Submitted by guest blogger Martha Pritchard Spear
The Upper Jay Art Center seems to be from grittiest Brooklyn, on the East River, scooped up by Dorothy’s tornado, and dropped smack dab in the center of Upper Jay, NY, on the East Branch of the Ausable River, just a little rumpled from the journey far upstate. The art center produces plays, poetry readings, dance performances, art shows, musical concerts and various artistic and social happenings year round. It is also known as Recovery Lounge.
Much has been written about this factory-turned-art-center that’s spawned an entire arts community around it. You may already know that when you walk in the factory building's first floor you come into a crowded, raw old wooden space, filled to bursting with tatty couches and past-prime arm chairs set in rows before an intimate and informal stage area. The floor is dotted with antique carpets and where the bare wooden boards are visible, you can see traces of paint from old play performance sets.
A handful of thick wooden posts support the floors above. The posts are decorated with feathers, hats and mittens, a joker playing card, an upside-down metal sculpture of a person, tourist pennants and various totems. From the ceiling beams, orange, white and black cords swoop discreetly around the room, bringing power to the theatrical lights, floor lamps and sound system.
The hamlet of Upper Jay has a post office, a quaint, old-fashioned motor inn on the riverside, a successful artisanal farm making cheeses sold throughout the North Country, a vigorous but tiny library, and a splendid café on the former home of The Land of Make Believe, which was washed away for good by a flood in 2011. Upper Jay does not have a traffic light.
One Saturday morning I observe a play rehearsal. I enter and find an unobtrusive seat where I can write and not bother anybody. The actors and director are chatting quietly. The director is Scott Renderer, a compact 60-ish dramaturge who founded the art center with his family. Scott is known for casting non-actors in his plays and coaxing out of them extraordinary performances that make you wonder about your own untapped potential. The actors today are all amateurs, local folks: two high school teachers, a restaurateur, a tech entrepreneur, a psychotherapist, a professional dancer. One actor is sharing a collection of gaudy props she gathered from the local convenience store and thrift shop. Another actor says, with marvel in her voice, that she smoked some pot to get into character. Much curious questioning, delighted laughter. “Hookah?” asks someone. “Where do you get it?” “I might know a guy.” Soft chatter. They’re getting ready for their fourth rehearsal of the play.
“Let’s do a short little warm-up,” says Scott in his silky voice. The actors stand in a circle and begin to hum and make expressive sounds. They shake and wiggle like four-year-olds, laugh and sigh on cue. The leader says, “Activate your tongue muscle! Write your name in cursive with your tongue and watch other people because it’s fun!”
After their dramatic warm-up, Scott advises his team: “The one thing about all these characters is that there’s an incredible amount of pain and suffering. The thing that usually deters actors is THAT THING. Usually you just want to kind of indicate what the character is rather than feeling what the character is. Instead of telling us what character’s pain is, you actually kind of try to step into it yourself.”
At a break in rehearsal I chat with the tech entrepreneur. He hasn’t acted since 9th grade in high school, and he has a high schooler of his own now. He says, “This is terrifying but Scott makes it so easy.”
The Upper Jay Art Center hosts events throughout the year. Be sure to check out our events page to learn about what's coming up. While in the area, enjoy farm to table freshness at local restaurants and relax with an overnight stay.