Nurturing Artists and Audiences, Alike

Blessed Unrest, now in our 20th year, is a subversive physical theater ensemble that transforms new and classic plays into channels for unexpected alchemy, energetic discomfort, and complex articulation.  Through a dedicated and diverse ensemble, international collaborations, and a rigorous training and devising process, we are fueled by the innate human desire to collaborate, the thrill of the impossible challenge, and the instinctual need to rebel.

We are an unusual organization in that we are a large company of creators who have been working, training, and honing our crafts together for anywhere between two and 20 years.  This allows us to go deeper every time we engage with the work.  It allows us to play hard.

We believe that complex, smart, physically driven theatre with strong narratives and a sense of humor can move and inspire a wide audience, and ours includes both fans of the avant garde and mainstream theatergoers.  The diversity of our ensemble broadens the scope of our work and attracts diverse audiences.

Blessed Unrest is honored to have been funded by the Ruth and Hal Launders Charitable Trust since 2018.  Particularly in the wake of the past two years, their contribution has helped to assuage the uncertainty of not only how to survive, but of how to continue making vital work as an arts organization.   

COMPASSION THROUGH LIVE PERFORMANCE

Throughout the course of the pandemic, while live theatre was on respite Blessed Unrest continued to make work safely, recognizing the increased need for community and the presence of art in our lives.  We developed a process of prerecording all elements of sound involved in a production in order to eliminate the dangers of live speaking and vocal projection.  A rich tapestry of music and pre-recorded speech was developed to create soundtracks with which movement was interwoven.

TOUCH performers at Madison Square Park. Photo by Maria Baranova.

Working both remotely, and outside in masks, TOUCH was born, a pandemic meditation on skin-hunger and longing to connect.  Inspired by our growing understanding of the function of mirror neurons and driven by the need to provide a refuge from the isolation and fear, the piece invited audiences to partake in the warmth of creative intimacy, with the safety of distance.  The research on mirror neurons and the emotional brain suggests that a witnessing of the authentic corporeal experiences of others can stimulate the very same visceral response in our own brains, as though the experience were ours.  It’s a forging of literal compassion through neural growth.  TOUCH was performed outdoors in Madison Square Park as part of the NYC Open Culture Program. The success of TOUCH led to the creation of a very different piece of theatre, but developed in a similar way.  Commissioned by The Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival, we took on Williams’ very first full-length play, Battle of Angels.  When it opened for a brief run in Boston in 1940, Battle of Angels was referred to as, “Indecent and improper…lascivious and immoral,” “Low and common,” and, “Putrid.”  Dramaturgy surrounding the play suggests that Williams intended to cast a black man in the lead role but that the idea was rejected by his producers.  That is how Blessed Unrest chose to present it, turning an otherwise innocuous story into a racially-charged illustration of the bigotry of the American south.  Battle of Angels opened at the New Ohio Theatre in New York City and went on the headline at The Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival in MA.

A scene from Battle of Angels. Photo by Maria Baranova.

CREATIVE EQUITY

Blessed Unrest’s latest undertaking, The Untitled Othello Project (untitledothello.com), is an exercise in creative justice that pays a living wage to all artists, and employs ensemble-based creative practices to engage in deep and sustained exploration of Shakespeare’s text.  We seek to evolve a script that provides humanity and dimension to the title character, and all of the characters that people this widely produced, but to so many, toxic and re-traumatizing play through a series of residencies at academic institutions.

Our work begins with extreme and in-depth text analysis, and conversation about all that we encounter, particularly in the realms of race and misogyny.  We maintain an open forum for all responses, and engage both students and faculty in the discussions.  With the information that we gather, we’re then cutting, and reordering to build a streamlined version of the story that allows room for the actors to truly express the humanity of the characters, all without actually rewriting Shakespeare’s words.  Next steps for the project include additional ensemble-building, and physical exploration of status and hierarchy in the play through movement work.  Our initial two-week residency at Sacred Heart University was hugely successful, and we’re seeking other collaborators of that caliber with whom to continue this important work.  

Blessed Unrest is honored to be partnering with Keith Hamilton Cobb (American Moor), Midnight Oil Collective (a creator-led arts investment, development and production group), and the Folger Shakespeare Library. 

Participants from The Untitled Othello Project meet in an open forum.

A BRIEF HISTORY

In our 20 years, Blessed Unrest has staged 35 productions (21 world premieres) at New York Theatre Workshop, New Ohio Theatre, PS122, Public Theater, Baruch Performing Arts Center, Interart Theatre, NYU, Columbia, Manhattan School of Music, and Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival. We have toured Western Europe and the Balkans three times with original bilingual (English/Albanian) plays created with Teatri Oda of Kosovo. We have held developmental and production residencies at New Victory Theater, Baruch Performing Arts Center, New Ohio Theatre, IRT, and Interart Theatre, and teach our methods of theatre-making at universities around the country and internationally.

We were honored with a commendation for distinguished leadership from the Kennedy Center ACTF National Awards Committee, First Prize at the 2016 Secondo Theatre Festival (Switzerland), and the 2014 Cino Award for Sustained Excellence from the NY Innovative Theatre Awards, from whom we’ve received five other awards among 17 nominations (including Outstanding Production and Choreography/Movement).  Artistic Director Jessica Burr received the 2011 LPTW Lucille Lortel Award for her work as a director and the body of work we have created under her leadership.



Blog content provided by Jessica Burr. Jessica is the Artistic Director and a founding company member of Blessed Unrest. She has been honored with the 2019 Kennedy Center ACTF Commendation for Distinguished Leadership

Launders Trust Helps Launch Solar Energy Project to Reduce Sexual Assaults Against Women and Girls in Uganda

 Women in this rural African village must transport water.

The Launders Trust has made a gift to the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF) that, in partnership with the Rape Hurts Foundation (RHF), could provide far-reaching benefits to women and girls in rural areas of Sub-Saharan Africa.  Collecting water and fuelwood has traditionally been their responsibility. They are forced to walk long distances to isolated areas, often in the dark.  Their cumbersome cargo slows their pace—putting them at a high risk of sexual assault and its life-altering consequences.

 The women collect water from a local source.

The story of Jane, a 20-year-old woman from Butansi Village in eastern Uganda, illustrates the pain and heartache these women endure.  Her dream of becoming a doctor was over in an instant when she hiked into the bush to collect firewood for her family one evening.  She was raped by three teenage boys.  Left sitting in a pool of blood, she pleaded for help from a man passing by.  Instead of acting compassionately, he also raped her.  Jane’s family blamed her for “enticing” her rapists and losing her bride price. She was vanquished from her home and left penniless, pregnant, and infected with HIV/AIDS.  She must still travel across the same treacherous footpaths to gather fuelwood and water to support her twin children who were conceived as a result of the rape.

 Hellen Tanyinga is shown with children in her village.

Yet, from the scattered ashes of those women’s and girls’ hopes and dreams, there are rays of light.  Hellen Tanyinga is one of them.  After many years, her rapist is still at large.  She explains, “A lot of things run through my mind when I think of the attack, but what heals me is that I was able to start the Rape Hurts Foundation. I choose love instead of hatred, and I have turned my pain into a voice for the voiceless.” 

Hellen reached out to the Solar Electric Light Fund, a Washington, DC-based non-profit that has previously received support from the Launders Trust to assist those living in energy poverty, to help address the problem of rampant sexual violence in rural communities. Together, the two organizations created a pilot program that puts clean drinking water stations illuminated with solar streets lights as well as wood-free, solar cook stoves within their community to vastly reduce the need to leave the security of their villages. The project includes revenue-producing services like a solar grain mill to produce flour, charging stations for cell phones, and a solar refrigerator to set up a cold drink business.  In addition, they will charge a nominal fee for drinking water.  These commercial stations not only assure that there is money to maintain and repair the solar equipment; they also provide work opportunities for the women who are being rehabilitated through the Rape Hurts Foundation.  The project also provides electricity to the women’s safe house and the children’s center run by RHF.  Hellen has about 120 mouths to feed every day!  

If the resulting pilot project data makes a strong case for the concept of centralizing resources within villages, the intent of SELF and RHF is to make this model replicable and scalable for other organizations to adopt—leveraging the Launders Trust gift many times over.

 

Contributed by Karen Allen. Karen is the Development Director for the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF) based in Washington D.C.  Her work at SELF brings her full circle to her early career when she spent time in the bush in Central and South America, where she witnessed first-hand the consequences of energy poverty.

The Ruth and Hal Launders Charitable Trust Expands Its Support of Parks in Fairfax County

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Arrowbrook Centre Dog Park was dedicated in August 2018

The Ruth and Hal Launders Charitable Trust continues to enlarge upon its tradition of supporting parks in Fairfax County, Virginia. Drawing upon its past contributions of Arrowbrook Centre Park and the Arrowbrook Wetland Nature Preserve to the Fairfax County Park Authority in 2010 and 2011, in August 2018 the Trust dedicated the Arrowbrook Centre Dog Park. While not an asset of the Park Authority, the dog park is open to the public and serves residents of Arrowbrook Centre and its environs. The Dog Park is named in memory of the late L. Farnum Johnson, Jr., one of the Trust’s original 7 co-trustees and the first Chairman of its Board of Trustees. Mr. Johnson owned 2 Black Labrador Retrievers, Blackjack and Lucky, who always enjoyed their regular visits to local dog parks. Farnum’s long-held dream of a dog park at Arrowbrook Centre has not been fulfilled.

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Residents of Fairfax County enjoy a concert at Arrowbrook Park.

The Trust also continues as a sponsor and chief benefactor of an annual summer concert series held in Arrowbrook Centre Park on Saturday evenings in July and August. The series commemorates the life of Ruth Launders and her beloved Arrowhead Farm, now the site of the Arrowbrook Centre Park. This series will mark its 8th consecutive year in 2019.

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Margaret Thaxton, Director of Development, Fairfax Co Park Foundation, Jeff Fairfield, Trustee of the RHLCT and Paul Nicholson, Farm Manager, Frying Pan Historical Farm Park stand next to the “No Till” planter.

In addition, the Trust continues to expand on its support of Frying Pan Historical Farm Park, a popular Fairfax County park in Herndon. For many years, through a special agreement between the Trust and the Fairfax County Park Authority, the staff of Frying Pan has harvested hay at Arrowbrook Centre for use in feeding its livestock at Frying Pan Park. Last year, using a grant from the Trust to the Fairfax County Park Foundation, Frying Pan Park purchased a specialized “no-till” planter for its use in planting grass seed at various locations including Arrowbrook Centre.

 

 

Contributed by Jeffrey J. Fairfield. Jeff is a Virginia attorney who has practiced in Herndon, Virginia since 1978. He is also on the Board of Trustees of The Ruth and Hal Launders Charitable Trust.

How Cultural Organizations Can Reach Out to Younger More Diverse Populations Using the Kingston Chamber Music Festival Model

Historically, the Kingston Chamber Music Festival has served two distinct audiences: younger school children through its schools outreach program and middle age to older adults who have patronized the summer festival since its inception. This latter community is dwindling as age takes its toll. The KCMF Board recognizes an immediate need to safeguard the long-range stability of this celebrated organization by intentionally diversifying its audience base.

Thanks to generous support from the Launders Trust, the KCMF Board of Directors is able to address a key element of the current KCMF strategic plan: to attract and serve younger audience members in their thirties and forties who can help define, lead, and support the Kingston Chamber Music Festival over the coming decades.

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As a Board, we are pursuing the following strategies to build a younger audience base:

1. Implementation of focus groups comprised of younger local concertgoers to determine present barriers to KCMF attendance and preferences among the 30-40-somethings for programming;

2. Exploration of opportunities for collaborative programming between the local Contemporary Theatre Company, the Pumphouse Music Works, the Jamestown Arts Center, the South County Art Association, and similar organizations;

3. Booking at least one or two Launders-sponsored, KCMF events in new venues with KCMF-endorsed crossover artists and programming, if findings so indicate;

4. Improvement of the KCMF digital toolkit to enhance social media and web interface for the purpose of strengthening sales, audience outreach and follow-up; and

5. Recruitment of talented younger individuals to the KCMF Board of Directors.

5 kcmf master classThe focus of this targeted Launders funding opportunity is welcome. For the long-term health of the organization, we need to diversify our audience base. A small KCMF sub-committee, including our President and our Managing Director, who is a member of the thirty-something community is presently engaging in deep conversations with contemporary peers to ascertain barriers they perceive in KCMF concert attendance and what would have to change to attract their attendance/participation in the future. Focus group sessions around this topic will be convened in late November, either at the Contemporary Theatre or the Pumphouse Music works.

Additionally, we have booked concert space at the Pumphouse Musicworks for a crossover concert with KCMF artists in late February 2019. Natalie Zhu , Artistic

Director of the KCMF is in the process of confirming musicians for this performance, one who has an international reputation for his crossover endeavors. We anticipate that further programming for this audience will be in response to our findings from the focus groups and questionnaires.

We thank the Launders Trust Board of Directors for its investment in the Kingston Chamber Music Festival, and we look forward to keeping you all updated on our progress.

 

Contributed by Guest Author: Deborah Grossman-Garber. Deborah is an active member of the KCMF Board of Directors, a lifelong devotee of chamber music, and an amateur violist. She retired in 2015 from her post as the State of Rhode Island’s Associate Commissioner for Post-Secondary Education. She formerly served as director of Student Learning Outcomes Assessment at the University of Rhode Island. She earned her graduate degree in Ancient History and Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of California – Berkeley.

Preschool: A Smart Investment

“Look! A squishy worm!” A small child lifts her mud-covered hand to show her teacher the worm she found on the preschool playground. Soon a group of children are gathered around the muddy patch, searching for more worms with spoons and shovels.PSA Mud Hands

Later, after washing up and returning to their classroom, the teachers help the children document what they learned about worms: “They like wet places. Worms live under logs. They make dirt when they poop.” The teachers transcribe the words on a big piece of paper, spelling out the letters as they write. The children are eager to show their parents the document they created together. 

This preschool in Madison, Wisconsin may be hundreds of miles away from the sophisticated financial markets of Wall Street, but a very important and smart investment is gaining value on that muddy playground. High quality early childhood programs, especially those serving low income families, create rate of return at about 13% per annum, based on a study led by James Heckman, Nobel laureate and economics professor at the University of Chicago. According to Heckman, the value of preschool is delivered to society in the form of reduced health care costs, reduced crime, greater earnings, and other benefits as the children grow up and enter the workforce. 

The study, called The Life-Cycle Benefits of an Influential Early Childhood Program, analyzes the effects of two large-scale preschool initiatives: The Carolina Abecedarian Project (ABC) and the Carolina Approach to Responsive Education (CARE). Both projects provided quality early childhood care and education to children from birth to age five. Though these initiatives were implemented in the 1970s, Heckman’s work shows the outcomes are relevant today and suggest that the best public policy solutions, such as the funding of early childhood programs, address a combination of issues — such as education, health, and crime – in a coordinated and blended fashion. 

The Importance of Empathy in the Classroom 

In a recent interview with National Public Radio, Heckman described the study’s findings and spoke about the key elements of quality early childhood education. Hiring good teachers is a significant challenge, but defining good teaching can be even harder. Heckman comments, “There have been a lot of studies, serious studies, that show that many of these so-called guides to what makes a good teacher — in terms of things like number of degrees or number of teacher credits and on and on and on — are really worthless in terms of predicting who’s a good teacher. What is important is finding this empathy, this ability to work with people, the engagement.” Heckman goes on the describe empathy as the ability to engage with a child in a conversation that challenges children to ask questions and think deeply. 

Finding an early childhood program where teachers engage with children in meaningful conversations can be difficult, especially in low-income communities. One model that emphasizes this type of child-centered curriculum is the Reggio Emilia approach, named for the Italian city where the model was developed more than 50 years ago. Schools that practice a Reggio Emilia approach do not use a pre-written curriculum – the activities and lessons are developed through a collaboration between children, teachers, and families. If the children demonstrate an interest in a topic, such as worms, the teachers facilitate the development of a learning project that may last for weeks or even months. In the example of the worm study, children learn vocabulary and literacy skills as they ask questions about worms and write down their ideas and observations. They also learn early math skills when they measure and count the worms, in addition to the many science concepts covered during their outdoor explorations. 

An Arts Integration Approach 

The muddy playground described earlier is part of a unique early childhood program called Preschool of the Arts (PSA) in Madison, Wisconsin. PSA serves 200 children, starting as young as 18 months old. The importance of empathic, responsive teaching, as described by Professor Heckman, is emphasized through the integration of the arts in the PSA curriculum, including visual arts (painting, drawing, sculpture, etc.), music, and dance. Following a Reggio Emilia-inspired curriculum, teachers facilitate long-term investigations based on children’s interests. Project topics have included far ranging subjects such as birds, tents, planets, bones, and goats. Recruiting and retaining exceptional teachers who are able to lead this type of responsive, child-centered curriculum requires a level of funding that is not typical of early childhood programs in the United States. The primary source of income at PSA is parent tuition, which is relatively high for this Midwest community. As an independent nonprofit organization, PSA must seek resources beyond parent tuition in order to serve an economically diverse population of children and families and, thus, create the lasting economic benefits described in Heckman’s research. The support of the Ruth & Hal Launders Charitable Trust helps Preschool of the Arts expand its reach by providing funds for both tuition assistance as well as outreach programming.   

At Preschool of the Arts, developing community partnerships is another important strategy for implementing quality early childhood programming that provides benefits beyond the walls the of school. In the summer of 2018, PSA launched a new outreach program that involves a series of child-centered art classes for low-income Head Start students in Dane County, Wisconsin. The classes are taught by PSA staff members who are trained and skilled in both arts integration and trauma-informed care. A grant from the Ruth & Hal Launders Charitable Trust supports the development of the pilot curriculum, the staffing and implementation of the classes, as well as the art materials and children’s books that the Head Start teachers will use to extend the benefits of the art classes into other elements of the children’s program.  

Frederick Douglass once noted, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” The benefits of these initiatives that expand access to quality early education will extend well beyond the time these children spend in a preschool classroom. As decades of research into early childhood education has proven, we will all profit from these early investments.  

 

Contributed By Guest Author: Ann Gadzikowski. Ann is an author and educator with a passion for challenging children to think creatively and critically. A graduate of the Erikson Institute, Ann has more than twenty-five years of experience as a teacher and director of early childhood programs. She is the author of curriculum books, teaching guides, classroom readers, and numerous publications for parents of young children. Ann serves as executive director of Preschool of the Arts, a Reggio-Emilia inspired school in Madison, Wisconsin. Ann is a frequent speaker at professional conferences, such as the National Association for Young Children.