Meet the Artist: Jessica Noel
 
Jessica Noel in Napoli, Italy

Jessica Noel in Napoli, Italy

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)
To learn more about Philly PACK, visit their website.
 
Complete the Dream Team
 
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By Unique Saunders, MENTOR Independence Region

Every child on this earth is born on purpose and with purpose. Sometimes the murkiness of life’s obstacles can leave them questioning their value and doubting their greatness. And other times, they don’t quite know who they are and how much power is within them because it hasn’t been brought to the surface just yet.

For young people on their journey, no matter how far along they are, having a solid support system can be what propels them into their reason for being. The guidance of loving, caring adults is critical as they grow and develop. And not just one adult. Youth need a team of special people in their lives to walk alongside them, encouraging them and modeling healthy behaviors.

Mentors offer so much. The simple act of listening to a young person gives them a sense of power! In a world where so many of our children are silenced and unseen, being heard can be transformational. Mentors have the honor of hearing the dreams of their mentee and helping them achieve their goals. 

A mentor isn’t a superhero and doesn’t need to be perfect with all of the right answers, but just being available as a trusted friend has tremendous impact. There are thousands of children right here in our own neighborhoods who could use one more adult to encourage them along their journey. You could be the missing link to complete the dream team in a young person’s life.

There are many mentoring programs in search of positive role models. Contact your local Big Brothers Big Sisters or check out the Mentoring Connector, for other programs that suit your interests and availability.

 
Lauren LeonardComment
Natural Shocks: Theatre Activism to End Gun Violence
 
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EBP will participate later this month in a national campaign of theatre activism to end gun violence by presenting a staged reading of Lauren Gunderson’s new play, Natural Shocks.

Based on Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy, the play features a woman waiting out a tornado in her basement. As the storm rages on, the audience bears witness to her stories and secrets, and learns the intimate details of her relationship with guns.

To raise awareness about gun violence on the 19th anniversary of the Columbine school shooting and the National School Walkout, Gunderson is waiving the royalties for readings the weekend of April 20, 2018. Readings are planned in 27 states with proceeds set to benefit organizations like Everytown For Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action.

EBP will stage a reading on Friday, April 20, 7pm, at Philly PACK (233 Federal Street). Tickets are on sale now and will be available at the door. Proceeds will benefit…

A panel discussion on gun violence in Philadelphia will follow the reading.

Gunderson is no stranger to theatre activism having previously waived royalties for performances of her play The Taming on Inauguration Day 2017. Named America’s Most Produced Playwright by American Theatre magazine in 2018, Gunderson has had more than 20 play produced.

 
Lauren LeonardComment
Continuing the Conversation
 
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Since the show wrapped, the women of V2 have been seeking ways to stay in touch on a regular basis. But life is busy. So very busy. So, what are the women to do? Book club!

This April, the women of V2 are reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Americanah.”

Adichie grew up in Nigeria and divides her time between there and the United States. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, The O. Henry Prize Stories, the Financial Times, among others. She is a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship.

Americanah, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award, tells the story of Ifemelu and Obinze, young lovers who depart Nigeria for the west. Ifemelu finds herself in America where she grapples for the first time with what it is the be black. Obinze winds up in London, struggling and undocumented.

Because we’ve learned there’s nothing like the comfortable, safe space of a living room, we’re eschewing apps and electronic organizational tools that would allow us to talk as we read and saving our thoughts for a post-reading gathering at the end of the month.

We hope you'll read along. Check our social media for ways to be part of the discussion on Amercianah and to see what we're reading next. 

 

 

 
Lauren Leonard
Fate and The Vagina Monologues
 
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I remember hearing about the Vagina Monologues back in my hometown of Islamabad, Pakistan. I remember it particularly because I wasn’t sure the title was something I could say out loud in public without being embarrassed. I was of course, much younger. A teenager unsure of what my own vagina was. Or it was one of those things, you know, like Death. We all know we’re going to die but we don’t need to talk about it right? Except that this was somehow worse. Mentioning one’s vagina always had an effect. You know, almost as if one could smell it in the air at the mention of the word. Much like one’s period - we just don’t need to acknowledge certain facts of our lives, correct? Maybe that’s why this caught my attention more. I was the quintessential teenager - I thrived on rebellion. 

Upon further inspection of the work and allowing myself to delve further into the performing arts, Fate would have it that I’d later perform more of Eve Ensler’s work. In Pakistan. We read and told the stories of women across the globe shining a light on their shared experiences of the perception of their bodies. And I was moved. How universal were their stories that we could all connect and relate? How alive and proud did I feel to be a female having read and voiced the struggles of these women? How much more did I want to explore my own female identity? There are so many reasons to come back to this work. 

A recent immigrant to America, I’ll be honest, this is a most enlightening time to explore myself. Everyday I am reminded of the new found freedom I have as a woman to express myself and exist in ways I was unable to back home. This isn’t to say that back home is what the media portrays. It’s a sliding scale and I was fortunate to have lived a privileged life in Pakistan with choices many women do not typically have. But having said that, there are unexplored facets I did not know I had that I am now experiencing here and I think it is almost serendipitous that my arrival in America is timed with what is a deep and powerful movement for women to claim their identities for themselves and restructure the status quo. For me, this feels like warp speed but the exhilaration to be alive in a time like this - a time to be inspired, to learn that empowerment begins within and that I am not alone in each step I take in my metamorphosis - is a blessing. The world is awake, I am awake and I am excited to see where this important time takes us as a whole. 

There are so many reasons to come back to this work. To share these stories, to live in the words of someone else, to see that our story is one. I am thrilled to be a voice to add to the conversation. I am honored to be a voice that echoes in the battle cry. I am grateful to be a voice that is welcomed into what is now home. 

-Submitted by Shahana Jan, Woman 3, V2: Creation Myth

 

 
Lauren Leonard
Our Creation Story
 
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Since we've made it our mission to encourage storytelling, we'll dedicate this first blog entry to telling ours. And by "our" I mean "mine."

I’m Lauren, a theatre grad who got a day job some years ago. I still have said day job, but I also had this idea. Like all good ideas, it came to me in the aftermath of a traumatic event while organizing a bookshelf. 

The traumatic event was the 2016 presidential election. In its wake, I experienced shock, mourning, and genuine fear. I considered for the first time what it was to be American. I Googled things like “what’s the meaning of life?” and “should I run for political office?” I thought about the people I know and love who voted for Her and the people I know and love that voted for Not Her. I thought a lot about the people I know and love who didn't vote. I wondered how many other people were going through their days as if out-of-body.

I wondered and then I organized, not the knocking-on-doors kind of organizing (too soon), but the kind of organizing Type A personalities do when experiencing a loss of control. During this organizing, I came across my collegiate copy of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. Revisiting the pieces a decade after performing them, I was struck (horrified, saddened, enraged) by their relevancy.

What I loved about the Monologues, about plays and stories in general, are the characters and the stories they give voice to.  It was impossible after revisiting the Monologues to ignore the fact (facts are important) that a war was being waged to silence certain voices. I brushed off the script, recruited some friends who recruited some of their friends, and directed the play in the Queen Village neighborhood of Philadelphia. We raised nearly $2,000 for Planned Parenthood. Though the show wrapped, the conversation continued.

We (women and a few men) had so much to say, that after just a few conversations, there existed enough material to create a new play: V2: Creation Myth. As you can read hereV2 is inspired by The Vagina Monologues. It’s honest, timely, and important. It’s about women, but also an example of what happens when we hold space for others to share their stories. 

I see V2  as just the beginning. There’s still much to say, so many stories to tell.  I look forward to telling them through EBP and to hearing yours. 

 
Lauren Leonard