The Hatchery Project
A Multi-Site Creative Residency Project
The Chocolate Factory Theater in New York City, the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Philadelphia’s RED Arts Project, and Vermont Performance Lab in Guilford created The Hatchery Project in response to a desperate need for support in the dance field. An experiment in collaboration, The Hatchery Project partnered with choreographers throughout the many stages of the creative process, balancing audience engagement in diverse communities with an abiding belief in the primacy of artists’ voices.
With major support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, The Hatchery Project launched a pilot project in June 2012 to work with four choreographers: luciana achugar, Beth Gill, Annie-B Parson of Big Dance Theater, and Reggie Wilson. The writer Claudia La Rocco was brought on to document and evaluate this endeavor, observing as artists spent creative time in the rural, retreat-like environment of Vermont Performance Lab, the university setting of MANCC and the rich urban cultures of RED Arts Project and the Chocolate Factory.
While many partnerships exist to help choreographers with the presentation of finished work, no such model exists to sustain dance‐makers from the beginning of the creative process through to a work’s premiere, and into the uncertain days that follow the completion of a major project. The United States has nurtured and continues to foster the work of some of the most profound dance artists of our time. For our best and most promising artists, this type of support should be the norm, not the exception. Cooperation and information sharing between support organizations is vital. And a deeper engagement between artists and audiences is critical to acquiring and sustaining investment in dance and performance now and into the future. To move the field and our society toward championing these deeper layers of support, this project creates an opportunity to understand the value of this investment in dance artists’ creative process, elevate the case for it and seed its growth.
Raising the Profile of Research and Development
The seeds of The Hatchery Project grew out of a convening at MANCC in 2009, which was soon followed by the release of a report from the Alliance of Artists Communities called Mind the Gap. These turning points highlighted the dire need for more research and development support for dance in the United States – drawing particular attention to the fact that organizers, presenters, and audiences were often unaware of the complexities of how live performance projects are constructed. We came together as four very different practitioners of residency work with a mutual desire to both support dance makers and support each other in the effort to deepen R&D potential. As we dug into exploring new behavioral models for supporting creative practice, we eventually began to share our experiences more broadly in the hopes that other arts organizers might also learn and begin to work in new, challenging, artist-centered ways. It is an enduring goal of this project to further expand understanding and awareness of R&D in dance and performance.
When we came together as partners, we felt that the performing arts field did not offer ample opportunities for its leadership as it related to administrative, curatorial, and research practices for R&D organizers. Without dedicated time to think deeply about our methodologies, it seemed that the field was missing critical opportunities to elevate, sustain, and evolve. In coming together, we hoped to create the type of learning community that we longed for. And because this partnership was specifically tending to the needs of research and development in dance, which is under-developed and under-resourced, the partners felt it was crucial to invest significant time as researchers themselves. In the final year of the project, our learning community began to expand, most notably in October, 2014 with a day-long convening The Art of Supporting Dance-Making at the Alliance of Artists Communities conference, during which time The Hatchery Project opened a window onto its collective research with more than 55 colleagues. During this convening we explored hard questions rather than “best practices” and we invited practitioners, artists, and writers to think critically along the way. It wasn’t perfect, but we learned much through the process of sharing. It is our hope that this conversation will continue on in various venues.
Valuing Process over Product
It is often the case that artists begin to acquire support for a project by first getting a commitment from a venue to present a final piece. It’s the most common way for artists to catalyze momentum for funders, other presenters, and residency sites to support a project. In this scenario, artists commit to present the work in a final form before knowing if they will have the necessary resources to fully develop it. It also creates expectations about what the final piece will be before the artist has had time to explore it, understand how it resonates, and where it’s really headed. Moreover, it creates a premiere deadline that may or may not accommodate the time the work needs to fully gestate. And, it creates few opportunities for the artists to discover that the ideas, collaborators, and/or creative process they are experimenting with are not ultimately cohering into pieces that they want to take to the stage. With these thoughts in mind, we worked to let the artists take the lead on defining when and if the projects they wanted to develop through Hatchery residencies would be ready for presentation and if any of the partners’ spaces were a good fit for the project. We were able to work with artists over a longer duration, which brought us into deeper connection with the content of the work. By focusing significant energy on the creative process, the artists and partners had more opportunities to consider and leverage support for the projects as they developed.
A core value of the project was to seek and activate potential intersections between participating artists and the communities in which they were making their work. This practice was intended to advance an artist’s research and work – it was not intended to fulfill a “community outreach” practice. The primary goal for engaged research was to provide opportunities for artists to uncover ways that their research might reflect, engage, or be supported by the communities and people around them, people who were not necessarily their primary collaborators – which could help break through the feeling of isolation that often surrounds the creative process. Secondary goals included providing a broader public with points of access to the creative process, thereby building understanding, deeper curiosity, and investment in the artists and their work. Each partner site approached this concept differently, with the particular community setting in mind. Each partner valued this practice to greater or lesser degrees. And each participating artist interpreted and implemented this practice in his or her own unique way in collaboration with the various sites.
One Size Does Not Fit All
Our field often, sometimes reflexively, refers to the “creative process” as a fixed practice. Likewise, organizers generally look to “models” or “systems” as paths toward resourcing artists. However, over the course of this project, we experienced with the participating artists vastly different approaches and artistic practices. Each artist sought to utilize Hatchery resources in wildly different ways. Some required significant management or infrastructural support. Others had expectations of support that weren’t always possible for a particular site at a particular time. Our goal was to rise to these challenges: to meet artists where they needed support and collaborate with artists to design and implement individually supportive residencies that were integrally connected to a larger arc of activity and support for the duration of the three-year project. At times we faltered, as all experiments do. Sometimes agendas, needs, and resources fell out of alignment. But the goal throughout was to avoid creating a new “residency model” and to begin to explore new “models of behavior” for residency organizers and artists. This required trust, flexibility, and the willingness to often reexamine standard practices in our field.
Collaboration is hard. We didn’t just collaborate, we worked through an entirely horizontal structure. Every decision was a group decision. Every advancement was a consensus-building process. Career transitions were destabilizing. Communication and expectations among partners and with artists at times became confusing. A centralized management structure over the duration of the project could have been beneficial. We all knew that this structure was slowing us down. But sometimes moving slowly is the right thing to do. Research takes time. Through all of it, we weathered, we recalibrated, and we continued to learn. That said, this level of collaboration is not necessarily sustainable in the long term. Over time, as management of the project increased in complexity, we needed a stronger internal structure. Not only would this have increased efficiency, it would have also enabled the individual partner sites to focus more intensely on working with artists.