Squonk Opera working with students, faculty to create original production

imageThe leaders of an internationally known performing-arts troupe were on campus recently to collaborate on a new piece that will be created and make its world premiere at SUNY Oswego.

Jackie Dempsey and Steve O’Hearn, cofounders of Squonk Opera, have started working with students and faculty to build the production from the ground up for an April 2007 debut.

The troupe is familiar with Oswego, having visited with the blend of music, theatre, art and dance of “Bigsmorgasbordwunderwerk” four years ago. The New York Daily News called that nontraditional Broadway hit “a breathless journey through an ever-changing emotional landscape, from humor to horror to ravishing beauty.”

Mary Avrakotos, coordinator of the college’s Artswego Performing Arts Series, was a driving force behind first bringing the troupe to town. Jonel Langenfeld-Rial of the theatre faculty is facilitating the unfolding project. A $30,000 grant from Pennsylvania Performing Arts on Tour, through its New Directions program, underwrites the collaboration.

When Dempsey and O’Hearn first began working together over 10 years ago, they found their divergent creative backgrounds made for an ideal artistic collaboration. Dempsey is a classical composer and musician, while O’Hearn’s specialty is visual art. When they set out to create a piece of theatre, they were unified by the inspiration of, in O’Hearn’s words, “what theatre does so well . . . the element of risk, the immediacy and sensuality of live people on stage in front of you.”

Their love of interdisciplinary collaboration led them back to Oswego. The show next spring—driven by the creativity of students and faculty from the art, music and theatre departments—marks the first time the Squonkers have worked with a college on a large-scale venture.

While Dempsey and O’Hearn will frequent the campus over the next year to aid in the piece’s genesis, it is essentially a student-driven project without a solitary figurehead or director. According to O’Hearn, the show will instead be led by “one art form inspiring the another.”

Each academic department involved currently has a course designed for students interested in Squonk. In these class meetings, participants workshop ideas and do creative exercises in an effort to brainstorm the show into reality. On Fridays, the six classes involved meet as a group and collaborate, sharing any work they have created.

By next fall, Squonk’s theme and subject matter will be set, and the show will begin the first stages of production and design.

Dempsey said she is “excited to see what we can learn from the students.” O’Hearn commended the “aggressive instincts of the faculty. They are doing something very rare and very risky.”

The pair will return to campus in April to continue collaborating.

Through a grant from Arts and Culture for Oswego County, local national public radio affiliate WRVO will produce a behind-the-scenes radio documentary on creating the production.

Pennsylvania Performing Arts on Tour is developed and funded by the Vira I. Heinz Foundation Endowment; the William Penn Foundation; the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a state agency; and the Pew Charitable Trusts. It is administered by the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation.

For more information, visit the college’s Squonk Opera work site.

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PHOTO CAPTION: Squonk talk—SUNY Oswego students and faculty have begun collaborating with members of the Squonk Opera performing arts troupe to produce an original main-stage piece that will debut on campus in April 2007. Senior graphic design major Kevin Dietz shows some promotional materials he designed in the “Graphic Design I” class to visiting Squonk Opera founding members Jackie Dempsey and Steve O’Hearn.

CONTACT: Mary Avrakotos, 312-4581 or artswego@oswego.edu

(Posted: Feb 22, 2006)