ACANSA Arts Festival Blog

A Southern Celebration of the Arts

I grew up going in and out of dance studios, learning the art of ballet, tap, jazz, modern, and hip-hop. But Parsons Dance, a contemporary dance company based in New York City, goes beyond anything I could ever do from my K-12 dance experience.

The company is known for the dancers remarkable athleticism and stunning ensemble work that fuses contemporary dance gestures and movements with the discipline and precision of classical movement.

Photograph of Parsons Dance's Artistic Director, David Parsons.

Photograph of Parsons Dance’s Artistic Director, David Parsons.

David Parsons, the co-founder and artistic director, came to New York from Kansas City and came to the world of dance rather unconventionally since he was originally trained as a gymnast. He is a self taught dancer and over the past several decades he has worked his way up dancing world. He founded Parsons Dance in 1985 alongside lighting designer Howell Binkley. Since the company’s inception, Parsons has created works through commissions from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, American Ballet Theatre, the American Dance Festival, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, New York City Ballet, Paul Taylor Dance Company, the Spoleto Festival, and others.

He’s known for experimenting with light and movement. And is notably famous for the piece piece “Caught,” which he expected to perform at ACANSA when I spoke to him last month. It is noted for incorporating strobe like lighting and beautiful acrobatic leaps through the air to create a truly interesting visual experience.

I had the opportunity to meet with David in his office located in the hustle of bustle of Time Square. He told me that he and several other artists have been granted space in the building through city subsidies. And it is definitely a central location that overlooks flashing billboards, brightly lit subways signs, and confused tourists churning around to see the latest Broadway show.

He describes his company as a strong, hard-working group of dancers that do something unique in the dance world: modern dance with the discipline of classical ballet. “We are branded,” David said. “We tour worldwide. We put the years in.”  

David’s company isn’t just known for its style, but the creativity and innovation present in his pieces. He takes his inspiration from all over. The piece “Caught” comes from that idea that “everyone dreams of flying” and the another of his pieces, “Swing Shift,” channels the idea of “dancing late at a club,” he said.

Although he has had an impressive career in dance, he told me that his work as a dancer, choreographer, and artistic director has been more a labor of love than a stable career. He was never in the business for the money and it can be a struggle.

One of the thing that keeps him in the arts is how it touches people in the community. “We’ve been doing it in [some form] since our inception,” David said. “We like to service the community we are in.” He and Parsons Dance has worked with disadvantaged high school kids and helped them connect to dance by making music videos with them. And the company has also worked with both children and adults on the autism spectrum.

For him connecting with local communities allows him to give other people from all walks of life that art can be a part of everyone’s world. “It’s really about teaching people they can be creative,” he said.

The thing that keeps him coming day in day out though is the excitement of the dance world that brings the world shows, such as “Jersey Boys” or “Hamilton.”

At the end of our chat he told me that the best part of his job is that he can “get up every morning and fight mediocrity.”

David’s sentiment is something that speaks to the artist in myself, although I’m not a performer in quite the same way. Any singer, dancer, or writer just want to give you something that takes you out of the doldrums of the day-to-day. So tonight, if you have the time come to the show, you’ll be in for an exciting, visual treat.

The company will be doing a master class with special needs kids at The Academy at Riverdale and the dance students at North Little Rock High School in addition to a public performance.

Online ticket sales are closed but tickets may be purchase at the door beginning one hour prior to the event.

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While there are many shows coming to ACANSA Arts Festival, one that definitely excites me is the theatrical performance “Murrow.” The play takes the audience through the life of  Edward R. Murrow, an American broadcast journalist. He was a man at the forefront of broadcast journalism and is still lauded for his examination of Senator Joseph McCarthy on his CBS news program, “See it Now,” on March 9, 1954.

Today he continues to be regarded as a television news pioneer that has influenced well known broadcast journalists, including the likes of Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather and Peter Jennings. This show gives you some insight to the man and the reporter that became one of the most well known figures in television.

“Murrow, the man, furnishes the frame for Murrow, the reporter. Both are magnificently brought to life via a superb collaboration between Playwright Joseph Vitale, Performer Joseph J. Menino and Director Jeremy Williams,” the Huffington Post said in its review of the show. “Bravo! Bravo! Bravo! For individually and jointly doing Murrow proud.”

While I didn’t have the opportunity to speak with Jeremy Williams, I did speak with both Joseph Vitale and Joseph Menino about their thoughts on the show, the man Edward Murrow, and why they think the show is more relevant today than ever before.

The key issue that Murrow championed was objectivity in the media, which is something that is so important to think about today in this constant churn news cycle. “[Murrow] says so much about the need for integrity in the media. Objectivity in the media.” Joseph Vitale said when I spoke to him over the phone about the topic. “[The media] has become so powerful with the internet, the 24 hour news cycle.”

In Ed Murrow’s own words: “The speed of communications is wondrous to behold. It is also true that speed can multiply the distribution of information that we know to be untrue.”

A picture of playwright Joseph Vitale.

A picture of playwright Joseph Vitale.

Vitale first came to theater in college where he worked on poetry and plays. Directly after school, he started working at a newspaper and went on to pursue a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University. He has since authored a number of other plays and was most recently a semi-finalist for the 2012 Eugene O’neill Theater/National Playwrights Conference.

The idea for more first came to him while he was speaking with one of his journalism professors, Fred Friendly, about his experiences working with Ed Murrow on the job as one of his long time producers. Friendly told Vitale that he was a true innovator of his time, one of the first to make the transition from print into radio and broadcast journalism and to do so successfully. “He was a man seeing 40-50 years into the future,” Vitale said of Murrow. Something that made the experience of both writing and working on the show unique was that most of the information that informed his playwriting came from first hand accounts, interviews with those that were close to him such as his his professor and Murrow’s own son Casey.

However, the show wouldn’t be what it is, a truly dynamic look into the life of Edward Murrow,  without a dedicated actor behind the one man show. Joseph Menino gamely took up the role and has been thrilled to portray a man who describes as “a great craftsman of words.”

An image of actor Joseph Menino.

An image of actor Joseph Menino.

Menino started acting in high school. “I was somewhat of an outsider, 70 or 80 lbs heavier than I am now,” Menino said when we sat for a chat in a local coffee shop. “Theater got me out of my shell.” Since he began his work in theater he has appeared in many shows, including an appearance as the understudy for Willy Loman in “The Death of A Salesman” at the Arkansas Repertory Theater.

Getting behind the mind of Ed Murrow has led him to suspect that were he alive today, he would undoubtedly have a blog, since he was always one of the first to pave the way in new media in his own time. “He was there for the beginning of radio and television,” Menino said. Murrow was right at the forefront of media’s involvement in both. In a time when there were very few voices on either television or radio, he was there and had the most popular show at the time, Menino added.

While both Menino and Vitale’s admiration for Murrow shines throughout the show, something that makes it truly unique was the incorporation of media in the show. “It really was all thanks to the production team,” Menino said and added that they manage to take you on a journey through the past and present of media.

One of the goals that our director, Jeremy Williams, had was to make him a timeless person, Vitale said. “What Jeremy wanted to was have [Murrow] talk to our time. To make [the play] a neutral setting,” he said.

The show is walk through the world of media’s past, but Murrow’s insistence that truly good journalism is done with integrity and without bias is a message that journalists still need to hear. Media is at the cusp of another era of great change, the digital era, which brings information faster than ever before, but many people in the media have been criticized in recent years for its inability to remain objective.

Murrow’s message rings especially true to me, as I myself work as a young journalist attempting to navigate the high-speed content churn while still maintaining journalistic integrity. And though I don’t often tackle the high profile political topics that he grappled with in his time, I think his assertions about what make a good journalist resonates regardless of the topic.

I’ll leave you with a quote form Murrow about good journalism that rings especially true to me: “To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; credible we must be truthful.

The show will be playing at 6 pm on Thursday, Sept. 22 and Friday, Sept. 23 at the Arkansas Repertory Theater. To purchase a ticket, click below.

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ACANSA Arts Festival Announces Avant-Garde Class of 2016 

Avant Garde logo.screenshot

The ACANSA Young Professionals Group

  As a part of the ACANSA Arts Festival 2016, the title of “Avant-Garde” was awarded to a class of ten exceptional young artists or professionals who demonstrate exemplary leadership and commitment to impacting and furthering their own art or the arts as a collective in our community. This year celebrates the third year for the ACANSA Arts Festival, which inspires public appreciation for the arts while enriching the economic and cultural vitality in the region. 

AVANT GARDE.UPDATED EVENTACANSA takes place the week of September 21-25, 2016 with a  Late Night event celebrating the 2016 Avant Garde honorees on Saturday night, September 24th starting at 9:30pm in Ron Robinson alley way in Little Rock.  The “Heat of the Night” is a cajun themed party featuring Arkansas Circus Arts, live Graffiti Artists, and the musical talents of TP and the Feel.  Buy $15 tickets here.

Here’s your chance to get the scoop on the notable 2016 Avant Garde Honorees and how they are leading the arts and cultural scene from Little Rock to Benton and all the way to Hot Springs.

Amy Bramlett  Amy Bramlett received her early ballet training from Edmond Cooper and her jazz, tap, contemporary, and clog training from Andrea Pierkowski. She completed her BFA in Ballet and Modern Dance as the Nordan Fine Arts Scholar at Texas Christian University in 2011. Upon graduation, Amy danced professionally all over the world with Royal Caribbean Productions, Princess Cruise Lines, Young! Tanzsommer, and studied abroad in the U.K. Amy is a recognized Arkansas Artist in Education and has been nominated for the Hot Springs 2015 Young Professional of the Year by the Greater Chamber of Commerce. She is currently the resident choreographer and principal dancer for the Muses Creative Project and resides as the Dance Director for Hot Springs Middle and High School, her own Alma Mater where she provides dance opportunities and training to the very community that raised her. Amy founded and directs the HSSD student company of advanced dancers, the Hot Springs Dance Troupe, where she has the opportunity to train and work individually with advanced students that are dedicated to studying the art of dance, and work to perform within the community and abroad. This semester, she is excited to continue to study and grow as she begins her Masters of the Arts in Dance Education at the University of North Carolina and marries her supportive love of her life, Zach Turner. Amy has enjoyed dancing and choreographing in several fundraising events in the community such as the Levi Hospital Baron’s Ball, the American Cancer Society Summer Gala and the event close to her heart, Dancin’ for a Cause (2014-2016). She is honored to be a 2016 Avant-Garde Honoree of the ACANSA Arts Festival.

Allyson GattinAllyson Gattin is a 2010 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism where she graduated with a Bachelor of Journalism in Strategic Communications. After graduation, Allyson spent two years in St. Louis where she served as the Public Relations Manager at the Contemporary Art Museum. She moved back to Little Rock in 2012 to serve as the Marketing and Special Events Manager at Arkansas Business Publishing Group, and currently works as the Director of Marketing and Audience Engagement at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre. Allyson is active in her community, serving on the Arts and Culture Commission of the City of Little Rock and the Envoy Board at the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute.  

Michael Bartholmey  Michael Bartholmey is honored to be recognized as an “Avant-Garde” artist in his community. He has been involved in Central Arkansas theaters since the age of ten and, in 2012, earned a BA in Theatre Arts from University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He is a founding member of Saline County Shakes in Benton, a company dedicated to bringing classical productions to the public for free. Michael recently directed and starred in Shakespeare’s Hamlet this past summer. He would like to thank his family and friends for all their love and support in his continuing endeavor to enrich the local community through the arts.

Ashi FrankeAsher “Ashi” Franke is a web designer for the University of Arkansas at Little Rock focusing on user experience and interface design. Pursuing her Bachelor of Arts in Web Design and Development, Franke studies web standards and accessibility as well as modern UI trends. Through her involvement with UALR and communication with young Arkansas artists, she encourages designers to pursue careers in tech and translate their artistic passions into accessible, beautiful websites and applications. Ashi has made her mark by doing pro-bono design work for entrepreneurs and promoting the digital arts to both students and faculty at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She has delivered several design related presentations and created web-based tutorials for her classmates.

Erin Anson  Erin Anson-Ellis is a native of Little Rock and General Manager of Ballet Arkansas. She earned her B.A. in Theatre Arts from University of Arkansas at Little Rock and graduated with honors in May of 2012. Erin became Ballet Arkansas’ production, company, and stage manager in the spring of 2013, and has managed all of Ballet Arkansas’ productions since that time. In addition to her work at Ballet Arkansas, Erin’s credits include stage managing Wildwood Park for the Arts 2012 fall tour of Lily and the Appleseed, Shuffles and Ballet II’s 2014 & 2015 Dance Recitals, and various ACANSA performances in 2014 & 2015.

Matt Boyce  Matt Boyce was born and raised in New Jersey. He has been studying and performing  the art of tap dancing since the age of ten, and made his first debut into the professional industry at the age of twelve. He became the youngest ever principal dancer for the New Jersey Tap Ensemble, under the direction of Deborah Mitchell, where he learned the tradition of rhythm tap dancing and its roots. At 16, Matt became an original company member of Mike Minery’s Tapaholics. With Tapaholics, Matt performed for 6 years touring nationally with the company. He is the founder and artistic director of the non-profit, Untapped, the state’s only professional tap company, and co-founder of Little Rock Tap Festival, the state’s only tap dance festival, which brings in dancers and master teachers from across the country. Matt uses tap dancing as a tool for educating and raising awareness for the arts.

Erin HollidayErin Holliday is a native of Hot Springs, AR, where her love of the arts and community began. She has curated nearly 100 gallery exhibits, primarily composed of local community artists in Arkansas and Kansas City. Erin volunteers for the Hot Springs Documentary Film Institute, Hot Springs Area Cultural Alliance, Cutwell 4 Kids, as well as Low Key Arts where she served on the Board of Directors as President and Treasurer. In 2012, she became the Executive Director of Emergent Arts, at the time known as Artchurch Studio, and led the organization through a relocation and rebranding. Emergent Arts now serves emerging artists of all ages in the areas of performing, visual, and literary arts education year round as well as hosting community art exhibits in the Fall and Spring. Erin was also appointed to the Community Development Advisory Committee for the City of Hot Springs. Her illuminated sculpture and kinetic installations have been exhibited and collected regionally and public works can be seen at St. Luke’s Women’s Center in K.C. and the newly completed Olathe Community Center.

Katie Campbell  Katie Campbell is originally from North Carolina but since 2007 has found an artistic home in Little Rock as a company member with the Arkansas Arts Center Children’s Theatre, director, performer, and teacher with the Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre, and improvisor with ImprovLittleRock and The Joint Venture. She is the co-founder and coach of the youth improv comedy company, Armadillo Rodeo. Additionally, she is a board member of TYA/USA, a national organization that strengthens the artistic and cultural impact of theatre for young audiences. Current projects include Tyke and Moppet: A Play for the Very Young at the Arkansas Arts Center and the Juvenile Justice Arts Project which hopes to bring arts education to incarcerated youth in Arkansas.She is passionate about providing spaces of dialogue for young people onstage and off. She strives to create work that youth connect with and see their lives reflected in the art.

Martin_Stacey  Stacey Martin is a native of Kansas City but after more than three years in Arkansas, proudly calls this state home. She serves as chair of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra’s (ASO) young professionals group, SHARP, which was founded in 2015. The goal of SHARP is to connect arts-minded young professionals through networking, social and volunteer opportunities, while simultaneously promoting audience growth and sustainability for the ASO.  Professionally, Stacey is the director of media and video for Dillard’s department stores and volunteers through the Junior League of Little Rock. Stacey and her husband, Wes, live in Little Rock.

Sarah Stricklin  Sarah Stricklin is a local musician and educator. She writes and performs as the lead singer of rock and roll band, Bad Match, and with R&B group, Late Romantics. She has collaborated with acts such as Big Piph, Sean Fresh, John Neal, Greg Spradlin, and John Willis. She has performed on stage with Mary Steenburgen twice, coached the actress Alyson Hannigan through her first and only public singing appearance, written and recorded a political jingle, and has sung for the entire Clinton family and Barbra Streisand. She leads performing arts programming at the CALS Children’s Library and Learning Center, where she implemented the state’s first instrument lending library and spearheaded the development of a professional-grade recording studio. She convenes the community organizing group Arts in Little Rock, which works to improve the lives of artists and musicians around the city.

Please join us in welcoming the 2016 class of ACANSA Avant Garde! Learn more about ACANSA Arts Festival, see the full line up and purchase tickets HERE.





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My Mother Has 4 Noses may seem an odd title for a love story, but that is exactly what the play is. It is a compelling narrative that leads audience members on a music filled journey through a particularly difficult stretch in the life of New York singer/songwriter, Jonatha Brooke, when she had to care for her mother, Darren Stone.

An image of actress/singer/songwriter Jonatha Brooke.

An image of actress/singer/songwriter Jonatha Brooke.

Jonatha began her career as a singer, songwriter, and guitarist in the folk-pop female duo called Story in the late eighties and early nineties. In the mid nineties the duo broke up and Jonatha decided to pursue a solo career. Her music began to shift from her early folk-pop sound to something more radio friendly as she started releasing solo albums: “Plumb” (1995), “10 Cent Wings” (1997), “Live” (1999) and “Steady Pull” (2001).

In 2002, Jonatha performed a pair of songs for Disney’s Return to Never Land soundtrack. Several years later, she performed a set of ten shows at New York’s Public Theater followed by the release of her album “Careful What You Wish For” in 2007. Her follow-up effort, released in 2008, paired her original music with previously unheard lyrics from Woody Guthrie’s lyric journals.

I had the chance to talk to Jonatha several weeks ago about the inspiration behind the story, and I was truly touched by what she had to say.

Jonatha’s mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and she decided to put aside her music career to take care of her. As her day to day life with her mother unfolded, she saw, for the first time, a story unfolding that couldn’t be told in the usual ten songs in an album of music, and it was a story that she felt needed to be told.

“We don’t really talk about it enough,” Jonatha said about her experience living with an Alzheimer’s sufferer. “By my exposing it, in a raucous way [on stage], it gives people permission to talk about it. It declassifies this very scary stuff.”

Alzheimer’s disease is a disorder that progressively and irreversibly destroys a person’s memory, thinking skills, and eventually the ability to carry out the simplest tasks. While exact estimates vary, the National Institutes of Health states that more than 5 million Americans may have Alzheimer’s.

For Jonatha, the key to staying sane was embracing the humor of the situation. “If you can’t laugh than you are sunk,” Jonatha told me. “Mom would be the first to laugh. She had this great sense of humor, a great sense of play, and childlike joy.”

It was in fact her mother’s sense of humor that inspired and even encouraged the creation of the show. “My mom was absolutely complicit,” Jonatha said. “She would join in the fun of creating these daily goofy stories that we would inhabit, whatever her reality was on any given day.”

She described her mother as a very dramatic character. Always creating personas and thinking of ways to express herself in theatrical ways. “When I was in seventh grade, my mother, she spent six weeks working on her clown persona,” Jonatha remembers fondly. Although at the time she remembers thinking: “I’m in seventh grade. It is the worst time for you to want to be a clown.”

For her, while watching her mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s was a day to day battle with what she described as some “terrible stretches” she feels that in some ways it was a beautiful thing. “Her very essence seemed to rise to the surface. A childlike, joyful, silly person, who reveled in being a goofball. The dementia gave her the audience she always craved…the freedom and license to be her absolute self,” Jonatha said.

It was her mother’s joie de vivre that inspired the show, and although she always considered herself a musician before now, since her work on My Mother Has 4 Noses, she has come to realize that she is more suited to theater than she thought. “I do tell little stories,” Jonatha said. “There are little vignettes…I was a dancer earlier in my life and it gave me a very different take [on musical performance].”

The show itself though, Jonatha describes as truly a combination of the all the performative elements. “The songwriting is deep and elliptical, and a clue into my particular journey into the story. The storytelling is this rollercoaster of comedy and tragedy,” she said. And there “is some beautiful movement on stage,” she added.

The whole experience has helped her deal with this hard topic and her responses from the audience has been powerful. “It’s really exciting for me. It’s exciting for an audience to see that combination of things, and for them to recognize themselves in it,” Jonatha said.

But most importantly she thinks that the show helps make something that is often a dark and hard road, just a little less abstract. A little less tragic. “I think it’s a relief for people to hear,” she said. “Everyone relates to it.”

I know that I definitely do. While Alzheimer’s disease hasn’t touched my life to date, I have spent the last ten years watching one of my own family members struggling to live with Parkinson’s disease, another brain disorder that like Alzheimer’s slowly takes away a person’s ability to function independently. When we spoke, I was really struck by Jonatha’s candidness and the love for her mother that shines through when she talks about her.  It’s a show that shares the beautiful bond between mother and daughter and as one audience member so aptly put it, “if you’ve had a mother you need to see this show.”

The show will be playing at 8 pm on Friday, Sept. 23 and Saturday, Sept. 24 at the Argenta Community Theater. To purchase a ticket, click below.

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The Exchange is a group of five singers who met on set of a singing competition and at first glance couldn’t be more different.But the soulful power of the human voice is what unites them as a group and turns each performance into a unique, fun a cappella experience. According to their website, “every show is half concert, half house party.” They have a style that fuses their contrasting roots–r&b, rock, gospel, opera, and hip-hop—and gives them an explosive energy on stage.  

The group’s tour manager, Christopher Young, joined them a little after they first hit it big and he came to them with a cappella experiences of my own. A few weeks ago, he took some time from keeping track of the guys as they toured Europe, to give me an inside look into their group.

Elizabeth: How did you first come to know the group? Were you there at the beginning when they first realized that had good musical chemistry?

Christopher: The group actually started in mid 2012, they came together after season 3 of “The Sing-Off.”  I was in an a cappella group,  the University of Rochester YellowJackets with Aaron and Jamal. And we’d kept in touch and I reconnected with them when I was looking for a job doing something different.

So, I came on board at the end of 2013, the beginning of 2014. Which was right in time to be involved with their big the Backstreet Boys in the Spring of 2014. Before that they had already done tours in about 30 countries around the world and were pretty successful.

Elizabeth: On your website and in your videos interacting with fans seems to be a big part of their show. Do you think it’s something that makes them really unique?

Christopher: It’s part of the reason why their name is ”The Exchange.” To connect with people through music and in general, all around the world. What they really wanted to do was to create an interactive show that could bring people together.

So when you go to an Exchange show, the number one priority is for the fans to have fun. We try to make it so the performances includes dancing and singing. It should be a fun give and take between the band and the audience.

A Capella lends itself to that sort of experience; it’s a unique art form.


Elizabeth: What drew you to working with an a cappella group? Do you know what drew each of the guys to this genre of music?

Christopher: My first experience with a cappella group was is singing in the boys choir growing up, but I saw my first experience watching a show in high school

As I was watching and I thought, “I want to do that.” So I joined the YellowJackets in college and I’ve really loved it ever since.

Elizabeth: Do you know what sorts of music they plan to perform at ACANSA? Do they have a set list?

Christopher: I don’t know if I really want to divulge that. I can tell people that there will be hip hop, r&b, pop (a lot of pop), alternative music, rock music, a little of almost everything.

If members of the audience have seen the guys perform, they might recognize a couple of the songs. We don’t want to be secretive about the show, but we want people to come in with open minds.

It’s more fun for the audience members that way. You go to an orchestra song and they tell you that this song is going to be 6 minutes and 47 seconds. We like to keep people on their toes.

Elizabeth: Is there something that you feel is important that I haven’t already asked?

Christopher: We are so excited to be in Arkansas. We can’t meet to everybody. We want to interact with you and take pictures.

From my talk with Christopher and my own love of a cappella music, I think that the Exchange should put on a really great show later tonight. So I would scurry down to see if you get a ticket to see it!

ACANSA Arts Festival will host  the Exchange at the Scottish Rite Temple Auditorium on September 18th at 7pm.

Online ticketing is closed for this event, but there will be some for sale on site an hour before the show.

Learn more about ACANSA Arts Festival coming to Central Arkansas September 16-20, 2015.  Subscribe to the ACANSA Email Newsletter to be the first to see the reveal of the full festival line up!

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Founded by choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar in 1984, the Urban Bush Women is a dance company that seeks to bring the untold and under-told histories and stories of disenfranchised people to light through dance. The dancers come from all different backgrounds in dance and in life which brings interesting new ideas to the table for each new experiment.

Jonathan Secor, the producing partner, joined the Urban Bush Women fairly recently although he has worked with African American arts and theatre, including his position as founder and director of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts Berkshire Cultural Resource Center and as the artistic director for the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington, MA.

Two weeks ago, he took some time out of his busy rehearsal schedule to meet up with me at a quaint cafe in Harlem, where he grew up, and he let me pick his brain on what it’s like to work with this creative and interesting organization.

Elizabeth: How would you describe the type of performance that the Urban Bush women do?

Jonathan: It’s modern dance. It’s derived from multiple dance styles from the African diaspora. It’s not African dance.

The dancers all have different backgrounds. Some come from hip-hop, ballet, tap dancing. We cherish different bodies, different styles; we celebrate that. But at the end of the day, it’s modern dance.

Elizabeth: How did you first get involved with their work? How would you describe your role in the company?

Jonathan: I’ve known the community since the 80s. I’ve worked with Dance Africa for years. This past October I moved base to New York and became producing partner for the Urban Bush Women. We have a shared leadership model here with three parts: managing partner, the producing partner, and the visionary partner – Jawole. My job as the producing partner is to help the visionary partner’s ideas come to reality. The work is as much about the process as it is about the product.

But I’ve worked in and around the arts for 30 years, starting off working as a stage manager. Always tried to work for organizations that affect change. I worked for BAM in the 80s. I worked for African American organization and the gay and lesbian community.

Elizabeth: The Urban Bush women strive to tell untold and under-told stories. What does that entail? do you have a favorite?

Jonathan: Jawole, who is the story teller, her primary interest is about African American stories. She comes from a place thirty-nine and half years ago from a time when people didn’t tell these stories.

Getting on to the stage made ways to interact with the African American community. It was community outreach in its truest form. Reach a hand over, behind, or a hand down.

Elizabeth: Is there a particular performance that they will be performing at ACANSA?

Jonathan: So we are doing “Walking with ‘Trane,” a show inspired by John Coltrane’s Love Supreme. We spent the last two-years looking at the political characters, social climate then reinterpreting it, breathing a different life into it.

The other piece we are doing is a mashup and a historical review. The mashup is a wonderful journey through half a dozen pieces.

Elizabeth: Is there anything else that you feel people should know before they go to a performance?

Jonathan: The difference in the Urban Bush Women is the freedom of the pelvis. They have a show called Batty moves, the focuses on movement in the pelvis. There’s a segment of it in the mash-up we’ll be doing. It comes from

It’s important for the Urban Bush Women to make it to the community. Community engagement in it’s truest form. Literally through movement.

Jonathan’s passion for his work and excitement about the performances they are bringing to ACANSA make me excited to see what these lovely ladies and their production partner might have in store. It should be a fun and dynamic show!

ACANSA Arts Festival will host the Urban Bush Women at North Little Rock Middle School – formerly Lakeview Middle on September 17th at 7pm.

Purchase Your Tickets today!  General admission is $20.00, VIP $50.00, Student $10.00

Learn more about ACANSA Arts Festival coming to Central Arkansas September 16-20, 2015.  Subscribe to the ACANSA Email Newsletter to be the first to see the reveal of the full festival line up!

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The Man Who Likes to Move

The Man Who Likes to Move

Posted By on Aug 28, 2015

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to watch a live performance of a silent movie? Then PUSH physical theater might be just the show for you. In the words of Darren Stevenson, co-founder of PUSH physical theater, “some things are so important that, you cannot put them into spoken words.” It’s why he and Heather Stevenson, Darren’s wife and fellow co-founder, think it’s so important that physical theater exists. It’s an alternative form of expression and way of looking at the world.

When Darren and Heather founded the organization in the early 2000s, they were searching for art that could show people a story. They have been creating interesting physical theater performances ever since. The PUSHers have performed in theatres, festivals, special events, arts education and residency projects all over. The Stevenson’s have also received multiple accolades for their work in dance and theater, including the 2009 Performing Artist of the Year Award from the Arts & Cultural Council for Greater Rochester and the 2009 Anton Germano Dance Award. Darren was also invited to speak about PUSH’s unique artistic process at TEDx Rochester in 2010.

Darren and his fellow PUSHers are always finding interesting ways to express relatable things. This week, Darren took some time to speak with me about his work and tell me more about his life as a PUSHer.

Elizabeth: What first drew you to the idea of physical theater?

Darren: My wife and I, our training was pretty unusual. We trained as dancers and in something called corporeal mime. We did some acrobatics, nontraditional partnering, and circus skills. And we were looking for a way to put all those things together in theater.

The funny thing was that the inspiration came from a movie. We were watching the Matrix back in 2000. Afterwards, we both looked at each other and thought we could do that with our bodies. We could tell a story with our bodies like that. Since then it just took off. Now we have got some great performers from the parkour world, freerunning world, and cirque du soleil.

Heather and I are both from working class families that would not consider ourselves part of the art scene in anyway at all. The kind of people that we grew up with are people who sit through a long artsy performance or show and come away scratching their head and not really getting it.

One of the things that I love the most is having children sitting in the audience, retirees, and people from all different backgrounds and watching the show and connecting with it.

Elizabeth: What inspires you to create something new?

Darren: The show that people will be seeing, we will be doing a little bit of everything. There are a lot of different things that are sprinkled within the show.

The inspiration comes from really different places. Our creative process is really democratic, I’ve never thought I was a smart enough choreographer that I could walk in with everything in my head, so instead we go in and work on everything together.

One of the things we do is play, we’ll start off with some idea, some prompt, something that happened with us, or some idea — like can we throw someone across a room or can we make it look like someone is losing a body part. Recently we even tried to see what we could do with an iPad.

We try everything knowing that almost all of it won’t make it to the stage. I love to communicate this with young people, that often they are terrified of failure. If you are not failing 90 percent of the time than you are not trying hard enough.

Elizabeth: Do you have a particular piece that you will be performing at ACANSA?

Darren: Yes. One piece that I’m really excited about is called “The Soldier.” I won’t tell you anything about it, but the inspiration comes from my family. I created this piece when my kids were little, but now our son Daniel is in an operations department of the military. They are classified and secret operations. Now, when I perform the piece it’s not just a way to honor what the men and women of the armed forces sacrifice, but a personal connection with my own son. It’s not acting anymore, it’s very personal.

There are pieces like “Red Ball” which use the iPad technology. There is something like a magic trick about the piece.

Then there are pieces like “Job.” We created this piece by looking at the biblical stories about Job and finding a way to recreate it in modern day context: a guy in the office. It’s a pretty intense watch. I like sorta reaching into those ancient stories and bringing out moments that seem to be relevant to the audience.

Elizabeth: What sorts of ideas do you like to explore or push back on with this type of theater, that you might not be able to do by more traditional means?

Darren: When you do theater without words you get a very truthful and honest type of storytelling. We all have bodies and we communicate with our bodies all the time, even when we are trying not to. We still tell the truth with our bodies. Imagine talking to  someone on the phone, if  they are lying to you for example, you just can’t tell.  But if they are standing in front of you,  you can tell. It’s in their muscles. The stories of our lives are locked up inside our muscles and by moving you set them free.

Elizabeth: Are there other things that you think it’s important to share about the show?

Darren: It is okay to watch your own show. I don’t know if that makes sense, but I want people to know they don’t have to get some high concept from the show. I wish I could set people free from the stress of expectation of when people go to see art.

There is a piece we perform that focuses on a “mind animal.” Everyone sees a different creature and it doesn’t actually matter. I know what I was performing, but if they see a cat or their own dog it’s fine. You are bringing your own life to the piece and that what’s important.

I like it when people can see their own lives in the show. Especially when people bring children, a kindergartener is going to see a different show than an adult. They just are.

After speaking with Darren, I’m excited to see something interesting and find a unique connection to movement. For someone who spends so much time communicating things with words, I find it fascinating to learn how other people communicate without them.

“some things are so important that, you


ACANSA Arts Festival will host PUSH Physical Theater at North Little Rock Middle School – formerly Lakeview Middle on September 17th at 7pm.

Purchase Your Tickets today!  General admission is $20.00, VIP $50.00, Student $10.00

Learn more about ACANSA Arts Festival coming to Central Arkansas September 16-20, 2015.  Subscribe to the ACANSA Email Newsletter to be the first to see the reveal of the full festival line up!

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Meet the Dork Knight

Meet the Dork Knight

Posted By on Jul 29, 2015

Almost everyone had a time in their childhood when they identified with, obsessed over, and/or idolized a super hero. Jason O’Connell, an actor based in New York City, is just like many other people in that way. His superhero idol was the Batman. Jason has seen every Batman movie in existence, but unlike most people, he decided to create a one-man show about his obsession that he has dubbed “The Dork Knight.”

The Public Theater describes the show as “a look into one man’s obsession with movies about another man’s obsession with dressing up like a rodent and punching people.” The show follows the ups and downs of Jason’s personal and professional life that he tells through the lens of his love/hate relationship with the Batman movies.

Jason O’Connell, photographed by William Marsh.

Jason got his start studying theater at Hofstra University in Long Island, NY. He moved to New York city after he graduated and has spent seasons at Texas Shakespeare Festival and Nebraska Shakespeare Festival; this summer marks his eighth year with the Hudson Valley Shakespeare festival in New York. In addition,  he also writes and performs stand-up comedy.

In between his recent stint performing Shakespeare in New York City and traveling to the Hudson Valley Shakespeare festival, Jason took some time to talk to me about his experiences working as an actor and creating “The Dork Knight.”

Elizabeth: What started you on the path to become an actor? Was it something you always wanted to do, or something that you fell into later in life?

Jason: I got into it in high school, around the time a lot of people do. But when I was a little kid, I really wanted to be a cartoonist.

I was very drawn to entertainment and movies,  and I would channel that interest into my artwork. I would draw movie parodies and tv parodies. Then, in high school, I got really obsessed with SaturdayNight Live.

I started doing SNL impressions around the lunch table. I heard about this chance to do voice overs for a school play and I auditioned. It was my first experience getting on a stage in front of people. I came to a crossroads at the end of high school, where I had to choose between studying art or theater. I actually had a teacher who had been Rosie O’Donnell’s drama teacher back in the day and he encouraged me to pursue theater.

Elizabeth: Day-to-day, you act in all sorts of things. Do you have a particular kind of theater or particular performance space that really speaks to you?


It seems lame to say that I love doing everything, but there is truth in that. I love doing comedies, but I’m always looking to find out where the seriousness and the dark notes are. When I’m working on something more dramatic, I try to find the humor. I love both.

My favorite plays are All My Sons and Hamlet. And they are heavy, heavy plays. But when I was asked to play Hamlet, it was because the director thought that the character had a strong strain of humor. She thought that Hamlet needed to be comedic.

Elizabeth: Dork Knight is meant to be an autobiographical one-man-show. What gave you the idea that something like that would work?

Jason: It’s funny because I teach stand-up comedy and I’ve always told my students to use themselves, to explore personal things in their act, but it was something I’d never really done myself. My comedy was much more generic. I just wanted to talk about current events and pop culture.

When I first started to create a solo piece for myself, I was thinking it would go the way of my stand-up. I thought it would be impersonal, a showcase for some impressions – just something that would be fun for me and which could be a calling card.

I went to see a show called The One-Man Star Wars Trilogy in 2005. It made me start thinking about my relationship with the Batman movies. I thought my love for those films could form the basis of a show. But the idea sort of just rumbled around in my head for a few years.

I  told a writer friend about the idea and he was very encouraging. But he told me that what he was most interested in seeing was a piece about ME. He was interested in learning more about a guy that thought doing a show about the Batman movies was a good idea! It started to get very interesting from there. When people get obsessed with anything fictional, it’s usually tied to something really personal for them. And I had fun figuring out how to reconcile the autobiographical elements of the show, and somehow have it also be a piece about those movies.

Elizabeth: Is there a message that you want to leave audiences with after seeing the show?

Jason: What I’ve found is that there are a lot of people who see this show who have never seen a Batman movie, but they don’t care.

For them, it’s my personal story that resonates. Most people have something – sometimes it’s Batman, but usually it’s something else – something that they have been obsessed with, but which they have been made to feel embarrassed about. Something that they should have outgrown, something they’ve been told they’re too old for. Something which has helped them through bad times.

We all connect with things that don’t “matter” but which illuminate other things for us in our lives. And I want people to know that it’s okay. I don’t care that I’m 40 years old and still love Batman. If something inspires you in a positive way, then there is nothing to be embarrassed about. We like to think that those types of inspiration should all be great art like Shakespeare – not a comic book – but it’s all valid.

Elizabeth: Anything else you’d like people to know before they come see your show?

Jason: I love Little Rock, and I’ve worked for Arkansas Rep several times. I have many friends there. When I was doing Clybourne Park (the last time I was at the Rep), I wanted to share my show, The Dork Knight, with the company there. That’s when Bob Hupp saw it, along with some other people in the community who had heard about it and who came because the subject matter appealed to them. It was such a nice audience, and so inspiring for me. These little one-off performances that I do in different cities are sometimes more satisfying to me than an Off-Broadway run.

Being a bit of a nerd myself, I think Jason’s show sounds like a lot of fun! And I know I can’t wait to see “The Dork Knight” when it comes to ACANSA this fall. I think it will be a truly unique, fun theatre experience.

ACANSA Arts Festival will host The Dork Knight at the REP’s Black Box on September 17th and 18th at 9pm.

Purchase Your Tickets today!  General admission is $20.00

Learn more about ACANSA Arts Festival coming to Central Arkansas September 16-20, 2015.  Subscribe to the ACANSA Email Newsletter to be the first to see the reveal of the full festival line up!

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