Collaborations as Artists-in-Residence
While I have done hundreds of residencies as an Artist-in-Residence with the New Mexico Arts Commission, VSA New Mexico and Florida and the Virginia Commission for the Arts, working with people of all ages and abilities, in institutions ranging from elementary schools to colleges to Navajo reservations, and even prisons on occasion, some of my most memorable residencies were collaborations with Linda Piper.
Linda and I worked as Artists-in-Residence in New Mexico in the 1980s and early 1990s. She, at that time, was a director, actor and story teller. We collaborated on four projects during our years as Artists-in-Residence. The first, an interdisciplinary event at New Mexico Arts Commission’s annual conference, cemented a friendship that continues to this day.
Thereafter we worked on a play, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, with students in an elementary school in the Four Corners area who adapted the classic children’s book into the play. Since it was a short residency of only a couple of weeks we decided to go with a familiar story rather than work with the students to write their own play, as we did during longer residencies.
Reminiscing about our experience recently, Linda commented on how, in collaboration, the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. She commented on how involved the students were in the process, contributing ideas that added to the success of the project. The one element that still stands out for both of us was a huge three-dimensional head with a mass of hair, a large mouth and an outstretched hand with a wagging forefinger that the students and I made together. This represented Max’s mother.
During a much longer residency at Mesa Verde Elementary School in Farmington, New Mexico, Linda worked on writing a play entitled Masks with the students while I worked with another group of students on sets and sculptured heads that represented various stereotypes. The play evolved out of a discussion Linda had with the students about tension in the community between the three primary ethnic groups: the Anglos; the Hispanics and the Native Americans. From there the discussion broadened to encompass issues of not only racial stereotyping, but stereotyping in general.
The action took place on a school playground during recess and, as the various stereotypical characters appeared on stage, so the corresponding sculptured head would be raised by a student standing at the foot of the stage. The play enabled the students to explore their prejudices and come to an awareness of the unique individuals behind the stereotypical roles that breed separation and difference rather than unity and accord.
Our most challenging, but also the most rewarding, residency was at the New Mexico Youth Diagnostic and Development Center in Albuquerque where we worked with young offenders. Once again Linda worked with the young actors to write a play, entitled Hidden Images, addressing similar issues as those we had worked on in the play at Mesa Verde Elementary School. I worked with a different group to create a backdrop, masks and publicity materials. The masks represented the facades youngsters adopt to help them cope with peer pressure, low self esteem and the related behavioral problems that so often spiral out of control, particularly in young adults.
Our play was almost sidelined when the sheriff arrived to release the star of the play shortly before the date of the performance. The youngster begged to remain incarcerated until after the performance. He prevailed and the play was performed as scheduled to an enthusiastic audience.