A Progressive Art Festival In Brattleboro Engages Audiences In 'Unusual' Ways

Aug 20, 2015

In the foothills of Vermont, artists are given the space, support and resources to really push limits and think beyond typical performance venues.

The Vermont Performance Lab promotes and encourages progressive artists and engages the local community to witness those diverse works at the Progressive Performance Festival coming up Labor Day weekend in Brattleboro.

Sara Coffey, artistic director at the Vermont Performance Lab and organizer of the Progressive Performance Festival, joined VPR to talk about the event.

On The Vermont Performance Lab

“We like to call ourselves an incubator. We are an incubator for new work in contemporary dance, theater and music. What that looks like is that sometimes during the year we are a laboratory, and research and development is going on inside a studio and in our community. Then, in various times throughout the year, we pop up and we have these public moments, like the Progressive Performance Festival, which includes work by artists that have been working in our lab over the last year or so.”

On the Progressive Performance Festival

“The works that we present are by artists that are really pushing the boundaries in music, dance and theater, so we produce works and present works in galleries, theaters and unusual locations through Brattleboro. The idea is we hope the artist will be introducing ideas and commentaries about the place and world we are living in, and invite audiences to engage with them in unusual ways beyond sitting in a seat in the theater.

“We’ve been working over the last two years with performance artist and theater maker Carmelita Tropicana. She was part of the LGBTQ feminist movement in downtown New York in the '80s, she’s Cuban-American and she’s always been interested in issues of immigration, race and queerness, and she uses humor in a really fantastic way to get at some serious issues. So she’s just one of the artists we’re working with.”

“I’m compelled as the artistic director to bring a diversity of points of view into our festival, which I hope will resonate with people who are living in our community. There’s so much going on in the world these days, that I feel like artists these days bring these sophisticated or complex questions into their work and they are able to address it in a more nuanced way – they don’t oversimplify it.”

On the scene in Brattleboro

“We’ve been building our audiences and there’s a really amazing curiosity among Vermonters for more unconventional, experimental performance work. So there’s a lot of excitement – a nice buzz – around the festival this year.

“I think people are curious and I think people have learned to not be scared by the words “progressive performance.” In Brattleboro, and in this area, we do have 20-somethings returning to this area and I think in the past, many of these people have sought out activities in bigger cities … I think the people here are incredibly inquisitive and open, which is why I love working here and bringing artists to this area.”

On attracting artists and building community

“I feel like because we’re offering these artists a place to incubate the work, the benefit we get is we get to have these big city-type projects here in Brattleboro and in the process, I think these artists, without exception, fall in love with Southern Vermont.”

"We also like to have people eat together, talk together and converse to kind of de-mystify the creative process ... We've built this network and community of people who are really excited about artists coming and being here." - Sara Coffey, Vermont Performance Lab artistic director

“We do all sorts of things to engage our community around an artist’s research, so sometimes people in our community will be participants or co-creators with the artists, sometimes they’ll be collaborators on research. We also like to have people eat together, talk together and converse to kind of de-mystify the creative process. So I think what we have is we’ve built this network and community of people who are really excited about artists coming and being here. The small scale of our community allows for people to kind of wrap their arms around projects and artists.”

On cultivating an audience

“As the lab has evolved over the last nine years, we have elementary school kids, teenagers, adults and 80-year-old people who have been involved in our projects in various ways. So I think engaging people in the work as it’s being developed has helped us build an audience. So when it gets to the point where we’re inviting people into a theater or to participate … we’ve been cultivating those folks, so that’s what we aspire to do. By seeing the different kinds of people who are in our audience, I think we’re doing it.”

Learn more about the Progressive Performance Festival here.