Read about students and entrepreneurs, puppets, Sundance, dancing and healing, and what James Brown has to do with that.
Love's Infrastructure (photo by Izzy Burger)
Torry Bend is an Assistant Professor of the Practice in Duke’s Theater Studies Department, where she teaches the design classes and designs the sets for the department’s main productions. Her set designs have appeared at major venues around the country: Are They Edible, presented at La Mama, Incubator Arts Project and Dixon’s Place, a Southwest Shakespeare Company production of Pygmalion, and Stephen Wadsworth's Agamemnon at the Getty Villa, among others. She’s a 2007 graduate of the MFA program in Scene Design at California Institute of the Arts.
Bend also creates strikingly original multimedia puppet shows, which she then builds and directs. Her first major show in Durham was Paper Hat Game. IndyWeek reviewer Byron Woods described it as a “sparkling yet pensive fusion of video, experimental set design and live performance [that] borrows a number of film techniques as it unfolds the true story of Scott Iseri, a Chicago sound designer whose deceptively whimsical acts of performance art—and community building—began on that city's subways in 2001.” The video design for the show was by Raquel Salvatella de Prada, a Duke colleague from Visual and Media Arts.
"I think that our music is a little silly at times and also very sad and Torry's art combines those elements as well, so, kind of seeing the full spectrum of emotion in life of both happiness and sadness, and laughter and tears."
-James Phillips of Bombadil
Bend’s latest show, Love’s Infrastructure, owes its existence to Aaron Greenwald, executive director of Duke Performances. After seeing Paper Hat Game at Manbites Dog Theater, Greenwald was inspired to introduce the imaginative director to the members of Bombadil, a playfully compelling local band that he’d presented in Duke Gardens the previous summer. They hit it off, and a commission from Duke Performances launched a collaboration. The result is a surreal puppet pop opera that centers on daydreaming Angeline, a character from Bombadil’s song by the same name, and the man who falls in love with her. Love's Infrastructure played four shows to packed houses this past January.
Bend’s next production, If My Feet Have Lost the Ground, is the story of a woman who finds a beating heart on an airplane and goes in search of its owner. It’s slated for production in the fall.
I got a taste of Bend's hands-on production style when I visited the set of Love's Infrastructure on the afternoon of its premier. It was calm when I arrived—a few people were putting final touches on the set while Bombadil ran through their numbers and checked their timing. An hour or so later things were busier, and I watched Bend sit on the floor to paint the base of a little house on a pole. Every few strokes of the brush, it seemed, she was pulled away to discuss logistics or check some camera work or adjust some other part of her elaborate toy cityscape. When I left she was back on the floor, painting and joking with a few bystanders. I had the feeling that the last-minute project was more a refuge than a duty. After all, constructing sets is what got her hooked on the theater, and I think that even her most conceptual work springs from the same basic fascination with model building.
It was an all-consuming show with a compressed production schedule, and Bend was still catching her breath when I interviewed with her about a week and a half after it closed. Naturally we talked about the show, but we also talked about her evolution as an artist, about her dual roles as scene designer and puppet artist, and about her teaching and her background. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.
"Media and Innovation" teaching assistant Danny Nolan going over the equipment
“We didn’t really know what we were getting into,” Julian Spector laughs. The Duke senior is describing an adventurous day of filming last fall with sophomore classmate Grace Oathout. But he’s also describing his experience in the vanguard of the latest expansion of Duke’s arts curriculum: exploring the intersection of art and entrepreneurship.
“We show up to film the John Brown Jazz Orchestra at this country club in Kinston,” Spector continues. “It turns out to be a Great Gatsby-themed fundraiser gala, so all the society people are there in flapper dresses and old-fashioned suits and hats.”
The picturesque footage made their story about an entrepreneurial musician even better. Oysters Rockefeller on the house didn’t hurt, either.
Spector and Oathout teamed up to make one of the three short video features that students produced for Amy Unell’s “Media and Innovation” course at Duke, co-taught by Kimberly Jenkins. Unell and Jenkins had students document the work of one Duke community entrepreneur and two entrepreneurial ventures happening around Durham and the greater Triangle.
“We developed the course as if the students were all producers for a media and innovation show,” Unell explains. “The audience was their classmates, and Kimberly and I were executive producers.”
Profile of North Carolina Therapeutic Riding Center by Grace Oathout and Yasmine Hamdouche
The course design dovetailed two complementary goals—students learned from their feature subjects how innovative ideas could be brought to life, and they learned media skills by telling the subjects’ stories. Since innovation makes the difference between sinking and swimming in the media business, the video subjects also modeled skills that Unell and Jenkins’ students will need to succeed.
Kevin Poole in "Big Love" by Charles L. Mee
Kevin Poole. (T’98) (directed Phil Watson in his Senior Distinction project, "An Iliad.")
Studying and practicing theater at Duke enriched my college experience immensely. A thread within the fabric of my overall liberal arts education, theater provided a means to actively explore social issues by more deeply comprehending the complex relationships between individuals and systems within which those individuals operate; sometimes knowingly, often times not. Balancing practice with theory is a challenge within the field of theater in higher education and that tension played out well for me at Duke and also in graduate school.
Phil Watson in "An Iliad"
Struggle and Understanding
By Phil Watson
Watson is a senior in Theater Studies at Duke who recently presented his senior distinction project, An Iliad, in Shaeffer Theater.
The experience of preparing and performing a distinction project in physical acting (An Iliad), with an emphasis on movement and voice, was taxing. Projects like mine are explorations; they are adventures. I set out to understand more about my art and myself, and I blinked and found myself shuffling home after midnight day after day, exhausted both physically and emotionally, only to do it all over again the next day, but even more.
But the series of breakthroughs I made in those explorations made all that work worth it. Suddenly, my body and mind connected in a new way, and I began seeing things in a different light. I understood.
That's what Duke is to me. Studying classics, or mechanical engineering, or anything, is a process of struggle and understanding, repeated over and over again. You work hard in the library or in the studio, and you learn. You grasp a little more, and then a little more, and then even more. You learn something about yourself and your abilities and about the world at large.