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Saturday, August 24, 2013

Creative Collaboration in a Supportive Community - Arcosanti

I generally embrace the unknown, but have found myself less embracing of the unknown in business as customers and products/services take root. However, the opportunity presented itself to bring Italian theater and opera into modern relevance in the 21st century for a fundraising dinner and show at Arcosanti, an urban laboratory focused on innovative design, community and environmental accountability. Albeit more of a creative outlet than work, I still found this creative process to stretch my boundaries and challenge me to new limits.

Arcosanti has always been known to Arizona residents as a "turn off the highway up north" or as a "community of artists and architects who make brass bells and live together". I have always known it as a place I would like to visit sometime to see a performing arts show, and here I am given the opportunity to perform! What a blessing!

The Arcosanti website defines it as: "an urban laboratory focused on innovative design, community and environmental accountability. Now I know it as a "laboratory for improving the human condition".

Designed by Paolo Soleri(1919-2013) and constructed by some 7,000 volunteers since 1970, Arcosanti is a living, breathing experiment in humans living, working, creating and playing in harmony with nature and one another (termed Arcology). Currently some 70-100 people reside on the property that has only been developed to 2% of it's overall vision.

The request to participate came quite unexpectedly from Dr. Lynne Haessler http://www.lhpiano.com/, a collaborative artist with mastery level skills in classical piano. The request was simple enough, work as visual artist in collaboration with her and Sopranist, Jayne Casselman as well as a few guest musicians and choir to display visual elements that would bring classical piano and opera into modern relevance. A few meetings, an Arcosanti visit or two and a couple weeks of pre-production led to a plan for slow moving, textures and elements to enhance the music presentation without distracting or "upstaging" the performers while still enhancing the stage presentation.

On-site residence at Arcosanti
What an amazing place with truly amazing people! I immediately felt welcome by the staff and residents and stayed just 4 nights compared to others who stayed 5 or more nights. Most of the performances and events that take place at Arcosanti involve a residency of some sort. Staying in the dorms (or if you are the star performer - the Sky Suite). Given that the property is an experiment in environmental accountability, the living quarters are basic and elemental, without air conditioning which in the dead heat of the summer would be an issue for most tourists wanting to duff around and watch TV(which is not available). This was not an issue however, given the opportunity to meet so many interesting people, students and artists. I found myself engaging in complex conversations and of course spending much time preparing for the performance and at times, simply breathing deeply and appreciating the surrounding beauty.

Creatively, Arcosanti is a retreat like experience with a sense of direct integration with the elements. I slept by open windows, staring at the stars at night and seeing the clouds and canyon walls as soon as I awoke. Sunrises and sunsets were appreciated like a news headline around the breakfast and dinner tables. This helped to make any performance anxiety or creative differences melt away in the process of preparation.

Collaboration as a learning experience
Working together with artists you have just met is a challenge and a blessing. You don't know people's hot buttons, control points or creative capacity. This made for interesting dynamics that molded and shaped the production throughout the week. Having produced video sequences in advance, meant that I had to remain flexible in acceptance, rejection or the desire to change my contributions according to the changes of the program. Fortunately, I had both the technology available as well as the right attitude to adapt. That isn't to say I didn't have a hard time accepting the rejection of one of my favorite pieces.

Improvisation as a method
Ultimately the "lab" environment at Arcosanti makes for a great place to experiment with new forms, methods or material. I felt very free to take risks and expand my creative capacity. I also felt free to fail, which helped aide me in my process. My attempt at live projection mapping on Lynn failed during tech rehearsal. I was confident in my attempt to pull the sequence from the show with the knowledge that I had the "space" to attempt it in the first place and was given the amazing opportunity to learn.

As is often the case with great artistic endeavors, some of the best moments were by accident. After several days of worry and uncertainty as to what my 2 improv segments were going to look like, they culminated into two wonderful sequences that I will hold in my heart forever. One being a puppetry sequence with masks peering over and around one another during an improvised percussion performance by Owen Davis. The other segment being a live graphic paint sequence with Lynn Haesseler - piano and Owen Davis - percussion improvising off of one another.

It was Owen that taught me the ability to prepare for your improvisation. Funny how this always seemed counterintuitive to me. Improvisation by its definition seems to imply that the process and result is completely foreign to you. However, in the context of a live performance with audience, I can now see where a little preparation goes a long way. Developing a framework in which to "play in" is still liberating while establishing a method for bridging between the known to the unknown and back again without nosediving.

The Future
We all returned to the city and our routines and found ourselves overflowing with creativity. Our buckets were full and we were ready to throw paint! Lynne and I immediately returned to Arcosanti for more photography and I have returned yet again to gather some video footage for a short "Arsocanti as Instrument" video. The ultimate realization in the experience was that Arcosanti is in great need of help! Their leadership and staff is very strong, but their resources and local community is small and possibly easily forgotten once visitors return back to the city. So naturally, we headed back up and provided a day of volunteer service to assist in building a database of supporters.

I encourage you to take an afternoon, visit Arcosanti in the morning, take a tour and attempt to get your head around what society could look like if we put more thought into our resources before building or sprawling further. Although the big picture might be a lot to take in, you will certainly get a glimpse of a beautiful option. I am so thankful to have experienced what creativity would look like!

Thank you Arcosanti, Jeff Stein, Kate and Travis, Lynne Haesseler, Jane Casselman, Scott Pfister, Owen Davis and Chris Ewbank and of course Paolo Soleri!

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