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The art in nature

A conversation with Tannis Kowalchuk on Shakespeare, cultivation and one year of Farm Arts

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It’s morning at Willow Wisp Organic Farm. An array of be-hatted men are at work picking radishes in the field most distant from the barn; bees and bugs are flitting in and out of the flower gardens.

In the barn, Tannis Kowalchuk is surrounded by color. A myriad of flowers propped around her in vases are waiting to be arranged for a New York City farmers’ market. Just her head pokes out among the blooms, like another happy azalea.

We get into a golf cart to take a short tour of the 30-acre property, holding coffee mugs out to the side so the spillage leaks onto the dirt paths and not our pants. (“This is how I do it,” Kowalchuk assures me, regarding the coffee technique.)

Weeks ago, the paths that weave around planted fields, some of which are now fallow for the season, set the stage for the first production of the Farm Arts Collective’s “Shakespeare on the Farm.”

The performances extended over two weekends and sold out each time, including the added show that sold out the day it was announced. The success inspired a revival performance, “Shakespeare on the Rail,” that will take place Saturday, September 21, on the Rails to Trails pathways at the Hurleyville Arts Centre.

The Farm Arts Collective is an “agri-cultural” community hub dedicated to connecting organic farming with performance—a melding of Greg Swartz’s background in agriculture with Kowalchuk’s theater repertoire. The project is based at the couple’s farm, Willow Wisp, and works outward in Sullivan and Wayne counties and New York City.

Kowalchuk, the founder of NACL Theatre, formed the collective about a year ago with the mission of creating a space “where people can attend farm-related workshops, have artistic experiences, eat well and feel a part of something bigger than themselves.”

Yurika Sase as Ariel in "The Tempest," from "Shakespeare on the Farm." | Photo contributed by Irene Soloway.

She has a lifelong background in theater, dating back to the time she marched into her principal’s office in Kindergarten and told him she wanted to sing at the closing assembly. “I’ve always needed to perform,” she says. It’s in her nature to be theatrical. There is a moment, as Kowalchuk is speaking, that her arms are in the perfect position to be holding poor Yorick’s skull.

That inclination, she says, was not imbued by her family. Kowalchuk’s maternal grandparents were Polish farmers, forced to work for the Nazis in World War II. The family went from a concentrtion camp to a refugee camp, before being accepted for asylum in Canada. On this particular day, Kowalchuk’s mother is visiting, jarring tomato sauce in the kitchen while we chat in the performance greenhouse.

The collective is a convergence of her worlds, a chance to bring the community together for artistic and agricultural purposes. She wanted to bring art to a place less formal and intimidating than a gallery or theater. “I wanted to engage people around me, who are living here with me, in questions of looking after our planet, and questions of justice, social justice.” Kowalchuk references a show she produced called “Courage,” and another called “The Weather Project,” which respectively addressed social justice issues and climate change.

Since so many of his plays used nature as metaphor, Shakespeare was a natural choice for an on-the-farm production. The show opened up from the greenhouse to Kowalchuk’s flower garden, where she played queen of the fairies who live there. From there, the audience strolled by fields of pea and oats—natural fertilizers—following behind string musicians and actors. Romeo and Juliet were back dropped by sun hemp. King Lear emerged from a compost pile. Hamlet faced the crisis of his existence while weeding a field. Characters on tall stilts walked beside the warming greenhouses, where heated tables can make crop production extend just a little farther into each season than nature would typically allow.

“What we’re trying to do here is work with nature, but we’re also cultivating it,” Kowalchuk says. “I love how humans try to cultivate and control everything in their lives... And yet, even though we’re doing intense cultivation here, and humans are doing intense cultivation, there’s a part of nature that always erupts.”

The damp spring worried Swartz and his partner John Bachman about the season’s production capacity. Showers on one night of “Shakespeare” forced Kowalchuk to put up tents for the musicians.

Nature erupts, Kowalchuk flings her arms in the air, “like love—falling in love with the wrong person, Romeo and Juliet. Feeling this drive to kill yourself, Hamlet. Facing old age and madness, King Lear. We try to cultivate, but then you get a storm here. You get heavy rains, you get an early frost and everything you try to do to cultivate… God and nature always gets us, and we ultimately realize, because of our love, because of our passions, because of our bodies dying, that we don’t have control. You’re constantly facing in farming and in storytelling and in art.”

Two weeks ago, a 55-year-old friend of Kowalchuk’s who still lived in Canada died of pancreatic cancer. She watched a healthy, active man, shrivel to less than 100 pounds.

“That’s a perfect example,” she says. “One flower’s alive. The other one, right beside it, gets black. No reason. That’s what farming is all about. You do your very best to create the best possible environment. But there’s something, something that always affects and changes and does something that we can’t control or explain. And I think that’s huge... That’s—that’s drama.”

Shakespeare on the Rails takes place on Saturday, September 21 at 3 p.m. at the Hurleyville Arts Centre. The event is free and refreshments are available for purchase.

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