Artist Residencies Bring Art to Life

Artists coming to campus through Duke Performances are spending more and more time in classrooms

Co-Producing Artistic Director Shawn Sides and the Rude Mechs address Jeff Storer’s Advanced Acting class on the set of Now Now Oh Now (L-R: Shawn Sides, Jason Liebrecht, Lana Lesley (seated), Thomas Graves, Robert Fisher, Hannah Kenah). Photo by Eric
Co-Producing Artistic Director Shawn Sides and the Rude Mechs address Jeff Storer’s Advanced Acting class on the set of Now Now Oh Now (L-R: Shawn Sides, Jason Liebrecht, Lana Lesley (seated), Thomas Graves, Robert Fisher, Hannah Kenah). Photo by Eric Oberstein

Duke student Jon Payne has had just enough acting experience to be intrigued by the ethics of the craft. A visit by the Texas-based theater company Rude Mechs to his Introduction to Acting class was just what he needed.

“In the back of my head I have always debated the truthfulness of acting -- whether or not what we’re doing on stage, pretending to be other people, is honest,” said Payne, a second-year student.  “I’ve never heard anyone debate that in my classes but it was one of the first things the Rude Mechs wanted to discuss. It was a very eye-opening approach to the art and one I might not have heard without their class visit.”

The Rude Mechs, who performed their new piece “Now Now Oh Now” at Schaefer Lab Theater last week as part of the regular Duke Performances lineup, also participated in a weeklong Visiting Artist Residency. While at Duke, the Rude Mechs visited several Theater Studies classes, engaged in a discussion with students interested in arts entrepreneurship and met with scientists at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) in downtown Durham to discuss the biological themes of their performance piece.

Of the nearly 70 performing artists from the around the world on Duke Performances’ 2014-2015 lineup, more than a dozen are extending their stay on campus to include teach master classes, visit students in the classroom and participate in campus and community discussions of their work. Upcoming residencies include jazz trio The Bad Plus in October, Brazilian dance company Companhia Urbana de Dança in November and choreographer Ronald K. Brown in February.

Recent residencies have included composer and jazz pianist Billy Childs, contemporary dance company Urban Bush Women and vocal music ensemble Fisk Jubilee Singers, whose residency culminated with a concert at Baldwin Auditorium with Durham School for the Arts choir students.

Eric Oberstein, associate director of Duke Performances, said the visiting artist residencies makes their work and process more accessible to students interested in the arts.

“We want to build greater context for our presentations, and so we look for artists who are comfortable engaging with students, good speakers, curious and interested in a deeper conversation,” Oberstein said.

Theater Studies professor Jeff Storer, who hosted the Rude Mechs in two of his acting courses, said he and other faculty members learn just as much from the visiting artists as their students.

“In many ways, the Rude Mechs are very cutting-edge and innovative in their process,” Storer said. “By having them at Duke for a week, I get to learn from their process and it gives my students a chance to hear from people they might not otherwise be able to see perform, let alone engage in conversation.”

The residencies enhance students’ classroom experiences and open their eyes to the world of performing arts beyond Duke and Durham, Oberstein said. 

“We see these visits as a complement to what our faculty are already doing,” Oberstein said. “Duke students often forget that they have unparalleled access to so many talented people on a daily basis. We hope that the students are encouraged to further develop their own work and may reconsider some of their preconceived notions about life as a professional artist.”

Payne added that the Rude Mechs’ class visit made professional acting sound less daunting, despite the financial challenges involved.

“Although it may involve working multiple part-time jobs, it is so cool to me that the Rude Mechs have found ways to support their passion,” Payne said. “It’s inspiring that they’re doing what they love and that they have been able to take ownership of their creative process.”

For more information on the Duke Performances lineup, visit its website.