A Life in the Arts

The Headlong Performance Institute teaches not just art, but how to live as an artist

By Pragya Krishna

In the 17 years since they founded the Headlong Dance Theater, Amy Smith, David Brick and Andrew Simonet have had 35 productions, a New York Dance and Production Award, a Pew Fellowship in the Arts, and rave reviews from many newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times and the New Yorker.

Now they have turned their attention to teaching young artists at Headlong Performance Institute (HPI) in Philadelphia. This institute is one of few places in the nation that teaches students trained in one art form – ballet, theater, choir, even writing – about how to mix it naturally with other forms to create ‘experimental performance’. Most of their students are in college.

But while they love to teach, what the three are most proud of is bringing three things to this area: their rich knowledge about how artists can live a good life, their support for the city’s artist community, and their very different brand of ‘hybrid performance’. headlong-theater-use-this

Brick, Smith and Simonet form a striking trio – Simonet and Brick are both tall, dark and lean, and could be confused for twins if they dress similarly. Their website jokes about telling them apart: “Andrew is the taller one.” Smith, meanwhile, is small and petite, very much a dancer. They met at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, and graduated together in 1990.
“All three of us loved ‘ensemble performance’ – performing with everything we had, our voices, our bodies, our expressions – that’s why we started the dance theater,” said Amy Smith, after a Friday showing of the Institute’s students. “But we also always loved to teach. And then six years ago, we underwent a strategic planning process and decided we wanted to have a larger impact on a smaller number of people.”

The Headlong Founders

HPI, founded in 2008, is located on 1170 S. Broad Street, a block south of Washington Avenue. It admits college students who are taking a semester away from school, and recent college graduates.

Students are attracted not just because of the kind of art form it teaches, but because of the education it offers about living as an artist in today’s world. This isn’t something taught in many art schools.

Brick, Smith and Simonet’s experience of being artists with degrees from a ‘Liberal Arts’ college like Wesleyan appeals to college students today, especially those wondering if they should leave the arts and use their degrees for something else, because of the economic downturn. They find their answers here.

The trio works to break the stereotype that artists live impoverished lives unless they are ‘discovered’.

“We try to show young artists that the world isn’t necessarily a cruel place for them, and how to make smart choices to get the most out of it,” said Smith.

For that, the institute runs an extensive course called ‘Life of the Artist’, where students learn a range of practical skills, such as how to write grant applications, economizing funds, asking for the right amount of money, and marketing their skills.

The co-founders have condensed this ‘Life of the Artist’ course into lectures they give at various colleges and high schools in the area. In one of the lectures she delivered at Bryn Mawr College Smith told aspiring artists that the skill sets and mode of work learned in productions, when applied to the business world, turn out to be very efficient and valuable.

“One of our most important abilities is getting a project completed with fixed resources within a fixed period of time,” Smith said to the students. “If you decide not to pursue art for some reason, and go out into the world as ‘project managers’, you’ll be hired and earning tons in no time!”

Performance art

It’s not likely that HPI students will give up their art any time soon, though. Drawn from different colleges – Wesleyan, Bryn Mawr, UArts, Temple, Bennington, to name a few -they all have a love of performance in common.

Some of the performances in a students’ work showing on one Friday included: a girl sitting in and dancing around an Acme shopping cart, singing, changing music on her laptop and talking to the audience, which couldn’t tell if it was scripted or made up on the spot; three girls dressed and bound in hooded sweaters, acting like fierce ‘sweater-monsters’, with a fourth girl acting as the tamer who made them dance; a completely silent Taoist portrait; a play where the characters changed from humans to whales with very acrobatic movements, and other such wide-ranging pieces.

“It’s hard to put words to it,” said Carly Sinn, a dance major and junior at Stevens’ College, Missouri, speaking of her own performances and her experience at the institute, “It’s definitely something you experience on a different level of understanding. To get the full experience, you have to surrender to it…here, you learn to realize the barriers you’ve built up within yourself, and break them so you can get to where you want to be as an artist. I’m definitely looking at performance as a career; I want to direct my own pieces.”

Heather Cole, a post-bac theater student and 2009 Temple graduate said, “I’m about to enter the professional world and am very scared about it. I genuinely feel HPI has prepared me for ‘the life of an artist’, and taught me how to achieve the goals I’ve set for myself.”

There are some who hadn’t thought of being artists at all, but have changed their minds due to their time here.

“The teachers are so inspiring and I’ve learned such new ways to think of myself and performance and art,” said Abby Wacker, a 2010 Haverford College graduate with an English major, “I’d never thought of myself as an artist, and they’re so adamant about being confident in your work here, and not narrowly defining art.”

The student body is usually small, about 15-20 students each semester. The charge for the course is about $12,000 for the semester, which covers tuition only. The institute helps the students find affordable housing in the city. They live just like full-time artists, making similar bonds as a community in addition to the bond they share because of their passion for their work. By the end of the semester, the group is very close, to each other and to their teachers.

After every showing, the teachers and students write out feedback for every single performer, and conversation about the work is always flowing.

“Young artists have interests and questions that are always so new to me,” said Andrew Simonet, watching as the group milled about exchanging comments. “Finding out what they are interested in and fascinated by, I find there’s a certain kind of American selectiveness about growing up – they are so mature in some ways, and so innocent and naïve in others. It’s wonderful to see these things, and feel and understand the heat, because I know that I could never have conceived of nor done any of these performances. The excitement about the work is visible.”

The Institute only runs for the fall semester. The rest of the year the three teachers return to their jobs as working artists. Among their many other projects and teaching positions, Smith serves on the board of Dance/USA, the national dance service organization; Brick creates theater works for Philadelphia’s Pig Iron Theater Company and Fins For Wings, and Simonet runs Artists U, a planning and professional development program for individual artists in Philadelphia.

Teachers and artists

“We love being artists who are teachers, but more importantly being teachers who are also working artists,” said Smith. “We practice what we preach, that it’s important to keep creating actively, and so it’s important for the faculty to be working. All our technique classes are taught by artists who come from their own specific techniques, and who practice it regularly.”

In fact, Smith is playing the role of Jane Fonda in the play That Pretty Pretty, or The Rape Play, which is running during this fall.

The play exemplifies the kind of blurred lines between art forms that Headlong teaches. “I’m doing what I advise my students,” said Smith. “We see a lot of dancers who are basically wonderful technicians – very good at what they do, but their face is very neutral. Then there are actors who are not embodied – everything they do is from the neck up. And there’s nothing wrong with that kind of work, it’s just not what we want to do. This is still a little bit of a new form, and people know Philadelphia as a place where the movement of ensemble, unscripted, expression movement has a center.”

This does not mean that the artists of this movement cannot handle the traditional fields, however.

Every faculty member is trained in a wide range of techniques; Smith, who knows a variety of dance from Bharatnatyam (Indian Classical) to Ballet; Aaron Cromie, who teaches mask performance and designs mask and puppets; Quinn Bauriedel, co-artistic director of Pig Iron Company, who teaches dance-theatre; and so on.

“We care just as much about building up Philly as our performances. That’s part of our effort – trying to keep students here by showing them the artistic life of the place. We’re very aware of the fact that people come here for education, and then take it back to Massachusetts, or New York, or whatever. We try to stop that. We call it counteracting the brain drain – one artist at a time,” Smith laughed.

The college students return to their campuses, but many of the post-bac students stay in the city. As the institute’s website advertises, students connect with Philly artists throughout the semester, and are able to “take advantage of the fantastic cultural offerings” of the city.

In the two years since it was founded, the Institute has had 30 alums, one of whom made a piece called ‘Precipice’ that played in this year’s Fringe Festival. It starred one of the institute’s current students.
“Watching that, I could see evidence of HPI, and it felt wonderful,” Smith concluded. “This was the next step for us and I’m so glad we took it.”