As a playwright, I like to explore the interplay between individuals and their times. How does one influence and perhaps illuminate the other? -Danielle Dresden, TAPIT/new works Ensemble Theater in Madison
This issue of On explores the subject of Art. Read an interview with a playwright that explores her thoughts on life and work as an artist, and how she has used her art to strengthen community life. Learn from Dena Wortzel, the Director of the WHC, about the ‘do it’ vs. ‘talk about it’ definition, and get a sense for some of our recently funded projects, many of which exemplify some of the ways the arts and the humanities happily co-mingle.
We invite you to read On.
In this issue of On:
- From the Director’s Desk: The Arts and the Humanities
- Featured: Interview with playwright Danielle Dresden
- Recently Funded Projects
- In the Spotlight
- About the Images
The arts and humanities often come together in projects that explore our sense of place, our traditions, and identities.
When I mentioned that this issue of ON was about the arts, the artist who does our graphic design was delighted, but wanted to know, “Why art?”
“The line between the arts and humanities is blurry and confusing,” I said.
“I consider the arts to be part of the humanities,” said Bobbette. I grinned.
One of my favorite shorthand explanations of the arts/humanities distinction came in a conversation with friends at the Wisconsin Arts Board, who struggle with the problem of the dividing line too: “The arts do it. The humanities talk about it.” This description points to some hallmarks of the humanities that we like to emphasize — those of discussion and critical appreciation.
The “do it” vs. “talk about it” definition says that it’s the job of the artist to create the object of appreciation and reflection, and the job of the humanist to peer at the artist’s work from various angles and say something interesting about what she sees. It’s the simplest version of arts vs. humanities I know, and it is helpful in describing one of the ways that we are happy to see them work together.
But it often isn’t like that when we look at what really happens when people create theater pieces or develop exhibitions. Often the arts and humanities are more thoroughly blended, as in the kind of theatrical productions that Danielle Dresden and TAPIT/new works create, when the writing of a play is infused with knowledge produced by the humanities. We also see the humanities employed to inspire the production of works of art, as in a Working Lives Project effort we are funding in La Crosse called [art]ifact: where history meets art. Artists there are being asked to make art in response to their experience with historic artifacts that were made in La Crosse. Visitors to the resulting exhibition will encounter a Ho Chunk cradle board and buttons by the Wisconsin Pearl Button Company, side-by-side with works of art that these artifacts inspired. Visitors will be prompted with some humanities-rich questions to consider how people worked and lived in La Crosse, and how this has shaped their community’s identity.
When the line between the arts and humanities is especially hard to define, it is tempting to feel that the distinction between them is artificial, and maybe not even helpful. I long ago gave up looking for an all-purpose rule by which to rigidly separate arts from humanities. Maybe that’s because I’m lazy. I like to say that it’s because the humanities have convinced me that it’s always interesting to ask the questions, and then talk about them before arriving at answers that make sense of particular, real occasions when the arts and humanities are playing together.
Others have thought about these distinctions and found their own ways to express the ways the arts and humanities interact. We have collected quotes from cultural professionals working in Wisconsin in an article on Humanities Booyah to continue this conversation. As always, we’d love to hear from you!
Dena Wortzel’s day job is as executive director of the WHC. The rest of the time she can be found wrestling hay bales, messing with animals, and watching the grass grow on her farm in Hollandale.
Danielle Dresden, playwright, actor and residency artist, is producing artistic director of TAPIT/new works Ensemble Theater in Madison. Dresden is the author of 35 plays performed across the United States and abroad. TAPIT/new works has received multiple WHC grants for projects that make innovative use of humanities expertise to deepen their audiences’ experience. This fall, look for talks by Danielle and co-producing artistic director Donna Peckett, when the WHC launches ShopTalk, the new Working Lives Project speaker/discussion program.
We asked Danielle to share with us what it means to her to be an artist, and to tell us how TAPIT/new works has made use of the humanities to enhance their artistic work.
At what point in your life did you start thinking of yourself as an artist? What brought you to that realization?
This whole business of who is or is not an artist, and how or why or when individuals get to apply that term to themselves gets complicated for me. I don’t want to sound pretentious, or like I’m trying to get out of doing something practical and/or tedious. “I’m an artist, so you see, I can’t parallel park. Too confining.”
I also spend a lot of time thinking about the political, economic, and cultural aspects of the term “artist.” In fact, that was the focus of my most recent play, Work the Act, and a series of panel discussions funded by the Wisconsin Humanities Council, entitled The Work of Art, which were all part of the 30th anniversary season of TAPIT/new works Ensemble Theater Company.
Donna Peckett and I co-founded TAPIT/new works in 1985, and we both continue as producing artistic directors. The Company develops and performs original work, and we have an extensive arts education and outreach component to our mission. We’ve toured across the United States and abroad, and I’ve written about 35 plays, all produced, some have won awards, been published, and some have not.
Does that make me an artist? I think my ongoing commitment to the work is what makes me an artist. As aspiring theater folk are often told, “If you can do something else, you probably will.”
I recall one moment when I realized I couldn’t do anything else. My unemployment (one of the nation’s most significant arts subsidies) was running out and I had a job interview. It was early in the morning, in a big building. I realized that if I got the job, they’d probably want me there at that same hour every morning, and I’d have to stay in that building all day long.
“There has to be a better way,” I thought. This led to my going back to school to study arts administration at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I doubt it’s common to trace your artistic beginnings back to when you decided to go to business graduate school, but that’s the thing about becoming an artist – there’s no set path.
What drives you to make art? Has that motivation changed throughout your life?
One day in late spring when I was seven years old I heard what must have been the first lawn mower of the season. I was overwhelmed. I felt this commotion inside of me, and as I struggled to get a handle on my joyously painful yearning, I asked my parents for a pencil and paper. They should have known right then that this child was not likely to get a job with full benefits. But eventually, with some help, I wrote down, “Today I heard the lawn mowers. It reminded me of summertime.”
Not too much has changed since then. I still struggle to find words to convey feelings and experiences, and the first sounds and scents of summer still make me crazy.
I work in the theater, which I love because it’s so immersive. It offers everyone, participants and audience members alike, the chance to plunge into another world. It allows me to work independently as a playwright, and with other people as a playwright and actor.
The great thing about theater colleagues is that they not only stimulate your creativity – they make your work better. They take your script and dress it, put it in motion, give it a setting and a beat, and breathe life into your characters.
What role have the humanities played in your work? How have you used the arts and humanities to strengthen community life?
As a playwright I like to explore the interplay between individuals and their times. How does one influence and perhaps illuminate the other? History, cultural anthropology, literature – all humanities disciplines – can influence my plays.
As a company, TAPIT/new works strives to go beyond the “one night only” school of performance and forge deeper connections with audiences. Our humanities experts help us enormously in this regard.
Our Mangia, Mangia! project illustrates both these roles for the humanities.
Mangia, Mangia! was a play celebrating the Greenbush, a legendarily diverse, Italian-American Madison neighborhood that was urban-renewed out of existence years ago. Food was central to this community, my play, and the production.
We found a UW-Madison faculty member, Traci Nathans-Kelly, who was a specialist in culinary literature. I never knew the field existed, but through Traci I learned about the role food plays in immigration, assimilation, and cultural preservation. I learned how we use food to mark special events, and how church cookbooks can reveal a community’s history.
Mangia, Mangia! played for general audiences, and at elementary schools. Traci developed a study guide to help teachers explore their students’ cultural backgrounds, favorite foods, family recipes, and ways of celebrating. At one of Madison’s most diverse schools, faculty organized a festival. Students brought in their own special dishes, family and friends came, stories were shared, and connections were created across multiple divides.
Because of Mangia, Mangia’s significance to the Italian-American community, many audience members were not typical arts attendees – especially at a storefront theater devoted to new work. But the combination of the show and Traci’s skillful facilitation brought the barriers down. Audiences told stories of immigrant relatives on the boats, disagreed about recipes, and shared memories of a time that seemed simpler. Night after night, as we drank in the stories and the scent of ravioli and garlic bread from Bunky’s Restaurant – another key part of the Mangia, Mangia! experience – it felt like we were gathered in somebody’s living room, in a place where we all belonged.
That’s how the arts and the humanities can create community together.
For each dot on the map, imagine people coming together for a great humanities conversation, sharing their ideas and learning from scholars and neighbors. Every dot represents a project made possible by a WHC grant. Descriptions of these projects can be read on our website here.
In the Spotlight
Librarians, historical society members, teachers, and other community partners will soon have a new way to bring the humanities to town. In October we will unveil a brand new speaker/discussion program as part of our Working Lives Project. We’re calling it ShopTalk. With ShopTalk, communities can host events at no cost. ShopTalk speakers include Danielle Dresden (interviewed in this issue) and more than 20 others whose presentations will get audiences thinking and talking about the past, present, and future of work in Wisconsin.
ShopTalk speakers include humanities scholars and individuals from diverse walks of life. Our scholars will offer thoughtful, provocative talks on topics ranging from the history of unionization efforts to reflections from literature and history about what “good” work looks like. Other presenters share more personal stories that raise questions about how we balance work and family today, why we work in the ways that we do, and more.
All presentations will include ample time and encouragement for audiences to share reflections from their own lives. Check our website in October, where you will find everything you need to contact speakers and book a free event. Or contact us now with your email address to be put on a list to receive notification when we start accepting bookings.
“I think of this whole festival as ‘scene-building,’ because in order to create something new, it helps if there’s a strong local scene, a sense of forward momentum that everyone can pick up on and then feed off that creative energy to make a new vision.” – Joel Friederich, poet and professor at UW-Barron County
Whether you think of it as north of Highway 8, 29, or 10, northern Wisconsin is known for many things—snow, bears, outdoor sports, lakes and woods, and a unique Up North culture. Joel Friederich, Associate Professor of English at UW-Barron County, is doing all he can to strengthen what he calls the ‘NW Wisconsin literary landscape.’
Thanks to Friederich’s efforts, the second annual Northwest Wisconsin Writers Festival took place in August. It featured authors including Nickolas Butler and Marnie Mamminga, who encouraged participants to consider how a connection to place can inform and ground writing. Butler and Mamminga are both known for stories and characters set in northern Wisconsin. Read more about it here.
The festival is one of the first projects funded with help from the HRK Foundation. The foundation, with roots in Bayfield, has been a longtime supporter of the arts and humanities in northern Wisconsin. The WHC recently received a generous grant from HRK to expand our ability to fund projects in 17 northern counties.
We are lucky to be working with HRK, a foundation that, like us, is committed to strengthening communities. The Northwest Wisconsin Writers Festival is a great example of a project that uses the humanities and arts to bring people together.
Organizations serving Ashland, Barron, Bayfield, Burnett, Douglas, Florence, Forest, Iron, Lincoln, Marinette, Oneida, Polk, Price, Rusk, Sawyer, Vilas and Washburn are encouraged to review WHC guidelines and consider an application.
Miriam Beerman (b. 1923) is a prolific American artist whose work reveals her deep emotional responsiveness to the tragedies of the human experience, both historical and modern. Beerman’s collage work highlights her preoccupation with such themes as injustice and tragedy. A WHC grant supports educational programming associated with the exhibition of her work, which opens at the Wriston Art Center Galleries at Lawrence University in Appleton this September.
WHC-supported programs include screening of a documentary about the artist and a discussion with experts on aging and memory; a panel discussion on women and artistic expression with humanities experts at the Trout Museum of Art; creative writing sessions in the galleries led by the Appleton Public Library; and tours of the exhibition focused on humanities topics. For information, check the WHC’s calendar.
From 1875 to the 1930s, workers in La Crosse produced millions of consumer items for the local and regional market. In February, an exhibit will open that explores this history through artifacts like the camera (above), and works of art by local artists who are among the workers of today.
The Imperial No. 6 folding view camera was made by the Imperial Camera Company. In 1898, the company had fifty male employees, ten female and three people under the age of sixteen working in their shop. A few years later the company was bought and moved to Minnesota.
Photo courtesy of the La Crosse Historical Society
Cover: From Mangia, Mangia!, a play about a time when less was more, except when it came to food. From left, Donna Peckett, Danielle Dresden, Emily Morrison Weeks, Sarah Whelan. Photo by Glenn Trudel.
Bernhard Schneider Painting: Cedarburg Art Museum collection; Exposition Building, c. 1885-1889
Working on a canoe: Photo by Tim Frandy; https://www.facebook.com/398037316986232/photos/pcb.701381759985118/701381699985124/?type=1&theater