GUILFORD/PUTNEY >> Jane Chu, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, took advantage of her time in southern Vermont last week as commencement speaker for Bennington College by visiting two unique art venues on the eastern side of the state on Thursday, then a reception with the southern Vermont arts community in Bennington on Friday. NEA grantees Vermont Performance Lab in Guilford and Putney's Sandglass Theater each welcomed Chu with a full tour of their facility followed by conversations with invited guests and members of the media, examining the importance of art in the community.
First stop: VPL. Set on over 300 acres of rolling meadows and craggy ravines, dotted with historic and modern buildings, VPL, under the direction of founder Sara Coffey, is a resource in the performing arts field for artists to focus on the creative process in relation to community. It is a place to try different visions to see what works and experiment with ideas before bringing it to an audience rather than bringing it to an audience first to see what works. Where performers and artists can find the time and space and intellectual support that only VPL can offer. One choreographer and lab artist at VPL – and guest along the tour – Ann Carlson explained how she is researching her project "Doggie Hamlet" there.
"A very, very loosely-based performance on Hamlet," as Carlson put it, she has been rehearsing the project with sheep and a herding dog, creating movement to music. VPL was instrumental in finding the right shepherd, in this case David Major of the Major Farm in Westminster West, and finding the right herding dog for her project.
Coffey's deep collaborative partnership in the community and with institutions such as Marlboro College and Guilford Sound, plus her knack of knowing who to tap for a particular task are important facets to VPL's success that, now celebrating its 10th anniversary, is gaining a reputation worldwide.
Coffey first led Chu and Alex Aldrich, executive director of the Vermont Arts Council and Chu's escort for the day – plus guests – through Guilford Sound. A separate but related facility on the grounds, it is an impressive, energy efficient recording studio that was completed in 2012, and owned by Coffey's husband, David Snyder. Warm with cherry trim harvested from the property, the studio is equipped with floating floors to eliminate vibration, insulated and separately framed rooms for bass trapping, and baffled ceilings, just a few of the elements that result in stellar sound quality. It is often used in collaboration with artists who come to VPL for their creative research.
Sara Coffey, founder and director of Vermont Performance Lab, in Guildford, Vt., leads the National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Jane Chu on a walk
Sara Coffey, founder and director of Vermont Performance Lab, in Guildford, Vt., leads the National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Jane Chu on a walk through the property on Thursday, June 2, 2016. Chu is visiting sites in Guilford, Putney, and Bennington, during a two day tour through southern Vermont. Kristopher Radder / Reformer Staff
As an accomplished musician herself, Chu was clearly impressed with capabilities and design of the studio, commenting on the "great ceilings," and upon exiting the studio said, "This is so wonderful – congratulations!"
After Chu paused for a brief group photo to tweet to her account @NEAJaneChu, Coffey led the procession through a woodsy shortcut, crossing a moss-covered bridge that brought its fair share of oohs and ahhs, then on down one side, and up the other of a ravine via stone steps to arrive at the Bullock-Ashworth House. Built in 1791, it is used to house artists during their stay. In contrast, the next stop was at the Earth House built into the side of a hill, Here stories were shared with Chu attesting to the importance of VPL in the community.
Coffey originally founded VPL after her time in NYC managing a dancing company where she saw the need for space to research productions in a studio, She said, "I love the artists we work with and I am so proud when they send their projects out to the community."
Next Putney and to the Sandglass Theater and another group photo to tweet, where co-directors husband and wife team Ines and Eric Bass ushered everyone inside the theater (that was once a livery stable) for a profound performance of "Babylon." Eric explained that what was about to be shown was still in development, just a 5-minute exercise showcasing what exactly they do there. But that "exercise" packed a powerful emotional punch. Eric, Ines and members of the Sandglass' artistic team, that includes daughters Jana Zeller and Shoshanna Bass, have been working with Vermont Resettlement Refugee Program in Burlington, interviewing refugees, getting accounts of their ordeal firsthand. Ideas are formulated, considered or discarded during the evening, and when they came together the next day they put into action their thoughts through puppets with music, actors, and visual imagery. Puppets and costumes created and designed by Ines and Jana eerily take on the emotions of confusion, exhaustion, fear and desperation through the body language shaped by the movement of the artists manipulating them, to metaphorically tell the story of hiding and running, about traversing steep terrain and carrying children through watery ways.
For Shoshanna, the youngest of the family, as she views the world and all its problems, she asks herself, "How can I help?" She hopes her part in presenting this show to the world helps.
Chu was again impressed, and observed, "This takes quite a lot of talent to take an inanimate object and project that much emotion. You must have felt it too." She added, "I love what I saw here."
A spirited dialogue followed with the Bass-Zellers and Gordon Hayward, landscape artist, and Maria Basescu, executive director of neighboring Next Stage Arts. Hayward explained that Sandglass is an extraordinary use of this tiny village that has a global reach, that Sandglass in interested using their art to portray the struggles of the human condition. Aldrich stepped in adding that the Bass' were a national treasure.
Basescu explained that Next Stage and Sandglass theaters are not in competition, but rather collaborate and support each other in a spirit of generosity as part of the community. She continued with her view on art, that in giving it your full attention, if only for a brief moment, it stops time.
Vermont has a history of a disproportionate influence in the arts with the second largest population of artists per capita in the country, and Vermonters have a strong sense of pride for their state not seen in other states with a strong sense of identity.
The Vermont arts community looks to the NEA for ideas and leadership, by identifying trends that may be explored. It also depends on the financial aid of its supporters, particularly the generous contributions of the NEA, with VPL receiving over $40,000 and Sandglass Theater receiving $30,000.
Chu lamented that in other countries the mastery of the arts is revered, but in the U.S. not so much, it is not part of our natural culture, but it is a powerful form of expression.
About the National Endowment for the Arts
Established by Congress in 1965, the NEA is the independent federal agency whose funding and support gives Americans the opportunity to participate in the arts, exercise their imaginations, and develop their creative capacities. Through partnerships with state arts agencies, local leaders, other federal agencies, and the philanthropic sector, the NEA supports arts learning, affirms and celebrates America's rich and diverse cultural heritage, and extends its work to promote equal access to the arts in every community across America. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the National Endowment for the Arts and the agency is celebrating this milestone with events and activities through September 2016. Go to the 50th section at arts.gov to enjoy art stories from around the nation, peruse the Facts and Figures section, and check out the anniversary timeline.