Featured Year of the Rural Arts Event: Shahrazad: A Tale of Love and Magic

Photo by David Weiland 2
‘Reflection’, Photo Credit David Weiland

Shahrazad: A Tale of Love and Magic
The Summer Spectacle, Double Edge Theatre, Ashfield, MA

By Savannah Barrett

The end of August marked the completion of a six-week run of sold-out performances of Shahrazad, A Tale of Love and Magic at Double Edge Theatre. Under the conception and direction of founder Stacy Klein, Shahrazad guides audiences from the mythical landscapes of the Arabian Nights and Song of Songs through the actual fields, barns, and gardens of a former western Massachusetts dairy farm. These 105 acres set the stage for a woman’s journey to transform her world and save her own life through the stories she tells.

Through writer Matthew Glassman’s weaving of texts from Arabian Nights, Song of Songs, Rumi, and Conference of the Birds, Shahrazad invites audiences to journey alongside King Shahrayar through place and story. Presented in association with a remarkable group of local and international artists, the performance incorporates site-specific installations and original compositions with North African, Middle Eastern, and Indian influences alongside physical, acrobatic performances that conjure flying genies, a giant hoopoe bird, and castles of illusion.

Photo by Maria Baranova 8

‘Magician’s Wonders’, Photo Credit Maria Baranova

The setting makes this production unlike any other. As dusk extends long shadows from pines that mark the boundary between ground and sky, oud and violin accompany the rising voices of the harem who are invoking the rich smell of herbs under the rhythm of the pestle. “A night pregnant with the scent of stories” unravels as the audience is guided through the farm while the swimming, dancing, flying cast- demonstrating their intimate understanding of this place- moves in perfect step with the landscape.

At times, there is no separation of audience to performer, or stage to countryside: coyotes call in the distance, cows get after one another, thunderstorms descend. By the time the Milky Way reflects into the pond during the final scene, it is clear to us that the land, audience, and performers are interacting to create an intentional immersion experience that is unique to each evening’s performance.

Photo by David Weiland

‘Jullanar of the Sea’, Photo Credit David Weiland

Double Edge is internationally acclaimed as a preeminent laboratory theatre, and the Summer Spectacle evidences their commitment to research: The shows evolve daily through trainings and rehearsals and shared meals. Daily training- which they describe as a “holistic methodology that employs physical, vocal, emotional, and imaginative through physical training, improvisation, and etudes”- reminded me of something akin to ecstatic religious practice. Training and working on the farm seem to steward the ensemble’s reverence for the place and its presence in their practice.

This year Double Edge Theatre celebrated its 20th anniversary in Ashfield, Massachusetts (Population 1800). Within Pioneer Valley along the border of the Berkshires, Ashfield was historically a dairy farming community. Like much of New England, Franklin County faced a considerable economic transition in the 1980s and 1990s as Big Ag consumed the dairy industry and expanded westward. Ashfield’s dozens of generational family farms reduced to two. Franklin County displays a jarring contrast as generational hill-country families neighbor the seasonal homes of urbanites; Still, the region is persistent in its traditions of neighborliness. The town’s distinct history of tolerance and direct governance continues to gather the community in town hall meetings and town greens, and supports an impressive array of local businesses, organic farms, and artisans.

Photo by Maria Baranova 7

‘Sea Creature’, Photo Credit Maria Baranova

Double Edge sought a laboratory space as it moved from Boston to Ashfield, but has evolved over the past two decades from a place to work to a place to live and connect to the community. Open trainings, in-school programs, collaborations with local artists and businesses, and the Summer Spectacle each connect the theatre to the community. The Double Edge Student Immersion program began in 1993 and the Summer Spectacle in 2002. These programs, along with an indoor Garden Cycle season, allowed Double Edge to not only cultivate a second generation of theatre makers, artists, and community organizers- but contributed to growing a committed local audience invested in the work and the farm.

Photo by Maria Baranova 6

 ‘Hoopoe Spreads Wings’, Photo Credit Maria Baranova

This cycle of work has helped the company to teach the Double Edge language, which has even been reconstituted through a production with the local elementary school who, at the suggestion of a student, transformed the school play by “doing it the way that Double Edge does.” Thirteen years into the Summer Spectacle tradition the theatre attracts almost 3000 people per Summer to Ashfield, which demonstrates the effectiveness of long term investment in creative placemaking in a rural context. Double Edge Theatre’s model- described as creating both intrinsic and extrinsic impact through job creation, revenue streams, and deep cultural and social resonance in the community- has been the subject of an impact study by Williams College. This economic impact also makes sense to the people of Franklin County, who have come to understand Double Edge as good neighbors and as stewards of the land and community.

Through this unique laboratory of theatre, land, and community, Double Edge also stewards new developments and understandings of this kind of work in the rural arts field. In 2015, Double Edge will embark on the planning and development of the Spectacle Tour, engaging with rural populations throughout the world on the creation and production of The Odyssey in their hometowns. International programs for the Spectacle Tour currently include the Fredriksten Music Festival (Norway) in May – June 2015 and the Argentina National Festival in 2015/16. Double Edge also recently created and performed a Spectacle at Amherst College, a combination of three previous works, Shahrazad, Odyssey, and Don Quixote, which took audience from the library steps of the Amherst quad to the cliff overlooking the Pioneer Valley.


Double Edge performing a Spectacle at Amherst College, Photo Credit Rob Mattson.

Art of the Rural recently completed a Year of the Rural Arts Residency at Double Edge Theatre. To learn more about Double Edge Theatre, please visit: http://www.doubleedgetheatre.org/. Please check out the Summer Spectacle story on the Atlas of Rural Arts and Culture, and report back to us at Art of the Rural to tell us about your experience! Please use the social media hash tag #ruralarts in any social media posts from the event.

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THE YEAR OF THE RURAL ARTS is a biennial program of events, conversations, and online features celebrating the diverse, vital ways in which rural arts and culture contribute to American life. The Year is coordinated by Art of the Rural and organized by a collective of individuals, organizations, and communities from rural and urban locales across the nation.

The inaugural Year is a collaborative, grassroots effort designed to build steam over the course of 2014. To present a more equitable representation and a more comprehensive narrative of rural arts in culture, all online features will be freely shared across websites and social media. For more information on the Year of the Rural Arts, visit: www.artoftherural.org.




Introducing The American Bottom Project

East St. Louis, at the base of a Cargill elevator and overlook; photograph by Jesse Vogler

Art of the Rural recently launched Middle Landscape, a series of projects that combine releases of artistic and cultural material with digital work and on-the-ground action to facilitate a collaborative space that creates relationships between ideas, individuals, and communities. Today we are excited to share the American Bottom Project, one that will evolve over the course of many years and will connect across multiple fields and conversations.


Few regions in the United States exhibit a social and spatial fragmentation as extreme as that of the vast flood plains of the East St Louis region. As a coherent geographic interval stretching from the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers down to the confluence with the Kaskaskia River, this flood plain–known to geographers and anthropologists as The American Bottom–is site to the social and spatial aspirations of pre-contact Native Americans, 19th century industrial expansion, 20th century infrastructural consolidation, and 21st century ecological precocity. Yet this is a region defined less by its inherent ecological and geographical continuities and more by the industrial patterns that have effectively fractured this region into closed communities of extraction, production, and displacement.

The American Bottom is a landscape of interruptions and strange adjacencies – but also a living landscape, where sites of the familiar and the extraordinary continue to shape the social and spatial processes of the present. This project — a collaboration between Middle Landscape, The Institute of Marking and Measuring, The Center for Land Use Interpretation, Preservation Research Office, and the Husbandmen design group — seeks to tell a political, spatial, social, and ecological history of The American Bottom by focusing on the cultural landscapes of this region.

One only needs to a run a finger down the length of the Mississippi to begin to uncover the complexity and variousness of this story. Alton was a flashpoint in the abolitionist movement (when the eastern banks of the river meant the difference between freedom and enslavement), the site of the final Lincoln-Douglas debate, and also the birthplace of both Miles Davis and James Earl Ray. A long red line on the ConAgra grain silos mark the height of the 1993 flood that submerged blocks of the city.


Holding grounds in National City for Interstate 64 renovations, November 2013; photograph by Matthew Fluharty

Moving south, we find the highest cluster of industrial suburbs in the country: a few include Wood River (built by Standard Oil), Alorton (formerly named Alcoa), Granite City (US Steel), and Sauget (formerly named Monsanto). While these company towns occur in great number, this region also features a number of municipalities that were dis-incorporated and subsequently razed when industrial owners withdrew. This appears most forcefully in National City, the former home of the National Stockyards; at its peak, this was the site of the largest hog processing facility in the world. All that remains now of National City is the National Stockyards Building and an abandoned playground (another spatial theme across the bottomlands).

These social and economic legacies converge in East St. Louis, perhaps the most misunderstood area in the midwest. Much of the political and economic challenges to the growth of East St. Louis are decades old, historically embodied in the most violent labor- and race-related riot of the twentieth century, in 1917, when white mobs infiltrated the city and murdered hundreds of its African American citizens. While the structural causes of the issues facing East St. Louis often go unexamined in the region, the city holds a rich cultural heritage stretching from the emergence of ragtime and jazz, through to modern architecture and innovative community projects sparking new forms of engagement.

As our finger might progress south, we find a transition from rural to urban already underscored by the rural diaspora who populated, and built, the industries and municipalities of places like East St. Louis. These connections stretch across cultures, geographies, and centuries. For instance, our finger might trace a line from Brooklyn, the first African American incorporated town in the U.S., to the Cahokia Mounds, once a city of 40,000 residents and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We might trace a line from the labyrinthine man-made cave system of the Rock City Business Complex (housing both the National Records and Archives Administration and, in the deeper cold storage facilities, the hops for Anheuser-Busch) to Valmeyer, a farming town submerged by the 1993 floods and subsequently rebuilt atop its neighboring bluffs.


Display from the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site; photograph by Jesse Vogler

Though these points of connection and divergence can be overwhelming, we find that a whole history of America can be told here—through the beliefs, hopes, aspirations, and failures of five centuries of civilizations.  With the American Bottom project we will focus on the specificity of place and storytelling to access the what is at stake on a conceptual, historical, and local level.

Over the first twelve months of this project, we will reach out to new partners and audiences and deepen our engagement with the region, its people, and this cultural landscape. This autumn, in collaboration with the Center for Land Use Interpretation, we will create a project within their Land Use Database. Through this period we will welcome individuals and groups from the St. Louis area and beyond for guided tours and fieldwork excursions.

In concert with these collaborations, the project’s focus will turn to the production of publications, recordings, maps, and additional events to further connect disciplines, cultures, and forms of community practice. Along the way, we will regularly share online images from the American Bottom Archive alongside pertinent news, readings, and links from this river landscape.




This Weekend: The Launch of the Mary Celestia Parler Project


Today we are excited to share more details on the launch of the Mary Celestia Parler Project this weekend at the Fayetteville Roots Festival, in collaboration with The Center for Arkansas and Regional Studies, and the University of Arkansas Special Collections department.

A schedule of free events are featured at the Fayetteville Public Library, programming that reaches to engage the public in the diverse and wonderful elements of Parler’s work — everything from an exhibition to a square dance to a series of panel conversations and film screenings. The weekend will conclude on Sunday with a live taping of Tales From the South and followed by a discussion of the Child Ballads with Anais Mitchell and Rachel Reynolds Luster, the Director of the Parler Project.

Folks who can’t make it to Fayetteville: we’ll be sharing much of this weekend’s festivities online in the coming weeks, so please stay tuned.

We’re proud to share below the gorgeous poster for these Parler Project events, created by Gustav Carlson:


Fayetteville Roots Festival Presents: 
Mary Celestia Parler: Celebrating 25 Years of Arkansas Tradition
An Interactive Exhibit 
Walker Community Room, Fayetteville Public Library, 401 West Mountain 

Thursday, August 28th:
1-3 PM Genealogy Workshop, Hosted by Joshua Youngblood, U of A Special Collections
3-5 PM Field School 101: Documenting Your Cultural Traditions, Hosted by Rachel Reynolds Luster (curator), Jenn Jameson (Mississippi folklorist), and Allison Williams (folk musician)
6-8 PM Ozark Music Listening Party, Hosted by Willi Goehring and Featuring the Ozark’s Finest Traditional Musicians and Folklorists

Friday, August 29th:
9-11 AM Crooked Crow Songwriting Workshop, Hosted by J Wagner
12-2 PM KUAF Ozarks at Large Live Radio Broadcast
2-3:30 PM Screening of “FOLK”, a documentary by Sara Terry
3:30-4:30 PM Film Q & A with Director Sara Terry, Raina Rose, and Anthony DaCosta
8-10 PM Old Time Square Dance @ 546 W Center Street

Saturday, August 30th:
11:30-12:30 Panel Discussion of Mary Parler Exhibit with Bob Cochran (Professor, U of A), Tim Nutt (U of A Special Collections) and Rachel Reynolds Luster (Exhibit Curator)
12:30-1:30 PM Screening of “The Search”, CBS Documentary on Mary Parler
1:30-2 PM J.B. Hogan, Folksinger and Writer
2-2:45 PM The Red Star Rounders, Traditional Ozark Music
2:45-3:15 PM Adam Cox, Folk Musician and Social Justice Advocate
3:30-4PM Kim Lansford and Nathan Mcallister, Missouri Dance Music
4-5PM Screening of “The Search”, CBS Documentary on Mary Parler

Sunday, August 31st:
3-4 PM Tales from the South: Live Radio Broadcast with Anais Mitchell and Anthony DaCosta
4-5 PM A Discussion on Child Ballads with Anais Mitchell and Rachel Reynolds Luster