While creative expression seems to be everywhere in New Orleans, the same can’t be said of funding for the arts.
In its inaugural year, the Distillery Artist Residency is a New Orleans-tailored response to provide resources for performing artists working in the city.
“What makes art in New Orleans different is that it is inherently interdisciplinary, although that isn’t a part of the mainstream notion of culture that’s delivered to outside eyes,” said Alysia Savoy, program manager for The Distillery. “Many jazz musicians, for instance, are actors, visual artists or filmmakers who live in New Orleans, but their dollars are actually earned in other cities.”
“When they are creating here, they are naturally engaging in collaborative, interdisciplinary work, but it’s not the stuff that’s funded so it’s less visible. The Distillery is making that work more visible,” said Savoy.
The three-month residency supports four fellows as they develop new process-based work — from the initial idea and research phase to rehearsals and performance.
The fellows — selected for their varied backgrounds in dance, spoken word, music and theater — are Maritza Mercado-Narcisse, Michael “Quess?” Moore, Aurora Nealand and Evan Spigelman.
“They’d all reached an interesting place of tension or restlessness in their work because they are mid-career. All of them are doing something they’ve wanted to do for a long time and couldn’t because of a lack of resources,” said Savoy.
Spigelman said he’s grateful for the opportunity.
“That the Distillery is process-oriented (as opposed to product-oriented) has been a gift,” he said. “It has allowed me to push myself to see how fearless I can be. Especially in the New Orleans theater world, where you often struggle to find space for regular production rehearsals — let alone a development period — one rarely has the opportunity to truly experiment.”
The program provides the artists with local and national mentorship, access to rehearsal space at the CAC, three public showings of their works-in-progress with audience feedback and a development stipend.
“The Distillery has given me the structure, time and most importantly the space to try multiple new ways of stretching my legs as a performer,” said Spigelman, a co-founder of the New Orleans collective Skin Horse Theater.
This Friday at the Contemporary Arts Center, the Distillery fellows present their works-in-progress at the second “Swap Meet” hosted by program facilitator Emilie Whelan. Each artist will present his or her work followed by audience feedback.
Spigelman said of the first Swap Meet, “It allowed me to hear insights from people outside my inner circle, which feels especially crucial as I explore new ways of working.”
The fellows regularly meet for roundtable discussions to explore the development of their four wildly different projects: a drag show about the history of queer punk, a play about the charter school system, an experimental sound project about female hysteria, and a modern dance piece exploring how women’s stories are passed down through generations.
“So often, as freelance artists, we are isolated and self-motivated in our artistic pursuits. For me, the biggest impact of The Distillery is that it has provided a community of fellow artists who are pushing me to stay focused on the work,” said Nealand, a musician and composer.
In addition to Friday’s Swap Meet at the CAC, a final Swap Meet will take place on Sept. 19.