Start from what we have,” said Tofte Lake Center Director Liz Engelman. It was freezing. And desolate. And the sheriff warned us there was a big cat on Main Street.
At 9,000 ft., as guest artists at HBMG Foundation’s National Winter Playwrights Retreat, we were high on altitude and artistry, hearing new plays and our thoughts in the silence of fresh-fallen snow. What if we supported an artist, not just this season, but through all four?
Our hosts, NWPR creators Manuel and Ann Zarate agreed “organizations had a greater impact by joining with other organizations that did not exactly have the same focus but had the same intent.” When we reached out to Seven Devils’ Producing AD Jeni Mahoney and Managing Director Paula Marchiel, Jeni added, “this is an exciting moment to reexamine what we can do to support playwrights even when we don’t have tons of money.” When we contacted NNPN’s Nan Barnett and Jordana Fraider about expanding our playwright’s network, they enthusiastically said yes. Executive Director of Ignition Arts, Gregory DeCandia, intoned our company’s motto: “Start something.”
So, we did.
This past year, Tofte Lake Center (MN), Ignition Arts (PA), The National Winter Playwrights Retreat (CO), and Seven Devils New Play Foundry (ID), in collaboration with National New Play Network, launched The 4 Seasons Residency. Through four intensive seasonal residencies in distinct locales, we aimed to offer year-long life-changing support to an artist who voices the kaleidoscopic American experience through a process rooted in collaboration and community to serve not only the artist’s work, but to sustain the working artist.
We chose our logo, a tree for each season, and we chose our inaugural playwright: DG member Jessica Huang.
Then, the pandemic hit.
As Liz said, “There is the trip you plan, and the trip you take.”
We initially planned to host Jessica in-person—communal meals, collaborators, contact hours. How could we best serve her in this new contactless landscape? Jessica’s journey with 4SR started in-person pre-pandemic with NWPR’s residency. She attended TLC as the sole retreatant with her husband and dog in June (instead of her scheduled September) before TLC’s season because it better served her as an artist and human. In an online pivot, Seven Devils provided Jessica a director, dramaturg and virtual designers, noting, “because we didn’t have space, space was even more important.” Ignition Arts reinvented our weeklong developmental workshop into a customized virtual retreat, tailoring morning Brennan Check-In sessions, afternoon “4THOUGHTs” and evening phone interviews culminating in Jessica’s own podcast. “Reimagining our work with Jessica distilled our mission,” Gregory noted. “Helping her become more the artist she is has helped us become more the artists we want to be.”
Perhaps, then, environment is as much the people involved as it is the place- and we can elevate each other at any altitude.
Jessica shared, “Being the 4 Seasons Resident during this time of global crisis gave me so much more than development support for my work. The seeds of relationship, collaboration and community that were planted will bear fruit for years to come.”
Soul Fire Farm’s Naima Penniman discusses the resilience of oak trees during Katrina: “Instead of digging its roots deep and solitary into the earth, the oak
tree grows its roots wide and interlocks with the other oak trees.”
In the maelstrom of 2020, we held fast to one another and to our artist sapling. Throughout the tempest, we not only remained upright; in the mayhem, against all odds, we continued to grow.