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Life & Style
World Premieres Intend to Delight, Challenge, Ask Questions
Skyler Hagner will be joined by Elijah Thomas, Chris Lewis, Elliot Bild, Nick Lombardelli, Ben Turner, Will Gorman, Isaac Levein, and Zak King during a performance for the Guilford Performing Arts Festival. (Photo courtesy of Skyler Hagner)
Emily Breeze and Marialena DiFabbio’s work, The Homewrecker, shown here in rehearsal, will be performed during this year’s Guilford Performing Arts Festival. (Photo courtesy of Emily Breeze)
Julie Fitzpatrick’s work will be familiar to those who attended the 2019 festival, where she performed the one-woman play, 77 U-Turn. This year’s work focuses on love in its many forms, and how they may have been challenged or how they came to the fore during the pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Julie Fitzpatrick)
All of the works being offered at the Guilford Performing Arts Festival are world premieres. Show here, Julie Fitzpatrick’s work in progress. (Photo courtesy of Julie Fitzpatrick)
Julie Fitzpatrick rehearses on the Guilford Town Green with Victoria Newman (in red), Dana Canevari (in yellow), Alice Chen (in grey), Meg O’Neil Teape (in green), Stephanie Little Brown (in blue), and ASL interpreter Christina Stevens (in black). (Photo courtesy of Julie Fitzpatrick)
Many years ago, Skyler Hagner headed into New York City to catch a performance by one of his teachers. He got into the city early, decided to hit the Strand Book Store, and wandered over to the fantasy book section. A novel called Invisible Cities, by the Italian writer Italo Calvino, caught his eye. He had an hour to kill before the performance, plus the bus ride back home to Philly, so he bought it.
Once he started to read it, he was captivated.
“The chapters are kind of short, some of them two or three paragraphs. There are really vivid descriptions. There is social commentary woven in, about the traits of humans and humanity at large. And I could just hear the music. I thought, ‘These descriptions are so powerful, I need to write something for this.’”
Hagner turned out to be just the person to tackle this. He’s a composer, an arranger, and a woodwind player. He had the inspiration and the confidence to pursue it. He had the training. During the pandemic he found the time to develop and hone the piece. He needed just one more thing, a patron to help support his work as he wrote it. That ultimately came in the form of the Guilford Performing Arts Festival (GPAF), which provided him with a grant to do the work.
Hagner’s work will be one of several presented during this year’s festival, which opens Friday, Sept. 24 and runs through Sunday, Sept. 26. Saturday’s performances kicks off at noon with All the World’s a Stage: A Guilford [Pandemic] Love Story, by Julie Fitzpatrick, followed by a community spoken word piece. Then comes Hagner’s [Invisible Cities] Humanity, Memory and Decay: A Suite for Jazz Nonet. And, at 7 p.m. on Saturday, there will be a performance of The Homewrecker by Emily Breeze and Marialena DiFabbio. All three will be presented on the Guilford Green under a tent and each one will be followed by a post-show talk.
In addition to these three works, there are more on Sunday. The entire schedule of works, all free and open to all, can be found online at guilfordperformingartsfest.org
The productions on Saturday touch on widely disparate topics and are presented in several different ways. But they have elements in common. They are world premieres, conceived and developed by writers and artists who live on the shoreline or went to school here, and they all owe their existence, in part, to funding provided by the festival.
To Be Dissolved into Something Complete and Great
Julie Fitzpatrick lives in Guilford, which in normal times is a town rich with community events. She lives right next to the Guilford Fairgrounds on Lover’s Lane, which is a popular place for people to walk, usually. But when the pandemic started, she remembers looking around and not seeing anyone. And community events?
“Nothing,” she says.
“I wondered, what is everyone doing to get through this? I have this theory, that if we love something—it could be a person, an animal, a hobby—it will buoy us in hard times,” she says.
The pandemic, with all of its horrors, was a perfect time for her to test this theory.
Fitzpatrick has many loves in her life, and one of most ardent affairs is with Shakespeare and, specifically, reading his works. And not just reading them to herself. She loves to read Shakespeare aloud.
“Not necessarily acting it, just mouthing it,” she says. “I thought, ‘This is something I love, and it’s making me feel better.’”
She wondered about others as she looked out at the streets empty of the people she usually saw, asking herself, “What’s helping them? Where is the love in their lives?”
She started to ask and ultimately talked with more than 75 people. She turned those interviews, and her love of Shakespeare, into All the World’s a Stage: A Guilford [Pandemic] Love Story, which will be performed as part of GPAF on Saturday, Sept. 25 at noon under the Guilford Green main tent. It will be followed by a post-show talk. Then, at 1:45 p.m., Fitzpatrick will host a 60-minute workshop in which participants will create and perform their own spoken-word theatrical scenes.
During All the World’s a Stage, she will work with Victoria Newman, Dana Canevari, Alice Chen, Meg O’Neil Teape, and Stephanie Little Brown to tell the stories she heard as she interviewed people about their experiences during the pandemic, along with “where the love was in their lives.” Fitzpatrick wove the responses together, and then created a role for herself as Poet/Narrator.
Christina Stevens will help interpret the work for those who hear through sign language. Fitzpatrick says the work is informed by those who are differently abled, along with the #MeToo movement and discussions of racial divisions, both of which intersected with the pain of the pandemic.
She’s hoping this work will be, for those who see it, the relief that comes after the pandemic’s pain. She is very grateful to have received a grant from the festival, and to be able to offer her work during this year’s celebration of the arts. And she’s looking forward to sharing the love, love in its many forms. She mentions a quote that was so beloved by Willa Cather that the writer had it inscribed on her grave, “...that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.”
Fitzpatrick says, “When we love something, it takes us someplace else. It takes us out of the ache.”
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
At 27 years old, Skyler Hagner has already achieved quite a bit in his music career. A product of Guilford High School, including the jazz band, the percussion ensemble, the wind ensemble, and the symphony orchestra, he says of his high school experience, “I did music.”
After graduating from Temple University in Philadelphia with a focus on saxophone performance, he taught for two years, then got his master’s in jazz composition.
His curriculum vitae is packed with performances, recordings, grants, and awards. His most recent award will allow him to record [Invisible Cities] Humanity, Memory and Decay: A Suite for Jazz Nonet after it’s performed at the GPAF. The performance will be at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 25 in the Guilford Green main tent, followed by a post-show talk.
He says the GPAF call for applications for the awards came at a perfect time.
“In March of 2020, I was finishing grad school and working in New York, and Philly, and Connecticut. And almost overnight, every gig was canceled. School went online and then petered out. And then I got this call and they said, ‘We want to go forward with this; we want to do it anyway.’ And it was the light at the end of the tunnel, a goal point off in the distance.”
He says the award allowed him to not only think about and dream about this work, but also to make it happen. He says it was hard to create in a time of isolation and uncertainty, and without the stimulus of seeing and hearing others perform, but that his work on Invisible Cities was far enough along that he could build on that existing structure.
In the novel, there are many cities, each with an aspect to it that is unique, along with providing a commentary on humanity and society. One city provides a commentary on opulence and waste, for example.
“There’s a city that every day everybody has all of this stuff delivered to them,” he says. “Then they can’t stand to have that stuff after it’s used, so it all gets thrown out in a huge mound of trash. And the next day they start all over again, which sounds just like Amazon, our consumer culture, and keeping up with the Joneses. There’s always new stuff, better stuff, the bright shiny thing. It’s so timely with the pandemic and everyone ordering everything online.”
In another story, an older man mourns the past of a town that used to be provincial and cute, but then turned into a big metropolis.
“That one is really special to me. I spent so much time on the Connecticut shoreline and I remember when the Rock Pile didn’t have any stores on it. I appreciate the convenience of it all, but there is something about all these people moving in and more stores going up,” he says.
The piece he is writing about that story contrasts those two feelings, borrowing from folkloric flamenco that melds with a clarinet solo that moves into a more modern take on Latin music. Another piece, one that explores the lies that people tell and the falsehoods they believe, starts with a pretty ballad, a melody.
“Hopefully the listener will get comfortable listening to that and then all of the sudden the lengths of the phrase change. It might be longer where it was shorter and shorter where it was longer and all of the things you’ve become accustomed to are different,” he says. “There can be one thing and two people view it entirely differently.”
The work will explore decay, and darkness, and deceit, and “together we will come out of the other side into a place that’s more accepting,” he says.
He says audience members are welcome to take away from it whatever their experience is, but that he hopes “people will come away a little more sensitive to everything. That they are willing to listen a little deeper and think about things. And I don’t just mean to listen to music deeper, but to everyone around them, to take the time to listen deeply.”
Saying the Quiet Part Out Loud
Emily Breeze’s path to becoming a playwright became clear shortly after she moved to Guilford in middle school. She did theater all through high school and then got an internship with Eric Ting, who was then the artistic director at Long Wharf. Breeze, 28, decided to co-write The Homewrecker with Marialena DiFabbio, who also went to Guilford High School, in part due to the flexibility provided by the GPAF grant they received.
Directed by Jessica Slaght, The Homewrecker borrows from the Helen of Troy story, “mapping Greek mythology onto the surface of a suburban shoreline town as it explores the social dynamics when a woman comes home ‘different.’” Breeze and DiFabbio, both queer women, say the play “tests the line between homecoming and invasion.” It will be performed at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 25 under the main tent on the Guilford Green, followed by a post show talk.
Breeze says DiFabbio was a senior when Breeze was a freshmen, so she knew her, but their paths didn’t really cross. Now they’re working as a team, with DiFabbio working on the epic poetry sections of the play.
“She doesn’t remember me at all from high school,” Breeze says with a laugh. “But we are very close friends now…We became friends after many years and I was like, ‘Hey, I’m pitching this project.’”
The idea of exploring the play’s themes became even more interesting to Breeze when she came back to Guilford during the pandemic.
“I found there were some really interesting dynamics when you move away and come back...When I lived in Guilford as a teenager, I wasn’t out as a queer person,” she says. “And I think coming back, not just as a fully formed adult, but also as a fully formed lesbian, it made me really think about and consider and question what my experiences were.”
In some ways, her homecoming felt haunted.
“I felt surrounded by ghosts of an unhappier version of myself,” she says.
Breeze says she likes to ask questions and that she hopes others will find those questions, and the exploration of them, as interesting as she does. One exploration involves the idea of being normal.
“I’m fascinated by who gets to be normal and how we define that,” she says. “And is normality average? Is it a certain kind of average? It seems like everybody is trying to reach it and failing and succeeding in different ways.”
She remembers a casual conversation she had once with a straight couple while everyone was sitting outside on a stoop, getting pretty drunk. A straight woman, there with her boyfriend, said she was impressed by the number and variety of Breeze’s friends sitting on the stoop.
Breeze says, “the straight woman “said, ‘yeah, we’ve been here like five years. How do you make friends as an adult?’ Jokingly, she says, ‘it helps if you’re gay.’ She says, ‘what if you’re normal?’”
“It was a fascinating moment, Breeze says. “I think she realized what she said after she said it. I wasn’t angry or upset. I was grateful. I said, ‘Yes, you’re saying the quiet part out loud. I’m not normal and you are.’ And non-normality is what I strive for. I love the parts of me that are different. The times of my life when I’ve tried to be normal, have actively harmed me.”
Sitting on the outside helps her as a writer.
“It gives me a vantage point,” she says “I’m just not 100 percent comfortable being normal. I was able to create a veneer, but it never made me happy. For this play in particular, the question is not, what does it mean to be different, but rather, why does anyone want to be normal?”
The conversation turns back towards the GPAF award, which she says supports artists as creators, rather than making them into salespeople shopping their work around to the highest bidder, and then again for her gratitude for her school experience in Guilford.
“One of the reasons I feel like I was able to pursue a career in the arts is because of the arts education I got at Guilford High School in particular. And it’s gotten even better since I was there. That is one of the best things about Guilford, how much they care about culture and the arts,” she says. “I feel very taken care of by Guilford in so many ways...I feel cared for by the teachers who are excited for me as an artist. I think that’s rare and underappreciated.”
She also hopes her work will help people see others who they might not normally see. For all of its strengths, Guilford is a very straight, mostly white environment. Those who might be comfortable swimming in that environment might not always realize there are, nearby, fish out of the water gasping for breath.
“I would ask people to question context,” she says. “I feel it’s my responsibility to ask people and push people to consider non-conformity. And if you’re questioning context, question all of it. While you are at it, go for it.”