GUILFORD—Perhaps not coming as a complete shock after its founder and director Sara Coffey was elected to the Vermont House of Representatives last fall, Vermont Performance Lab recently announced it will wind down in summer 2019.
Nonetheless, the loss of this innovative arts organization will certainly prove to be a great loss to the community in and around Southern Vermont, and beyond.
Created in 2006, Vermont Performance Lab has been a “performance incubator” located in Guilford.
In a recent news release, Coffey wrote that VPL had the “mission to support the development of new performance works and to connect the creation and presentation of contemporary performance with residents in the community we serve. As a laboratory for creative research and community engagement, our work has been at the forefront of the field of artist residencies, rooted at the intersections of presenting, producing, and social practice.”
VPL’s Lab Program provided a resource in the performing arts field for regional and national artists to focus on the creative process in relation to community. It has also provided opportunities for collaborative research with scholars, students, local experts, and community members.
Since 2006, VPL has hosted more than 80 residencies. The Lab Program has supported six to 10 artists/projects a year through artist residencies that support various stages of the creative arc from research and development to fully realized productions.
These included works in dance, movement, innovative theater, and performance art.
A few of the national and internationally renowned artist that were assisted in their work by VPL include Ain Gordon, Obie Award-winning writer, director and actor; Thierry Thieû Niang, French choreographer; Pavel Zuštiak, founder of the New York-based dance theater company Palissimo; and Alex Ketley, choreographer, teacher, and the director of San Francisco’s The Foundry, a theater company that explores the intersection of dance with mixed-media art.
Many of the works developed at VPL went on to be performed at such illustrious venues as the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, The National Theater of Paris/ Chaillot, The Japan Society, and The Walker Art Center.
“If everyone had VPL’s optimism and the unrelenting spirit, determination and loving generosity mixed with thoughtful foresight, this world would be a dramatically different place” says former VPL Lab artist Josh Quillen of So Percussion, the Brooklyn-based quartet dedicated to contemporary American music.
Though its roster of nationally and internationally acclaimed alumni was illustrious, VPL has been equally committed to the local community.
In 2015, VPL launched its SEED Program as a way to help strengthen the local dance ecology by investing in artists in Vermont and Western Massachusetts.
SEED was designed for professional artists working in dance who were seeking to develop new small-scale performance projects for regional touring. Artists selected for SEED received a commissioning fee, a week-long residency at VPL which included housing, and a travel stipend. The residency culminated in a work-in-progress presentation of their new work.
In 2018, VPL encouraged applications from artists for projects that addressed the theme of water to be included in The Confluence Project, which linked Vermont Performance Lab’s artist residency program with the community development work of the Windham Regional Commission.
Through public programs and integrated art-science residencies and curriculum, The Confluence Project supported three local school programs, built understanding of our local watersheds, fostered a new model for civic engagement, and helped create deeper engagement around environmental and social issues in our community.
Coffey says VPL has throughout its history embraced “diversity, innovation and experimentation” and seeks “artists whose practice aligns with our values and approach.”
“We couldn’t have projected the impact VPL would have locally, regionally, and nationally on the performing arts sector and our community,” says VPL Board President Robert McBride. “Our success has come from the personal attention given by this small, family-led team. It is time to reflect upon our impact and find ways to evolve and support others in this work.”
“This has been an extraordinary year on many fronts, with one focal point being my run for, and election to, the Vermont House of Representatives,” writes Coffey. “Moving into this new role of serving my community is a natural evolution of my work with Vermont Performance Lab.
“I know that the lessons learned at VPL and the spirit of this rural laboratory will live on through the artists, community members and partners with whom we’ve worked over the years. I couldn’t be more proud of our collective efforts in creating a small, rural-arts, research and community-focused organization.”
Although at first it may seem so, Coffey’s decision to wind down VPL wasn’t dependent on her winning election to state government. In fact, it was the other way around.
“To survive, VPL has depended on important national funding,” Coffey told The Commons. “Things began to change in the last few years. Getting grants, which were once relatively easy to do, now became increasingly difficult.
“Even before [President] Trump was elected, we were finding funders becoming more inclined to shift their emphasis to urban areas. In the early years of VPL, we were the beneficiary of the great initiative to encourage the arts in rural areas.
“We felt ourselves, and still do, to be on the cutting edge, particularly with our emphasis on community engagement. Even so, it seems that funders are looking for a safer investment. VPL is not embedded in a college or other established institution.”
Suddenly, Coffey found herself working much longer for smaller results.
“While I am pretty good at writing grants, I think my great strength is programming and getting the most inventive and exciting artists to become part of VPL,” she says. “Now I found myself having less time for this important aspect of what we do. In short, I was becoming exhausted.”
Coffey says she considered running for state rep only because, since she had already decided to wind down VPL, she found herself with more time on her hands.
“When I was first approached to run I thought it impossible,” she says. “But after some consideration and a lot of encouragement from people I respected as well as my family, I began weighing the options.
“I initially believed I could work in the legislature and run VPL, albeit at the slower pace. I know many people in Vermont government also have outside jobs. But I don’t know anyone with as arduous a task as executive director of a nonprofit. I quickly came to realize I could not do both.”
Leaving a legacy
As she looks back over its history, Coffey thinks VPL’s legacy is a strong one.
“We have influenced artist residencies all over the country,” she says. “Organizations similar to ours, encouraging dance and performing arts, which once were very rare, because of our example are now becoming much more common, although not in New England.”
Coffey is proud that over time VPL has built up a loyal local audience for often challenging works.
“We have a great group of people who support us,” she says. “But the reality is that Vermont audiences are not the same as those in large cities like New York. There, it would be easy to get people to pay $50 to see the performances.
“VPL artists give to the public. The most we felt able to charge was around $15, and many performances were free. But that also was because of our mission. We didn’t want to in any way be elitist, and did not want price to be a barrier.”
Coffey calls the work developed at VPL avant garde, but not elitist.
“Historically, the avant garde was pushing away from elite culture, which I feel is what we do,” she explains. “We work in nontraditional spaces like old warehouses or even fields, and encourage the participation of audiences that often shy away from high art. Of course, such a goal is difficult to sustain, and we always need patrons and government funding.”
Coffey wants to thank all of the people who have participated in VPL over the years: the artists, the staff, the board, the donors, the technicians, the designers, the videographers, the photographers, and the volunteers.
“You all made it a very special experience and great place to work, experiment and learn,” she writes.
Coffey said the board and staff will celebrate VPL with a final summer solstice dance party bash on Saturday, June 22, in Guilford.