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Van Wezel Foundation and Hermitage Artist Retreat partner for Unscripted series

The partnership’s first online production was held July 30.

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Cheryl Mendelson, CEO of the Van Wezel Foundation and Sarasota Performing Arts Center, has been part of many finished artistic and musical productions during her career. She has a love of a finished and perfected performance, and the emotions and energy the performers can make the audience feel.  

Still, she thinks there's something to be said for observing the artistic process in action. Mendelson served as CPO of the  Harris Theater for Music and Dance in Chicago before being scouted by the Van Wezel Foundation. In that time, she launched a partnership with the Lyric Opera where the opera singers would perform unplanned shows for a small audience at the theater on Saturday nights. It was a different atmosphere than the usual opera affair — it felt more spontaneous and intimate. 

“It was the opportunity to connect at a very personal level, versus a stage scripted performance that you're viewing,” she said. “And (the audience)  got to also meet the artist afterwards, talk to them. And it became this very emotionally personal experience … it really was emotionally charged.”

She remembered that feeling when Van Wezel Foundation staff discussed ways to still perform during the pandemic. She reached out to Andy Sandberg, CEO of the Hermitage Artist Retreat, and a new artistic series was established. The two organizations have partnered for the Unscripted series, an interactive series that highlights performances from Hermitage artists. It's first production was held online Thursday, July 30.

The online production has the artists delivering spontaneous productions that the audience does not know about ahead of time. Attendees sign up on Zoom for the show, where they’re then sent an email confirming who the artist is and what the process for the show will be.The hope is that each performance feels wholly unique and specific to the moment, and not something that can be repeated. 

While the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall specializes in presenting finished works, the Hermitage Artist Retreat is much more focused on process and development — Sandberg prides his group on incubating artists to go on to greater success in their careers. For the new online series, Sandberg reached out to a handful of artists that he considered more comfortable and adept at interacting with an audience. 

“(We thought) ‘Who is it like inviting someone into their private living room to experience their process?’,” Sandberg said. “And so we kind of went through our Rolodex of hermitage artists, and thought, who might be some good candidates for that.

The Hermitage Artist Retreat’s many fellows from across the globe make up the performing and acting talent for the series — flutist Claire Chase performed the first show from her living room in Brooklyn on July 30. 

The renowned flutist and Hermitage fellow performed excerpts from a multi-flute musical drama called "Pan" after the Greek god of flute-playing. The piece incorporates solo flute-playing, electronics, and often times an orchestra depending on the scale of the production. Chase said she's performed the piece with a handful of performers at community centers and church basements and with hundreds of people on a symphony stage — one of her favorite things about it is its malleability.

"I'm always fascinated with how this piece changes each time we do it." Chase said.

The piece incorporates sounds made from wine bottles and a childrens' chorus. For the Unscripted show, the surrounding sounds were recorded and played while Chase performed with her flute. The performance has a narrative and follows the character Pan as he learns to play the flute, and Chase attempts to get across the melancholy and emotions of the character through both a pan flute and a standard flute.

Following the production, Chase fielded questions from audience members. As with many performers, the prolific flutist misses the in-person experience, but prides herself on adapting to the new stage and learning to make her instruments sound as good as they can online.

"I've learned how to become an audio engineer in the last four months," Chase said. "... I cannot wait to not have to worry about pressing all these buttons and doing all the dial work ... but we all have to adapt and it's been it's been an education."

As is fitting for a series meant to be loose and adaptive, Mendelson said she and staff aren’t planning future performances too far ahead and are tailoring the next Unscripted show to improve upon the first. Staff are also discussing the idea of having future performances be available for streaming for a limited time. Sandberg and Mendelson plan for the series to be a mix of digital and in-person events as the pandemic slows down. 

 "It's still forming and shaping due to COVID," Sandberg said. "What we're going to do live and what we're going to do digital So, you know, in certain people might be better for one format or another. So we sort of are taking it a couple steps at a time.”




Harry Sayer

Harry Sayer is the Black Tie editor for the Observer. He is a graduate of the University of Central Florida and previously worked Black Tie for the Observer newspaper in Winter Park and Maitland. You can catch him at one of Sarasota's fundraisers and shindigs.

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