Florida Writer’s Vision Comes to ARTS/West in “Shunned”

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If one were to have wandered into ARTS/West last Sunday, February 17, he or she would have stumbled upon a stage brightly lit but bare, containing naught but eight chairs and a white table lingering before a bleak backdrop. But this isn’t the scene of a board meeting or a weekly powwow with the local philosophy club (yes, even despite the host of brimming coffee mugs)—this is a play reading, the second of the 2013 Hodge Podge series to be precise.

Hodge Podge is a program of readings that takes place in the season following the annual Humble Play festival. Since the Humble Play committee must limit October’s festival to the presentation of only the three most outstanding plays from a swath of entries, the Hodge Podge series gives community members the chance to hear and discuss other notable mentions that didn’t quite make the cut.

In this latest installment of the Hodge Podge program, the topic of discussion was Sarasota, Florida resident Larry Parr’s Shunned, a rustic drama depicting the steady splintering of an Amish family living in the Indiana countryside. Marlo Tinkham, actress, playwright and managing director of the Ohio Valley Summer Theater, headed a group of local actors for the reading. Though its brusque, hard title carries a sense of discord, the play begins innocently enough: our narrator evokes a quaint pastoral scene, characterized by its unassuming beauty and peaceful self-sufficiency and populated by none but the two Yoder children. Our protagonist, Levi Yoder, and his sister Mary, exchange stories of youthful disobedience—Levi has viewed a theater performance, however unwittingly, and Mary has taken the family horse Old Jake out for a nighttime ride. While to many secular folk these actions may seem easily written off on the willfulness of youth, one must only wait for the weather to change to see the extent of the implications they carry. Aaron Yoder—a pious father who compares a wife to a horse and urges Levi to marry a girl named Becky because it will double the extent of his farmland—and Catherine Yoder—a woman who has married into the Amish community and has subsequently been forced to give up her passion for painting—both struggle to negotiate between the needs to nurture their children and to maintain fidelity to their professed lifestyle. Ultimately, as the play reveals, these two desires cannot always be reconciled.

Thus, in a dramatic sense the play is a tragedy. In a larger sense, however, it can be seen as a meditation on the moral injunctions and filial expectations held within the Amish community. As it progresses, Shunned explores Amish critiques of what is referred to as “English” society and its perceived decadence, religious notions of sin and its centuries-deep associations with (particularly female) sexuality, and the question of what it means to believe in God and to follow the “plain path.” While his father persistently urges him to “shun the outside world,” Levi feels a growing ambivalence about the Amish rejection of theater and the performing arts. He further befriends a clever, kind, and openly gay man named Mark Cummings and wonders how his pious peers can consider such a person an abomination. Aaron, his well-meaning Papa and stubborn superego, emphasizes the depravity of the “painted” women in the English theater, and punishes Mary’s parody of these women despite its inherent playfulness. As personal and family conflicts come to a head in the violent antics of Gary Smith, a shunned Amish man who changed his name and his faith following a drug-addled rumspringa, Levi is forced to choose between growing up to assume his father’s paternal duties, and seeking out a new place in the secular world.

Parr’s script is bold for its capacity to pose such complex questions in a short span of time. Yet while disputes about religious dogmas and their social effects can often become tense and personal, Shunned makes its query in a way that dignifies both sides of its conflict and thus forces audience members to consider it for themselves. This, of course, is one of the text’s greatest strengths: as ARTS/West’s own Janice Evans put it, “it asked big questions and didn’t pretend to answer them.” Rather, the play puts audience members in the shoes of its Amish characters, prodding them in the process to examine their own and others prejudices from a new (some may contend “old”) standpoint. From this stance, it’s no mistake that Gary, who has openly rejected his Amish values, calls Mark a “faggot from Shipshewana.” Just the opposite, this act effectively highlights the fact that Amish and secular communities alike maintain and even share many destructive prejudices—prejudices that one may do well to examine more closely.

According to Mary Biechler, a member of both the Brick Monkey Theater Ensemble and the Humble Play committee, it was the play’s introspective nature and profound emotional impact that made it a worthy candidate for the Humble Play festival. However, like all works of creativity, it has its imperfections—faults that keen observers began to articulate during the talkback after the reading. While Biechler and audience members lauded Shunned for its engaging use of language, they lamented its need for greater emphasis on questioning and personal struggle, citing the protagonist’s apparent ease of decision-making as evidence of a conflict that has not been fully developed.

The talkback is indeed helpful in encouraging audience members to articulate their response to a performance, but it can be especially useful to a playwright looking to revise a work. Biechler claims that many writers whose works are read for the Hodge Podge series ultimately edit their plays based on comments made by the cast and audience. Yet whether or not Larry Parr decides that the opinions of a few Athens residents are relevant to his creative vision, this remains certain: programs like Hodge Podge prove to be a valuable means to creating support for budding artists throughout the country, and provide a context in which community members can interpret and create meaningful experience from their works.

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Young Pianists and Dancers Share the Limelight at Front & Center

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“Front & Center,” a monthly performance event by and for kids, is nothing new to ARTS/West. First staged in 1997, the program has had its home at the arts center since 2003; and as our blogspot (www.artswest.blogspot.com) has only existed since 2006, that makes it older than recorded history!

All knee slapping aside, though, the Front & Center event that took place on Saturday February 9 was a fun and fresh exhibition of the creative energies and inspiring discipline of our region’s youth today. For those who don’t know, the event is typically divided into two sections: roughly a half hour of scheduled performance, followed by a half hour of open stage time for students in the audience. For the first portion this time around, piano instructor and Front & Center host Patricia Lachman worked alongside Chelsea Goettge, composition teacher at Factory Street Studio, to help create nine collaborations between student pianists and young Factory Street dancers. The former deftly recited pieces of all styles and ranges—from Smetana to Joplin and onward to more contemporary compositions—while the latter displayed their own choreographed and improvised dance routines.

Those with experience in dance will be impressed to learn that not only were these routines arranged in just three weeks, but that they also never failed to display the students’ understanding of communication through movement, in both its most subtle and most expressive forms. Ellie Andrews, faculty at Factory Street and proud instructor of many of the featured dancers, admits that encouraging students to develop this understanding is one of her main focuses while teaching. “We ask our students to watch each other’s movement, and to talk about it in terms of rhythm, and quality, etc., rather than just narrative,” she stated. The subsequent ability to be both creative and articulate is evident throughout the students’ choreography: from the lilting, wavelike motions set to the piece “Sky Blue Boat” to the snappy and exaggerated choreography to “Maple Leaf Rag” (along with an appropriate nod to the Charleston), they repeatedly found ways to recreate and rearticulate the moods set by the music.

Of course, these themes were consistently amplified by able cooperation and communication between musicians and dancers; and this is what gave this Front & Center event a special difference with regard to past performances. While previously the event has staged sets by many shades of regional musicians—such as the Burhans and the Local Girls—last Saturday it featured a performance that was wholly interdisciplinary, as it placed an equal focus on both music and dance. According to Lachman–whose broad intention for the event is to provide her students with opportunities to learn from experienced musicians and perform in a casual setting—the collaborative Front & Center is important because it gives students of piano, “which is usually a solitary instrument, the chance to begin thinking as a member of an ensemble.” The challenge is that the ensemble is made up not only of musicians or of dancers, but both; and that these two different kinds of artists must learn to combine their distinct modes of communication to express a single idea.

The performance recalls a past Front & Center event during which workshop leader Dan Dennis invited audience members to the stage to join him in group eurhythmics. Both events not only provided entertainment to those present, but also became illustrations of the airtight codependence between music and dance–a notion that Lachman refers to as the “organic connection” between rhythm and movement.

The event closed with five solo performances on an open stage, maintaining the interdisciplinary theme with performances by both dancers and musicians.

Lachman believes that the Athens community contains a wealth of musical talent and is optimistic about the future of Front & Center. She also aspires to steer some of the future performances again toward the realm of interdisciplinary experience. Front & Center takes place at ARTS/West from noon to 1:00 pm on the second Saturday of every month. It is free and open to all ages and all young musicians are invited to perform during the open stage.