Making the Future

A Glimpse Inside CPA’s Creative Futures Artist Residency 

By Michele Lynn 

The process of making art can be a powerful catalyst for creating community. With that in mind, in summer 2018, Carolina Performing Arts (CPA) launched Creative Futures, an initiative funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Creative Futures brings together four visionary artists—Helga Davis, Shara Nova, Okwui Okpokwasili, and Toshi Reagon—to collaborate with UNC faculty, local community members, and one another.  

Christopher Massenburg, Rothwell Mellon Program Director for Creative Futures, says the fellowship “intentionally fosters a deeper collaboration among different communities of knowledge and insight that don’t always have the opportunity to work together.”  

“Artists such as our fellows are always exploring questions in their work, which is similar to how UNC’s faculty—as well as people outside of academia—approach their own research,” says Amy Russell, CPA’s director of programming. “But artists and academics use different means for discovery, which makes them brilliant collaborators.”

Toshi Reagon looks off into the distance for a headshot.

Toshi Reagon is a force of nature.

Toshi Reagon, a Brooklyn-based singer, composer, musician, curator, activist, and producer, has already spent significant time at Carolina since 2017, thanks to her role as CPA’s inaugural Mellon Foundation Discovery Through Iterative Learning (DisTIL) Fellow in 2017/2018.

“I’m grateful that Creative Futures will let me stay in this community, which I love,” says Reagon. “Chapel Hill has a strong black community oral tradition, leading scholars, amazing activists, and great artists, and I’m excited to continue to work with all of them.”

The economy, survival, and music are the threads that Reagon is braiding together during her Creative Futures fellowship. By facilitating dialogue in the community and in classes on campus, Reagon will create connections by exploring what can be learned and listening to the stories told and conversations had.

“Chapel Hill has a strong black community oral tradition, leading scholars, amazing activists, and great artists, and I’m excited to continue to work with all of them.”

Toshi Reagon

One of Reagon’s planned projects is a series of musicals, each of which will “explore something thematic around the issues related to the economy and survival,” says Reagon. She plans to expand on discoveries from her DisTIL partnership with UNC associate professor Renée Alexander Craft and collaborate with other faculty, students and “the amazing musical family in the Triangle,” researching pressing issues and making art that will spur a conversation with the public. This semester, she is collaborating on a UNC course with Alexander Craft and professor Joseph Megel that will culminate in a performance by students. 

“There are going to be a lot of public offerings that will foster communication,” says Reagon. “I hope to bring a deep level of in-depth conversation and interaction that can serve as a point of transformation for this community.”

Okwui Okpokwasili is building a sonic landscape.  

Okwui Okpokwasili, whose 2018 MacArthur Fellow biography describes her as a “performer, choreographer, and writer creating multidisciplinary performance pieces,” seeks to use the practices of art and performance to build bridges and bonds. Holding space where community members can be in dialogue with each other and learn from one another is critically important to her.  

“My project is to build a platform for the creation of an ongoing improvisational song,” she says. Okpokwasili, who is cultivating relationships with local community artists, “develops strategies and exercises that allow us to engage in conversations with people we know and people we don’t know. And from these conversations we start to build a sonic landscape.” 

“I hope that this work builds deeper connections…”

Okwui Okpokwasili

“That landscape could be lyrical, melodic songs, cries, shouts,” she says. Working with local artists—including Murielle Elizeon  and Tommy Noonan, co-directors of the Saxapahaw-based performing arts collective Culture Mill—Okpokwasili and her collaborative partner Peter Born will create a space to create an “improvisational public song comprised of sounds and movement.”  

Okpokwasili believes that this work is the perfect way to integrate CPA’s “desire to reach out into the community in a deeper and more sustained relationship.” She says that building community and having individuals communicate with one another are at the heart of her work.  

“I hope that this work builds deeper connections with the artists who are part of the larger Chapel Hill community who might find that they might not be seen or feel welcome in some of these spaces,” she says. “I also hope that this fellowship with other incredible artists will help the Chapel Hill community recognize how vital arts practices are to a strong, sustainable and healthy community.”  

Shara Nova wears a white collared shirt, her bright red hair in a bun.

Shara Nova wants to explore how to find our common humanity.  

There are three branches to the musical life of Shara Nova: composer, singer/songwriter for My Brightest Diamond, and singer for music by other composers. With Creative Futures, Nova and fellow artist-in-residence Helga Davis—who have been friends for more than 20 years—are creating a piece with the choirs at Durham’s Northern High School, working with choir director Rachel Spencer alongside faculty partner Tanya Shields, associate professor of women’s and gender studies at UNC. 

“We interview choir members, ask them questions to better understand their life and use that to create the work that will be performed,” says Nova. “The students are from lots of different places and have varied experiences and backgrounds. That was appealing to me because I want to explore how we cross these divides and where we find our common humanity.” Nova says that the job of artists is to provide a safe environment for people to say what they are feeling and talk about their experience. 

The work will be incorporated into Body Vessel, a piece Nova and Davis are creating based on their friendship and lives as people with different skin color and different experiences. “I’m from the South and Helga is from Harlem,” says Nova. “I’m 5’2” and she’s somewhere around six feet tall. The reality is that because of our skin color, we’ve had to learn a practice of community in our friendship that’s not taught. We want to share with people the love that we have for each other and create a space to have what can be hard to do in this country: to self-examine and to listen.” 

Nova says that the personal nature of the work is important. “We’re not trying to have a big conversation about skin color that is outside of ourselves,” she says. “It’s a very personal examination.” 

Helga Davis wears a textured white sweater and stares intensely ahead.

Helga Davis dislikes labels. 

“I live in many fields of saying ‘yes’: yes, I will work on that film; yes, I will curate this conversation; yes, I will write a song,” says Helga Davis. Often described as a vocalist and performance artist, Davis sees her work as a mirror for people.  

“This is an opportunity to see what the community is holding and to help them hold it.”

helga davis

Davis believes that developing a piece with Shara Nova about their relationship will be valuable for the larger community. “Shara and I have a lot of conversations about being women of different races, and how we experience those things in the world as performers and as people who are concerned about the communities in which we live,” says Davis. 

“We’re not coming from the outside to tell people what to do, how smart we are, and what we know and they don’t,” says Davis. “This is an opportunity to see what the community is holding and to help them hold it.”  

As visiting curator for performing arts at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Davis has experience in commissioning people from the community to create work and conversations around a myriad of topics. “That experience has fattened me up for understanding the importance of how to do it somewhere else, and I’m looking forward to bringing that to Chapel Hill,” she says. 

Davis and Nova’s work will include a piece that involves local musicians and community. “The work will manifest itself in song and there will be dialogue,” says Davis. “The big thing for us is to take our concerns for our society and for ourselves and bring that into the work and include as many people as we can into that dialogue. We want to make something that serves as a snapshot and as a place on a road that we might be able to take as a society.” 

The Gift of Fellowship 

Massenburg says that Creative Futures is designed to “lift up the voices of women in art, to make sure that they are supported not only in acclaim for their work but also in terms of resources and capacity.”  

“To create amazing work, you need the opportunity to have funding, space, and support to be able to create sustainably,” he says. “We have the opportunity to do that with this project, especially for women of color.” 

Reagon agrees. “Getting support, not just so that you are able to function in your life, but support for the vision that you have is exciting and beautiful,” she says. “This fellowship allows me to be in another part of the country I adore, to expand community, to learn and receive from people, and produce new work.” 

She appreciates that Carolina Performing Arts is bringing artists into the community for “in-depth conversation and interaction as a point of transformation.” She says that CPA’s ongoing commitment to fostering these collaborations can help dissolve boundaries. “This deep investment continues to increase the possibility for art to have an impact on education, both on campus and in the community,” says Reagon. 

The duration of the grant is unprecedented, in Nova’s experience. “To be able to spend four years with a community is very different than coming in to do a big event and then leaving,” she says. “Having the opportunity to be in a community with the time to figure out how you can best serve that community is a unique experience.” 

Okpokwasili is grateful to have support in a way she hasn’t experienced before. “Having the space to make more mistakes, to really push, to be completely liberated from some idea of a finished piece and to dive deeply into the rigors of the practice is a gift,” she says. “This partnership—the university, the resources, the rigor of the academy in creating a space that feels really wild—is exciting.” 

“This fellowship gives us an opportunity to work over a period of time and figure out how to continue the conversations we start,” says Davis. “That’s a huge thing for me as an artist, and as someone who cares about the sustainability of the work. It’s such a tremendous opportunity for the four of us to be resources for one another, to be mirrors for one another, and to be in deep sisterhood and friendship.” 

Creating the Future 

In conversation, Reagon mentions the giant garage door that is part of the theater space at CURRENT. 

“That signifies something at the heart of how CPA would like to impact this community. It says that this door is open and anything is possible.” 

Fill Us In: Allison Loggins–Hull of Flutronix

Welcome to Fill Us In, our rapid fire fill-in-the-blank questionnaire inspired by the famous Proust questionnaire where we take a peek inside the minds of Carolina Performing Arts’ artists.   

In  this  edition, we’re talking with CPA artist-in-residence Allison Loggins-Hull who, with collaborator Nathalie Joachim, make up flute and electronics duo Flutronix.

A questionnaire titled "Fill Us In" featuring a picture of artist Allison Loggins-Hull, who provided the answers. The answers on the questionnaire are reflected in the text below this image.

What is the best way to start your day?
My husband and I make a point to have coffee together first thing in the morning, before the children wake up and the demands of the day begin.

What is the worst way to start your day?
Looking at the news right away.

What would the title of your memoir be?
Whelp, That Was Crazy: A Story of Impossible Ideas and Enormous Undertakings

If you had a motto, what would it be?
Trust the universe!

What person do you admire most?
Michelle Obama. She is ALL of the things!

How do you hope others describe you in three words or less?
Black girl magic.

If you could transform into an animal, what animal would you be?
I’d be a bird, only because of the ability to fly.

What does a perfect “room of one’s own” look like to you?
No clutter, lots of sun, some flowers, a fireplace.

What smell can transport you back to your childhood?
The original cherry almond Jergens lotion.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Listen to your gut.

Ocean, bathtub, or pool?
Ocean.

If you weren’t an artist what would your profession be?
Something involving home renovations and/or architecture.

What is something you splurge on?
Food. I once spent $800 on a sushi dinner for two. No regrets.

What advice do you have for artists who are just starting out?
Don’t be afraid to take risks and trust your gut! Also, it’s okay to take time to figure yourself out.

What thing is necessary for you to make art?
Inspiration.

Changing through Collective Creation

Engaging with Affordable Housing: The Musical

Black man dressed in black on foreground of stage, with several people in background holding up a hand-painted sign that says "Welcome to Church Mound"

In November of 2019, Affordable Housing: The Musical premiered at CURRENT ArtSpace + Studio to a completely sold-out audience. Presented as part of a partnership between community organizations, including Chapel Hill’s Community Empowerment Fund (CEF) and Carolina Performing Arts, the weekend run of this grassroots performance reminded us that the work we do outside of our presenting season is ongoing—and important. 

Founded in 2009, CEF serves and supports Orange County residents experiencing housing insecurity. Co-founder Maggie West had recognized that members of the organization were looking for more opportunities for artistic expression, and so, over more than a year-and-a-half, she and others collaborated to create a performance that would “educate community members on issues of affordable housing and, in the process, reduce the stigma of homelessness.” 

Simultaneously, UNC music major Rachel Despard was searching for ways to use her voice to support the community. An intern for the engagement team at CPA (which works with faculty, students, and community to create connections with artists and the arts), she had also performed at CEF benefit concerts. Soon, Rachel dove into helping bring the musical to life. As production got underway, she offered her experience in mixing and mastering audio to create an official soundtrack for all streaming platforms, which was released in May 2020.     

Through her work with both CPA and CEF, Rachel forged connections that led her to a new understanding of the role of performance in daily life. This experience carried into her academics, as well. In her senior year, she authored (and successfully defended!) an honors thesis that presented a “study of socially engaged art-making and micro-activism in Chapel Hill in 2019 and 2020,” based on her intersecting experiences of collaborating with CEF and CPA, and her study of “existing scholarship on artistic advocacy and ethnomusicological activism, inform[ing] my argument for the significance of micro-activism and socially engaged art making.” 

Finding new pathways for pedagogy and participation is at the core of CPA’s engagement work, and the work extends long after the curtain falls on a performance. From Rachel’s thesis: 

“When you sing a song for an audience, you can immediately witness their reaction and feel a connection. Within the strong relationships that are built through music, participants in collective creation can see others change over the course of a musical project or collaboration. This was the kind of impact I was searching for, and one I witnessed through Affordable Housing: The Musical.” 

When Rachel came to UNC, she didn’t know how her passions of music, advocacy, and academia would evolve and mesh as they have done. And for CPA, getting to encourage and help make these connections for students and community members is an integral part of the “backstage” work we do.

Ellie Pate is an artistic coordinator at Carolina Performing Art, working both in artist services and in engagement. 

CEF serves and supports Orange County residents experiencing housing insecurity, and its work is just as urgent as ever: in the face of COVID-19, members without housing are some of the most vulnerable to the virus, and those with housing face financial uncertainty from economic turmoil. If you are able, you can support this crucial work by donating directly to Community Empowerment Fund or The Marian Cheek Jackson Center, or by donating a dinner through Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe (contact Vimala’s for more information).

Fill Us In: Pedja Mužijević

Welcome to Fill Us In, our rapid fire fill-in-the-blank questionnaire inspired by the famous Proust questionnaire where we take a peek inside the minds of Carolina Performing Arts’ artists.   

In  this  edition, we’re talking with bold and innovative pianist Pedja Mužijević who has defined his career with creative programming, unusual combinations of new and old music, and lasting collaborations with other artists and ensembles.

A graphical version of Pedja Mužijević's artist questionairre answers with Carolina Performing Arts brand colors and whimsical shapes. The answers in this image are identical to the answers in text below.

What is the best way to start your day?
Waking up.

What is the worst way to start your day?
Not waking up.

What would the title of your memoir be?
“I Got Away With It.”

What is something you splurge on?
Food and wine.

If you had a motto, what would it be?
Walk through every door that opens to you.

What person do you admire most?
Mahatma Gandhi.

What advice do you have for artists who are just starting out?
Question everything, most of all yourself.

How do you hope others describe you in three words or less?
I like him.

If you could transform into an animal, what animal would you be?
A friendly tiger.

What smell can transport you back to your childhood?
Watermelon.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Do something kind to someone you don’t know everyday.

Ocean, bathtub, or pool?
Pool.

If you weren’t an artist what would your profession be?
Chef.

What is your favorite meal?
The next one.

What is your idea of a perfect day?
Playing chamber music with friends and cooking together.

What thing is necessary for you to make art?
Audience.

The “Last Live”: Reflections on Meredith Monk’s Cellular Songs

When was the last time you saw a live performance? Until recently, this was a simple question, but in this COVID era it calls to mind wistful memories of sitting beside friends and strangers in a dark space full of collective concentration.

In my recent conversations with UNC faculty and students, many responded to this question with a distant look followed by a pause or a sigh, signaling nostalgia and loss. Others became animated, enthusiastically recalling the energy in the performance hall or a late-night post-show debate over dinner.

Two women stand outside on UNC's quad holding puppets on long strings as they rehearse for an opera.
Students in Marc Callahan’s class rehearse for Atlas, Monk’s opera.

For both me and professor Marc Callahan in the Department of Music, the answer to this question was Meredith Monk’s Cellular Songs, the last live performance that took place at Carolina Performing Arts in March 2020. The performance, which Callahan and his opera students attended, struck both of us as immediately singular, even before our current extraordinary circumstances. A pioneer of interdisciplinary experimental performance, Monk uses “the voice as an instrument, as an eloquent language in and of itself, expands the boundaries of musical composition, creating landscapes of sound that unearth feelings, energies, and memories for which there are no words.”

In Cellular Songs, Monk and her all-female ensemble embodied and vocally expressed a profound connectedness that resonated beyond the Memorial Hall stage and into the audience, where Callahan, his students, and I sat in disbelief. Afterward, student Imani Oluoch described this performance as “primal and primordial.” Her fellow student performer, Hannah Lawrence, recalled “the sense of community as each woman laid their head on each other’s shoulders before the lights faded out.”

“I gained from Cellular Songs…a renewed commitment to presence of mind in each instant I live.”

Carson gartner, unc opera student

Callahan’s students were particularly attuned to Monk’s performance, as they were deep into rehearsals for a student interpretation of Monk’s lyric-less opera Atlas, which was set to premiere on campus in early April 2020. Six months later, the opera students are yet to perform Atlas live. While the current remote semester unfolds, they are working on an Atlas film that they hope to publicly stream this winter (watch a clip here). 

At Callahan’s urging, I made a brief Zoom visit to his class to prompt these undergraduate Monk experts to consider the gravity of their last live Meredith Monk performance. Their insightful reflections were as much about their individual reactions to Cellular Songs as they were about the arts as a practice of togetherness, a practice that has renewed poignancy after extended isolation. Carson Gartner shared, “I gained from Cellular Songs (albeit on a slight delay) a renewed commitment to presence of mind in each instant I live.” Mackenzie Smith wrote that delving into Monk’s practice encouraged her “to learn and explore within the uncertainty.”

For me, the words of these students feel like important lessons for this time. Indeed, I see Carolina Performing Arts’ current pause in live performance as an opportunity to reimagine our organization, to recommit to our theaters not only as stages for performance, but as spaces where artists and audiences are invited to come together to embrace the uncertainty of the live.

Amanda Graham is the associate director of engagement at Carolina Performing Arts. Through her work, she regularly engages with faculty and students across campus. Currently, she is cohosting Feedback: The Institute for Performance, a new set of free virtual courses on performance open to adults in the Triangle. 

Fill Us In: Abigail Washburn

Welcome to Fill Us In, our rapid fire fill-in-the-blank questionnaire inspired by the famous Proust questionnaire where we take a peek inside the minds of Carolina Performing Arts’ artists.   

In  this  edition, we’re talking with Grammy-winning singer, songwriter, and banjo player Abigail Washburn, a CPA/Andrew W. Mellon Foundation DisTIL artist-in-residence and the first guest artist on The Spark with Tift Merritt.

Fill Us In: Tift Merritt

Welcome to Fill Us In, our rapid fire fill-in-the-blank questionnaire inspired by the famous Proust questionnaire where we take a peek inside the minds of Carolina Performing Arts’ artists.   

In  this  edition, we’re talking with beloved singer/songwriter Tift Merritt, a Raleigh native and UNC alumna who took the music world by storm with the release of Bramble Rose.

A Virtual Graham Masterclass

UNC students dance with Graham dancer Leslie Williams over Zoom.

Jess Abel is the Marketing and Communications Manager at Carolina Performing Arts, and had the pleasure of joining intermediate and advanced UNC student dancers in CPA’s inaugural virtual masterclass, led by Martha Graham Dance Company dancer Leslie Williams, on August 20, 2020.

After a trying week for the UNC community, starting the Martha Graham Dance Company masterclass––CPA’s first-ever virtual masterclass––with a few moments of deep breathing led by Graham dancer Leslie Williams felt both settling and profound.

We inhaled and exhaled to the count of eight from our living rooms, bedrooms, garages, and home offices, connected by Leslie’s voice and identical movements as we moved on to stretching and then to Graham technique over Zoom. As we moved, we pictured ourselves on beaches and in meadows, we related the concavity of Michelangelo’s Pietà to Graham’s iconic and striking poses, and we became more fluid with our movements.

Williams leads the class through an iconic Graham sequence.

Particularly striking was the ease and grace with which Professor Heather Tatreau’s dance students learned the movements amidst the physical distance and less-than-ideal studio settings (trading in Marley dance flooring for shag carpeting, for instance, can’t be easy). But the energy of the class was that of literal and mental flexibility, positivity, and resilience.

By the end of the hour, the home office I was dancing in seemed to become an extension on Leslie’s studio. It was challenging and freeing, private and communal all at once, and as we were nearing cool-down two things were very clear to this arts lover: five months of quarantine had not been kind to my athletic abilities, and masterclasses will continue to be as deeply meaningful over Zoom as they ever were in person.

Ellie’s Must-Have Vegan Eats

If you’re like us, you might be starting to run low on cooking inspiration after all these days at home. We called in Ellie Pate, artistic coordinator and chef of some of the most delicious work lunches at the CPA office, to lend us some inspiration. Whether you’re vegan, looking to jazz up your meals with more veggies, or just want to learn how to make the most beautiful pizza we’ve ever seen, read on.

A woman wearing glasses and a jean jacket smiles. She stands in front of a wooded backyard.

CPA: What are some good plant-based pantry staples to have on hand?
Ellie Pate: One of my favorite things about being vegan is that you can make so many different things out of the same food staples if you have basic spices. I always keep the following on hand, and use generously:
i. Garlic (I always use fresh and usually double the amount)
ii. Ginger
iii. Basil
iv. Oregano
v. Rosemary
vi. Coriander
vii. Cumin
viii. Nutritional yeast !!!
ix. Black pepper

CPA: Favorite single ingredient?
EP: I find many people aren’t big fans of mushrooms, but I love them and eat them probably every other day. They are the only plant-based source of vitamin D (important when we’re stuck inside all day!) and are actually really versatile in the ways they can be used. My go-to way to prepare them is to dry-sauté them by adding them, sliced, directly onto a pan over medium heat without any oil. When they get a little tender, add your spices (I like cooking them in rosemary, basil, and oregano). This method allows them to release water as they heat up, so they won’t stick and they’ll absorb flavor better. Try it this way if you usually find mushrooms too slimy! Add to pasta, pizza, mix in with rice, bake with potatoes, stir fry it, do whatever you want. I like to eat them with steamed garlic greens.

CPA: What’s your advice for meal-prepping?
EP: Most of my meals are basically vegetables on some sort of “base”, like rice, pasta, or quinoa. Some of my favorite ways to avoid eating pasta three days a week are to make polenta, gnocchi, and pizza! (We all have the Italians to thank.)

IMG_1457-min

For pizza, I usually just get pre-made dough from Trader Joe’s, but its pretty easy to make yourself too. Throw veggies on there–so easy. For the pictured pizza, first take dough out of fridge to rest for 20 mins. Meanwhile, cut up desired vegetables into bite sized pieces. Here, I used mushrooms, half one green pepper, half one large onion, (thinly sliced), broccoli (stems cut off, about 1 inch pieces), a handful of spinach, chopped grape tomatoes, and 3 minced cloves of garlic. Put them all in a bowl and drizzle 2 or more tablespoons of oil (I recommend grapeseed or olive), and then 1 tsp of each rosemary, oregano, and basil, and ½ tsp of crushed red pepper flakes. Salt and pepper to taste. I also added a good amount of nutritional yeast to get a cheesy flavor, but I put that on everything! Mix so everything looks evenly coated. Roll out dough to about 12 inches across and just thin enough not to tear. Add marinara/ pizza sauce and use the back of a spoon to cover the dough. Top with the veggies to desired thickness, and bake according to dough instructions.

Voila! (I had a lot of the veggie mix left over and ate it with pasta the next day for dinner)

CPA: Give us your best plant-based wisdom.
EP: Embrace the chickpea.

CPA: Best quick meal or snack?
EP: Omg, sweet potato and avocado sandwiches are GREAT. I bake my sweet potatoes in the microwave because its fast – just stab with a fork all over and put it in there for 4-8 mins depending on the size of the potato. Smear these things on toast and put a little salt and pepper – so good, and an easy lunch when you’re working from home.

CPA: What’s a good way to add a little pizzazz to a meal?
EP: Consider adding nuts to top things off and add flavor, texture, and protein! I found a whole bag of frozen walnuts in my freezer and have been experimenting with just toasting them in a pan and adding them to sautéed kale or pancakes.

IMG_1450-min

CPA: What kind of bread should we be baking while social distancing?
EP: If you’re looking for a project, start making sourdough bread. It is a fun experiment and a way to eat bread that is kind of healthy (yay probiotics!)! There’s lots of resources online, but the way to start is to mix equal parts flour and water (leave a glass of tap water out for 8 hours first to evaporate off any chlorine, because it will kill the yeast) in a glass or steel bowl and cover with a kitchen towel. After 24 hours, pour off 2/3 of it, and add equal parts flour and water again. Do this every day for about 5 days – it should start smelling nice and yeasty. When its nice and bubbly (kinda foamy), drop a little of it into a glass of water. If it floats, it’s ready to use. If it sinks, feed and check on it again in about 4 hours, and then at 8 hours, then at 12.

Idalis’s Stay Home and Stream Guide

A What to Watch Guide from CPA’s Patron Services Coordinator

A woman wearing a bright dress and jean jacket stands in front of window boxes filled with plants, her hand on her hip.

Hey y’all! Hope this time at home is treating you all kindly, as it’s not a normal time. Many of us are having to transition to a work-from-home lifestyle which, I’ll admit, hasn’t been super easy – at least not for me. Although this is a challenging time, trying to retain a sense of normalcy and comfort has been a major key to me keeping some of my sanity. Below are four shows that currently have my attention.

Gilmore Girls – Netflix

Quality wholesome television. A pop culture classic. I’m on my first watch of seeing the Gilmore women take on the world, and I can’t complain. If I had to pick a small town to live in, it’d be Stars Hollow. One of the few shows where I don’t have the urge to press the “skip intro” button, mainly because I can’t help but sing along to the theme song, “Where You Lead” by Carole King.

3rd Rock from the Sun – Amazon Prime Video

Oh, the nostalgia. For some reason, I have very vivid memories of watching reruns of this show during the early mornings when I was home from elementary school. I’ve been working my way through this comedy since last fall, but now that we’re in full social distancing mode, I’ve found myself going back to this comedy. Quite frankly, I’d give almost anything to be Sally Solomon right now because who wouldn’t want to be an alien during a pandemic?

Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness – Netflix

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a huge binge watcher. Every time I’ve tried, I usually don’t succeed. But y’all, Tiger King is just that wild – it’s worth the binge. There are only 7 episodes, not including the after show hosted by Joel McHale. Each episode is like traveling further down a never-ending rabbit hole of things that really happened. Even if you’ve been fighting the urge to watch because you don’t want to seem too mainstream, I guarantee you it is worth caving to peer pressure. This series does depict some very heavy topics and even though they aren’t always presented in a serious manner, I encourage everyone who watches to take a step back when necessary.

Good Mythical Morning – YouTube

Led by North Carolinians Rhett McLaughlin and Link Neal, Good Mythical Morning (GMM) has recently been a source of many early morning laughs – which are definitely needed during this strange time. Honestly, GMM is one of my favorite channels on YouTube and while we’re holed up, I highly recommend giving them a watch. Most of the videos are no longer than 20 minutes and sometimes feature special guests, which makes whatever challenge, game, or taste test that much funnier.

-Idalis Payne

Staff Intro: Mark Steffen, Events Manager

We are thrilled to introduce you to our friend Mark Steffen, events manager, in our latest staff feature! A tea lover, extraordinary meeting leader, and all-around office MVP, Mark works with other UNC departments and student orgs who present their work at CPA’s venues, and was one of CPA’s very first staff members.

CAN YOU GIVE US A SENSE OF YOUR DAY-TO-DAY AT CPA WHEN THE SEASON’S RUNNING AS PER USUAL?

The bulk of my work involves working with organizations that rent our facilities—primarily other University departments or UNC student organizations. So a typical day might involve responding to venue reservation requests, meeting with rental clients to help them plan and budget for their events, and working on invoices for events that have already passed. I also lead our weekly Operations Staff Meetings where we plan for upcoming events and discuss how past events went (both Carolina Performing Arts events and events by other organizations) and what improvements we can make in the future.

HOW LONG HAVE YOU WORKED AT CPA?

A long time! I started in November 2005, when CPA was only a few months old. It was supposed to be a temp job, but things turned out differently. I like to tell people my very first assignment at CPA was to assemble a particleboard bookshelf for our administrative office, which was in a retail space on Franklin Street near where CURRENT ArtSpace + Studio is now. It’s amazing to see how far CPA has come over the years.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF YOUR JOB? 

I really enjoy working on multiple, diverse events all at once. You never know who will come knocking on CPA’s door wanting to have an event in one of our spaces. We work a lot with student organizations that put on performances in our spaces, which is really rewarding. They always try their best to put on the best show possible, which sometimes leads to some interesting requests. Like when a fraternity performing in the Step Show asks if they can fly a person in from the grid (No) or when one of the student theater groups asks if they can use fake blood for their performance of Sweeney Todd (Maybe, but we have to test to make sure the fake blood won’t stain the curtains first).

From time to time we’ll also have groups bring big name speakers to our venues. Neil deGrasse Tyson (a personal favorite) once spoke at Memorial Hall and Jimmy Fallon filmed an episode of Late Night on stage at Memorial Hall with President Obama and Dave Matthews as guests. That’s a hard one to beat.

COFFEE OR TEA?  

Coffee first thing in the morning to wake me up, then tea throughout the rest of the day. Any CPA staff member should be able to vouch for the tea thing.

WHAT’S BEEN YOUR GO-TO PLACE FOR TAKEOUT FOOD THESE PAST WEEKS?  

I haven’t done a lot of takeout recently, but I’ve definitely been missing Cosmic Cantina. It’s right next to our office at the Porthole Building. When I’m not working from home, it takes all my strength not to eat lunch there every day.

“I really enjoy working on multiple, diverse events all at once. You never know who will come knocking on CPA’s door…”

Mark steffen
IT’S A SUNNY SATURDAY AFTERNOON. WHERE WOULD WE FIND YOU?

Hopefully somewhere outdoors, on a walk or in a boat. I have a few favorite places—University Lake, the Occoneechee Speedway Trail, and Saxapahaw along the Haw River.

WHAT’S SOMETHING THAT’S BEEN GIVING YOU JOY THROUGH THESE STRANGE COVID TIMES?

There are a lot of things I’m missing right now. Many things I either didn’t use to think about or took for granted. But lately I’ve been using those feelings as excuses to be more mindful and thankful for the things I used to enjoy and will, one day, enjoy again. Trading good mornings with my bus driver (extra special when it’s the CPA bus I’m riding), stores with shelves stocked full of toilet paper, and performances on stages instead of screens and with real audiences too. Those things will come back in time. Hopefully once they do, we will all cherish them a bit more. Thinking that way actually gives me a great deal of joy.

WHAT’S THE MOST MEMORABLE PERFORMANCE YOU’VE EVER SEEN (CPA OR NON-CPA)?

In 2011 CPA presented Black Watch by National Theatre of Scotland. It was a play about a regiment of British soldiers fighting in the Iraq War meant for a black box theater space. This was before CURRENT ArtSpace + Studio existed, so we built the set on stage in Memorial Hall and sat the audience on stage too. It was such an immersive, moving experience. The scale of the performance seemed incredibly huge, with the sounds of explosions making you feel as if you were really on the battlefield. At the same time there were moments that were truly intimate, when you were only ten feet away from an actor portraying a soldier in a way that was based on interviews of real soldiers. It was incredible.

A Reflection on This Moment

It is hard to know where to begin, at such a moment of grief and outrage against the horrific violence perpetrated against George Floyd and so many others—a moment that is not momentary at all, but lifelong. Carolina Performing Arts has its home on a campus that has a full-throated history of racist ideology and action against Black people, in a region with the same, in a country with the same still. Our collective situation has been dire for some time, but perhaps we, wrongly, did not see it for what it was: an urgent call-to-action. Being able to even make this mistake or benefit from this blindness is itself a privilege.

We have work to do.

Many of us at CPA are drawn to work in the arts because we see it as a voice for the people—artists are activists, and they have been compelled throughout history to speak the truth, to make plain what we can’t or won’t, to expose the ugliness that so often simmers barely beneath the surface. To support such art, therefore, is to acknowledge the sacred right to make one’s voice heard against injustice, whether it occurs on the stage or in the streets. As such, the violent militarization of law enforcement against protesters in the United States is despicable.

To look across the spectrum of performance art is to see plainly who has been excluded from the canon throughout time. Often, when we invite artists to CPA, their performances take place in a venue that is itself a memorial to the wrong side of history. As a performing arts presenter on a university campus, our mission states that we strive to create arts experiences that encourage lifelong learning. In CPA’s history, our staff has taken pride in the multifaceted work we have supported that seeks to address the ills in our society, but we must go a step—many steps—further.

As others have said: it is the time to be vociferously, actively anti-racist. Part of that means listening more than speaking: to our BIPOC staff, community, artists, and colleagues. We will engage our staff in anti-racism trainings, and ask ourselves, and others, difficult questions. We will not shy away from the answers.

We will remain committed to presenting, commissioning, and curating art by people of color. We recognize that the premise that we must make such a commitment is itself faulty, and will work to correct it within our organization and with our peers. We urge our staff and audience to disrupt the structures of white supremacy, systemic violence against Black people, and oppression, and for those with privilege to use it in service to our fellow humans.

This is a humble start, certainly. In recent days, many of us have seen these words of Desmond Tutu: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Carolina Performing Arts stands in solidarity with the Black community, and we are committed to doing our part to dismantle the deeply embedded systems of racism and oppression on our campus, in our towns, and in our country.

For anyone looking to take action by supporting local organizations, we encourage you to support the NC Community Bail Fund of Durham, Take Action Chapel Hill, Community Empowerment Fund, the Marian Cheek Jackson Center, Spirit House, NorthStar Church of the Arts, Hayti Heritage Center, Culture Mill, Orange County Justice United, and UNC-Chapel Hill’s own Campus Y. You can also find anti-racism resources provided by the University Office for Diversity and Inclusion at this link.

We stand with you.

#BlackLivesMatter

To be (read), or not to be (read): CPA’s associate director of marketing and communications on her book pile

It’s safe to say we’ve all got a little extra time on our hands in these strange new days. To make sure I’m not simply going from my computer screen to the TV screen, I’m getting outside for walks and making a real dent in my to-be-read pile (don’t worry: it’s still pretty big). Here are some books I’ve recently loved—I realize none of them are performing arts-related, but as Rory Gilmore once said, “my interests are teasingly diverse.”

Author Christina Rodriguez sits on the steps of a museum with pink and purple light from an installation bouncing around her.

Save Me the Plums by Ruth Reichl

I started reading Ruth Reichl’s food memoirs when I was in high school and it was a treat to live inside her brightly painted world again as she recalls the final years of Gourmet magazine. Plus: the title references the famous and wonderful William Carlos Williams poem.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Despite being a little embarrassed to admit, as a former book editor, that I had never picked up one of Whitehead’s books before, I tore through this novel in 24 hours. What a beautiful and heartbreaking work of fiction about one of the darkest times in this country’s history.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

This novel by a retired wildlife biologist was a sleeper hit. Blockbuster or no, it is a gorgeously rendered mystery wrapped up in a bildungsroman—and it is set right in North Carolina. At a moment when most of us probably aren’t getting enough time in nature, Owens’s writing will make you feel like you’re out motoring around in protagonist Kya’s little boat in the wilds of our state.

Indian-ish by Priya Krishna

You might know Priya, as I do, from Bon Appetit’s videos or magazine. In this unique cookbook, she breaks down her Indian-American family’s style of cooking in a really fun and approachable way. Plus, perhaps you, like me, have loads of dried beans and legumes lying around and don’t know what to do with them. May I suggest Priya’s Lemony Lentils and Rice for your supper?

Fill Us In: Lang Lang

Welcome to Fill Us In, our rapid fire fill-in-the-blank questionnaire inspired by the famous Proust questionnaire where we take a peek inside the minds of Carolina Performing Arts’ artists.  

In  this  edition, we’re talking with renowned pianist Lang Lang, whose performance of the Goldberg Variations was planned to be the culmination of our season. 

CPA: What is the best way to start your day?
Lang Lang: A hot shower 

CPA: What is the worst way to start your day?
LL: A cold shower 

CPA: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
LL: Be patient 

CPA: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever given someone else?
LL: Be patient  

CPA: What smell can transport you back to your childhood?
LL: Popcorn 

CPA: What would the title of your memoir be?
LL: Journey of a Thousand Miles: My Story 

CPA: What is your favorite meal?
LL: Homemade dumplings 

CPA: What is your idea of a perfect day?
LL: A nice walk in the park, a wonderful concert and dinner with family and friends afterwards  

CPA: What one thing is necessary for you to make art?
LL: A piano 

CPA: If you weren’t an artist, what would your profession be?
LL: Football player 

CPA: What does the perfect “room of one’s own” look like to you?
LL: One with a Steinway piano inside  

CPA: If you could transform into an animal, what animal would it be?
LL: A dragon 

CPA: What advice do you have for artists just starting out?
LL: Look for a good mentor 

CPA: What do you splurge on?
LL: Good albums  

CPA: What person do you most admire?
LL: At the moment: Glen Gould 

CPA: Ocean, pool, or bathtub?
LL: Ocean 

CPA: Who is your role model, dead or living?
LL: Leonard Bernstein 

CPA: What do you want your tombstone to say?
LL: Music was my life 

Staff Intro: Laura Pinto-Coelho

We’re missing all our CPA colleagues, so it feels like a good time to introduce you to another incredible staffer: Laura Pinto-Coelho, Development Manager, who’s got some great recommendations for when we’re all out and about in the world again! #CPAatHome

💼What’s your role at CPA?💼
I support CPA’s development officers with everything from tracking the budget and sending acknowledgment letters after donations to event planning and stewardship.

❤️What’s your favorite part of your job?❤️
The events. I love executing event planning and socializing with our donors.

🍔Where’s your go-to place for food on Franklin St?🍔
Imbibe for a blackened catfish po boy and curly fries.

☕How about coffee?☕
Dunkin’ for a hazelnut iced coffee.

☀️It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon. Where would we find you?☀️
Playing board games with friends at either Vecino in Carrboro or Bull City Ciderworks in Durham.

💡What’s the most memorable performance you’ve ever seen?💡
When I saw the Tallest Man on Earth in Durham. I listened to them a lot in college, so it was super nostalgic for me.

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