New Orleans and The DISTILLERY
Mid June, I witnessed a remarkable convergence at the Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans (CAC). While the powerful and nationally touring 30 Americans exhibit was taken down—an exhibit that meant a great deal within our city—over twenty local artists performing in projects within the creative residency The DISTILLERY utilized the Contemporary Arts Center for their own creative needs. The selected DISTILLERY fellows: a musician, a choreographer, a poet, and one raucous drag queen, maneuvered around the CAC’s visual art, exploring their work in the board room, dance studio, and the blackbox theatre. I watched from the CAC’s coffee shop where a few other local artists poked their heads over their laptops and took notice: the big institution opening its doors to the local performance community by bringing in out-of-town work and supporting developing local work. It was an electric, magical sight.
Which took more than magic to make happen: three years of pitching, prompting, transitions, and compromise produced what is our first creative residency for local performing artists within our strongest interdisciplinary arts center in New Orleans. What is fairly magical is how a program dedicated to the artistic needs of its local artists, placed in a local institution with national extension can multiply the ecosystem of a performance community in wide-reaching, long game ways. Bold and spry, this is what The DISTILLERY is aiming for; we are only on our third month.
To Begin at the Local Beginning
Let me step back, because as with all bootstrap programs pulled up from smaller cities, The DISTILLERY was developed from a hunger that has no choice but to go hunting. Two years ago, during the Network of Ensemble Theaters’ Microfest conference in New Orleans, ten local artists and organizers were asked to write a blog for HowlRound on the current performance climate in New Orleans. As the performance coordinator for the New Orleans Fringe, an actor, and director, I expressed the “fast and furious” energy of a new generation of theatremakers. I wrote that everywhere I turned, there were creative folks “meeting”—in a bar, at a snowball stand, at a bike rack—wherever the meeting, our community’s metabolism was running on a rich diet of meeting, converging, producing, and putting collaborative performance up on its feet within months. Exceptionally interdisciplinary and ensemble driven, it was a poor man’s theatrical expression of respect and urgency. Lisa D’Amour, a native New Orleanian, who continues to make vibrant work within her home city, responded back to the article with a comment along the lines of: But what happens when we hit our resource ceiling? Where does the furious youthful energy, the work, and all those meetings go from there?
Connecting experimental drama, drag, the claimed ancestry of the French symbolists, Pride week in Boston’s South End: none of this was coincidental or exploitative marketing on Meehan’s part. Her decisions were principled and formal—truly based on a wrestle with ideas, and not cosmetically celebratory.
It was a good question. In a land of rambunctious radical peers, but little state and city funding, our local artists could be left to ask: “Do I have to leave my home for my work to further develop?”
As a Southern city, New Orleans’ response is a battle cry rooted in regionalism and pride: No. Other options must be made available for local performances to mature. As national performance dialogues yearn to hear more of the narratives, reflections, and refractions of the unique parts of our country, so we must create bold ways for local artists to swim deep into their work right at home in the very own bathtub that first bathed them, if indeed that place is the heartbeat of their work.
In 2011, conversations within New Orleans’ younger theatremakers were brewing in post-show discussions, grant panels, and the local bars. What do we really need as performance artists in order to develop work within our home cities? Let’s say that we have announced ourselves within our communities. We’ve done a few compelling shows that speak to our investigations, and partnered with a few remarkable artists within our cities, and now we are ready for the next intentional step: time, space, and inspiration to delve deep into that passion project. What are we really asking for?
The Five Major Food Groups of an Early/Mid-Career Local Artist
1) A safe, consistent, free rehearsal space
2) A safe, consistent, free space to meet with peer collaborators and mentors
3) A safe, consistent free space to show the work
4) Intentional material resources (lights, projectors, chairs…)
5) Intentional people resources (artists outside of their already existing creative and organizational network).
In 2011, I attended the number 3 in the five major food groups. I visited the Live Arts Brewery (LAB) in Philadelphia, a creative residency for theatremakers hosted by the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe. I witnessed the space, absorbed the quality and health of the artists, and within the year, the grassroots-driven New Orleans Fringe invited Craig Peterson, the founding artistic director of the LAB to New Orleans to speak about how a program can respond to these five needs in an intentional, sustainable program within a community’s ecosystem.
The LAB was bold: a ten-month residency with unlimited rehearsal space, an ample material budget and honorarium for each participating artist, and many mid-career, mentoring artists visiting rehearsal rooms and offering feedback.
The morning Peterson spoke about his program, companies that have been the foundation of our performance community such as Junebug Productions, Artspot, and Southern Rep Theater, sat beside new generation artists, including Goat in Road Productions and NOLA Project. Leaders from New Orleans Museum of Art and the Contemporary Arts Center, and representatives of our funding organizations such as Jazz and Heritage Foundation all joined to hear what a creative residency could be. It was a day that left us all buzzing. How could this be possible in New Orleans?
Informally, a few local artists continued the conversation after Peterson’s departure. If these five basic food groups for performing artists are essential, and if regionalism means anything to New Orleans, some folks are going to have to step up to the plate and give a creative residency a try with the resources we have.
In its inaugural year, The DISTILLERY is a creative residency for mid-career New Orleans-based performing artists to utilize while they are crafting a new performance. In addition to the basic food groups, The DISTILLERY values local and national mentorship, consistent roundtable critical discussions amongst its four participating fellows, documentation of artistic processes, and audience engagement.
In February of this year, we sounded a call for artists to participate in a program that would provide this basic and critical support and a nominal materials budget and stipend for the artist. We expected thirty applications. We received nearly sixty: theatre artists, musicians, film makers, poets, choreographers, and trapeze artists (!) Artists we thought to approach as mentors—the elders of artistic wisdom and talent in our community—applied themselves with passion to projects they had been sitting on for years. One sent his in with a note: “Thank you. It’s been time for this.”
Where that Institution Comes In
It is no small attraction that this creative residency is housed at the Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans. It’s a beautiful space, right in the downtown: tall ceilings, natural light throughout, and climate-controlled. It is also a place that has some new verve and spitfire behind it. Executive Director Neil Barclay, and Performing Arts Curator Raelle Myrick-Hodges, are new arrivals to New Orleans. They share the intention to create a premiere presenting house of nationally recognized work, which is a critical component to any local community’s artistic ecosystem. In tandem with the CAC’s out-of-town emphasis in leadership and programming, the question has been raised: What about the artistic health of our own performing artists?
Creative residencies can be a way for larger institutions to re-engage their own local community. As the presenting institution seeks to build new audiences and to know their artists and audiences well, creative residencies provide the opportunity for the institution to get to know their local artists. On the flip side, if the creative residency is looking for ways to connect its local artists to wider networks, there is no greater home than a national presenting house that consistently brings in out-of-town work. The out-of-town presenting house seeks local ties, and the local program seeks out-of-town connections.
The Intersection with Moving Traffic
This is the first of three publications we are hoping to share with you. Our inaugural DISTILLERY fellows are musician Aurora Nealand, poet A Scribe Called Quess, choreographer Maritza Mercado-Narcisse, a