Room to play: Pay It Forward program provides artists with practice, performance space 

  • Doctora Xingoan Diana Alvarez performs at the Blue Room in Eastampton as part of the artist support program Pay It Forward. PHOTO BY TRACY ELLER

  • A staged reading of the play “Return to Abya Yala” by playwright Aria Acevedo is part of the artist support program Pay It Forward. PHOTO BY KIM CHIN-GIBBONS

  • Kim Chin-Gibbons, in lower right corner, will play with the progressive rock band Sunset Mission in Easthampton in August as part of the Pay It Forward program. PHOTO BY KIM CHIN-GIBBONS

  • Kim Chin-Gibbons of Amherst is part of a progressive rock band, Sunset Mission, that will play in Easthampton in August as part of the Pay It Forward program. CONTRIBUTED/KIM CHIN-GIBBONS

  • Magician Scotty Swan, who makes comedy a big part of his act, performs at the Blue Room in Easthampton as part of the Pay It Forward program. CITYSPACE

Staff Writer
Published: 7/8/2022 12:57:37 PM

It’s a given that many artists can struggle to find ways to fund their work. It’s also a given that it can be tough to find a place to do that work, whether for rehearsing or performing.

In Easthampton, CitySpace, the nonprofit group that manages the city’s Old Town Hall, is tackling both of those issues at once.

With a new program, Pay It Forward, CitySpace is providing a number of regional artists with short residencies and performance space in the Blue Room, the renovated, 1,600-square-foot venue on Old Town Hall’s lower floor that’s set up for music, theater and other events. And the agency has spread its net wide: The first five artists selected for the program include a playwright, a rock guitarist/vocalist, a comedian/magician and more.

Burns Maxey, CitySpace executive director, says Pay It Forward, which has been funded in part through grants from the Mass Cultural Council and the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, grew out of the group’s planning for its 2019 capital campaign, when organizers took a long-term look at their goals.

“We did a lot of thinking along the lines of, ‘Who are we?’ and ‘Who do we benefit?’” Maxey said during a recent phone call. “And one question that kept coming up is, ‘How do we help artists access rehearsal and performance spaces? What can we do to help them take that next step in developing their work?’”

The difficulties the pandemic created for so many artists made creating a support program even more imperative for CitySpace, she said.

Pay It Forward is open to any artist living in Hampden, Hampshire and Franklin counties, though Maxey says the program is geared in particular for BIPOC artists, or artists who qualify as low-income.

“We’re looking to work with artists from communities that historically have been underrepresented,” said Maxey, who also emphasizes that Pay It Forward is “a pilot program. We want to see how this plays out and get lots of feedback from the artists we’re working with … ideally we’d love to expand it and work with more artists, and do that for longer residencies.”

The program is also structured for artists individually, based on their type of work and what’s required for that, so the length of residencies can vary.

For instance, Doctora Xingona Diana Alvarez, a singer-songwriter as well as a multidisciplinary artist, spent five days in May in the Blue Room rehearsing with other contributors for a theatrical performance, “Quiero Volver: A Xingonx Ritual Opera,” and then staged the piece for a live audience.

Alvarez, a native of Corpus Christi, Texas who now lives in Holyoke, initially performed in the area as a singer-songwriter. But they have been working on “Quiero Volver” (I Want to Come back) for several years, a multidisciplinary piece that includes music, installation art, video and some audience interaction; it’s designed in particular to give queer, trans and gender-expansive artists of color “a place to come together,” Alvarez says.

“[Artists] need affordable spaces to do this kind of work,” she said during a recent phone call. “That’s what I really liked about Pay It Forward. It gave me a way to try out some variations to the piece, and [the Blue Room] is a really great place to work and put on a performance.” (An earlier version of the piece was staged at Northampton’s Academy of Music in 2018 and raised over $10,000 for immigrant justice initiatives, Alvarez says.)

Alvarez said they also got to meet the four other artists in the program before any of the residencies got started this spring. “That was another really good aspect about this, the chance to build community.”

Maxey says Pay It Forward also offers artist-tailored workshops, one-on-one coaching, publicity for shows, and technical assistance if needed, as well as a $500 payment to artists to put on a live performance.

“The idea is to help meet artists on their terms and figure out what will best suit their needs,” she said.

For instance, Kim Chin-Gibbons, a musician and photographer from Amherst, plays in an eight-piece progressive rock band, Sunset Mission, whose members are scattered across Massachusetts and southern New England, especially in the Boston area. Between that and the pandemic, Chin-Gibbons says, finding a place and time to rehearse or play regularly has been a big challenge.

Now, through Pay It Forward, the band, which played earlier this year at Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Space in Greenfield, is set to spend two days at the Blue Room in early August doing some intensive rehearsing; then they’ll give a live performance the following day, Aug. 7.

“We’re super excited about this,” said Chin-Gibbons, who has honed her music at The Institute for the Musical Arts in Goshen and been a marketing specialist intern at Double Edge Theatre in Ashfield, where her photos have been used to publicize productions. “It’s the perfect opportunity to really work on our sound, try out some variables, and then be able to turn around and play” for a live audience.

“Pay it Forward was made to gather artists together, and I’ve never resonated more with a community and vision so passionate,” she added in a follow-up email.

The program so far has also included a staged reading of a play by Aria Acevedo, a Hampshire College graduate who has worked with a Northampton group, the Play Incubation Collective, to develop her work, and a magic and comedy show by Scotty Swan, who’s based in Springfield.

Ebbie Russell, who combines writing, choreography and visual art to examine intergenerational trauma and chronic illness, will have a residency at the Blue Room this fall.

Maxey is hopeful the Blue Room’s versatility as a performance space, as well as Easthampton’s central location in the area, will provide opportunities for expanding Pay It Forward next year. Work is also continuing right above the Blue Room on Old Town Hall’s second floor to turn that space into an even bigger performance venue, one that seats up to 350 people.

“We’re in a great location,” she said. “I’d like to think that’s just going to give us even more opportunities to support artists.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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