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How Local Cultural Council Grantees in Central and Western Mass are Adapting to a Pandemic
COVID-19 has devastated the creative sector. No more gigs. No more plays. No more gallery showings. Still, as they usually do, creatives are finding ways to make and share their art with the world. These Local Cultural Council grantees are doing their part to cultivate culture during a crisis.
Lauren Monroe is the Co-Director and founding member of Technocopia, a membership-based tool and shop share in Worcester. Technocopia joined the Worcester Face Shield Project, an initiative to create protective face shields for health care workers on the front lines of the pandemic. To date, the project has distributed 1,700 face shields and had the materials and production set up for an additional 2, 000 before recently being approved for funding from the Greater Worcester Community Foundation and United Way of Central Massachusetts for another 6,000. Monroe estimates 9,000-10,000 face shields can be distributed to the field.
“Makerspaces across the nation are responding to the need for personal protective equipment in hospitals and health care centers. Technocopia has too.
“Mass manufacturing is not a typical primary operation of ours. We do however have the equipment and staff in skilled arts and trades necessary for such production. We are partnered with the Worcester Center for Crafts on this effort.”
Leading a makerspace wasn’t always where Monroe saw herself but the Rutland, native has always been an inquisitive creative and credits the road less-traveled nature of her academic and professional career for her eclectic interests.
“I practiced a lot in the arts, particularly in music, dance, and theater, from about 9 to 19 years of age. At 19, I continued pursuits in musicianship as a hobby, but otherwise stopped it as a major concentration of study,” Monroe said. “I was transient and explorative with my personal pursuits and studies in college. That led to a couple transfers, a study abroad experience, and not graduating on a typical 4-year undergraduate timeline.”
After graduating in 2002 with a Bachelor’s of Science in Public Health and Health Sciences from UMASS Amherst, getting her Master’s seemed like the logical next step but Monroe never went back to strict academia. Wanderlust took hold and she traveled abroad in her mid-twenties: Japan, Italy, Spain, and Central America.
“I taught to make money. First as an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher and then later as a science teacher. I always loved science as a kid, and the best part to me was experimentation. I enjoy teaching because I like learning how others observe the world and test ideas,” Monroe said. “It wasn’t until I was 29 that I fully settled back in Massachusetts, and Worcester became my home.”
Once home in the Heart of the Commonwealth, Monroe got involved in the music and arts scene and opened a hands-on science learning center called the Worcester Area Think Tank. In 2015 an IndieGoGo fundraiser and a MassDevelopment grant helped her merge the think tank into the Technocopia makerspace, docked within the Printers Building in downtown Worcester.
Before the pandemic and when the shop was open, anyone over the age of 12 (for some shops) and 18 (for all shops) could take classes and tool trainings. The 11,000 sq. ft. DIY haven offers a complete wood shop, metal shop, 3D printer station, electronics bay, and glass flameworking shop. There are two classrooms, a design studio, and a CNC router and laser cutter shop.
Monroe says Technocopia and its members will continue to do what they can to support the Worcester community and health care workers fighting COVID-19.
“The future holds new practices in how we market and run classes and tool trainings. Technocopia has learned how to produce classes online, and we have learned the reach and limits of some equipment regarding manufacturing and production,” Monroe said. “It’s hard to know what the PPE effort today means for us in the months to come. I think many of us, including our staff and members are proud with what we have been capable of turning out.”
Travel up I-90 West from Worcester and you’ll reach the Founder of Hilltown Families, Sienna Wildfield, using her skills as a community-based education specialist to cultivate a stronger Western Massachusetts community. As a sense of place photographer, her first memory of arts and culture is capturing life with a Polaroid camera at 12-years-old and just like Monroe, she’s done her fair share of traveling. In her Supporting Education Through Community Engagement TEDxShelburneFalls talk, Wildfield recalls living in four different states and attending nine different schools by the age of 17, allowing each snapshot experience to develop the portrait of her role in a community.
“I’ve always been interested in the humanities. Moving nearly every year of my life as a child, my memories are filled with the search for meaning in the places I would temporarily find myself,” Wildfield said. “Looking at new communities I lived in through the lens of local food, habitat, and heritage, the humanities were always an essential aspect of integrating a sense of place into my belonging in the new worlds in which I would find myself.”
In 2003, Wildfield planted herself in West Chesterfield. Two years later, she rooted Hilltown Families from the soil of Williamsburg. Hilltown Families’ mission is to support the common good of the community by nurturing a sense of place and value within it. Hilltown accomplishes this by ingraining itself in the fabric of the community, identifying events, resources, and opportunities and linking them together online; something that has become imperative for the arts and culture sector. According to Hidden Hills, the “Hidden Hills of Western Massachusetts refers to the Southern Berkshire Hill Towns, specifically the towns which do not have an exit from the Massachusetts Turnpike” and include Becket, Blandford, Chester, Chesterfield, Cummington, Goshen, Granville, Hawley, Huntington, Middlefield, Montgomery, Otis, Plainfield, Russell, Westhampton, Williamsburg, Windsor, and Worthington. Wildfield has touched these towns and more.
Local Cultural Councils in Amherst, Bernardston, Buckland, Chester, Gill, Goshen, Hadley, Heath, Hinsdale-Peru, Holyoke, Montgomery, Mt. Washington, New Salem, Northern Berkshire, Pelham, Plainfield, Rowe, Shelburne, Shutesbury, South Hadley, Springfield, Washington, Westhampton, and Windsor have all seen the importance of Hilltown’s mission and funded the fruits of their labor in years past. Today, Wildfield is balancing her relationships with those communities while coming to terms with the trauma of the pandemic.
“Personally, I practice awareness and compassion with myself as I oscillate between surges of creative energy and overwhelming sadness due to the daily loss of connections with my community,” Wildfield said. “From the perspective [of my work] I am coping by responding to the needs of the community and myself in their search for meaning during these times through opportunities and resources that support connecting to the seasons and nature.”
Wildfield acknowledges everyone is missing the physical connection to places, people, and in-person events but sees this as an opportunity to support the development of a new culture of learning, one that that supports authentic community connections.
“We are living in a time of many social challenges that contribute to feeling disempowered, disconnected, and distressed. What if the celebration of community potential was the solution to these social challenges?” Wildfield said. “What would happen if citizens were empowered to have a sense of agency over their learning while cultivating a connection to place, community, and self? What if we could bring about a new culture of learning that intrinsically offers solutions to social challenges by utilizing our community potential to educate, nurture, and to grow citizens who are caring and connected?”
Drive just half an hour up MA-112 N and you’ll stumble upon another artist deeply invested in keeping the members of their community connected during the pandemic.
Jonathan Mirin is an Artistic Director, playwright, performer, and Co-Founder of the Piti Théâtre Company located in Shelburne Falls, where he now resides after growing up in Arlington and Cambridge. Inspired by Barrington Stage’s Playwright Mentoring Project, Piti’s Valley Playwright Mentoring (VPM) program is a six-month long course that provides teens with a stipend and space to create plays based on their lives. After founding the company with his wife, Swiss designer/choreographer Godeliève Richard in 2004, Mirin met the playwright who authored his sixth-grade school play, the late Priscilla Dewey Houghton, a champion of arts education whom he affectionately refers to by her nickname, “Nissy.”
“I remember very clearly playing Mordred in King Arthur’s Knights and Days by Priscilla Dewey Houghton in sixth grade. I did not know Nissy at the time – I was 12. But I met her later in Boston after I began working as a teaching artist at her daughter Kippy’s company The Freelance Players,” Mirin said. “It was 2003 and I was living in Jamaica Plain and getting my Master of Arts in Playwrighting from [Boston University]. Later, Nissy became a supporter of Piti Théâtre Company [and] pioneered the multi-arts model of Creative Arts at Park, a summer arts camp in Brookline where my wife and I spent a few summers being nourished as young artists and teachers.”
Usually Piti is busy and on the move between the Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Franklin County, the Community Action’s Family Center in Greenfield, or at the Mohawk Trail Regional High School in Buckland when they aren’t hosting their annual SYRUP Festival or touring country-wide. In the wake of coronavirus, they have adapted, and radio is their new stage now. Thanks to Mirin’s relationship with sound designer Florian Staab, Piti found Cleanfeed, an audio platform for high quality remote recording. On May 31 the VMP teens presented their “radio plays” via Zoom, addressing serious issues like stalking, COVID-19, and mental health but not without a healthy dose of teenage dry humor and sarcasm.
Just like his mentor, Nissy, Mirin believes in supporting young artists and has the support of his community. Local Cultural Councils in Buckland, Charlemont-Hawley, Colrain, Cummington, Deerfield, Goshen, Heath, Leyden, Shelburne, and Warwick have funded Piti projects in previous years but the funders for VPM’s pilot year were The Community Foundation of Western MA, Mass Humanities, and The Art Angels of Western MA. The Art Angels just announced that they will be putting $1,500 towards another year for the program starting in October.
Financial support like that will only help grow the program and develop the artistic skills of teens like Laura Josephs, Piti Ensemble Artist and Peer Mentor and Katarina Tobits, an actor in the program. Being a firefly and a honeybee in the 2nd grade production of Goin Buggy is Joseph’s first memory of arts and culture and family improv plays are what Tobits recollects most vividly.
“I can still remember the music and actually sang one of the songs at a virtual VPM rehearsal about an hour ago,” Joseph said.
“I must’ve been around 5 or 6 at the time. I remember that my brother and I used to put on plays for my parents, that we would watch these cartoons and then try to recreate them with our own stories, building ‘sets’ out of cardboard boxes and using our own clothes for costumes,” Tobits said.
Just like Wildfield, Josephs and Tobits are grappling with the new dichotomy the pandemic presents. In many ways it has put their young lives on pause but in others, it has opened a new opportunity to reflect and be present.
“I like the amount of time and space created by the slowing down of things. I do think it’s created a lot of stress, worry, and loneliness in all the places it has touched, and I know I am very fortunate to be in a situation where I do not feel those things very deeply,” Joseph said. “It is an opportunity to develop equanimity and resilience, and to have immense gratitude for all that we have. It’s also an opportunity to reconnect with folks we haven’t spoken to in a while, and to find new ways to give and receive to allow everyone more malleability throughout this time.”
“From the artist’s perspective, I’m actually coping with this in a really good way… now I have more time and space to think about things in an abstract or philosophical way… It’s allowed me a better space to write plays, screenplays, or short prose, one of my favorite things to do, as well as watch more plays and movies and think about them critically and artistically,” Tobits said.
While Joseph and Tobits take social distancing in stride, they admit to missing the comradery with their fellow actors, Tobits describing her time with them as “group therapy [and an] escape to me in a lot of ways.” Tobits is particularly proud of the VPM’s adaptability to move their plays to radio and enjoys the new challenges of voice acting. And like any teenager during the pandemic, she just wants to hang out with her friends again.
“I’m planning to go into a career in theater or film, or both if I can manage. I’ve been in contact with my friends as much as I can. I’ve always been one to look on the positive side of things, and as much as I am sad and angry about this situation, I’m seeing the opportunities this is offering for me. First of all, I’m realizing more and more what life means to me, what is truly essential to my happiness and success, and appreciate the things I already have,” Tobits said. “Second, I learned exactly how much I love my friends, how I’ve known most of them for five years or more, and how much of a home they are to me. Don’t tell them, but once social distancing guidelines are lifted and we’re mostly ‘in the clear,’ I’m going to bake them some cookies and go to their houses and just hang out with them and reflect on good times and I want to tell them how much I love them, because I never have, and they need to know that before we all part ways and leave for college.”