February 26, 2010

Farmers, thespians cultivate cool collaboration

— The party began with a little drama.

click image to enlarge

Avery Yale Kamila/Staff Writer: Jan. 20, 2010 Penny Jordan, who's family runs Wm. H. Jordan Farm, Rebecca Millett, who hosted the party, and Jennie Hahn, who is the artistic director "Of Farms and Fables," are all excited for the project to begin.

''We're having a wine crisis,'' Jennie Hahn told me as she anxiously peered out the front door of her cousin's oceanfront home in Cape Elizabeth.

Meanwhile her cousin Rebecca Millett, who chairs the Cape Elizabeth School Board, was busy in the kitchen pouring wine from the only two bottles she had on hand. A few minutes later Hahn breathed a big sigh of relief as her husband, Wade Brainerd, arrived laden down with beer and wine.

Despite Hahn's concern, drama is just what the two dozen farmers and foodies gathered at Millett's home were in the mood for. We were there for the kickoff of the ''Of Farms and Fables'' collaborative community theater project that Hahn's group, Open Waters Theatre Arts, is producing.

Of course, once the drinks were flowing, it took a bit of coaxing to get everyone into the spacious living room, where a fire crackled on the hearth and a Lego replica of the Star Wars Millennium Falcon perched on top of the baby grand. But eventually we all settled into the comfortable space and Hahn filled us in on the details of the production.

''Of Farms and Fables'' will cross-train actors in farm work and farmers in stagecraft. Hahn said she's in the process of interviewing professional actors, who will spend a number of weeks this summer working on Wm. H. Jordan Farm in Cape Elizabeth, Broadturn Farm in Scarborough and Kay-Ben Farm in Gorham. In turn, farm workers from those operations will explore their dramatic side.

The collaboration culminates in an original screenplay and a short production run of a performance that will examine current issues around food and share personal stories of the farmers who participate in the project. Hahn expects the performance to take place during the summer of 2011.

Hahn, who's originally from Thomaston and graduated from Vassar with a degree in drama, said she learned about community-based theater from her work with Cornerstone Theater Co. in L.A.

''Community-based arts assumes we are all artists, we are all creators and we need opportunities to create together,'' Hahn said.

When initially conceiving the project, Hahn considered focusing on either the fishing or logging industries, which join farming as cornerstones of Maine's traditional economy.

''Then I happened to meet Penny Jordan,'' Hahn said. ''And she happens to love live theater.''

Jordan, who's a third-generation farmer and works with other family members on the farm, is now serving on the project's advisory board. She's also a Cape Elizabeth town councilor.

During her remarks to the group, Jordan spoke about her dad, Bill Jordan Sr., and said ''he instilled in me this sense of purpose. That if you believe in something, you work to carry it forward for the next generation.''

Her dad is no longer with us, but Jordan continues his philosophy with her advocacy for local food, family farms and land preservation. And these days with the exploding popularity of locally grown and raised food, Jordan is seeing the results.

''As people are starting to look more local, it has been awesome for the farm community in southern Maine,'' Jordan said.

And while Jordan may be as down-to-earth as you can get, she's also in touch with popular culture.

This was clear when Stacy Brenner announced to the group that her husband, John Bliss, had given her an iPhone for her birthday and that it was like ''having her office in her back pocket.'' (We all thought she should sell that phrase to iPhone maker Apple.)

''Now I need one,'' Jordan said, and added with a laugh: ''I compete with her.''

Brenner and Bliss, who grew up in the suburbs far removed from the cycles of agriculture, now run Broadturn Farm. The farm, formerly known as the Meserve Farm, was preserved by the Scarborough Land Conservation Trust and is rented by the husband-and-wife team.

Of course, the iPhone conversation didn't end there. Advisory board member Stephanie Gilbert, who's a farmland protection specialist with the Maine Department of Agriculture, recently upgraded to an iPhone and she and Brenner both agreed that they need to find a farm app. Maybe Hahn's husband can help, as he's a programmer with Activision, the creator of many popular video games, including ''World of Warcraft'' and ''Guitar Hero.''

Farmers from the third participating farm, Kay-Ben Farm (which is also known as Benson Farm), couldn't make it to the party, but Gilbert described their operation to the group. Run by Eddie and Becky Benson and their children, the dairy farm, which sells milk to Oakhurst, is also known for its prize-winning Holsteins and it's high-quality compost. Apparently, the farm is harboring a budding thespian, too.

''Eddie is an absolute entertainer,'' Gilbert said. ''We're all in for a big treat.''

The other two members of the advisory board are Tessy Seward, who runs the social change theater company ROiL, and Cheryl Laz, who is a sociology professor at USM. Seward had to take off early, so I didn't get to chat with her beyond the basic pleasantries.

But I did have the chance to talk with Laz about the fascinating course she taught last semester that allowed her students to learn about the industrial food system and culminated in a screening of the film ''Food, Inc.'' Laz also raises chickens at her Raymond home and calls herself ''a farmer wannabe.''

Her friends and neighbors Lori and John Rand were also there. The couple lives on John's family farm, which they're trying to revive.

''It's pretty clear we all need to grow more and eat more from the backyard,'' John Rand said.

Artists Nancy and Scott Nash, who share office space with Hahn and Brainerd, also make an effort to eat a diet rich in locally grown foods. Right now they subscribe to the Wolf Pine Farm winter CSA, and they look forward to the diverse and sometimes unusual produce they receive each week. ''It really changes the way we think about food,'' said Scott Nash, who is a children's book illustrator.

For instance, it causes them to ask questions such as ''What can we do with kholrabi?''

The answer, according to Nancy, is slice it up for salads or grill it.

I also had the chance to chat with Sara Lennon, a graphic designer who created the ''Of Farms and Fables'' brochure, and Claire Guyer, who grew up with Hahn and will serve as company manager. Guyer let slip to me and Brainerd that her brother took Hahn to the prom in high school.

But the real show-stealer was Wags, a black poodle. He trotted in at the end of party and captured all of our hearts with his friendly nature and well-groomed coat.

I wonder if there will be a part for him when ''Of Farms and Fables'' hits the stage?

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at:

akamila@pressherald.com

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