A test kitchen for food for thought

Thursday July 21, 2011

GUILFORD -- With just two weeks together to work on a script, construct puppets, choreograph and rehearse a show and record the musical score, Dan Froot, Dan Hurlin, Amy Denio and four performers have a lot on their plates.

The people they're talking about do not.

The people they're talking about don't have enough to eat, or if they do, they just barely get by. The people they're talking about are the faces behind the statistics on hunger and food scarcity.

Froot, Hurlin and Denio are in Guilford as part of the Vermont Performance Lab, which supports the creation of contemporary works and fosters exchange between artists and Vermont communities through its Lab Program. They are using their two weeks here to develop their show "Who's Hungry -- Santa Monica," the newest in an ongoing series of puppet plays based on the life stories of hungry and homeless people in Los Angeles.

So why should we care about hungry people 3,000 miles away?

"It seemed relevant to Vermont," said VPL's Sara Coffey, who reconnected with old friends Hurlin and Froot at a National Performance Network conference some months ago and heard about their project. "It came at an interesting time when I had read some horrifying statistics about hunger in Vermont."

According to the Vermont Foodbank and Hunger Free Vermont, more than 86,000 Vermonters (14 percent of the population) require some food assistance at some point in the year, 25,400 of whom are children. In Windham County, 43 percent of students quality for free and reduced-price school lunches.

Froot and Hurlin delved into the problem in ultra-urban Los Angeles, first collaborating in 2006, leading up to a toy theater production of "Who's Hungry -- West Hollywood."

That production began with the time-consuming work of the oral historian. Froot conducted interviews, transcribed them and then constructed the stories from the interviews. For "Who's Hungry -- Santa Monica" he interviewed five people each in 10 one-hour sessions. From there, Froot and Hurlin have been working to construct a piece that weaves the stories together, accompanied by Denio's music.

Local audiences will have a chance to see "Who's Hungry -- Santa Monica" in its under-construction state at three events: open studio discussions on Thursday at 7 p.m., and Monday, July 25, at 2 p.m., and a work-in-progress showing on Thursday, July 28, at 7 p.m. All events are al the Broad Brook Grange on Guilford Center Road. Presentations of portions of "Who's Hungry -- Santa Monica" will take place on a 24-foot long dining table for groups of 30-35 people.

Visitors and audiences are asked to make a donation of $5 or two non-perishable food items (no homemade goods please - paper towels, toothpaste, toilet paper and other household necessities also welcome). All donations will go directly to Guilfod Cares to support the Guilford Food Pantry.

Special note to families: Although "Who's Hungry" employs puppetry, it addresses complex social issues and is not intended for children under the age of 12.

The project seeks to foster cross-class dialogue on the complexities of food insecurity in America and will raise awareness of these issues in the local community.

"The responses were varied. A lot of people said ‘I never thought about the guy who picks up the cans out of my recycling bins. I never realized he had such a textured experience,'" recalled Froot.

Other people valued the notion of putting names to faces of marginalized people; still others, who were among the hungry and food insecure, appreciated that their stories were told honestly, respectfully, without making them out to be victims.

But stories come from all over, not just marginalized communities. Beyond the staggering numbers of truly hungry people are even greater numbers of people living with food insecurity, those who only get enough to eat with the help of programs, services and food shelves; those who must choose between paying the rent and buying food.

"People at the food shelf told us of people with Saabs who would come up to get food. Food insecurity has crept well into the middle class," said Froot.

It's enough to make you realize: There but for the grace of God go I. But the artists' intention is not to create a polemic or prescribe certain actions.

"The most important thing is to tell stories that otherwise wouldn't be told," said Froot.

"It's not this piece that's about hunger. We don't just sit there and preach at you. ... In fact, we hardly mention the word ‘hunger,'" Hurlin said. "We talk about them as portraits because we want to introduce them to their neighbors."

Even though these neighbors happen to live 3,000 miles away. There is something universal in "Who's Hungry," even if the subjects are drawn from Santa Monica.

"I would hope that by actually naming it ‘Santa Monica' that people would, paradoxically, think about their own community. If it can happen in Santa Monica, why not Guilford?" Hurlin said.

In the piece, each of the five portraits is told in a different style of puppetry, with a different look, feel, soundtrack and way of animating people and objects. The stories are woven together into a collage, accompanied by music and presented by four performers, who come from different backgrounds -- some from puppetry, some from dance. "Puppetry, to me, is very much part of the dance world," said Coffey.

If all goes well, the "Who's Hungry -- Santa Monica" will be ready to be presented as a finished work by January. All the artists value their time in Guilford, working at the Grange and in the studios of Guilford Sound, creating the piece away from the distractions of daily life.

"This is where we get to talk about VPL, because it's a visionary organization," said Froot. "At VPL, it's really about supporting the development of the work."

For reservations and information, contact the Vermont Performance Lab at 802-257-3361 or visit www.vermontperformancelab.com. For more information about the project, visit whoshungryproject.com or follow a blog at whoshungrysantamonica. blogspot.com.

"Who's Hungry - Santa Monica" was commissioned in part by Vermont Performance Lab. The project is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts Challenge America Program, Los Angeles County Arts Commission, UCLA Center for Community Partnership, University of California Institute for Research in the Arts, Southwest Oral History Association, The MAP Fund, a program of Creative Capital supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation; and by a Performance Practice and Research grant from the University of California Institute for Research in the Arts. The scores are commissioned through Meet The Composer's Commissioning Music/USA program, which is made possible by support from the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, the Ford Foundation, the Francis Goelet Charitable Lead Trusts, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, New York State Council on the Arts, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Helen F. Whitaker Fund.


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