The J-Birds and Lincoln Center Moments: Our Summer of Love
Shaun Anthony August 10, 2018
The J-Birds and Lincoln Center Moments: Our Summer of Love
Lincoln Center Moments is a free performance-based series for individuals with dementia and their caregivers presented by Accessibility at Lincoln Center. This past May, the J-Birds, an ensemble of Juilliard drama and jazz students, presented a "Shakespeare mashup" and helped to plan and execute post-performance workshops with our teaching artists. We asked Shaun Anthony, a member of the J-Birds ensemble, to reflect on his experience performing as part of Lincoln Center Moments.
One of the most important concepts imparted to students at Juilliard is that of the "citizen" artist: We are not just here to train and get better at what we do, we're also here to figure out how what we do fits into the community. It's not enough to be good; we have to find a way to be of service.
As a means of advocating this critical component, Juilliard's Gluck Fellowship invites students to put together a 45–60 minute interactive performance with a team of two to five artists from any medium who have completed their first year of study. If the performance plan is approved, the team signs up for 12 paid performances throughout the year at community venues like pediatric hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, nursing homes, and homeless shelters, to name a few. Artists perform (usually on Sundays, our only day off) for patients, caretakers, or anyone who'll listen! As each venue and audience changes, so do the shows. The requirements of performing at a pediatric hospital are completely different than those of performing at a nursing home or homeless shelter, and the dynamics shift accordingly.
As MFA students in the drama division, Hayward Leach, Mary Cavett, Bianca Crudo, and I spend more than 60 hours a week together in both class and rehearsals. We began the search for a musician—who would also be available for Sunday performances—to round out our all-actor team. Finding someone who could work around our saturated schedules was not the easiest task. As it happened, one of our fellow actors from Australia introduced us to the saxophonist Evan Atwell-Harris, also from Australia, and we fell in love with his talent. He was serendipitously available on Sundays, and the J-Birds were born.
Prior to being invited to perform for Lincoln Center Moments, we had already logged twelve performances together throughout the year and had thankfully been given the opportunity on multiple occasions to perform for and interact with seniors, including patients with dementia, so we had a rough idea ahead of time of what we were looking to include and improve upon. Trial and error can be a fantastic teacher.
We knew from the beginning that we wanted our performance to include a variety of different elements, all with a foundation in what we were being taught at school. This encompassed things like poetry and heightened language, singing, movement, improvisation, and theater games, all with an emphasis on direct interaction with the audience. We also wanted to keep certain elements that had already tested well. "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," for example, is always a hit. We met in March and began putting the skeleton of our performance together, which really meant that we all showed up with ideas, some new and some an expanded version of what we had already performed. It was through this initial rehearsal that two themes really jumped out. The first was love.
If I could always have audiences half as enthusiastic as they were, I'd be the world's happiest actor.
Romeo and Juliet had always been in our repertoire, but never as a scene. Instead of just doing the famous soliloquies, Mary had a fantastic idea of doing the balcony scene in its entirety, with two different Romeos and Juliets. She cut the script and brought it in, and right away we all knew that it was something worth keeping and investigating. It ended up being the meat and potatoes of our show. Through this initial idea, and since the scene essentially starts at a ball, we were able to include Evan's musical accompaniment and infuse some dance as well. Shakespeare can get a little stale, especially if it's out of context, so adding these different components helped spice it up. Audience attention span is always a concern, particularly with audiences with more advanced stages of dementia, so we try to make sure folks have something cool not only to listen to, but to look at as well. We don't have the luxury of costumes, a set, lights, or an epic sword fight, so we had to find other ways of keeping the ball in the air.
The second theme, summer, developed organically. We knew that our performance was going to happen in May, a mere week after our semester ended, and the thought of all the freedom and fun that comes with that was heavy on our minds. There's something very romantic about summertime. It suggests picnics in the park, holding hands at the beach while digging your toes into the sand, and lounging listlessly on coffee shop patios. The idea of love or romance just seemed to fit perfectly with the season we were heading into. We've also found that folks, especially seniors, seem to have a lot of fond memories tied to summertime. We wanted to tap into those memories and experiences to make the performance more personally resonant and meaningful. The sensory experience of the season—things like temperature, smell, and taste—are so visceral, we knew we could use them to develop activities for our post show workshops as well.
After performing in small lobbies and leaky basements, we were impressed by the twenty-foot high ceilings and large seating capacity of the Kaplan Penthouse, where our Lincoln Center Moments performance took place. One of the things we learn at Juilliard is to figure out the technical requirements of the space we're playing in, so we immediately went to work testing the acoustics. Vocal training is also a major component of our curriculum. We knew that we were really going to have punch it to be heard, especially for those audience members who require additional hearing assistance, but it was nice to know that we had the technical training in our back pocket to be able to fill, both vocally and physically, such a big space.
When the audience first began pouring in I was struck by how excited they were to be there. The gratitude was palpable, which is something you don't always get in the theater. There were big smiles and a general curiosity as to what it was they were about to see. If I could always have audiences half as enthusiastic as they were, I'd be the world's happiest actor.
Their enthusiasm never waned. I think there is a false expectation that dementia patients or seniors are, for lack of a better term, "checked out," but that is a big misconception. They were extremely dialed in for the entirety of our performance. The questions asked during the Q&A immediately following the performance were thoughtful and retrospective and led to in-depth conversations. Even during the workshops afterward, everyone remained engaged and brought their passion and creativity with them. The highlight for me was devising a collective poem together during the post-performance workshop. Everyone contributed a word or a line, which we then used in a poem about summertime. It was beautiful, and I left the room full of joy and life.
The experience of performing for and interacting with this group at Lincoln Center was one the most rewarding and important artistic moments of my life, and I remain truly grateful to have been a part of it. It required us to utilize the tools we have spent the last two years accumulating at Juilliard. Beyond just the technical aspects of voice and body, we practiced how to operate as an ensemble and to communicate specific moments and story elements to an audience as eclectic and diverse as one might find in a New York City subway car. It asked us to really listen to our audience and to take them in. I hope to one day get the chance to do it again, if not at Lincoln Center, then perhaps in my own neighborhood.
Shaun Anthony is an MFA student in Juilliard's drama division.
For more information about the upcoming Lincoln Center Moments season, and to register to attend performances, visit http://www.lincolncenter.org/festival/lincoln-center-moments. Accessibility at Lincoln Center can be reached by email at [email protected] or by phone at 212-875-5522.