Vanessa DeWolf on DIY Creativity and Community

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As often as Vanessa DeWolf’s name appears in program acknowledgements of Seattle-area performances, one might think her some kind of fairy godmother of creativity—which might not be far from the truth. Artist, improviser, performer, community organizer, and self-described arts-wrangler, DeWolf has been serving the Seattle arts scene for over 20 years. Despite her broad influence, DeWolf can be a bit mysterious. Perhaps, as DeWolf notes, that’s because “The DIY movement is rarely documented.” In an effort to clear things up, DeWolf gave some historical context in an interview with SeattleDances:

vd portrait in winter
Vanessa DeWolf self portrait
Photo courtesy of Vanessa DeWolf

I moved to Seattle in 1992, fresh out of grad school. I went to grad school as a playwright. And I had a year after graduate school in my most influential, delicious, famous, fabulous city of Fairbanks, AK. It’s a place you bond with people. It’s just a place where the people are essentially important to you. I mean maybe it comes from the fatality; the potential fatality of getting lost and freezing to death in the winter. But it was this amazing soup, but like a really delicious stew, but also a delicious dessert of experimentation and innovation and trying things totally forbidden in various forms and mixing them together and knowing that we all loved each other. So when I came to Seattle and I started making work and I did the fringe festival I was like, “Wow I really can’t do this without being around [a community]”…I’m not one of those people who locks myself in the attic and writes for seven months and then comes downstairs and says, “I’ve met these characters, they visited my brain…” you know it isn’t the way that I’ve ever worked. I’ve always worked best, perhaps because I shared the womb with a twin, when I have not just one person and not just a few collaborators, but a good group of people around me. So I started making community work pretty early on when I moved to Seattle. I call it community work in that it was pre-internet, so I would take out an ad in the newspaper and like a million people would show up.

 

This was the early impetus for Studio Current—an organization that is both a physical space and a group who rehearse, practice, process, and share in that space. Each year artists of all kinds apply to be a part of the “Season” which lasts about 10 months, but every Season is a flexible format, constantly evolving to suit the needs of the community. DeWolf explains:

 

What Studio Current is and who Studio Current serves has been always in flux. Not completely set, it’s kind of like Jello that never gets firm. I wanted to make a space that supported artists by giving them affordable rehearsal space in exchange for dialogue. I had come into some money so I said, “You know what I’m just going to do this crazy thing and offer free space” (which changed over the years) “and have a regular program that encouraged people to share work and talk with each other about making work,” and that was the birthplace of The Plumage—the opportunity to share work and talk about work amongst your peers. That feels like the core program.

 

The idea of The Plumage, a bi-monthly meeting where members of Studio Current share work and ask for specific styles of feedback, emerged out of another Seattle Arts institution, The Field-Seattle, an organization that promotes observation over judgment with reflective feedback.

When I found The Field-Seattle I was like, “Oh my gosh. I found the holy grail.” I’m a weirdo freako artist who was always told, You need to simplify, you’re not working in the right form, you should try this, try that. Really corrected a lot, like my creativity really hemmed in. Luckily, my parents were super rebellious and encouraged crazy innovation and experimentation, so I never took it that seriously, it never hindered me, but to actually get reflection on my own, to actually get reflective feedback on work that didn’t need “fixing,” was magical. And realizing that I actually had spent much of my life thinking thoughts about this. So it was like totally opening a door. And I think it was really through The Field-Seattle that people started to invite me into their rehearsals and they would say Wow, you have amazing insight into my work, I really want you to come to my rehearsal or I’m really blocked, I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what the next step is and I’d say, Well let me come into your rehearsal and see what you’re doing; see if I can see anything…I have this idea of being that dance dramaturge, and not just me, but if I could develop something it would be a little school of dance dramaturges, so those who are making work could have the opportunity to say, You know what, for ten dollars I really need a dramaturgical consultation. So it wouldn’t be prohibitively expensive, but it would be a great way for people to think about things like meaning, process, [and] shaking up their thing that they’re doing. Just a million different ways of approaching how they might be making work. Because I think sometimes here in Seattle there’s just this isolation. People make work, then they get stuck and they don’t really know how to get unstuck, or they consult somebody but they’re not sure if that’s the right person they should be consulting, or they consult someone who devastates them. There just aren’t a lot of avenues for looking to get yourself out of a stuck place or trying something new.

 

Vanessa DeWolf  Photo by Steve Lundeen (2007)
Vanessa DeWolf
Photo by Steve Lundeen (2007)

Another Seattle institution that has heavily influenced DeWolf is SFDI—the Seattle Festival of Dance Improvisation.

 

The second SFDI there was a line coming out the door of the Oddfellows building. My husband and I were on our way to a movie at the Egyptian and I was like, Can we just stop here for a second I just want to find out what they’re waiting for and when they told me what they were waiting for I said, You can go and see the movie, I’m going to wait and sign up and I had never done anything like that before […] I discovered improvisation. I didn’t know that was what I had been doing for years, as a skater and I had done all this weird spoken text stuff that was improvised, but I didn’t have that word for it.

 

DeWolf often consults on other’s work and helps bring text into dance performance. In her own work she desires “to navigate a place where those things are not so differentiated.” She uses her improvisational practices to access one genre through the methods of another and combines performers with different skills and backgrounds. Her current piece, FORESTFLOOR is low growling in the girls bedroom, is a product of these approaches.

 

It’s about working from the inside out instead of from the outside in, which is an actor’s perspective. It’s sort of a different perspective to draw forth movement[…] I don’t set anything. It’s going to be improvised and it’s going to be uncomfortable in the best way that improvisation is uncomfortable. We can’t really rehearse it and know what’s going to come next. I encourage breaking the rules. I encourage people to say, Any part of this score that does not interest you, you do not have to do. And I think this is where a lot of the philosophy comes from. The reason I’m doing this and have been doing this the last 4 or 5 years is because I’ve been really interested in what I would call damage to autonomy. I feel like this is an era where we’re talking a lot about empathy in our world. And people are saying people are selfish and self-involved […] But I actually think we’re not selfish; we’re desperately trying to fit into a homogenized world. And that causes us to feel the failure of our inabilities to homogenize.

vd portrait marroon bells
Vanessa DeWolf
Photo by Steve Lundeen (2013)

 

With her colorful outfits and child-like enthusiasm, DeWolf may appear to be a bit kooky, which she is, but she’s also deeply engaged with ideas surrounding art, culture, performance, and life. Our conversation lasted almost two hours, and went far beyond the scope of this interview. But perhaps the best way to experience Vanessa DeWolf and her amazing brain first hand is to go see her work. FORESTFLOOR is low growling in the girls bedroom shows one night only this Saturday, February 15, 2014 at 7:30 at the Good Shepherd Center. For tickets, visit: http://www.fisherensemble.org. For more information, follow DeWolf’s tumblr: forestfloorlowgrowling.tumblr.com. For those interested in becoming involved in Studio Current, DeWolf suggests “liking” Studio Current on Facebook and looking out for their annual membership application in late summer.