Northwest Film Forum performance art will explore dance, taxidermy, and 12th Ave history

(Image: Bret Doss with permission to CHS)

Earlier this year, CHS told you about the coming departure of Northwest Film Forum executive director Courtney Sheehan from the Capitol Hill nonprofit and the continuation of her work to transition the organization beyond the screen with events, speakers, and gatherings. Later this month, the final NWFF event before Sheehan makes her exit will be a showcase of the organization’s most important qualities.

What is Home will be “a participatory experience” that encompasses “movement installations, interactive exhibits, dance films, and a layered dance theater performance.”

“The work has many points of entry for both film and dance audiences, with a central question about home, belonging and change that will resonate with all walks of Seattle life,” Sheehan tells CHS. “There will be a lot of history of Capitol Hill and specifically the NWFF building woven into the piece.”

CHS talked with the show’s Christin Call of Coriolis Dance to discuss the inspiration behind What is Home, and the place performance art has in communities like Capitol Hill. Call explores the lessons from the “booms” and “crashes” in life, and the importance and meaning of “home.” Call also has plenty to say about the history of Capitol Hill, the current scope of a booming city, and what we can take away from performance art and stories from our communities in how we live day-to-day.

You describe What Is Home as a participatory experience,” “absurdly imaginary,” and “ridiculously ornate.” What does it all mean? It is a multimedia piece, with installation, with film, with live performance, and it is designed to be an event that immerses the audience. Pulling from a lot of resources is why it is ornate. This comes from the idea that we can’t help but to do that, to create, psychologically, these super intricate webs of relations between ourselves and how we fit into this web, and we just do it naturally. We don’t really have to try, sometimes, to dismantle these types of things.

(Image: Bret Doss with permission to CHS)

The installations are really fantastic. There’s one installation that will actually build a sort of  lean-to structure, and there’s one asking people at an activity table to draw a self-portrait, but as a home. So there will be prompts. Part of what I have been trying to do to reach out and engage more and change how I feel. It is interesting, there are so many different ways of depicting the same thing, basically.

I’m imagining many people prompted with “draw a house” instinctually drawing a very juvenile-looking home with a tree and a sun in the yard. What do you expect to see, and is this something you have done for yourself? Mine was a bit more pictorial like that, and I actually drew a structure. Not everyone does that, some people write down a bunch of things, like a list. Some people arranged words, but spatially in certain ways, like here’s where I need my alone time, situated in a place that has some kind of enclosure. Here’s where I need to be external and need to engage with the outside world, so here are these passageways pointing to where I can have fun, or friends.

Some people went really abstract – one of my dancers did it, he drew basically pointillism. There were dots that were very concentrated, and they started to disperse outward with rings that started to overlap with each other. She thought of it was parts of her personality that were very fluid, and she has a lot of passion for other people so that transferral of energy is very open, but then there’s this very dense place that is just her.

What are you expecting the audience to take away from the show? I would like people to come away feeling like they were part of something, and that piques an idea that could exist outside of this fictional reality.

Mostly in terms of the history, engaging with the history of the Film Forum building, and the different things that have been in that building. So, the Jonas Brothers, and not the ones that we think of now. They were taxidermists and tanners, they occupied that building and the one next to it. They have exhibits all around town, the Museum of History and Industry has stuff by them, the Aquarium – they were world class and internationally known.

Linda was not the first — Meet the Klineburger Brothers and Capitol Hill’s taxidermy past

Then they were raided by the FBI… [laughing] for illegal poaching.

Before that, the initial use for the building during the Auto Row era, it was originally an auto wholesaler and bike parts store. They were there for a really long time, they seemed to be really involved in the community and sponsoring sports teams, and were really proud to have this chemical coolant product nobody else had.

You seem pretty thoroughly read on the history of this building! It was fun, sort of nerdy in that way. It felt like I was going back to some academic times, researching at the public library, doing the scans of microfilm. I looked at a lot of microfilm, online resources that the city has available. I was able to spend a lot of time at the beginning just learning a lot of things.

NWFF moved in in 2005, so it was pretty recent. It was vacant for some years, and there were attempts to build artist’s lofts that fell through. In general, as sort of a big summary, the main performance is built on this kind of structure that I think exists historically in this city, of this big boom of something, a super huge boom. And then it crashes. It decimates. And we pick ourselves back up, but we have to do something in a different way after that.

There’s also a long-term history of huge civic projects falling through, someone with a big idea for something and even if it gets approved, it just never gets done. For example, in the early 1900s… 1907, there used to be three trolleys from downtown. They did it, and then they got rid of it. Before Seattle Center existed before the World’s Fair, there was a proposal for a civic center sort of like what it is now, that Denny tried to get built, and there was too much opposition, leading to many things like why we don’t have a state income tax, why our taxes are so regressive, there’s this huge resistance to using public funds for public services. There’s this conservative opposition and it sort of never materialized.

To relate that to this show, the structure of the main show is that there are three arcs – three booms and crashes that happen. The second is worse than the first, and the third is how I might envision something happening, learning from those two failures, with this small group of people who have different stakes in how they might navigate it.

I do think the bottom is going to fall out, and we’ve already seen that Amazon is going to push as hard as they feel like they can, in order to not participate in what’s going on in Seattle, and how they are pretty much directly responsible for the rise of homelessness in the city.

(Image: Bret Doss with permission to CHS)

How do you feel these “crashes” affect the artistic communities and those with minorities/queer communities like Capitol Hill? I feel like people of color and black communities especially are really hit by it, from the research that I have done. The development happens there first, and people get displaced, and so there is a huge effort for those stories to be told, but it’s sad that there is a reason for those stories to be told before they’re gone.

The dance community and arts community, it’s strange because on the one hand, you feel like there’s a lot of money in this city right now – are the arts being elevated along with the economy? No. And that’s really disheartening, I think. I don’t know if it’s the kind of boom we are experiencing now, or the kinds of people moving in who are affecting it. I feel like there’s maybe not education – what are the arts, why do we need it?

Do you live on the Hill now? I actually just moved in April  – I’m still sad about it! I’m in Georgetown now. It made me realize this idea I had of Capitol Hill. Before I lived here, I felt so comfortable in this neighborhood. I felt like the “normal one,” and I felt so glad. There were so many people who were more “out there” than I was and it was so wonderful and rich. It made me feel part of that in a way, to be couched on either side, rather than to always feel like the outlier. Moving though made me realize that it isn’t that “weird” anymore – it doesn’t feel that weird, it’s moving more in this normative kind of direction.

When I talk to people who have been here since the 70s, and that transformation when it became a queer community – this is where the weird was happening, counterculture. It makes me sad that that is going away.

How does the artistic community respond to that? What power does art and performance have to influence community? You know, I don’t really know the answers. What has been interesting about creating the show is that we created these characters, these people who feel very real to us. We spent a lot of time creating their life story, and understanding what motivates them and how they make decisions. It has been interesting to see, how does somebody who is the symbolic power of the world, why would they ever want to help somebody in the community. What is their motivation toward that?

We have been able to explore situations in which little moments of understanding can happen. Everybody is not going to become the most empathetic person and make all their decisions based on that.

I think [the show] takes an emotional attachment to experience. It’s quite dramatic. It’s where that absurdity comes in, it’s sort of ridiculous how histrionic the world can be, but there’s also that little sliver of how our experience really is that severe, that dramatic. The stakes are quite high.

For me, it felt pretty necessary to have this interactive element to have people put themselves in the work they’re watching, to have some kind of identification to what is going on.

How long have you been working on this project? Two years. The first year was looking at “what is home” to me personally, where do I feel I belong? What are the things I need to figure out? This year has been looking outside a little bit more, the research, the outreach.

I decided for this project to hold auditions for every performer, which was unusual for my company because it’s been, for many years, a small, tight-knit group for ten years, which is long-term dancing with someone. So it was like, “Hey everyone, if you want to be in this, you have to audition.” It felt really important, in a work that was looking outside a little bit more, to actually look for people who have been outside the company, outside my knowledge of them as a performer. So the way that I conducted the audition is, will this group of people get along, and will they support each other? And of course, do they have the capabilities. Do these people have the potential to come together around this and look at something that is going to be tough, and still decide to support each other through it?

All the talks have been really rich, and felt like whatever the perspective was, they were open to hearing other ideas. There’s always moments in rehearsals that can be tricky, but it’s actually mostly very technical, people are trying to decide, what is this step, not necessarily the conceptual part.

What has changed between now and starting this project two years ago? Everything! The project began because I had networked and gotten to know some people at the Seattle Demo Project a little bit, primarily architects and sculptors. They had access to houses that were about to be demolished, and what they were doing was going into these houses and livening them one last time before they were torn down.

I had gotten to know them and they approached me about doing a residency in a house that was on 12th Avenue and Thomas. It was an old, over a century-old house I had walked by many, many times. It had sat vacant for ten months and they were able to get into that space and do something with it one last time. I am very responsive to environments and installation work. I got in there not really with anything predetermined, but being in that space was really potent. In that house, all of that history – the attention to detail and craftsmanship.

The internal demolition of the space – holes punched in walls, strange smells, all the appliances were bashed in and toppled over. There was this weird thing about it, too. These people who had been in this place had left little love notes all over the walls, little messages, and they had drawn some ornate symbols on the walls. There was this weird delicacy and brutality in how this space had been treated in the short interim, and how many families and individuals were there.

How much has the issue of homelessness in Seattle come up when working on this project? It comes up really frequently. One of the characters is intended to sort of exist at that social level, someone who is not always in a home, somebody who has problems with mental health and addiction. It has been a consideration for sure. It is something I worry about a lot. I work downtown, and I was living on Capitol Hill, and walking by dozens and dozens of homeless people everyday, people who have nowhere to stay. It’s heartbreaking, and I know that for myself as an artist who doesn’t make a lot of money, and has had mental health issues and things that are often responsible for a lot of people experiencing homelessness – loss of a job, a relationship. Those life things that happen. I feel very fortunate that I had a support system.

That was my way of thinking about it – it could have been me at those times of my life, and nobody deserves that. I tried to go around and talk to organizations that knew a lot more about it and understood more about it, knowing that I could kind of touch on it but never be the expert. I ended up really connecting with Facing Homelessness, and they have such an amazing message of just saying, “Hello.” We can actually all do that, if you don’t have money. See them. That resonated, a lot.

What is Home takes place on July 27th and 28th at 6:30pm at Northwest Film Forum. You can get tickets and more information at nwfilmforum.org.

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