All Together Now

Jess K Smith '05 brings the ARTBARN theater residency to campus.

“Please come in,” the women said. “Welcome. You’re safe now. We’ve been waiting for you.” They guided the way with flashlights and handed out Dixie cups of cool spiced tea.

The women drew the audience into a dark, steamy gym, where an industrial fan roared in the corner. There was a circle of gray metal folding chairs, and inside that circle, a circular collection of smooth black stones. There was a nylon net hanging from ceiling to floor that held what looked like hundreds of rolled-up white papers. There were three army cots, and a long table, and the darkness in between.

Set in a dystopian future, in a world destroyed by war, the story that unfolded over the next two hours followed several women survivors living in a bunker and working to create an archive of women’s stories so that they would not be forgotten. The audience trailed the women through their isolated world, where each stone in the circle represented a story that each survivor could recite by heart. Recorded narratives played on speakers as the women went through their daily routines, which gave the scene a ghostly, ethereal effect. A beautifully choreographed “training scene” and a dance between Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein were wholly mesmerizing. What looked like hundreds of rolled-up white papers in a net was exactly that—with hundreds of stories written inside.

When the last scene ended and the women said goodbye, the audience filed outside, squinting at the light. It was a blue June evening, and the air smelled of freshly cut grass. The audience munched on pieces of fry bread while the cast and crew grinned for group pictures with Jess K Smith, the director of the production and an assistant professor at the University of Puget Sound. All 11 cast and crew members were either former or current students of hers. The show they had just enacted—still an untitled work in progress—was part of a grand experiment for ARTBARN, a site-specific, immersive theater company that Jess founded in 2013.

ARTBARN is a company of five women, and their performances have typically been large-scale productions with professional actors. Their 2016 show, We Remain Prepared, was mounted at the decommissioned Georgetown Steam Plant in Seattle, and focused on three fictional workers left to tend the empty plant in case of a citywide emergency. It was part theater, part art installation, part walking tour through a historical site filled with turbines, boilers, and valves. A glowing review in The Seattle Times said the show “resonates with the collapse and shock all around us—in industry, finance, universities, the newspaper industry, and beyond.” This year, with support from the Department of Theatre Arts, the company launched a 17-day residency on campus to workshop a new play with a team of interns.

“This year it was about developing the piece rather than producing the piece,” Jess says. The core team flew out from New York, and the whole group lived in a fraternity house, where they covered framed pictures of men with posterboard to fully claim the space. “It was a little bit like camp, but only the good parts of camp,” says Hannah Ferguson ’17.

The story was inspired by the Women’s March, which Jess attended in Washington, D.C., in January. It got her thinking about how women come together in crisis. “It was pretty emotional, to see just how many people across the globe chose to stand together,” she says. But in the months after the march, as each day brought a new crisis, the threat of apathy, or outrage fatigue, felt especially dangerous. What would a post-outrage society look like? How would the same women who had marched in solidarity early on resist the urge to stop caring when things got steadily worse?

The ARTBARN workshop began with these questions. The team imagined the bunker as a sanctuary where a few women survivors would care for each other and work to commit lost women’s stories to memory.
Each would hold aloft a stone and recite the story of Amelia Earhart, Ching Shih, Virginia Woolf, Caterina Sforza, Julia Child. “Choosing to preserve stories, to hold on to these legacies of real women—that felt like a rebellious act to me,” Jess says.

Working on a production about women, led by a team of professional women, made a deep impression on Erin Ganley ’18, a theater major. “Having that structure of powerful women doing theater in the real world is very special and important to me as a young woman in the arts,” she says.

McKenna Johnson ’19, a softball player and psychology major, was just dipping her toe in the theater world with this internship. “I was a little intimidated,” she says. “But Jess was very encouraging and was constantly assuring me that I have value in that space. That was the coolest thing for me, to have that validation and support from her.”

Jess was in her element—teaching and directing simultaneously. “I was so proud of them,” she says of her current and former students. “Our department puts a lot of emphasis on being a total artist, which is about being just as comfortable doing research as you are in writing, performance, and design—that’s exactly what we’re asking of them through this residency process, and I was so impressed. Everybody contributed to the conception of every part.”

As both a faculty member and an alumna, Jess is teaching in the same department as some of her former mentors, now colleagues. Professor Geoff Proehl said that when Jess was his student, he immediately recognized her talent when she worked as his assistant director on a production of Russell Davis’s The Wild Goose Circus. “Jess had worked with the actors and developed a complex, beautiful movement sequence, but I didn’t think it was right for the show and pretty much scrapped it,” he says. “All that thoughtful, careful work went out the window. It was Jess’s ability to let that go, and then to continue to fully support the production in every way possible, that most underscored for me her deep skills not only as an individual artist, but also as a collaborator.” 

Collaboration is the key to everything for Jess. Each new ARTBARN production begins with “big huge messy ideas” tossed around the room, and Jess steers any conversation, class, or practice room by being completely open to what others have to offer. “I always felt like my voice was heard and that my opinion mattered,” says Zoe Levine Sporer ’15. Other students have said that the most important thing Jess teaches them is not to be afraid to fail. Creative work is about taking risks—and doing it together.

Each woman would hold aloft a stone and recite the story of Amelia Earhart, Ching Shih, Virginia Woolf, Caterina Sforza, Julia Child. “Choosing to preserve stories, to hold on to these legacies of real women—that felt like a rebellious act to me,” Jess says.

If Jess has a genius for community- building, it might be traced to the many, many practice rooms of her youth. She grew up in Jericho, Vt., a town so small it didn’t have a stoplight. Her mother played piano for local theater productions, and Jess spent her early childhood tagging along to rehearsals until she started performing herself. In her first year at Puget Sound, she joined the Adelphian Concert Choir and landed the role of the Witch in her favorite musical, Into the Woods. She was as enamored by theater and music as ever, and she also found that she loved the liberal arts education model. “All of my professors were asking me to make connections across disciplines, and that was really exciting for me,” she says. She double- majored in psychology and theater, and minored in music.

After graduating in 2005, Jess worked as an intern at Seattle Repertory Theatre, then moved to New York in 2008 to get her Master of Fine Arts degree at Columbia University. That’s when she met Melissa Brown, who would become the co-artistic director of ARTBARN. Melissa grew up outside Seattle and had actually worked at Seattle Rep at the same time as Jess, but they had never met. They kept hearing about each other through mutual friends, but it wasn’t until they were both living in New York, about 10 blocks from each other in the Inwood neighborhood, that they finally collided. They met for coffee at a little café between their apartments.

“We basically started spending all of our time together from then on,” Melissa says. They cooked Thanksgiving dinner together a few days after meeting, and eventually Melissa moved into Jess’s apartment, where they began collaborating on theater work. “The vocabulary felt really immediate and understood between us about how to work on a piece,” Melissa says.

In 2012 Jess started dreaming up a company that she would call ARTBARN. She loved site-specific, immersive theater, but what she craved most was a community of artists to create it with. The heart of ARTBARN is its residency model—the members of the company develop each piece collaboratively while living and working under the same roof.

“I was just missing why we got into theater in the first place,” Jess says. “I think people do it because of a sense of community and building something that’s bigger than what they can build on their own. I wanted to collaborate more deeply than I had ever been asked to, and I wanted to create a structure to invite others to do the same.”

ARTBARN established its first residency at Byrdcliffe Art Colony in upstate New York in 2013. When the designer needed help hanging lights, everybody pitched in. When Jess needed an extra set of eyes on a scene, everybody dropped what they were doing to help. They shared meals and rehearsed every day. “Then we mounted a show, had one performance, and tore it all down,” Jess says.

“I wanted to collaborate more deeply than I had ever been asked to, and I wanted to create a structure to invite others to do the same.”

In between creating ARTBARN and launching its first production, Jess was offered a job teaching theater at Puget Sound. She was thrilled by the idea of returning to her alma mater, but the timing was off—she had only just created her dream company in New York. It was a “torturous decision,” but she knew what she had to do. Two weeks after the Byrdcliffe residency ended, she packed up and moved back to the Pacific Northwest, hoping she could continue to lead the company from the opposite coast.

Four years later ARTBARN is thriving, and Jess has been able to use the company’s collaborative model as a teaching tool for her students. Melissa, who is head writer in addition to co-artistic director, flew in for the summer residency. “Having this particular team of interns was phenomenal,” she says. “And it was great to see Jess in teacher mode.”

The workshop production had been mounted at Warner Gym, which wasn’t an ideal space, acoustically speaking, and certainly wasn’t specific to the story of women holed up in a bunker. Now that the workshop process is over, Jess is focused on developing the piece further at Fort Worden Historical State Park, and estimates that the final production is still two years away. “I felt a different pressure this year than I have ever felt with ARTBARN, I think partially because we are a company of women, and we finally chose to do a piece about women,” she says. “I’d like to give ourselves the time to do it well.”

Fort Worden is located on the Kitsap Peninsula, overlooking the Puget Sound, 88 miles north of Tacoma. The grounds include a long, rocky beach with a lighthouse, dense woods dotted with concrete bunkers, and big military houses. Part of what appeals to Jess about the space is how “masculine” it feels. “Everything about it is such brutal architecture,” she says. “It feels like it wants contrast, to be reclaimed with a different kind of power.”

Ultimately, she hopes to curate an arts festival there, where ARTBARN would be just one part of the whole experience. “I would be really thrilled to create a platform for a lot of different artists to collaborate across disciplines in response to a similar site or a shared theme,” she says. Her eyes light up then, and for a moment she gazes out her office window, presumably envisioning the creative work ahead.

Stacey Cook