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Artist residency program, The Distillery, puts on first Swap Meet at CAC 

Will Coviello on the Distillery Artist Residency at the Contemporary Arts Center

click to enlarge Dancers present work from choreographer Maritza Mercado-Narcisse's project at The Distillery's June 23 Swap Meet.

Photo by Courtney Asztalos

Dancers present work from choreographer Maritza Mercado-Narcisse's project at The Distillery's June 23 Swap Meet.

At The Distillery's first Swap Meet, the four artists in the residency and development program previewed works in progress. Choreographer and dancer Martiza Mercado-Narcisse had a team of 10 dancers explore movement and dancing beyond the barrier of the proscenium stage. At the second Swap Meet on Aug. 22 at the Contemporary Arts Center, she'll dance and focus on the story.

  "This time it's about the narrative," Mercado-Narcisse says. "I'm a huge sci-fi and comic books nerd. I have always wanted to capture what I love about comic books: how movement is captured in comic book panels; using origin stories. I am working on a solo with the theme from Superman."

  The Distillery is in its pilot run as an artists' residency program. Actress and director Emilie Whelan and local artists and arts administrators created the program and received support from the Contemporary Arts Center in the form of rehearsal and meeting space, artist stipends and materials budgets. About 60 local artists applied to The Distillery, and four mid-career artists focusing on different mediums were selected.

  At the first Swap Meet, actor and theater artist Evan Spigelman of Skin Horse Theater sang and performed in drag with a rock band. He's working on a larger project exploring the link between punk and queer culture. In this Swap Meet, he'll present a more conventional theatrical narrative piece. Writer Michael "Quess?" Moore has focused on spoken word and participated in national slam poetry competitions. He's working on a play about racial identity and may debut it at the New Orleans Fringe Festival. Musician Aurora Nealand is doing preliminary work on an operetta in the vein of Laurie Anderson's performance pieces, about female identity, psychology, obsession with TV characters and the history of the antiquated medical diagnoses of hysteria. Thus far, she's performed musical snippets, some based on prior compositions, while she develops ideas and the narrative aspects.

  Since moving to New Orleans in 2004, Nea-land has focused on jazz, and she's juggling The Distillery residency with solo performances and shows with her Royal Roses band, writing a film score and working on material for an album she expects to release in October. The residency appealed to her because she hasn't worked on theater pieces since arriving in New Orleans, though she studied physical theater in Paris. Past work included a piece about aviator Amelia Earhart that she presented at Philadelphia's Fringe Festival.

  The Distillery doesn't require that artists complete a project by the end of the program. It's more focused on process. Mercado-Narcisse expects to have 90 minutes of material developed by the end of September. She'll then whittle it down to a 45-minute polished production. Nealand is doing a lot of reading in the preliminary stages of  development.

  "I don't need a lot of feedback yet," Nealand says. "But I am grateful people in New Orleans are supporting original work."

  For dancers, having large rehearsal space is a particularly valuable feature.

  "I usually have time or space," Mercado-Narcisse says. "But I rarely have the combination of time and space to work."

  Exposing artists' processes is part of The Distillery's method. It's meant to draw in audiences and allow them to watch a piece develop in phases. The application required 10-page written statements about projects, and artists' ability to be articulate about their processes was considered in the selection of participants, Whelan says. Artist statements are posted on The Distillery website (www.neworleansdistillery.org) and printed copies are available at the Swap Meets. The program also arranged for participants to contribute blog posts to HowlRound, a performance arts website, in September.

  The Distillery is designed to offer mentorship and feedback, Whelan says. There are two local program members, visual artist and designer Jeff Becker, who has done a lot of prop design for ArtSpot Productions' site-specific shows, and actor Sherri Marina, who served as chairwoman of Dillard University's theater department and on the faculty of the Urban Bush Women Summer Leadership Institute. Craig Peterson, who created a similar artist residency in Philadelphia, has visited the program and met with artists. Saturday roundtable sessions offer the artists a chance to discuss their projects with other fellows.

  The Swap Meets allow audiences time to respond after each presentation.

  "It's good for the artists to hear from audiences where they felt the heat," Whelan says.

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