Tú, Señor, eres nuestro escudo

In a collaborative project between the arts and humanities divisions, Hope College professors produced an original piece of choral music for Vespers — and it’s hitting the road for a spring tour.

It began when Eric Reyes, director of choral activities at Hope, invited Dr. Ben Krause to compose an original piece for Hope’s 2021 Vespers service. (Both Reyes and Krause are assistant professors of music at the college.)

“At some point, we talked about contacting somebody from our own English department to collaborate with us to create an original text,” Krause said. They pitched the idea to Dr. Pablo Peschiera, a poet and associate professor of English at Hope.

“Pablo jumped on board, and we were really thrilled. We thought it would be a perfect combination,” Krause said. “Pablo had a few weeks to write the text, and that would give me a few weeks to finish the music in time for Eric to rehearse it with the choir. It was a very compressed timeline.”

“Because of Eric, Ben and I could collaborate in ways that we hadn’t done before,” Peschiera said. “It was a gift that Eric’s approach to creativity allowed us to do this work.”

The idea was for Krause and Peschiera to collaborate on a motet, which is a form of sacred music that consists of a passage of scripture set to a polyphonic choral composition. “People often use psalms, and there was a psalm I really like, so I used that as the basis for lyrics,” Peschiera said. “It’s not the psalm precisely, but I pulled elements of the imagery from Psalm 89.”

In English, verse 18 references the shield of the Lord:

“Indeed, our shield belongs to the Lord.”

But the Spanish translation is slightly different:

“Tú, Señor, eres nuestro escudo.”

In English, this translates as, “You, Lord, are our shield.”

“I read it in a Spanish-English version, and the Spanish just spoke to me more. The English seemed clunkier” Peschiera said. “Rhythmically the Spanish version was more pleasant and the words were a little tighter, so it was easy for me to use.”

Most of the text for their collaborative piece is in English but this line, Tú, Señor, eres nuestro escudo, became the refrain.

“There were several images in that psalm that I thought were very affecting: natural images of wind and waves, the idea that God is our shield against the uncontrollable forces of nature. Metaphorically (and literally), God is our shield against what is uncontrollable,” explained Peschiera.

Here’s Peschiera’s text:

I will sing of your great love forever,
— in the forever of your fields of snow —
Tú Señor eres nuestro escudo
sing in the wind of the cold night,
and in winter’s sparkling glow.

Tú Señor eres nuestro escudo
Tú Señor eres nuestro escudo

I will sing Señor on the surging sea
when all the waves mount up you still them.
Tú Señor eres nuestro escudo
When you, Señor, spread your hand above
the white washes calm, overwhelmed.

Tú Señor eres nuestro escudo
Tú Señor eres nuestro escudo

In a vision you spoke to your people,
You bestowed on us a warrior’s strength.
Tú Señor eres nuestro escudo
Your love will sustain and strengthen us
and our power grows from your blessings.

Tú Señor eres nuestro escudo
Tú Señor eres nuestro escudo

“Pablo very quickly wrote the text, and as soon as I saw it I knew it would be really good to set to music,” Krause said. “Pablo wrote it with such a musical ear and an imagination for how the words could be sung. He definitely wrote a really singable, lyrical text, with a regular refrain throughout and it’s clearly organized.”

One natural question is how the text, which was commissioned for Vespers, fit with the rest of the Christmas program of a worship service featuring sacred music suitable for the season. Krause thought that, while the piece didn’t directly reference the Nativity, it certainly fit.

“A cool thing about what Pablo did is that there are references to the snow, there’s references to the wind, the cold night, so there’s winter imagery in it, and I thought that was a really beautiful way to connect a psalm to the season we’re in,” Ben said. “One of the sounds of the piece to me feels very wintry, like a cold wind blowing outside Dimnent Chapel or a snowy landscape feel — it’s hard to put into words, except that I felt like it captured that.”

Here’s a recording from the 2021 Vespers performance:

(Tú Se​ñ​or Eres Nuestro Escudo was not part of the 2022 Vespers program, but it will feature in the 2023 Chapel Choir tour from March 16–24. Be a part of shaping this experience for students!)

Both Krause and Peschiera attended Vespers performances, and they spoke highly of the final production:

“We were all really, really pleased with how it turned out. It’s beautiful,” Peschiera said. “I was pleased with the lyrics. Ben turned it into this gorgeous song — his skills as a musician and a composer really made it beautiful.”

“Eric and the choir did such a wonderful job on it, but it was also great having it be part of the bigger worship service and an important Hope College tradition,” Krause said. “It was hugely moving to me to contribute to that.”

Celebrating Latino Culture with ¡Canto!

Echoing through the hallways of the Jack H. Miller Center for the Musical Arts this week are the sounds of Latino students performing Latino works: the sonorous tones of singing in Spanish punctuated by instruction and conversation in both English and Spanish — and plenty of laughter.

Fourteen Latino students from West Michigan high schools are participating in ¡Canto! A Latinx Vocal Intensive. Under the direction of Eric Reyes, assistant professor of music instruction and director of choral activities at Hope College, these students are learning a selection of choral music from throughout Latin America, including ensemble and solo pieces from Colombia, Argentina, Mexico, Peru, and other countries.

Eric Reyes teaches during the ¡Canto! intensive

“This music is underrepresented in general. Regardless of who it is sung by, it’s not sung very often or often enough,” said Eric Reyes. “So one level of the program’s impact is just the fact that the music is being sung.”

Reyes said that one reason the music isn’t performed very often is because of the unique challenges of how much text is in the music, of the Spanish language, and of the complexity of the rhythms. By teaching Latino students, though, much of the complexity simply disappears.

“It’s been unique for me as a conductor to see what comes naturally to them, the things I don’t have to thoroughly teach,” Reyes said. “The Spanish language itself is familiar because of the various forms in which they’ve grown up — whether they speak fluently or partially, they naturally understand the text and understand a lot of the connections between how the spoken text matches up rhythmically.” 

“The cool aspect of doing this here is that it’s being sung by people who are from this culture. It’s kind of a rediscovering of our roots and origins,” Reyes said. 

“I’ve been in choir for a while, and we usually focus on music in Latin or music that doesn’t have to do with the Spanish heritage side of things,” said Felix Cruz, a senior from Holland Public High School. “It’s a whole new world when we dive into stuff like this.”

In addition to musical training, ¡Canto! students are participating in a wide range of seminars, including history guest artist interviews by Latino artists, exploration of Latin rhythms, and a panel discussion lead by Latin leaders in the Holland community. In a history seminar, they talked about the histories of the countries the music comes from and how they’re seeking to rediscover who they are as a people before colonialism.

“In some ways, there is that opportunity for us here to rediscover who we are as Latinos and embrace both the fullness of complexity of our history,” Reyes said. “There’s that mixture — that mestizo, we call it — of cultural identity, where, okay I’m American, but maybe I’m also Colombian or also Mexican, and we get to tap into that musically and get to celebrate it and not have to hide it. It gets to be in the forefront, and that’s an empowering thing.”

¡Canto! students on Hope’s campus

Many of the students had never seen the pairing of classical music and Hispanic culture before now.

“I grew up listening to more modern music, and I’m also into classical orchestral music,” said Eileen Perez, a sophomore at Fennville High School. “Just knowing that there’s classical music in my Hispanic culture is very eye-opening.”

The two-week intensive will culminate in a free concert on Friday, July 1, at 6:30 p.m. The performance is preceded by a salsa dance presentation and class for the entire community.

“Even here in Holland, Michigan, where it’s something like 35 percent Latino, we’re able to raise our voices and celebrate that Holland is this diverse place. Amidst the strong Dutch roots, there are also a lot of other cultures here that coexist and support each other and celebrate the things we have in common.”

Talan Marquez, a sophomore at Fennville High School and one of the students in ¡Canto!, spoke highly of the program instructors and the other students.

“I’ve gotten to meet some new people, unique individuals — I haven’t really met people like the ones in this group before,” Marquez said. “The teachers are really nice and they’ve already helped me out a lot with my vocals.”

In addition to working under the direction of Reyes, students also receive private vocal instruction from Dr. Sarah VandenBrink, assistant professor of music instruction at Hope. Christina Krause, an accompanist in Hope’s music department, is the program’s collaborative keyboardist.

“I really appreciate the work that they’re doing here and the time they’re putting in,” Cruz said.

¡Canto! is a collaborative effort of Hope College and Latin Americans United for Progress (LAUP). It is funded through an award from the “There’s No Place Like Home” initiative, which was established in February 2020 through a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Here’s a recording of one of the ¡Canto! ensemble pieces, “La Llorona,” popular text, with music by José Barros, arranged by Alberto Carbonell (Colombia), performed by the Houston Chamber Choir:

New Practice Organ Adds Versatile Voice to Hope’s International Roster of Instruments

The new practice organ installed at Hope earlier this fall has added even more variety to the distinctive and storied international roster of instruments that provide learning opportunities for students at the college.

Built for the college by Casavant Frères (Casavant Brothers) of Saint-Hyacinthe in Quebec, Canada, the organ joins compatriots from Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States as well as another by Casavant.

Located in either Dimnent Memorial Chapel or the Jack H. Miller Center for Musical Arts, the college’s six organs are all best understood as individuals with unique characteristics that suit them for specific roles even as they serve collectively to educate.  One of the two instruments intended specifically for practice, the newest arrival has the ability to be two different kinds of organs.  It came onto Hope’s radar through conversation in 2015, when Casavant Frères was installing the organ they’d custom-built for the Concert Hall in the Jack H. Miller Center for Musical Arts.

“They had designed a prototype practice instrument, which this is, in which you can vary the weight of the keys,” said Dr. Huw Lewis, who is a professor of music and chair of the department — and an internationally acclaimed organist.  “So the instrument, which is small, can feel like you’re playing a small instrument or the mechanism can be adjusted so that it feels as if you’re playing a much larger instrument.”

The high quality of the organ in the Concert Hall left Lewis with no doubt that the practice instrument would be an outstanding addition to the program.  “The organ in the Concert Hall is very fine, and everyone who comes to play it is extremely impressed by it and excited to play it,” he said.

The new organ has been contributed by Dr. David Van Dyke ’60 in memory of his wife, Janet Koopman ’62 Van Dyke.  Janet, who died on Dec. 23, 2020, was an accomplished organist herself, and had served in that role at Woodlawn Christian Reformed Church and many other churches.

It has been, Lewis noted, an essential addition.  Most students in the music program bring their instruments with them.  Pianists and organists are exceptions to that generality, and while Hope has multiple practice pianos, the college’s several organ students (nine currently) have had to make do with one.

What of the other four?  That’s where their specialized roles are both a blessing and a challenge.  Because they’re all different and in different venues, they serve students well by providing a heady mix of performance experiences.  Their particular locations, however, also mean that they’re often unavailable.

For example, Dimnent Memorial Chapel houses Hope’s historic U.S.-made E.M. Skinner chancel organ and Dutch Pels and van Leeuwen gallery organ, but the chapel hosts a variety of events including not least of all worship services, and the booming sound of organ practice is problematic when classes are meeting in the basement.  Lewis has an outstanding, U.K.-built J.W. Walker and Sons organ in his studio as a teaching instrument — and students also practice with it — but the studio is also his office space.  The Robert Cavanaugh Choral Room in the Jack H. Miller Center for Musical Arts contains the cherished instrument that was rebuilt by the late Roger E. Davis, a long-time music professor who’d originally had it in his home studio, but the choral room is used for, well, choral practice.  The high demand for the Concert Hall likewise limits its esteemed Casavant organ as an option.

Until this fall, that left the venerable German practice organ that’s also in the music center.

“It’s impressive that a college of Hope’s size has instruments from so many different traditions, and while the high amount of activity here is also a positive quality of the college, it also means that they and the spaces they’re in are much in demand,” Lewis said.  “To have as many students as we do and only one organ that they could depend on to practice has been quite a challenge, especially during peak periods like exam time.  So we’re exceedingly grateful to David for his gift and what he has done for our students.”

Welcome Home, Dr. Sarah VandenBrink

“I’m curious to know what the post-show blues will feel like as a music director,” said Dr. Sarah VandenBrink as we chatted in the sun a few days ago.

Dr. Sarah VandenBrink

Currently the Theatre Department is wrapping up rehearsals for the musical Ordinary Days, which will be presented virtually Friday-Sunday, April 16-18, and Thursday through Saturday, April 22-24.

Dr. VandenBrink serves as music director. She is in her first year as a faculty member at Hope, but this is not her first hurrah on campus. Aa s 2011 graduate of Hope College, Dr. VandenBrink was a double major in Vocal Music Performance and Vocal Music Education. 

This track is incredibly rigorous, as many students that focus on just one of these are forced to carry an overload of credits each semester. Yet VandenBrink would not have had it any other way:. “I know people say you have to choose, but I love both. I have to teach and perform,” she told me. 

As a student at Hope, VandenBrink did (just about) everything. She served as co-president of the Chapel Choir and director of musical activities for Hope’s chapter of Delta Omicron. She also competed in competitions with the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) and Opera Grand Rapids (OGR). VandenBrink placed first or second almost every year she participated in NATS. At OGR, she placed second her junior year and first her senior year! On top of these commitments, VandenBrink also held an internship at the Second Reformed Church in Zeeland.

Dr. VandenBrink completed her final semester student teaching at The Julia Reynolds Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School in Philadelphia. From there she returned to the area to teach at Hamilton Elementary School. Though she loved her experience teaching children, there was something missing.

“So I went to grad school,” she told me. She and I had to laugh at her use of a trope of life that is said by one of the characters in Ordinary Days

Dr. VandenBrink moved to Rochester, New York, and started her graduate studies at Eastman School of Music. At the conservatory she earned her masters in Vocal Performance and Music Literature. Yet VandenBrink missed teaching, so she decided to stay to complete her doctorate in Vocal Performance and Vocal Literature with a minor in Vocal Pedagogy. “I had finally found my home, because I love to teach and perform.” 

So now Dr. VandenBrink is back at Hope. Over the course of her first two semesters she has already impacted many students and has performed numerous times. She appreciates that our school encourages students and faculty to get involved in many facets of life.

“I knew after I left the conservatory that I preferred the liberal arts atmosphere,” she says. “I love that liberal arts teaches the whole person, rather than just the focused area.”

Not only is she inspiring students in the music department, but she is also music directing the theatre production, Ordinary Days.

“I’ve been finding it really inspiring watching students learn their characters and turn them into their own,” she says, “I’ve never been on this side before. Getting to see this has been really exciting.”

Dr. VandenBrink leads rehearsals for Ordinary Days

The musical is almost entirely sung and features some numbers that are very rhythmically and musically difficult. Dr. VandenBrink has been hard at work with the cast and crew of Ordinary Days over the past few months as they have prepared for the performance, which opens this coming Friday, April 16. 

While this is Dr. VandenBrink’s first time music-directing a production at Hope, she has also previously starred on the DeWitt stage. During VandenBrink’s senior year, the Theatre Department produced the opera Street Scene in collaboration with the Music Department. Now retired theatre faculty member John Tammi directed the production, which VandenBrink describes as one of the highlights of her college career. She also had a coaching session with Ordinary Days director Dr. Daina Robins during the Street Scene process. 

As Ordinary Days slowly comes to a close next weekend, those “post-show blues” will soon be felt by all involved. Though it is sad to wave goodbye to this great project, Dr. VandenBrink is excited to continue making her mark on Hope’s arts departments. At the end of our conversation, we found ourselves talking about our inspirations. She emphasized that her students’ thirst for knowledge, her fellow faculty members’ research and musical choices, and the new and unknown composers she has discovered excite her on a daily basis.

She also talked about the importance of communication in music, saying “To me, singing has always been about communication, but also finding out why the song was written. That is kind of why I’m inspired.”  This truth can be seen in so many works, and is incredibly important to the success of Ordinary Days.

Ordinary Days is a virtual event and tickets are free. Go here to learn more.

Instrumental Decision-Making

To perform at a high level in nearly any field requires outstanding talent and training, and for many the equipment is also crucial.

The talent is intrinsic — you either have it, or you don’t.  The training requires dedication and even passion — a commitment to devoting thousands of hours to pursuing mastery even while recognizing that there’s always more to learn.

But how does someone on that path — say, a professional musician — choose when the equipment not only matters but nearly becomes an extension of oneself?  Not what should someone use, but what does the journey look like?

Earlier this year, flautist Dr. Gabe Southard of the Hope music faculty became one of just 64 musicians around the world to be named a Pearl Flute Artist by Pearl Musical Instrument Company, a global manufacturer of flutes based in Yachiyo, Japan.  The recognition reflects his high caliber as a performer and educator, but it also follows his recent decision to switch to a Pearl flute after using another instrument for nearly his entire career.  So The Arts At Hope blog asked him to share a bit about his process.

First, congratulations on being named a Pearl Flute Artist.  What does it involve?

The main aspects are, of course, upholding a high level of performance and educating as a flutist and using Pearl flutes.  In addition, I will be posting performances on social media regularly. I have some cool ideas about this, including a series designed to help high school students learn music for Michigan’s Solo and Ensemble concerts; attending conferences, especially the National Flute Association conferences as an attendee and performer; and maintaining a national stature.  In return, Pearl endorses me and provides support for clinics I will present.

You traveled to the company’s U.S. factory Tennessee to select your new flute and have one custom made.  Is a visit like that typical for musicians at a professional level?

It is fairly typical, although my first step was to try a couple flutes from Flute World in Farmington Hills, Michigan.  The people there were incredibly helpful and sent me flutes to try at home.  Once I had narrowed the field down a bit, I wanted to visit the main Pearl site since they had a huge variety of flutes and headjoints to choose from.

We’ll talk about your new instrument in a minute, but in general what do you look for in a flute?  How do you know an instrument’s right for you?

That’s a good question and I think it is a little different for each flutist!  Like some other wind instruments, there are really two parts of the instrument to consider when trying flutes out: the body and the headjoint.  When I was trying flutes from Flute World and when I was in Tennessee, I first focussed on the body of the flute – things like: how is the response of the keys; how does the flute resonate when I am playing it; is it comfortable? 

Once I decided on a body (about which I still had a few choices to make), I then tried somewhere between 15-20 headjoints on it.  Headjoints have several different features that appeal differently to each flutist, mostly due to lip shape, breath capacity, etc.  I tend to like a more free blowing headjoint with a square cut embouchure hole.  Once I settled on the headjoint, in this case a “forte” style one from Pearl, I was able to make the final decisions, which included any extra keys that I wanted to my flute — for example I requested a C-sharp trill key and a split-E mechanism among other things — and the material I wanted the flute to be made of.  I have always preferred a solid silver flute, so that is what I ended up getting (with a .997 purity level) but other flutists will play on gold or even platinum flutes.

What prompted you to change flutes this past year?  It seems like it wouldn’t be an easy decision.

I had been playing on my old flute for about 30 years and decided it was time to see what else was out there as far as professional flutes.  For some time I have had the feeling that my previous flute had been holding me back in its technical action and in sound production.  Plus, my style of playing has changed significantly as I have become more experienced and in some ways, outgrew the ability of the flute to catch up.  That feeling was confirmed when I tried different flutes, especially the Pearl ones.

How did you connect with the Pearl company specifically?

I tried several brands and it was clear very quickly that Pearl had the highest quality and the flutes matched my playing style to a tee.  Pearl had been in contact with me about becoming a Pearl artist based on performances I had given at the 2016 NFA convention in San Diego, so this seemed like a natural match.  [Editor’s Note:  He was a semifinalist in the convention’s Piccolo Artist Competition and won the Convention Performers Competition.]

What goes into having a flute custom made?

When I was trying out the flutes at Pearl, I kept track of the various options that I liked in each of the flutes — like silver content in the flute itself, soldered or rolled tone holes, various key additions like C-sharp trill and split E keys — and then put that all together in my order. 

The crafting required several months, and in the interim I played on another flute from the Maesta series, also a beautiful instrument that is now my back-up flute.  I liked it so much that I fully expected to be blown away — pun intended! — by the custom-made flute when it arrived.  I received the new flute in early March, and have already used it in a recital I presented on campus and for recording sessions for a CD, and if anything it’s even exceeded my expectations.

Spotlight on Detroit ’67

Dominique Morriseau’s Detroit ‘67 is set to stream from the Knickerbocker on February 26-28 and March 4-6. This piece was originally presented as a staged reading for the inaugural season of the Many Voices Project and will now be a fully-realized production.  Co-sponsored by the Theatre Department and the Center for Diversity and Inclusion, the Many Voices Project seeks to expand the repertoire of voices heard on the stages of Hope College.  By transferring Detroit  ’67 to a main stage production, the Theatre Department is amplifying its intent of bringing these voices to the forefront and marking a new intentional wave of inclusion of underrepresented voices at Hope College.

Tia Hockenhull rehearses

As anticipated from its title, this play is set in 1967 in Detroit against the backdrop of the Detroit Riot, also known as The Great Rebellion. Motown music runs through the veins of the characters whom Tia Hockenhull ‘23, Ka’niya Houston ‘23, Rubben Jerome ‘23, Alex Johnson ‘22,  and Elayna Sitzman ‘23 bring to life. The music is a binding force when siblings Chelle (Hockenhull) and Lank (Johnson) come into contact with the outsider Caroline (Sitzman). As racial tensions run high around them, the siblings must find ways to balance their individual desires with the community and time they live in.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Alex Johnson and the stage manager Lydia Konings ‘24 about their experiences and thoughts surrounding this important production.

Tia Hockenhull and Alex Johnson

Johnson is no stranger to the Theatre Department’s main stage, previously appearing in Into the Woods and The Shakers of Mt Lebanon will Hold a Peace Conference This Month. However, Johnson confessed: “I don’t think I have ever been as connected to a character as I have for this show. There are so many parallels between Lank and me, especially the way he approaches music.”

This link to his character comes from Johnson being a musician at Hope. He is also excited that “the whole cast from the reading is the cast for this show, and it has been so cool to see us grow from the reading to now, especially in the physicalization of characters.” However, there is no need to worry if you watched the staged reading because this upcoming production is a completely new experience. Alex ensures that “being without a script is so different from the staged reading and helped us actors make new choices and made everything more dynamic and organic.”

Lydia Konings

Making her Hope College debut as a stage manager, Konings describes her experience as a “whirlwind to be SMing in Covid-times that has been a good learning experience.” She describes her journey with stage management as “Bob Ross’ happy little trees” — an accident that now seems like it was always supposed to happen. She is especially excited to call the light and sound cues for a live-streamed production.

Additionally, she has found herself engaged in the fact that “everyone involved feels the weight and responsibility of the message this play is putting out into the world. I think the Hope Theatre Department is working towards producing more diverse playwrights which I appreciate as a person of color.”

Both Konings and Johnson stressed how this is a must-watch production. The former honed in on the fact that “the ramifications of what happened in 1967 are still very real, especially with everything that’s happened this past year. It’s been really exciting and also a little scary to tackle a production of this nature.”

Johnson reciprocated her views as he highlighted the fact that “[Detroit ‘67] is a fictional story, yet it is so realistic in the context of that time and also the context of this time. When you look at the rebellion and protests that happened in Detroit and other cities during the late ’60s, there are a lot of parallels between them and the protests happening this summer. Obviously, there are different circumstances, but unfortunately, a lot of the same stuff is going on.”

So, listen to these talented members of the cast and crew and mark your calendars and register for free tickets for Detroit ‘67 at tickets.hope.edu.

Reflections on a Virtual Theatre Festival

Attending the Region III Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival is a long-standing January tradition in the Theatre Department at Hope College. The department participates in the festival’s initiatives throughout the year, faculty members regularly serve as respondents to productions within our five-state region, two of our faculty members have previously served as the region’s chair, and Michelle Bombe, chair of the Hope Theatre Department, is currently serving as the national chair of the entire organization. 

In January, Region III is always the first of eight regions to hold its festival, often in the midst of a snow storm. Though there was no snow storm, this year’s festival, scheduled to occur at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, shifted to a virtual one due to the pandemic.

All previous regional festivals have meant a “road trip” for students, staff, and faculty members to the five-day event. The festival offers a host of activities, including five to eight invited productions from the region’s colleges and universities, exhibitions and awards in the various specialty areas of theatre (acting, arts management, design, directing, dramaturgy, playwriting, stage management, theatre criticism), workshops, and guest speakers. 

“It has been an incredibly difficult time for everyone and this is also true for theatre makers,” said Bombe. “As the national chair for KCACTF, I have been involved in the planning for the festival year. We had to make the difficult decision last summer that all eight regional festivals would not be in person but held virtually. We knew that creativity would still find a way to exist, and we wanted to make sure to offer a platform to celebrate that work. 

“So, we asked the question, in this time of pause, could we offer programming that would allow our industry to return stronger and more equitable?  Thanks to generous dedication and funding from the Kennedy Center, we were able to offer national programming to all eight regions and it was so delightful to see it launch at Region 3, which initiates an 8-week cycle of festivals across the country.”

Assistant professor Richard Perez described the impact of this adjustment to a virtual festival, held January 5-9, 2021:

“For many of us, the yearly KCACTF Region III Festival signals an opportunity to kick off the new year by reconnecting with peers, hearing great speakers, seeing exciting theatrical works and being inspired by the young talent in our region. While some of those components were missing this year because of the move to an online platform, there was a different kind of excitement present — the excitement of an art form that can continue to inspire even in the face of a world pandemic. Because we participate in a craft that is contingent upon our abilities to adapt, the courageous women and men who lead Region III did just that.” 

For Hope’s Theatre Department, this meant an invitation to present its November 2020 production of The Thanksgiving Play at the festival.  Despite the fact that all invited productions had to be shared via pre-recorded performances, Perez, the director of The Thanksgiving Play, found the experience rewarding:  

“Especially during this time of heightened awareness around racial (in)equity, it was an honor to bring a play that encourages us to be better allies to those who need it most.” 

Grant McKenzie, left, and Adam Chamness, right, in The Thanksgiving Play

Cast member Grant McKenzie ’24 echoed these sentiments:

“The response to The Thanksgiving Play, as well as the opportunity to have it screened on such a level, was such an extreme honor, and a reminder to me of the reason why we keep creating even in difficult times and under strange new circumstances. As cliche as it is, KCACTF made me feel more invigorated and inspired as an artist, and I’m excited to hopefully attend in person someday.” 

Assistant professor Eric Van Tassell was the production’s scenic and lighting designer.  He too was enthusiastic about the video presentation of the play:

“The highlight of this year’s festival for me was getting to revisit our production of The Thanksgiving Play and sharing it with the wider community of our region. The respondents from the festival who provide reflections and feedback to all participating productions had some lofty praise for our work. They were particularly impressed with not only our ability to navigate new technological challenges and safety limitations brought on by doing theatre in the midst of a pandemic, but also by how our actors and director didn’t let any of those new obstacles stand in the way of a quality performance that was entertaining and heartfelt. Hope College has a lot to be proud of regarding this production and how we represent ourselves within our region.” 

Indeed, the production received the Golden Keyboard Award (shared with the University of Toledo), recognizing the technical and digital proficiency of the production as well as its creative adherence to safe COVID protocols.  (This was a new award, temporarily replacing the usual Golden Handtruck award, which recognizes the safe and efficient load-in and load-out of invited productions at their respective venues during in-person festivals.)

Department chair Bombe summarized:

“I deeply appreciate celebrating student achievements at the festival.  For me personally, however, the regional festival is always a time to be inspired by talented artists and recharge my batteries and return to my campus with renewed enthusiasm to work with the students.  And though it was disappointing not to gather in person, I still felt that the festival captured a way to celebrate our student artists and gave me so much hope for our industry as we move to come back stronger and more equitable.   I am thrilled that we were able to share our work on The Thanksgiving Play, which I think echoes the mantra I like to describe about our work at Hope: Theatre that makes a difference!”

Madison Meeron ’21 is pictured giving her online, solo performance of “When I Look at You” from the “Scarlet “Pimpernel.”

The Theatre Department was honored by individual student accomplishments at the festival as well.  Nominated for her performance in the department’s February 2020 production of Doubt, Hope graduate Katie Joachim ’20 advanced to the Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship semi-final round, and a number of other nominated Hope students participated in this event. Madison Meeron ’21 was a finalist in the Musical Theatre Intensive, which culminated in pre-recorded Zoom performances by all thirteen finalists at the January 9 closing of the festival. 

Madison shared these thoughts:

“It was a riveting experience to be selected as a Musical Theatre finalist. I had a blast getting to workshop my song with guest artists Farah Alvin and James Gray. They were delightful individuals and really pushed me to look at my song’s text in ways I hadn’t before. I’m eager to use the skills learned through the MT Intensive in my future auditions/endeavors, and I would like to encourage future students to audition for this program. You won’t regret it!”

Valerie Dien’22 recently served as the stage manager for the Theatre Department’s outdoor production of Twelfth Night in October.  Her festival attendance included building upon her interest in stage management:

“I enjoyed the festival immensely and wish I had attended in years before. With well-known names in every area of theatre, I was able to learn and make connections with some of the best talent in the theatre/performance world. A highlight for me was attending a stage management workshop led by Cody Renard Richard, who has stage managed for Broadway, Cirque du Soleil, and recently, for the 2020 VMAs (virtual music awards). This workshop was fantastic because it allowed me to personally ask Cody a few questions and discuss stage management techniques with other rising stage managers. It also made me note that my stage management instruction at Hope is incredibly well-rounded, which made me feel capable of holding my own in discussion and the way I thought about stage management as compared to what was discussed in the workshop.”

(As a side note, it is fun to know that Cody Richard spent two seasons with the Hope Summer Repertory Theatre, first as a stage management intern and then as the assistant production stage manager, in 2007 and 2008.  We theatre folk always say it is a small world!)

Of particular significance is KCACTF’s growing commitment to confronting issues of access, racism, and inclusivity.  Several regional and national initiatives are working to increase the voices of under-represented populations within the organization and discipline. 

The Region III Festival had a clear focus on these timely matters, as articulated by Bombe:

“Personally, I was inspired by the national keynote addresses and workshops in Anti-Racist Theatre Training with Nicole Brewer, the Theatrical Intimacy Education, and the We See You White American Theatre Panel and follow-up discussion.  Our department has dedicated thoughtful time and energy to the demands of the manifesto that has been shared nationally and is titled, ‘We See You White American Theatre,’ so the conversations and resources shared were highly relevant to the work we are doing on our campus.”

The 2022 Region III KCACTF festival is again scheduled to occur at Ball State next January.  The Theatre Department at Hope looks forward to re-joining its regional colleagues and friends in-person to celebrate the creative achievements of our students.

Necessary Viewing: The Thanksgiving Play

In 1990 at the International Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas, the discussion of replacing October 12’s Columbus Day with Native American Day or Indigenous Peoples Day began. This year, three decades later, Michigan and 12 other states do not celebrate Columbus Day. However, our state has not followed in the footsteps of states like South Dakota as far as officially declaring the day a holiday to celebrate Native Americans. 

In the realm of the arts, theatre specifically, we still have a long way to go as well in the fight for Indigenous equity and equality. MacArthur Grant recipient and Lakota playwright Larissa FastHorse wrote Hope College Theatre’s upcoming production, The Thanksgiving Play as a satirical response to the racism and prejudice she has experienced within show business

With its script-required all-white cast (Adam Chamness, Cecelia Casper, Grant McKenzie, and myself) and director Rich Perez, The Thanksgiving Play is set to premiere via live stream on October 30th, four weeks before the holiday itself. 

Video captures the Pilgrim puppet voiced by Cecelia Casper

The Thanksgiving Play follows Logan, an ex-actress and rising high school theatre director as she tries to create the ultimate, politically correct elementary school Thanksgiving play. With a cast consisting of a modern-day hippie, a playwriting-obsessed history teacher, and a ditzy LA actress, Logan has a harder time than she ever imagined. 

A play that addresses topics such as political correctness, misogyny, and racism towards Indigenous people inside and out of the entertainment industry will surely foster many interesting discussions. 

I personally am so honored to be working on a play that feels so necessary today, tomorrow, and in the long, foreseeable future. What better way to make people approach a sensitive topic with an open mind than satire? Comedy pulls our walls down and makes us get comfortable in our seats. FastHorse’s brilliant writing uses humor to engage us and make us receptive to her social critique. 

If the audience views this play as I understand it, it should feel both the joy of laughter and the discomfort of an honest look at Native American representation in theatre and mainstream media. It should grab you and make you confront your own racial biases, as well as entertain you with an hour’s worth of genuinely hilarious comedy. It’s a strange mix of emotions, sure. But it’s also an effective one. 

Comedy comes naturally to me. Things like comedic timing and bringing a joke to life almost feel like a part of my DNA at this point. My favorite part of comedic performance has always been the energy a good joke derives from an audience. 

Grant Mackenzie rehearses, play puppet in hand

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, all performances of The Thanksgiving Play will be live-streamed with an empty house. It feels daunting, but also obviously necessary. At first, rehearsals felt totally stunted by the fact that we couldn’t touch or get within six feet of each other. 

The cast is made up of two freshmen (Casper and McKenzie) as well as my fellow Smokefall alumnus (Chamness). I thought it was going to be impossible to create authentic chemistry, since getting to know one another inside of rehearsal and out is so difficult. It wasn’t until four or five weeks into rehearsal that we even realized we’d never seen each other’s entire face. 

However, the rehearsal process has been one of the most fun and rewarding processes I’ve ever experienced. Each one has felt like more fun than work. I find myself totally engaged and ever searching for different ways to make my character, Alicia, come to life. 

So, add The Thanksgiving Play to your list of upcoming events. There are eight shows overall: Oct. 30, Nov. 5 and 6 at 7 p.m. and Oct 31, Nov. 1 and 7 at both 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. Have a (COVID-safe) watch party! Or, watch it alone as a break from your busy week. This is how you should rake in the holiday season.

Heather Cornell’s Dance Story Now Housed at NYC Public Library, Continues at Hope College

Heather Cornell is literally and metaphorically a mover and a shaker in the world of dance. She has been an ensemble founder and a sought-after solo artist. She is a choreographer, director and producer. She has learned from and performed with giants of the tap dance genre.

Heather Cornell, assistant professor of dance instruction

In a career that has spanned four decades, Cornell has left an indelible mark on dance stages all over the world. And now, because of it, she has landed in two educational places:

In the New York City Library Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center and at Hope College.

New to the Hope dance faculty this year as an assistant professor of dance instruction, Cornell is a world-renowned tap dancer and educator. (Go ahead, Google her and marvel at the volume of videos in which she’s teaching or performing.)

First arriving in New York in the early 1980s as a modern dancer from Ontario, Canada, Cornell gravitated to tap dance quite quickly.  She worked with tap greats like Buster Brown, Cookie Cook, Chuck Green, Eddie Brown and Steve Condos and was mentored by the jazz great, Ray Brown.  She eventually co-founded Manhattan Tap, a leading American tap ensemble which would go on to garner international acclaim. For close to 20 years, Cornell served as the group’s choreographer, director, and, of course, dancer, before striking out on her own for a successful solo career for another 20 years.

When the NYC Public Library for the Performing Arts sent out a survey in 2017 to ask those in the dance world, “Who has made a big impact in the international world of tap?”, it was Cornell whose name got mentioned most. Nine other living tap dancers joined her on a list that the library would use to expand its digital oral history offerings on tap dance. In a dance field that is large but underrepresented in library settings, it was Cornell who rose to the top of the list for whom to talk to first.

“This is a huge honor for Heather, as it was the Library who approached her for this recording,” said Matt Farmer, associate professor and chairperson of the dance department.

For the oral history series curated by dance oral history archivist Cassie Mey, Cornell sat down with mentee Anthony Morigerato, an acclaimed artist in his own right, as her interviewer. For 30 hours, they conducted preliminary interviews, run-ups to the final recordings when the two sat down for their final eight hours in the Lincoln Center Library recording studio in 2018. 

“Because tap (history) has such an oral history — it’s encapsulated in very few books that are not that comprehensive — this was a really important project,” Cornell says of the oral history series. “There was a small group of us who were considered the women of the Tap Dance Renaissance. That’s because we had companies in the 1980s and 1990s and sort of helped to revive the art form on the concert stage.”

She talks about all that history, and more, in the nine tracks available now through the NYC Public Library catalog.

“Honestly, I love this age, or this moment in a young artist’s life when they are wanting to open up who they are as human beings. It’s just something special to be around.”

Cornell calls herself a physical percussionist — someone whose rhythmic, precise foot movement adds to or creates the musicality of a piece — and she dances using different textures of sound, like wood, leather and sand. And always, she dances only to live music, never music that is “canned.”

“That was a commitment (dancing to live music) that I made to myself early on,” she says. “And what I love about Hope is that that’s not a liability for me here, whereas at other institutions it’s been difficult because there hasn’t been such an integration and an openness between the disciplines.”

“For me, that’s my dream: to be at an institution where there are no boundaries between the departments,” she continues. “Everything that I do in my life and in my career has been collaborative. That’s the most important element of what I do. From my experience here at Hope, just in the first six weeks, I feel like that’s one of the things that’s really nurtured here. And it’s great.”

Now that she has traded frequent-flyer-mile accumulation to teach and create in Holland, Michigan, Cornell feels she has found a fine artistic home away from New York City. At Hope, she plans to give back to young artists as her tap mentors once gave fully to her.

“The fact that Hope considers tap dancing as a very serious art form is huge for me,” she says. “The fact that there’s an openness in this environment that I haven’t experienced in other post-secondary environments is huge for me. And the fact that there’s a willingness here to allow for people to nurture who they are and get bigger in the process is also huge. Honestly, I love this age, or this moment in a young artist’s life when they are wanting to open up who they are as human beings. It’s just something special to be around.”

Personal Reflections on Twelfth Night in a Pandemic

Covid-19 has put a full stop to the arts industry. Actors, musicians, technicians, arts administrators, and so many other people are in a state of limbo. Hope College is among the lucky few places that have implemented safety protocols that allow student and faculty artists to come together in these trying times to put on something magical. One of these spectacles will be the Theatre Department’s outdoor and socially-distant production of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

Sebastian (Lili Fraser-Shade), left, and Viola (Emi Herman), right

I think it is a common misconception that theatre just happens. One day a group of actors show up to a performance and magically know all their lines and movements. A silver lining to the new Covid-19 restrictions is that we can showcase our work from start to finish to the Hope College community. This means students and faculty passing the entrance of the DeWitt Center have witnessed every stumble and every triumph in the rehearsal process. Yet another silver lining is that this play will be live-streamed! Not only can people watch it safely from their homes, but we can reach an even greater audience than ever before. 

As an actor in this production, it has been a wonderful rollercoaster to get to this point. I started my journey to become Viola last semester under the direction of Johamy Morales and was over the moon about being able to continue into this semester. I was skeptical at first about acting with the restrictions of being outdoors and with masks on, but I soon remembered that both of those are traditions of theatre. I also realized that connection can still happen at a six-foot radius, and being closer to a scene partner now makes me feel like I must kiss or fight the person. What may have seemed like disadvantages have also turned into helpful tools because we had our set on day one and the audience not being able to see our facial expressions makes us actors use our physicality in ways we never have before. 

From left to right: Clown (Madison Meeron), Antonio (Abby Doonan), Olivia (Sofia Muñoz), Malvolio (Riley Wilson), and Orsino (Mackenzie Hester)

However, working outside the DeWitt entrance is definitely more nerve-wracking than any other rehearsal process I’ve been a part of. I feel like I must be performing through every rehearsal as if it were the final product. My peers can see me crash and burn from 5 to 8 pm four days a week with a special matinee on the weekends. Of course, these higher stakes in real life only add to the process because Shakespeare only wrote his characters in high-stakes situations. The public rehearsals have also forced me to trust my choices as an actor more than ever. I want to turn the heads of the people walking to their dorms. If they don’t, am I doing my job? Will I be able to keep our future audience engaged? 

I am so thankful that we are able to continue Twelfth Night in person and that Hope College has been safe during this unprecedented situation. Working on a Shakespeare play is a beast, and I am so fortunate to get the opportunity to play Viola and tackle this beautiful play in a way that very few people get to experience. 

For more information about viewing Twelfth Night in person or online, click here.

Photo credits: Leslie Olivarez

In the top featured photo: From left to right: Sir Andrew (Lisbeth Franzon), Antonio (Abby Doonan), Fabian (Emily Mann), First Officer (Jack Slevin), Viola (Emi Herman)