Four upside down figures appear behind a soft, white curtain.
At times, one grows in size and dimension only to quickly disappear into the background of a churning 3rd Avenue in the Gowanus neighborhood in Brooklyn. The silhouette of a tow truck hauling a car on its truck bed moves left to right while figures closer to our eye pass right to left.
Minutes later, the lights in the room turn on. The figures appear in front of that soft, white curtain and reveal themselves to a be a group of middle-school girls, ranging from ages 8 to 11. Some pull their masks over their heads. Others have their heads buried in their scripts. School may be out in New York City, but this assemblage is engaged in a pedagogical exchange full of insightful lessons.
Welcome to Curious Jane’s Camera Obscura theater workshop.
Celebrating their tenth anniversary, Curious Jane has become a beloved set of camp programs that provide hands-on experiences for girls entering 3rd through 8th grades. Classes take place throughout Brooklyn, Manhattan, and San Francisco. In addition, their magazine is the go-to for D.I.Y. projects which focus on design, invention, and creation for young girls.
“Curious Jane builds a community of confident, inquisitive girls who like to make things,” says founder Samantha Razook. “Our focus, in any capacity or collaboration, is the all-girls experience. Bringing female artists to work with a small group of girls creates a safe, strong, and supportive place for girls to share powerful ideas and try completely new things.”
During this particular week-long workshop, a group of students seizes the challenge to create an original script performed in front of and behind a highly theatrical camera obscura installation. The class will develop a script and employ the D.I.Y. Curious Jane-style aesthetic which culminates in multiple performances of their project.
The actual camera obscura was created by George Del Barrio, founder and creative director of The Vanderbilt Republic, also celebrating their tenth anniversary. Del Barrio has used his stunning technical and artistic techniques for a series of obscura-based projects, including last year’s Remember This Time, a site-responsive art installation at The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center. That project married his techniques with the resplendent work of artist Keith Haring.
“Camera obscura” is a Latin term meaning “dark room” and it’s a larger-than-life version of a pinhole camera you might have created as a kid. When your retina typically views an image, the optic part of your brain makes an adjustment to the visual, rendering it right-side-up. A camera obscura essentially “untricks” the brain. The reversal and inversion of the image create a sensorial shift.
The Curious Jane/Vanderbilt Republic collaboration was born out of conversations about fusing the technical and artistic work of Del Barrio’s background with Razook’s education and inventive vision with the idea of a rehearsal process and STEM-based exploration. Also notable is their distinct abilities to articulate techniques both in their performative work as well as in pedagogical scenarios.
The class is helmed by choreographer Kate Ladenheim, creative director of The People Movers, a contemporary dance company that she formed about six years ago. Ladenheim is chiefly responsible for the curriculum design for the program.
The group seized on the video game Minecraft as a means through which to develop the narrative and style of their performance. “I didn’t expect them to attach onto a story so quickly,” Ladenheim explains. “They came to it as a united force.”
However once those quick decisions were made, Ladenheim explained that the challenge was getting the group to step back. “I encourage them to approach problems that need to be solved and look at the ways in which that is possible,” she explains. “They can problem solve through visuals, through movement. The obscura is important because it trains you to be a little more patient and more collaborative.”
During an afternoon session, the class performed an early version of their story with Razook and Del Barrio in attendance.
After the run-thru, Razook leads a feedback discussion. “What’s really impressive is when we get that there’s a double layer,” she says. “There a Minecraft world and a real world.”
“But sometimes it gets a little confusing for me because we’ll skip a step and we end up doing completely different things,” responds one student. “We can’t see each other so it’s hard to get each other on track.”
“I want you to drink this question in, and let it sit in your bellies for a minute,” advises Razook. “What does it feel like to be both a performer and a creator at the exact same time?”
“Usually, I act in a play that someone else wrote,” responds one student. “But doing both writing and acting at the exact same time … well, it feels good. But it also feels pretty weird.”
During a lunch break, Ladenheim addresses the challenges of working with students who are growing up in a world filled with striking technology. “I think they’re really saturated all the time with incredible images that they’re able to see instantly,” she explains. “The obscura is important because it trains you to be more patient and more collaborative.”
With the #MeToo movement a central force in this moment’s cultural narrative, we ask her if the issue is ever brought up during rehearsal.
“Certainly with Samantha and I,” says Ladenheim. “I hope I’ve created a space where they don’t actually need to have that conversation. I’d rather them be in a space where they are in charge and can create their own possibilities. My job is to have them think beyond those constraints and try to push them beyond their goals.”