Pierce Artist Residency debuts with “Lean Back” at Franklin Pierce University
Bronwyn Sims of Brattleboro, Vt., practices letting go of a hat as a part of her exploration with movement. Moments of impact are incorporated throughout her work in progress piece, "Lean Back," which will be performed at Franklin Pierce University on Friday.
Bronwyn Sims of Brattleboro, Vt., tries to convey a moment of weightlessness or letting go during the creation of her solo piece, “Lean Back.” Sims will perform the work in progress at Franklin Pierce University on Friday.
Her train ride on Amtrak from Brattleboro, Vt., to New Haven, Conn., started out like any other. Bronwyn Sims — an actor, acrobat, choreographer and educator — was on her way to the Yale Repertory Theatre at Yale University to work as an aerial consultant on a production of “The Master Builder” by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. But Sims said her journey that September day in 2010 came to an unexpected halt in Massachusetts where she came face-to-face with tragedy.
“In Leverett, Mass., I felt the train start to slow down. I knew something was wrong,” said Sims, who still resides Brattleboro, Vt. “We were stopped at that location for about five hours. A young boy had jumped in front of the train, and as we know now committed suicide.”
Sims said she has never forgotten the sequence of events on that day. In an instant, a young boy’s life had intersected with her own.
“It’s like when you drop a pebble in a pond and it has a reverberating effect,” Sims said. “That day got me thinking about life and death and how every day we have the responsibility to engage and touch others’ lives or not.”
Sims’ real-life journey on Amtrak has since inspired a solo theater production that combines dance, physical skill and comedy to tell a story about life, loss, love and ambition. “Lean Back” is a work in progress, which will be performed for the first time this Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Warehouse Theatre at Franklin Pierce University. The event is free and open to the public, with an artist reception to follow.
For the past week, Sims has workshopped “Lean Back” at the Warehouse Theatre as a part of a new initiative through the university’s Department of Theater Arts and Dance called Pierce Artist Residency. The residency program, which launched this fall, provides an opportunity for FPU students and the Monadnock region’s residence to interact with working professionals in the arts through public performances, guest artist visits, master classes and artist talks on campus, according to Mark O’Maley, the FPU theater professor who founded the program.
While students have had the opportunity to attend artist talks on campus this semester, O’Maley said “Lean Back” will be the first public performance associated with the program. “Lean Back” is financially supported in part by the Vermont Arts Council, National Endowment for the Arts and Vermont Community Foundation.
In the Pierce Artist Residency program, professional artists have the opportunity to use the university’s theater, sound equipment and lightening to workshop their creative pieces. In exchange, they are asked to return to FPU later on to help teach a master class. “Right now we don’t have the budget for professionals to come in, but we do have space,” O’Maley said. “I can have artists come in for free and, in exchange, they will return the following semester to work with students. We’re trading off.”
The residency program also gives the community the chance to visit the campus, interact with FPU faculty and students, and share in their love of art. “The university is a secret little gem in the woods and I want to connect the communities more to that,” he said.
For Sims to help the university debut the residency program to the community is a real treat, O’Maley said. Her credits include New York City Opera at Lincoln Center, National Black Theatre of Harlem in New York City, American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., as well as a European tour with Sandglass Theatre of Putney, Vt.
In “Lean Back,” Sims said she is challenging herself with a solo piece, in which she assumes the role of many characters to tell the story of three people: Sims, the young boy and the master builder. The master builder, who is in his mid- to late-40s and is based on Ibsen’s character from the play by the same name, is an aging architect fearful that the young generation will rise up and cast him aside.
While there are subtle connections between the three main characters and the life challenges they face, Sims said that on a deeper level the piece is about the meaning of life and the choices one makes.
Sims, who has been performing since she was a child, said there are not enough opportunities for artists to work in residency and that she is thankful to O’Maley and the university for helping her advance her latest work.
“I think it’s a brilliant idea,” Sims. “[Residencies] help artists dig into their work and help give them the courage to put an unfinished piece out there for the community to critique.”
Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 228 or firstname.lastname@example.org. She’s on Twitter at @alyssadandrea.