In this bleak era for arts funding — particularly for arts education in our public schools, small theater companies (and non-profit arts organizations in general) — it is comforting to know there is a quiet renaissance taking place over at the University Settlement. The Performance Project brings in professional performing artists to perform, create, and interact with members of our ever-changing Lower East Side community. Since its inception in 2007, such diverse groups as the Mud/Bone Collective, the band The Wiyos and The Nerv Tank have presented work. The series also offers free “Monday Night Salons,” which allow artists to connect with Lower East Side residents (and other artists) in a relaxed environment. There is usually a potluck, along with a performance and then a conversation about important issues facing the arts and the local community.
I recently had a chance to sit down with the innovative Program Curator for the Performance Project, Alison Fleminger. We met in the historic Speyer Hall, a gorgeous refurbished performance space, at the University Settlement’s home base on the corner of Rivington and Eldridge. Fleminger grew up around a Settlement House environment (her mother, artist Susan Fleminger, was the director of visual arts and the arts-in-education program at The Henry Street Settlement for many years before becoming Deputy Director) and has a keen interest in theater and performance, which made her a unique candidate for the position.
“I grew up in this center (at the settlement) where people of all shapes and sizes came through the door. So then when I went to theater school (The Boston University Conservatory) I kind of went in to shock because I hadn’t been exposed to this more elitist notion of the arts,” she told me. “I ended up leaving because it didn’t capture at all what excited me about theater, which was that it’s this great community-building tool. There, it was about actor training in a very traditional sense. Their idea of what theater was, was very specific.”
Fleminger is quick to note the crisis that is currently affecting teaching artists around the city. “It’s a very different climate for settlement houses and the arts than when my mother was at Henry Street. The D.O.E. isn’t paying for as many artists to come in to schools, there just aren’t that many contracts. For a while there that was really the bread and butter of the arts center,” she said. “It’s hard – we know that a vast majority of artists in the city make their living doing some sort of teaching or community work and most of the artists I talk to these days are severely underemployed, if not unemployed.”
TLD – So before you came here, what were you doing?
AF – I was a teaching artist for an organization called Arts Connection. I worked in schools all over the city and was also getting my Master’s in Theater Education at NYU. I also ran an arts after-school program in Brooklyn for an organization called Project Reach Youth for a number of years – and a family literacy program that grew out of that. So it was a wonderful experience to be able to start a performance series here at the Settlement. You know it’s such a wonderful opportunity but I think I got selected for this job, probably, because I was one of the few who knew what a settlement house was. A lot of people don’t.
(There is a good definition of Settlement Houses here, and some good background here. The University Settlement was the first of it’s kind in this country. They are celebrating their 125th anniversary this year.)
AF – It’s too bad because it’s such a beautiful movement…and so connected to the whole slow living movement and sustainable living ideas that are popular today. I think there’s a real connection to those movements with people who founded these settlement houses. They were such incredible optimists and really believed in the power of being local – being here, being present in the community and working with what the strengths were within the community, very romantic in a sense.
So it was partly that I knew what a settlement house was and partly that I had done a lot of the jobs that happen here – I was an after school councilor, worked in summer camps and was a preschool teacher for a number of years. As a teaching artist, I worked in a tremendous amount of after-school programs. So they were looking for someone who could curate a series but not something that didn’t connect to what was going on here.
TLD – Did they have something similar going on here or was this a new program?
AF – They hadn’t had a public presenting series ever, really. There were some dance companies in residence here but nothing like this. And this kind of came about because of the changes going on in the neighborhood and the changing needs of this community. We want everyone to know that we’re here and understand if you may not need our services, we’re still here to serve. I think the original mission of the settlement was to bring people together from different backgrounds and classes for their own mutual benefit. There’s something special when you bring everyone together to experience something and share that. We want old neighbors and new neighbors to acknowledge each other when they pass on the street.
TLD – How did it come about?
AF – There was a board member, Bill Blitzer, who had been on our board for 55 years and he wanted his legacy to be bringing the arts back. We would have never gotten this started without him; he wanted to bring this space to life again.
When we’re having one of our Salons, I think about how 125 years ago, the very same kinds of activities were happening; people were coming together at the end of the day – instead of going home after work they went upstairs, they ate, then they came in here and played music, and told stories and they got up and danced– so I think it’s part of a really important tradition. The thing about experiencing the arts is that it’s really energizing…I think if you can get yourself in to the seat, you leave with a little more energy because it’s not a passive activity – it’s kind of like working out.
TLD – How do you decide on the types of programs you present?
AF – The programming is very diverse and eclectic – we are presenting artists that are intrigued by the spirit of the settlement movement, who want to break out of the box of making art for other artists and want to invest in building audiences for the future. I find that yes, as a curator, my own personal taste goes towards experimental work, but I also really feel that the (type of) theater that this neighborhood is known around the world for is actually a great model for arts education. These artists really work as an ensemble over a period of time with each other. They develop original material with such a tremendous connection and sense of ownership over what they put out there. I think even our seniors recognize that the Arts are a way to have their voices heard.
TLD – How do you decide on the artists?
AF – I ask all of the artists we present to use their creativity to not only develop their own work but to develop a community engagement project…and I look for people who are open to that…Whenever someone comes in with a “title,” there’s always going to be a certain amount of resistance and what I want to see is our staff and our artists working seamlessly together and discovering that each of us offer resources that they can tap in to.
A lot of artists in this area are white or upper middle class, or at some level, privileged, and it can be a complicated relationship. It’s like somehow only creative things can happen while the artist is there and when they leave they take all the creativity with them. I don’t want to see that happen in our programs. I want artists to be able to share their expertise and our teachers to feel like they can absorb it and carry it through.
For example, Mud/Bone did a show about refugees living in New York. They put together a beautiful show…a very powerful piece. They were even able to bring one of the refugees who the play was based on, to meet our kids. He was an Egyptian man…and for these kids to hear about his experience as a gay man in Egypt, their jaws were on the floor. He told us about witnessing honor killings — it was really powerful.
TLD – Tell me about the Monday Salon Series you’ve started up.
AF – Our Salon Series is really exciting – we’re working with Incubator Arts and the League of Independent Theater and one of the things we’re investigating is this moment in time when artists are really having to do it themselves – we call it the “D.I.Y. Era” – is questions like, what is our civic duty? When the companies that we all aspire to be involved with are closing…what are we reaching for? Even those artists that we call “successful” are not able to keep it going right now — so it’s time to get together, time to share our stories and figure out what kind of larger social issues our individual problems are connected to. The League of Independent Theaters connects artists to government and Incubator is all about connecting artists to artists.
The Salons are open to everyone, it’s a great opportunity to present your work and come meet us and talk to us and look at the bigger picture together. I’m really excited about the direction our salons are taking. It seems to be something artists crave…having a connection to people beyond the Arts community.
TLD – Who have you found to be your audience for all this?
AF – It’s other artists. When it’s open to the public, we get a couple people from the Settlement but I have to usually pull them in. I also think, more and more, we’re getting people from the neighborhood. We’re still pretty young but I think slowly it’s happening by really partnering with these amazing groups. I think it’s so exciting to see that all the Settlement Houses are starting to think about how they can get in the presenting game. It makes the Arts an intimate experience again.
The Performance Project is finishing their current season with an exciting “Dance Marathon” from bluemouth inc. on Jan. 6th. It’s being billed as “an ecstatic and intimate duration-based performance event inspired by the physically grueling spectator sport from Depression-Era North America.” For more info and to register for this intriguing event, click here.
Public performances will resume in early 2011. Artists presenting in the Spring season will include: The Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf, Johanna S. Meyer, Margaret Yuen & The Red Silk Dancers, Manhattan Brass Quintet, Joseph Webb, Richard Lewis and Susan Share, Nicoll and Oreck and the Miro Quartet. Be sure to check the Performance Project’s website for updated information. Find The Performance Project on Facebook here.