Home Empty Popcorn Anchorage’s Synesthesia Artist Collective: Fighting Resource Deficits with a Collaborative Effort

Anchorage’s Synesthesia Artist Collective: Fighting Resource Deficits with a Collaborative Effort

Photo courtesy of  Britany Lynn White Photography
Photo courtesy of Britany Lynn White Photography

There’s an inherent problem with performing arts in Alaska, and it can be boiled down to just a couple of things: resources and opportunities.

Rather, it’s the lack of them.

In Anchorage alone, there are dozens of groups committed to producing high-quality, meaningful entertainment. The public bulletin board at any Kaladi Brothers is a collage of posters advertising this dance collective or that one-man show or a full-scale musical production that represents the blood, sweat, and tears of upwards of a hundred people.

Behind each brightly colored ad lies a tone of desperation – “Buy a ticket so we can afford to exist. Buy a ticket and tell a friend so that we can continue to entertain you.” Most of the artists involved are volunteering their time, or earning just enough of a stipend to cover some of their gas money to and from rehearsals.

From a production standpoint, talking about resources, art is not cheap. For example, performance rights are not cheap. An average play can cost a producer anywhere from $75 per performance to hundreds – depending on the publisher, the popularity of the show, and the contract requirements. If you want to avoid paying performance rights you’ve got two options:

1. Write your own material – and be prepared to play to empty houses because no one recognizes the name of the work.

2. Do Shakespeare. Just like everyone else in the history of ever. And be prepared to play to empty houses because everyone is sick to death of that one show with the fairies and that other one with the whiny teenagers who ruin everyone’s lives for a little sex.

And that’s not including the cost of raw materials, which are sold at inflated rates due to Alaska’s “exotic location.” Sets, costumes, props, programs, advertising, electricity, running water, heat, staffing – shit costs money, yo. And since most of the groups producing art in Anchorage are either non-profit organizations or for-profit companies just barely squeaking by, those resources are often just out of arm’s reach. For proof, look no further than Out North, the contemporary art house that is just now starting to regain its footing after financial woes forced its Board of Directors to lay off its entire staff last summer (full disclosure: myself included).

From a talent standpoint, it looks like opportunities are abundant, but that’s not really true. The limit on resources has forced many artistic groups to severely narrow the scope of their vision, narrowing their show offerings to just dance, or just theater, or just music. A person can find themselves only getting a hint of stage action here or there to keep the edge off. The number of talented individuals in this town vastly outweighs the number of opportunities afforded by our limited resources. It sucks, no way around it. There’s just not enough spotlight to go around, and for performers, that spotlight is as addictive as any street drug.

Scottie Heverling is hoping to broaden those opportunities. I had a chance to talk with him about his new baby, one that he is raising with a handful of other extremely talented artists in the Anchorage area. Over the last several weeks, the buzz has been huge about Synesthesia Artist Collective, a collaborative effort between Heverling and Anchorage artists Vincente Capala, Rachel Droege, Joyce Mayer, and Lisa Willis. They recently closed the curtain on their premiere production – Wendy MacLeod’s “The House of Yes,” and their sights are already set on filling out a well-balanced first season. Their Kickstarter.com fundraising efforts brought in over $7,000 to bring the production to life, going above and beyond their original goal in the final hours of the campaign. It’s the thing everyone is talking about, and for good reason – it’s opening all sorts of doors for collaboration and artistic growth.

“The community and theatre companies are moving in the same direction we are,” says Heverling. He adds that Synesthesia Artist Collective is dedicated to being “inclusive of as many diverse artists that work in Alaska as possible while not stepping on the toes of [already established] companies.”

When asked about the vision of the collective, Heverling said, “The vision for Syn Arts has always been to push for the creation of multi-dimensional, edgy, contemporary performance art works that are inclusive of various artistic mediums in a collaborative environment.”

I got a chance to attend “The House of Yes” in its second weekend, when the actors had really hit their stride and found themselves in their characters. The show was impressive, a really great triumph for their first project. I asked Heverling about the decision to make “The House of Yes” their debut production.

“Honestly, it’s a fairly simple answer: Lisa Willis and I fell in love with the script…I remember having a phone call with Lisa after reading the script and saying, ‘this is it, this is the play I want to direct.’ From then on, it was never a question for us that this would be our company’s theatrical debut.” He added that it fits with the overall mission of Syn Arts – edgy, contemporary, and multi-dimensional. He clearly has a lot of passion for the story – and if you missed the opportunity to see the stellar cast bring it to life, I feel pity for you. It was dark, witty, well-paced and had an atmospheric quality that clung to me long after I’d returned home. Heverling’s passion was evident, and sets a tone and a standard for all future projects.

Each of the twenty-odd resident artists embodies that same passion and commitment to the vision of Syn Arts. “All forms of resident artists are welcome,” he says. “We currently have a visual artist as our costume designer, a scenic designer that specializes in scenic painting, an opera singer, and that’s just an example.” Heverling himself has an extensive theatrical background. He will graduate this year with a BA in Theatre and Dance from the University of Alaska. He’s been a competitive ballroom dancer and served as the UAA Costume Shop assistant for several years.

“There are so many things that inspire me about art, but I think the one that truly has me at the core of my being is the sense of family there is in art,” said Heverling.

In working on “The House of Yes,” I have gotten to work with some incredibly passionate, beautiful artists that really believe in the vision of this show. I can walk up to any of my designers or actors and ask them why a specific thing is a choice and they always have an answer. When they’re at work, they are living and breathing this show – for me that is something you don’t always see in other career fields. It is beautiful, and I feel blessed every day that I get to share this passion with my colleagues as well as the public that comes to see what we’ve created.

That family dynamic means that every artist who participates in Syn Arts is valued above and beyond their talent alone. To that end, Heverling and his associates are determined to pay their artists wages that meet industry standards – a trend, he says, that has met resistance in the state of Alaska. “It’s difficult for all of us,” he says, “But we are a collective that is just starting out and we want to be open to the many opportunities that may present themselves.”

So what’s in store for the fresh-faced young collective? “We have plans to do a dance theatre piece in the fall, a spring musical, a summer project, and a fall project. Of course rights and venues are still in discussion [as we are trying] to find sponsors.”

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