varina on Rejected Thoughts, the first full-length piece we have made together. We only met nine months ago and thus this process has been nothing short of a whirlwind, a tornado, and an all-consuming zealotry for making live performance. I welcome you into the studio with reflections on this time exclusively from my perspective. My views do not necessarily reflect Irina’s; however, I have her permission to share my thoughts on our collaborative process.

Mira Treatman tumbles for Irina Varina, Curate This, photo by Lauren Karstens

Mira Treatman stands over meditative Irina Varina, Curate This, photo by Lauren Karstens

Rejected Thoughts ended up being a collection of dance-theater experiments we performed in a home as part of SoLow Fest in June 2016. We started noticing when we would reject our own ideas in their infancy, before they even had a fighting chance to become something. This focus on the discarded eventually became the uniting force in our process. At times this was where the unity ended. Despite having a shared goal and passion for working, we came to the studio with different tools and preferences.

To give you some background: my training is in dance, but I also hold a degree in theater directing. I’m a nerd. I read statistics for fun. I founded a Latin language club in high school. I enjoy symmetry, organization, athletic challenges, and control. I don’t do well with ruminating. Irina comes from an acting and filmmaking background. She’s come to live performance after working as a director and an actor on screen. She hasn’t been on a stage her entire life the way some of my peers have, which I find refreshing. Aesthetically, though, we really differ. She loves seeing vulnerability and authenticity before anything else in performance. I love stage magic and starting from the codified rules I have studied. On my own, I prioritize magic over authenticity. I don’t believe either way is better or more correct, but it can be challenging to communicate when your past experiences have less overlap. When it comes to the meat of the work, Irina is able to lock herself up in her own mind. I find it challenging to be in my own brain without physical embodiment. I admire her ability to concentrate on thinking, but it is the opposite of my default way of working. This hit home for me when I realized that even our tea preferences reflected this: she would go for ginger and lemon to warm up and I chose peppermint to cool down.

A touch of alchemy happens when Irina and I work together because we want to make performances so badly. Despite our differences, we desire to make performances about what we care about, which I deeply cherish even though we would sometimes spend hours on a single detail. Working on my own I would never stick with one little detail for more than a few minutes. Both openly arguing and sharing disagreements were radical changes to the way I work. Our rehearsals were not geared toward productivity as at times it felt like taking a slow train towards mindfulness or something. After all, we were making art about thinking!

Irina Varina and Mira Treatman laughing about babushkas, Curate This, photo by Lauren Karstens
Mira Treatman and Irina Varina in babushkas and thought, Curate This, Lauren Karstens Mira and Irina working, Curate This, photo by Lauren Karstens

Completely unintentionally, Irina and I both had our ancestry on our minds during our process. We chose to hone in one area of our backgrounds, our individual relationships with wearing a babushka. Once we started playing with this part of our costume I began to feel so at ease, entertained, and on the cusp of making a breakthrough surrounding my identity. Physically embodying one part of my culture was the key here. No matter what I did or said while wearing the babushka, I knew Irina would be open to it, so I really really went for it and was able to say a lot of things that I had pent up for years. She gave me the full respect of truly listening. I enjoyed having space to explore our individuality in relation to the babushkas, but I still felt unity in our choice to wear them together. Just like our separate tea preferences and methods of working, our respective ancestries are another joyous celebration of difference.

Mira Treatman and Irina Varina notes, Curate This, photo by Lauren Karstens

Long shot of Irina Varina and Mira Treatman, Curate This, photo by Lauren Karstens

There were times over the last six months when I felt frustrated with the way Irina and I openly disagreed with each other. Hypothetically, if there were only one director leading the project and the other collaborator following along, I know that we would have used our time very differently and knowing this made patience hard to maintain. If we had little to no dissension we would have made the piece faster, but perhaps, if we had made the show with none of the that tension, it would have come out too vanilla or lacking intensity.

I committed myself to this project despite my frustrations because the tone of the rehearsal room was always respectful and constructive and with little whining or defeatism. When I look at Lauren Karstens’ photographs, I see two polar-opposite people who choose to build on common ground and to seek that common ground before difference. To be the artist I desire to be, which is one who stands strongly on her personal philosophy, I desire equally strong-willed people to keep me grounded in my own voice. Working just with people similar to me only provides a skewed version of the world.

Mira Treatman and Irina Varina, the art of the finger wag, Curate This, photo by Lauren Karstens

All photos by Lauren Karstens.

Pamela Heatherington's studio. Photo by Lauren Karstens

In the Studio

The Difficulties of Keeping an Art Form Alive

Pamela Hetherington is a Philadelphia-born dancer and educator, and the founder of Take It Away Dance Productions. Her new Fairmount studio, soundspace 1525, provides the city with a dance venue specifically geared towards percussive dancers. Here, she talks about just how rare that is.

-Julius Ferraro, co-founder

When I recall tap dancing as a kid, I remember two feelings: abundance and freedom. I was so lucky. Twenty or so years ago, I had no idea how much work it takes to to keep an art form alive.

It is challenging to sustain any kind of art-making living. However, I would say that percussive dancers, around the globe, consistently encounter one specific challenge that makes or breaks your ability to survive. It’s not endemic only to Philadelphia to be sure. The hurdle is that most space and theater owners don’t allow percussive footwear on their floors.

In Philly, I was constantly competing for the two or three floors in town where I could dance. It sounds like a “first-world problem,” but, eventually, the shut-outs got to me. I started to do less and expected less of myself, putting up my lack of studio time as the excuse. I practice an art form that I can’t practice in most dance spaces and, ironically, though tap dancers practice an art form that’s designed to be heard on a wood floor, when you’re space-grabbing, you’ll dance on anything. Most likely, it’s marley. Or concrete. Or tile.

This space problem, which I’ve been dealing with for at least fifteen years, underscores a much larger, thornier, question, which is the question of tap’s visibility within the spectrum of dance forms. Michelle Dorrance said it best, in a recent interview, when she said that tap dance is oppressed. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, really. If a university doesn’t offer tap as a major (or even provide a proper tap floor), dancers are less motivated to keep training, let alone see themselves working professionally in the form. If you don’t have a space in which to make things, then you stop making things. When there aren’t things to show, you don’t have shows, and audiences drift away.

I built this space because I want to be a part of solving the problem of how to keep tap dance present, how to support other tap dancers so that we can make new work, and how to draw all kinds of people in to see who we are and what we do. I want to change the game.

This is a space for Philadelphia, for dancers to create in, learn in, rehearse in, and dream in. It won’t be the last.

 

All photos by Lauren Karstens.

The playwright at Franny Lou's Porch. Photo by Lauren Karstens.

In the Studio

Writer Without a Desk

I found out about playwright Alisha Adams on my deep reads of the FringeArts guide. After speaking to her over the phone, I chose her as one of fifteen curated artists in my Fringe bike tours, and though I haven’t met her in person, the people I’ve sent her wayCurate This photographer Lauren Karstens and Women Bike PHL’s Katie Monroe—have thanked me, as apparently it’s a joy to get to know her. I still have not seen an Adams production, but through her writing, and the work of artists she curated for Curate This, I’ve come to respect her as a serious and deeply integrated Philadelphia artist, and I’m proud to feature her here.

-Julius Ferraro, co-founder

I don’t have my own writing studio, though I have vivid dreams of what it might look like: high ceilinged, bare and white, with plants that aren’t too needy and generous windows overlooking trees. I don’t even have a desk.

Natural light. Photo by Lauren Karstens.

What I have is a six-by-eight-foot bedroom with a child’s futon on the floor and walls covered in fading posters. I can sit at a round table in my cluttered-yet-breezy living room, or recline with my laptop on the thrifted La-Z-Boy. It’s a quick walk to the coffee shop where I know most faces and linger to read every business card and flyer neatly stacked by the half and half. And I have all the spaces near and between.

Picture, dried flowers, candle. Photo by Lauren Karstens.

When I’m working on a play, where I write changes based on the where I am in the play’s development. Park benches and sunny cafes without wi-fi are for early drafts with pen and paper, and the La-Z-Boy and side table are perfect for quickly typing up raw scenes. The generous back table of Franny Lou’s Porch is the perfect spot for outlining story arcs and rearranging plot points with color-coded notecards. Then I read and tinker in bed, propped on several pillows, until I can take a freshly printed first draft out to a cafe and scrawl all over it. If I’m lucky enough to reach the workshop or rehearsal stage, I may find myself in a black box theater, borrowed office space, or gallery.

View from back table at Franny Lou's Porch. Photo by Lauren Karstens.

My most recent play, Shelter-in-Place, brought me to Las Parcelas, a community garden and Puerto Rican cultural space in Philadelphia’s Norris Square neighborhood. We performed the play without mics or lights or a set. The only thing separating us from the noise and activity of the neighborhood was a chainlink fence. The actors—in character—danced to hiphop from passing cars, waved to kids playing outside, talked back to sirens, and laughed as one man slowly rolled a giant plastic barrel down the street. I was more comfortable working here than under a proscenium.

Lac Parcelas. Photo by Lauren Karstens.

My writing process has always been connected to place. Fresh out of college, I wrote a book of poems about the strange, sunny depression of living with my parents in Santa Barbara. The first play lab I ever joined met in the basement of my East Los Angeles apartment building, and my writing had a blind, plunging, subconscious quality. Then, my first “real” plays were all inspired by the foggy shores and singing whales of the San Juan Islands. Other Tongues came from childhood road trips to the Navajo Nation and undergrad studies in Sierra Leone led to Go Yeri Ston. And I can’t leave out Holler Farm in upstate New York, the North Fork John Day Wilderness, and my downstairs add-on bathroom.

Lac Parcelas. Photo by Lauren Karstens.

Writers are famously particular about their space, and I’m no different. Only I need variety more than reliability, public spectacle and communal clatter more than seclusion. I do wonder sometimes how my constantly shifting “studio” shapes my work. Would the continuity of a single writing space better enable me to hear and hone my singular voice? Maybe. But then maybe my voice is singularly variable.

The playwright at Franny Lou's Porch. Photo by Lauren Karstens.

Once, in an Artist’s Way workshop hosted in a neighborhood church, I broke down in tears sharing a quilt design I’d intuitively made to represent my “patchwork” life—the many places I’ve lived and visited and all the jobs, relationships, and creative projects attached. They were tears of acceptance. In my ham-handed way, I was making peace with having often divergent interests and impulses; with having a life full of seams.

All photos by Lauren Karstens