In the first of our series dedicated to meeting the artists and collaborators of Mother/Daughter, EBP founder Lauren Leonard (LL) interviews dancer and educator Jessica Noel (JN).
A dancer by training, Jess Noel is the founder of Philly PACK, an artistic home for dance and theatre-loving children and adults, in South Philadelphia. In addition to performing in this year's Fringe Festival as part of Mother/Daughter, Jess is mounting Paprika Plains, a Joni Mitchell-inspired collaboration with her sister, artist Natalie Fletcher.
LL: What brought you to Philadelphia?
JN: My husband's job took us from Texas to Philadelphia ten years ago. We arrived in July just in time for Fringe auditions. I was cast in an Ibsen-inspired dance-theatre project called Master Builder directed by Nako Adodoadji. Thus began my love affair with Philly Fringe Festival.
LL: What is Philly PACK and how did it come to be?
JN: Philly PACK is an artistic company that primarily focuses on theatre and dance education for young people. We also partner with other companies to produce theatre, dance, and art projects in the PACK garage theatre.
PACK originally started as a way for me to dip back into art-making after having a baby. I started teaching theatre and dance at sixteen - it’s a huge part of my life.
LL: Arts education, how important is it?
JN: Arts education is as important as math, science and reading. We don't value it enough as a society. What good is a student who excels at math or science but can't communicate or express themselves in healthy ways? Also, children who participate in art-making are more confident and happier as adults. Don't we want to be a happy, confident society? Seems like a no-brainer to me…
LL: How do we make it accessible and sustain it?
JN: We have to fund it in our public schools! All public schools should have a fully-funded theatre program, studio art program, creative writing program, and music program. We're not there yet, but in the meantime, we can continue to build bridges and supplement the system through our established arts organizations, nonprofits, and teaching artists. I’m thinking of groups like Philadelphia Arts in Education Partnership (PAEP) who help partner teaching artists with schools. I worked for PAEP when I first moved to Philly and I loved being a part of their incredible team.
LL: Everyone who comes into the PACK garage is awed by the space. How did you make it yours?
JN: I live near the garage, and had my eye on it for about 5 years. There was never any commercial activity; just unused space and untapped potential. My Fabric Row lease was expiring and I had a choice: continue to rent a smaller storefront for classes and a theatre for performances, or create my own venue. Choosing the latter, I marched over to the garage owner's place, shook his hand, told him I wanted to rent his garage. He said, "Sure. Let's go look at it."
I'll never forget that first visit: there were about 20 cars and a boat parked inside! And these exposed piers and beams that made my heart skip a beat! I knew immediately that it was to be PACK's new home. The lease negotiation took about three months, but in the end it was worth the wait.
We wanted to maintain the garage’s integrity - the industrial look I was so taken with - so we left the brick walls and ceiling exposed and power-washed and painted. We swapped the steel roll-top garage doors for rolling doors with windows. These give the space a warm, sun-kissed feel and let in natural light which is very important to me and is essential to art education because children need sunlight. The windows also allow for passersby to peak in and see what we’re creating.
We hung our stage lights and some globe fixtures and added some twinkling lights for ambiance. Finally, and this is my favorite part, we displayed Philadelphia-based female artists' work in the space. Aubrie Costello, Elizabeth Bergeland, Jessica Stanhagan, Georgena Senior, Andrea Mecchi and Kat Caro live with us every day!
LL: How many Fringe Festivals have you participated in?
JN: This year is my 5th!
LL: Fringe provides you an opportunity to choreograph for and dance with adults. What has that experience meant to you? How has it informed your art? Has it influenced you as a teacher?
JN: Fringe allows me to tap into darker places in my art-making. There are all kinds of emotions and concepts that come with maturity, and I get to go deeper with my Fringe work than I do with my teaching. Fringe allows me a clarity and perspective to face the rest of the teaching season with. It's like I purge all my darkness in September, and for the rest of the year I'm able to tell pleasant stories with happy endings!
Performing reminds me of what it is to be in front of an audience which allows me to empathize with my students. I understand the thrill and the passion, and I know what it means to give all of yourself for the sake of the show. And my students know that I get it. I'm not just their teacher, I'm one of them.
LL: You encouraged me to do a Fringe show. What is it about Fringe that makes it a must-participate for Philadelphia artists?
JN: Philadelphia's Fringe festival is so unique! Other cities have their own Fringe, but nothing compares to Philly's energy. You can really feel the love this city has for its artists. The work that comes out of Philly is different than New York or Boston or DC; ours has a certain grit to it. It's earthy, raw, and funky. Philly art is for the people, by the people. It's about people. I feel really lucky to be a Philadelphian this time of year.
LL: Mother/Daughter marks our third creative endeavor. I think it's fair to say our approach to the work is different and yet it comes together in a very natural way. What does "collaboration" mean to you? (Also, how am I doing? Kidding. Sort of.)
JN: I love working with you! I admire your direction, but also how you allow artists the freedom to make their own choices. Trusting your fellow artists to do good work because you believe in them is collaboration! When I enter into an artistic collaboration, I make sure to give everyone enough room to breathe and create; you can't create if someone is standing on top of you. I like to step back and trust it will come together in the end. MAGIC!
LL: What drew you to Mother/Daughter?
JN: The concept drew me in from the beginning. I'm really close with my mother. She was there for me during all of life’s big moments. She was there throughout my pregnancy and cooked meals and laundered diapers for a couple weeks after the birth of my son while I healed and figured out how to nurse. We don't have a perfect relationship, sometimes we fight like wild beasts, but my mom is my best friend.
I'm also a mother. I know how hard it is to parent, and think I can bring some depth to my role in Mother/Daughter. I was in Rome when I got the script and I fell hard! Your writing is really natural, soft and easy to listen to, but also pretty gut-wrenching. It had me ugly crying on the rooftop of my apartment! I was reading Maya Angelou's Heart of a Woman (also about mothering) at the time, and I realized that when someone loves to write, you can hear it in each sentence. Nothing feels forced.
LL: That’s an incredibly flattering and undeserved comparison, but thank you. Let’s go back to collaboration, your Fringe show, Paprika Plains is a co-creation by you and your sister, Natalie Fletcher. Tell me about Natalie and what it's been like working together.
JN: Natalie lives in Oregon where she is a painter. She works with her hands. She has the most beautiful hands! They're my grandfather's hands. He was also a painter. She has an innate sense for color and form, and she can build or create anything. She is perpetually covered in paint! She's the most genuine, people-loving, salt-of-the-earth woman I've ever known. I love her so much and I'm very proud of the person she's become.
We've worked together for the past 8 years. She flies to Philly a couple times a year to design for PACK productions, and I've modeled for her body-painting commercial gigs several times. We try to see each other and work together as often as possible.
Paprika Plains is the project we've wanted to do for a while to marry our artistic disciplines in a performance piece. I was reading a Joni Mitchell biography this year, and I came across her album Don Juan's Reckless Daughter from 1977. The Paprika Plains track is completely mesmerizing! I sent the song to Natalie, and she agreed the timing was right for the project, and the song provided the inspiration.
The challenge with Paprika Plains is that we're video collaborating, which is a first for both of us. I'm filming my rehearsals, and she's watching the video and sending notes back. It's been pretty difficult, but both of us thrive under pressure, so this is good.
LL: Where does "sister" end and "collaborator" begin?
JN: Sister ends when there's work to do. That's how we've always worked. We laugh and joke around, but when the clock is ticking and we're up against a deadline, we know how to buckle down.
LL: Give me a teaser for Paprika Plains. What should the audience expect?
JN: The audience should expect Joni Mitchell tunes, body-painting, and dancing. I’ve been asked several times, and no, there won't be nudity... I’m excited to share that we’ve added two other artists: singer/songwriter Heather Shayne Blakeslee of SweetBriar Rose and Lily Blaine-Sussman who is an actor-dancer I’ve taught for years.
LL: What are you most excited to see at this year's Fringe Festival?
JN: I'm looking forward to It's Happening At Home directed by Molly Gifford. I'm not sure what else I'll be able to see because I'm in two shows!
LL: What's next for you and PACK?
JN: This year PACK is partnering with Nebinger Elementary School to launch a brand new curriculum taught in the school by PACK teaching artists called “Mindful Movement.” The goals of Mindful Movement are 1.) emphasizing artistic self-expression through dance and movement fundamentals 2.) instilling confidence to use movement as a healthy communication tool. I'm currently in the process of writing the curriculum alongside Nebinger principal Natalie Catin-St. Louis, and I'm loving every second of it!
PACK is toying with the idea of launching a high-school troupe that produces edgy dance-theatre adaptations of Orwell, Plath, Haley and the like. I’ll also continue to make art in the garage with people I care about, who are doing thought-provoking, important work.
As for me personally, I'm in the early stages of a collaboration with my husband on a piece about Galileo and his daughter. We were in Florence at the Galileo museum when we got this idea, and we're pretty curious to see where it will take us.
Artistically, personally, I'm so happy to be right where I am at this point in my life. I want to enjoy every day.
Mother/Daughter Sept 15 8pm & Sept 16, 2pm, Philly PACK (233 Federal)
Paprika Plains Sept 21 & 22, 8pm, Philly PACK (233 Federal)