Art works at ARTS FIRST

April 28th, 2015 No comments

During ARTS FIRST weekend April 30-May 3, Harvard’s campus will be transformed into a theater of artistic activity. Wherever you go, you can view art galleries and exhibitions, you can watch live theater outdoors, and you can even see some of your favorite professors in ballet shoes. One of the most exciting things about ARTS FIRST weekend is the abundance of new works of art created and composed by Harvard students themselves. I spoke with four of the student artists whose work will premiere this ARTS FIRST weekend about the inspiration behind each of their works, what they learned throughout the creative process, and what they hope audiences will take away from each experience.

Mallika Snyder ’17, King of the Catwalk, an original children’s musical

The Harvard Story Time Players

The Harvard Story-Time Players

King of the Catwalk is a musical written by the Harvard Story-Time Players, the only organization at Harvard to bring story theater to children in hospitals and community service organizations. Our greatest inspiration as a creative team is the remarkable optimism and courage that greets us every time we perform, and it is our hope that our shows, which blend zany comedy with discussions of deeply relevant social issues, will continue to bring joy to the audiences we serve. Working on this musical has taught us all a great deal, not only about how to create interactive children’s theater, but also how important a role theater can have in making people smile and think about important questions in their lives. King of the Catwalk is the heartwarming story of a dog who dreams of participating in an exclusive cats-only tradition, the Catwalk, and who teams up with his personal trainer, a mouse, to stand up to the mostly unfriendly cats who control the Catwalk and chase his dream. This theme of striving to achieve your dreams despite social exclusion is extremely relevant to all audiences, and we hope to leave our ARTS FIRST audience entertained and inspired. Story-Time performances also tend to be very interactive, and we’re really excited about performing in the Yard, which is a perfect venue for the kind of theater we do.

King of the Catwalk takes place 2 p.m. Saturday May 2 in front of Memorial Church in Tercentenary Theatre, Harvard Yard. 


Sam Wu ’17, Tree of Life, a musical and visual art composition

Sam Wu '17

Sam Wu ’17

I was a visual artist before I got into music. I have always wanted to collaborate with a visual artist, particularly because audience members have commented to me about the imagery they see when they listen to my works. My first piece about the visual arts is inspired by the sounds of ink pens, charcoal and paintbrushes in action – triptych, for cello obliggato and strings ensemble premiered by the Brattle Street Chamber Players last fall. Tree of Life is my second piece inspired by the visual arts. I hope audience members will see the theatricality and beauty in the act of painting on a silk canvas, as well as hear the music as a part of the tree that is being painted. I have learnt that when I am fortunate enough to work with an incredible musician, she can put interpretive and even improvisatory touches on my work that I never could have imagined. Our pianist, Chuhan Zhang (Yale ’18), is truly amazing. She got into the final rounds of the 2015 International Chopin Competition. So Tree of Life reaffirms for me that the creative process is never over when I convert my Sibelius file to a PDF – it continues
each time the piece is rehearsed and performed.

Tree of Life will take place 1, 3 and 4:30 p.m. Saturday May 2 in front of Memorial Church in Tercentenary Theatre in Harvard Yard. Read more about the project. 

Maria Jaakkola GSD Loeb Fellow, (Dis)connected, impressions inspired by Jean Sibelius

Maria Jaakkola GSD Loeb Fellow

Maria Jaakkola, GSD Loeb Fellow

(Dis)connected started with the notion that the great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius was born 150 years ago this year. He was synesthetic, hearing colors. Sibelius’s music strikes a chord in my soul, reviving the connection to my roots in Finnish landscape. And landscape for me is both an inspiration and a livelihood. Music and art came together in his life, and they do in mine, too.

My year a Loeb Fellow at the Harvard Design School has been divided between studying landscapes and cities to nurture my professional self, and continuing to explore visual and performing arts to do the same for my personal one. The year is, in a way, about reconciling life so far and life ahead – and above all about discovering new worlds. This event is about celebrating that. The piece will be a celebration of color, synergies, serendipities and a desire to connect with surroundings, people and emotions. The opening seeks to be a comprehensive art event celebrating all aspects of the (dis)connect theme. By connect and disconnect, we are reborn and rediscovered in new
circumstances. Like the students at Harvard who come here to pursue their dreams and to transform, become and emerge. I have long explored and experienced places by making watercolor sketches on site. Places inspire me, and you always learn about them when you stop to listen to their silent stories. This time they will act as a medium to connect disconnected things. New methods, art forms and collaborations have come into play. And I seem to re-learn the challenge and reward of coordinating, connecting and exposing along with every exhibit.

(Dis)connected will take place 11:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Saturday May 2 at Dudley House Dining Room in Lehman Hall, Harvard Yard.

Miriam Huettner ’16, Movement in the Museum, a dance piece inspired by Harvard Art Museums’ Calderwood Courtyard.

Miriam Huettner '16

Miriam Huettner ’16

I was inspired to work on this piece by the architecture of the Harvard Art Museums. The regal, ancient Roman-seeming walls of the first and second floor contrast with the modern glass and open space of the upper levels. I like the idea that new art is always being built on top of the old, and the idea of art being constructed at different times by people with different ideas parallels the goal of this collaborative project with composer Sam Wu. I’m also always looking for new spaces and ways of using space for dance, and the possibilities of open second level excite me. I hope the audience will take away a sense of fusion and harmony between different art forms. I create on the basis that, though the art forms can appear vastly different at times, they spring from the same source and desire of human expression. In that sense, they are one and the same.

Movement in the Museum will take place 3 p.m. Saturday May 2 in the Harvard Art Museums’ Calderwood Courtyard. 

For more information about ARTS FIRST, Harvard’s annual public celebration of student and faculty creativity (April 30-May 3) visit: ARTS FIRST is produced by the Office for the Arts at Harvard

The broad focus of Damian Woetzel

April 27th, 2015 No comments
Damian Woetzel MPA '07 (Photo courtesy @YoYo_Ma)

Damian Woetzel MPA ’07 (Photo courtesy @YoYo_Ma)

When Damian Woetzel MPA ’07 and I spoke last week, he had just come from spending a day teaching dance with cellist Yo-Yo Ma ’76 and a group of 2nd-5th graders in an elementary school in Washington, D.C. “It’s a challenge of a different sort from when you are producing for the stage,” Woetzel said. “I know how much I get out of it as an artist — working in elementary schools. It’s almost a dirty secret: The artists who get to do this work really are getting to do it because it is so valuable to their craft.” For his long career as a dancer at the New York City Ballet and for embracing education as a vital component of a sustainable arts industry through his work at The Aspen Institute and on President Obama’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, Woetzel will receive the 2015 Harvard Arts Medal at a ticketed ceremony 4 p.m., Thursday April 30 at Farkas Hall. The celebration, which includes actor John Lithgow interviewing Woetzel, as well as a medal ceremony with Harvard President Drew Faust, is part of ARTS FIRST, Harvard’s four-day festival of the arts and one of the largest student arts festivals in the nation. The medal ceremony and 150+ arts events through May 3 are free and open to the public. Excerpts from my conversation with Woetzel follow.

What drew you to arts education?
I recognized early on in my own life that I was gaining tremendous advantages by having the experience that I was lucky enough to be given as a child who had everything from music lessons to performing in Read more…

“Deep Wounds”: War as metaphor

April 24th, 2015 No comments
Artist Brian Knep

Artist Brian Knep

Brian Knep is a craftsman, and his tool is technology. His large-scale, interactive installation Deep Wounds was first commissioned and presented by the Office for the Arts at Harvard in 2006. The site-specific piece uses Harvard’s landmark Memorial Hall to explore unfinished healing and reconciliation via the U.S. Civil War. In April, Deep Wounds has returned to Memorial Hall as part of the Harvard Civil War Project commemorating this year’s 150th anniversary of the war’s conclusion, continuing the conversations about conflict, loss, and healing. Coinciding with the Harvard ARTS FIRST festival, Deep Wounds is open to the public Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. and Saturday-Sunday, 12-6 p.m., through May 7. I spoke with Knep about the inspiration behind Deep Wounds, the enduring effects of the Civil War on our modern culture, and how metaphors of the Civil War can help us navigate conflict and reconciliation in our own lives. An edited version of our conversation follows.

You have bounced around several industries throughout the years. How has your artwork been influenced by your various experiences in technology as well as other crafts?
I worked in computer science and computer graphics research when I was at school, where I did mathematics as well, and then I worked in the special effects industry for a while, working with George Lucas’s company. After that, I took a break and did some pottery for a while. Then I worked with a design firm where we were doing high-end design for tech companies and also for children’s museums and science museums. And then I started making art, so that’s kind of my trajectory. When you think about the work I do, the technology is a craft, so what has really changed over time is how I’ve applied that craft. So in the same way that someone who works with clay can make functional ware or can make sculpture, in a way I do the same. I’m programming mathematical stuff to work on either these sort of more high-tech exhibits and software textiles, or on art stuff. Read more…

ART FIRST: Ask the experts

April 20th, 2015 No comments


If you’re a first-time visitor to ARTS FIRST – one of the largest university arts festivals in the country – the huge amount of activities to see, hear and do can be daunting. A Neil Simon comedy or a romantic drama by playwright/filmmaker James Toback ’66? Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture played with kazoos, cannons and bells, or a Balinese gamelan recital with shadow puppets? Public art in Harvard Yard, art made from recycled materials at Adams House, or a photography exhibit at Quincy House? And what about all those a cappella groups? Fear not. We’ve asked several staff members at the Office for the Arts (co-presenter of the festival with Harvard’s Board of Overseers) for their recommendations. Having spent many months planning this year’s festival, these experts know the who’s-who and the what’s-what, whether it’s music, theater, dance, film/video, multidisciplinary or visual arts.

Actor John Lithgow '67, host of the Harvard Arts Medal ceremony.

Actor John Lithgow ’67, host of the Harvard Arts Medal ceremony.

Jack Megan, Director, Office for the Arts; Producer, ARTS FIRST
“I’m looking forward to the Harvard Arts Medal ceremony honoring Damian Woetzel [MPA ’07] – host John Lithgow, class of ’67, always moderates a terrific conversation with the honoree. On Friday night, there is ‘Jazz on the Plaza’ with the great, downright exuberant Don Braden, class of ’85, conducting the Harvard Jazz Band, and a performance by the Music Department’s Professor Vijay Iyer. I also look forward to enjoying my morning coffee on the Plaza on Saturday while listening to cellist Sasha Scolnik-Brower [class of ’17] perform Dvořák with the Harvard Radcliffe Orchestra; the incomparable soloists – Deans Rakesh Khurana and Tom Dingman, with Professors Diana Eck and Steven Pinker – performing in a very tongue-in-cheek ballet Swan Lake: For the Birds! (with apologies to Mr. Tchaikovsky); the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum, Boston Children’s Chorus and Harvard Dance Project performing a Civil War-inspired concert, Battle Hymns, at Sanders Theatre; Samuel Beckett’s Endgame at the Loeb Ex; and much more if I can fit it in!”

Raymond Traietti, Assistant Director, Memorial Hall; Building Manager, Farkas Hall
“ARTS FIRST turns our beautiful campus into a stage and is a great way to experience Harvard’s architecture: Get a map, make a plan and use the ARTS FIRST guide to discover what you are hearing.  At Saturday’s Performance Fair, my map would be something like this: Sunken Garden at Radcliffe Yard, noon; the Cambridge Queen’s Head Pub at 1 p.m.; Holden Chapel at 2 p.m.; the Calderwood Courtyard at the newly renovated Fogg Museum at 3 p.m.; and Adolphus Busch Hall at 4:30. The Read more…

Sarah Benson: “Embrace the limits”

April 20th, 2015 No comments
"An Octoroon" Photo: Pavel Antonov

“An Octoroon” Photo: Pavel Antonov

As the artistic director of Soho Repertory Theatre in the TriBeCa district of New York City, Sarah Benson has built a long career out of tearing down walls. In 2008, Benson brought Sarah Kane‘s explosive play, Blastedto the U.S. In her most recent endeavor, the acclaimed hit An Octoroon, walls come down between the audience and the actor, between the present and the past, and, in a stunning theatrical coup de grâce, right down onto the stage. In 2011, Benson directed Ajax at American Repertory Theater at Harvard, and visited campus again on April 13 with colleague Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, the award-winning playwright of An Octoroon, to discuss her journey from student to Soho as a part of the annual Spencer Lecture on Drama Series. Bloggers Olivia Munk ’16 and Jake Stepansky ’17 sat down with Benson to talk theater. An edited version of the conversation follows.

How did you decide to go into an MFA program?
I was really looking for a way to get to do hands-on work with actors week-in, week out, and to delve into the relationship between the director and the actor. When I met with Tom Bullard, the head of Brooklyn College‘s program, I thought, this is perfect. I feel like he is so intuitive, in terms of how to work with actors, and has so many insights about that relationship, that that was really kind of exciting for me. I think it was that, it felt like the next step for me. I didn’t really plan to make a life here. It just worked out for me. There wasn’t really a grand plan at all.

Sarah Benson

Sarah Benson

Did it change your perspective on what you wanted to work on in theater?
What it did was really educate me on how to create an event with actors, and I found it applied to whatever the material was, which was really inspiring. I guess it reaffirmed my interest in new work. I had also done some classics, so it was a point where I was like, this is really exciting to get to work with some new material.

As students who want to pursue theater, what or who should we be reading?
I read so much, and I didn’t study theater at university, I did English Lit. So I kind of flailed around. I look back on that flailing around and think, that’s amazing. I discovered weird history sourcebooks, so I would just work my way through. I read a lot of theater from all around the world. I was really interested in theater anthropology. I read a ton of plays, everything from Greek drama, Indian drama. The great thing about doing English lit for me was that I knew Old Read more…

Dancing for two

April 16th, 2015 No comments
Julia Cataldo and Ayshe Upchurch Photo: Liz Voll

Julia Cataldo ’15 and Ayshe Upchurch GSE ’15 Photo: Liz Voll

The Dance Center is, without a doubt, one of my favorite spaces on campus. Settled on a slight hill past the Quad on Garden Street, its low spinning tables dotted with copies of the New Yorker and its modern design make me feel immediately at home.  It is this feeling that made me slightly jealous of the students performing in the Dance Program’s spring show, Duetti, as I watched the show this past Friday—the rigor and precision of the performances made me think of how many hours they must have spent in this space, enveloped by the warm feeling this space exudes, during long stretches of rehearsal.

Given the feeling of home and companionship at the center, Duetti‘s major theme is that of duets and partner dancing. The performances, however, are not limited to two people on stage—many of the acts have three or more dancers, though the choreography often engages two dancers with each other at one particular moment, and then the partners switch. The pieces in the show are curated from both original work created from classes in the Dance Program, as well as re-stagings of works that have been previously performed.

From the top of the show, the choreography complicated and expanded upon the theme of partnership. The first piece, “A Reconfigured Dream,” performed by Aru Gonzalez GSE ’15 and Maya Park ’16, began with Gonzalez pulling himself to the right across the stage, only to finally be met by Park as she emerged from behind a scrim. The second performance, the world premiere of “Shadowed,” choreographed by visiting choreographer Brian Brooks, featured four women in blue collared dresses, accompanied by a powerful cello recording, composed by Hildur Gudnadottir. A third piece, “2 For 3 By 6: A Cubist Fugue,” featured three student dancers who, according to the program, created the piece out of a semester’s worth of research into the history of dance and musicality. The pieces focused on themes of repetition and used the space provided by the wide stage well. Read more…

George Coleman: “Think music at all times.”

April 16th, 2015 No comments

George Coleman and I only have 15 minutes to talk. I’m initially worried—how does one extract over half a century’s worth of jazz and wisdom from a conversation that’s shorter than most power naps?—but the self-taught saxophonist speaks with a gentle drawl that’s somehow calming and invigorating at the same time. In anticipation of Coleman’s and Harold Mabern’s public conversation on Friday, April 17 and a concert with Harvard Jazz Band on Saturday, April 18, we discussed lessons learned and advice given. Below is an edited excerpt of our conversation.

Composer/saxophonist George Coleman

Composer/saxophonist George Coleman

What’s the single most important musical lesson you’ve learned during your career?
I’ve learned to be tolerant, and I’ve learned to be generous. I’m 80 years old now, and I don’t want to be harboring any animosity. And that helps me with teaching and expression, especially with students from all over the world. I feel like whenever I get on the stand and people respond and have a good time listening to the music, it has a positive effect on me and reminds me to keep giving. Every time I tell myself I’m going to stop or retire, I see people when they come in from different areas of the world, and they ask me, “Can I have an autograph?” These things are good for me, remind me of my purpose.

Name a few mentors who really helped you shape your “hard bop” style.
Most of the people who helped me during the beginning of my career are back in Memphis. I was 17 when I first picked up the horn, and I had people there who gave me as much information about jazz and music as I could’ve obtained studying formally at an institution, which I never did. All my stuff I got through others who came from all walks of life, from different eras – some of them were older, some of them were people who had a much more modern approach. Ray Charles came to the city one time in Memphis, and needed some arrangements for his songs which I had been listening to; jukeboxes they used to call them. You’ve probably never even heard of a jukebox, but you’d put a nickel in and you’d be able to listen to whatever you wanted. And I listened to Louie Jordan, B.B. King, Elvis Presley, Charlie Parker, Dizzy [Gillespie] all the time.

Do you have any advice for aspiring jazz artists who are students now or tips that would have helped you when you were just starting out?
The thing is, when it comes to this music of jazz, it’s just a lot of hard work and practice. So that’s what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to have a little bit of talent – or maybe a lot of talent – but you have to cultivate that talent, whatever instrument you’re playing. Be thinking about it all the time, whether you’re riding the subway or watching a movie and listening to the music. Say, “Oh wow, that was a diminished chord, or, that was a dominant seventh.” All these little elements that seem trivial tend to help you. Think music at all times.

What do you hope that Harvard students are getting from your residency with the jazz program at Harvard?
Well, I don’t know. It’s like jazz: We’ll just have to see. Whatever they’re interested in. I’ll try to give them as much insight as I possibly can. A lot can be accomplished in a short time.

A public conversation with George Coleman and Harold Mabern, moderated by Harvard professor Ingrid Monson, will be held 4 p.m. Friday, April 17  at the Barker Center’s Thompson Room. Admission is free and open to the public. Coleman and Mabern, hosted by WGBH journalist and Memphis native Callie Crossley, will perform with the Harvard Jazz Band in Memphis Jazz Giants, 8 p.m. Saturday, April 18 at Sanders Theater. Tickets for the performance are $15 general admission/$8 students and seniors, available at the Harvard Box Office. 

Mark Mauriello ’15 and the show that dare not be tamed

April 13th, 2015 No comments
Mark Mauriello '15 and cast members from OSCAR

Mark Mauriello ’15 and cast members from “OSCAR”

Mark Mauriello ’15 is a natural performer. During the last minutes of our brief interview, he leaps up from his chair to tell a story, pointing and gesticulating with his whole body. But Mauriello’s new project, OSCAR at The Crown and the love that dare not speak its name, has required him to use much more than his talent as an actor. Mauriello is directing, writing and starring in the 90-minute musical theater experience, which runs April 15-17 at A.R.T.’s Club OBERON. I spoke with him about the gargantuan challenge of making an original work from the ground up and about his thoughts on the future of co-curricular theater at Harvard. An edited version of our conversation follows.

What is OSCAR?

OSCAR is an original theater piece inspired by the life and works of Oscar Wilde. It has original music by Andrew Barrett Cox, and has been created by myself along with our cast, which is made up of students from Harvard, Emerson, Boston Conservatory and Salem State. The show begins flashy and extravagant and fun and sexy, and we have Oscar at the absolute pinnacle of his success and fame, and also his control over his world. However, over the course of the evening, the world and life and persona and image that he’s created for himself – he begins to lose control of it, it begins to deteriorate and fracture, and as that happens, this glamorous and beautiful and exciting and experiential theatrical world so to begins to break apart and disintegrate.

What has been the biggest challenge of working on this show?
The biggest challenge has been building it from scratch. It was not a process of “I sat down and wrote a play and then we staged the play,” just because I like to work with people. I’m a very collaborative worker, and I like to experiment and try stuff and see what happens. I did a lot of preparation and thought about the arc and specific moments with plans, and others not. Since the end of January, we’ve built this show as a team, with the full directing and creative staff, Andrew our composer, and with the cast as well, and are continuing to make it. It’s not a short rehearsal process, but it’s a lot, a lot, a lot of work packed in there, so that’s been challenging.  Read more…

Ronald K. Brown: Listen to the 6 year old

April 13th, 2015 No comments

At age 19, students often find themselves in a transition—it’s hard to feel like anything we do or create right now will last a year, let alone 30. However, that’s not the case for choreographer Ronald K. Brown, whose dance company Evidence, started in 1985 when he was just 19 years old, is still going strong 30 years later. Brown has had a wildly successful and diverse dance career, from creating his own company, to choreographing for the Alvin Ailey company, to teaching at colleges across the country, to choreographing the most recent revival of Porgy and BessLast Saturday, Brown conducted a masterclass with dancers at the college. I spoke with him prior to his visit about being afraid to take dance classes, the evolution of his company and his technique, and how to work with actors who are not necessarily dancers.

How did you get involved in dance as a student?
The story I always tell is that I was the little boy who was afraid to take dance classes. My mom took me to a dance class when I was maybe 8 years old. I said, “Mom, there’s 80 girls,” which of course there weren’t, but as a little boy you feel like that. I was always dancing around the house, so she kept trying to get me into a performing arts high school. They’d already let in the number of kids in from my district, so instead, she was going to take me to a dance audition for the Dancers of Harlem when I was 12 years old. But, when we got to the door of our apartment, she went into labor with my little brother, so I thought, “Forget the dance thing, I’ll be a writer!” So I studied creative writing at my junior high school. I worked on the yearbook, and I ended up getting into the High School for Communications Arts, at Edward R. Murrow. I decided I was going to be a journalist. Well, I really thought I was going to be a playwright, but this was going to be my kind of avenue into writing. I got a scholarship to a small school in Vermont called St. Michael’s College. I graduated a year early from high school, and decided I’d dance Read more…

Bearing witness: A Civil War concert

Memorial Hall

Memorial Hall

A Measure in Devotion: Bearing Witness to the Civil War, presented by the Harvard Glee Club and Radcliffe Choral Society, is unlike any concert the two choral groups have ever done before. As a part of the Harvard Civil War Project, the choruses will blend music, text, architecture and visual art in a performance honoring the legacy of the Civil War and Harvard’s place within it. The concert takes place 8 p.m. Saturday, April 4 in Sanders Theatre. I spoke with Andrew Clark, the director of the Harvard Glee Club, about building the program from the ground up, working interdisciplinarily and breaking new creative ground. An edited version of our conversation follows.

What are we going to be hearing tonight?
The first part of the program is an homage to Robert Gould Shaw, the Harvard student who fought in the Civil War and went on to be the leader of the first infantry of African American soldiers; he lost his life at Fort Wagner in North Carolina. [His story was brought back into the public consciousness in the movie Glory.] We’re not only reading some letters that he wrote to his family, but also reading some of the remembrances and eulogies from his troops after his death as a way of trying to touch upon this theme of loss and grief and tragedy.

The second part of the concert begins with some readings and music that are centered around Martin Delaney, a brilliant African American writer, physician, activist and publisher who came to Harvard to study medicine but was asked to leave because a petition from the students about his race. We’re going to be reading the petition as a part of this concert, and it’s going to be followed by a J.S. Bach aria from the St. John Passion. We’re creating a Passion genre, showing the suffering of the time, and trying to reflect on these persistent questions in our society today left in the wake of the war – where we have healed, and where we still have work to do, and how do we continue to build a more perfect union and bind together the nation’s wounds as President Lincoln urged us to. So certainly that’s a wound in Harvard’s history.

We’re going to end the concert with American spirituals, which are, in my view, one of, if not the first, types of indigenous American music, and as singers we’re not unfamiliar with spirituals. Choirs of all types sing these pieces, often in a rousing concert closer. We appropriate them for their visceral and emotional purpose. But the truth is spirituals also serve an incredibly subversive purpose. They were signal songs, and used in code. The third individual that we’ll be highlighting, Harriet Tubman, was of course one of the great heroes of the Underground Railroad, and spirituals were used there to organize and excite, to say nothing of how they were modes of expression for conditions completely incomprehensible to all of us.

How did the idea for this project come about?
Over the last year-and-a-half we’ve been developing some ideas around the campus-wide and nationwide commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the end of the American Civil War. It’s been an invigorating process to be able to connect with other artists at Harvard and beyond who are working on Read more…