Architects office window becomes stage  August 11, 2014

 — Walk along a downtown block of West Hargett Street at midday and you’ll catch a glimpse of architects at work in the large street-front window of a firm there.

But for a few nights this month, an entirely different tableau will be on view.

Urban Garden Performing Arts will stage its latest show, “Vogue Men’s Fashions: The Window,” at Andrew Osterlund, PLLC as part of its ongoing creative community building efforts.

“The Window” continues the group’s exploration of a character named John who is trying to connect with others: “John is tired of talking to himself and he needs to talk to you,” goes the show’s tagline.

During the show, the audience interacts with John, watches the passersby in the window and form their own community of people processing the evening.

“We’re activating that space. So now anyone who sees the show has a personal, intimate experience with this little block,” said P.J. Maske, the group’s artistic director.

By creating a personal experience for audience members that’s tied to a place, Maske hopes to inspire an enduring connection.

“It has to do with people taking ownership of their city,” she said.

Andy Osterlund, president of the architecture firm, said it was an easy decision to open up the space to Urban Garden. The firm moved in wanting to have an active use on the street front. Opening the space up to a performance is another way to do so.

“It really has been a delight to watch them work in this space,” he said.

Audiences met the character of John for the first time last summer, in a show above Foundation, a bar on Fayetteville Street. The show grew out of a collaboration by a group of artists who explored intersecting themes including audience engagement, the roles of architecture and place in staging a performance, and Southern identity.

Urban Garden’s mission is to encourage collaboration among artists from different disciplines – theater and the visual arts for example – as well as engage audiences that might usually support only one dimension of the arts.

Maske grew up with mother who was a visual artist, trained as a dancer, and then moved into the world of theater and married a musician. Urban Gardens allows her to consider all of those experiences.

“I was really exposed to all of these different worlds and I felt really passionate about blending them,” she said.

Other Urban Garden shows have featured art and folk music inspired by the work of writer Thomas Hardy, audience-controlled games, and performances built around the theme of baking and bread.

“The Window” opened July 31 and runs Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m through Aug. 16 at 7 West Hargett Street. Tickets are available at or by calling 804-601-0636.

(this article appeared in print in the News and Observer in August 2014)

An examination of Dixie male dysfunction inVogue Men’s Fashions

John Jimerson in "Vogue Men's Fashions"

Photo courtesy of Urban Garden Performing Arts

John Jimerson in “Vogue Men’s Fashions”

An ex-lover was getting ready to move out of state. “What I think I need the most,” she told me, “is a fresh, unhaunted landscape.”

I wished her all the best. Particularly since I already knew that isn’t how hauntings usually work.

That disquieting moment came back to me the other night as I watchedVogue Men’s Fashions, the unorthodox but compelling new theatrical collaboration by Urban Garden Performing Arts. This show is easily the strongest I’ve seen from them to date.

The show opens with the entrance of John (John Jimerson), a young man who purposefully strides into the second-floor studio of the former Raleigh Ensemble Players space. It turns out that he has brought a lot more than a digital video camera and tripod with him. Memories—and a few ghosts—have followed him into the room as well.

These specters have better production values than most, thanks to visual artist Jon Haas’ atmospheric contributions that are projected on the back wall of the space throughout the performance. But as this evocative tale unfolds, we uncover a plot point that could be just as disconcerting: What if we in the audience are actually a part of his unearthly (but persistent) entourage? Or what if we aren’t, but this man is convinced that we are? Those are two of the smaller questions raised in Richard Butner’s evocative script, which is distributed to the audience prior to the performance.

This solo show gets much of its impact from the unusual collaboration between performer, designers and artistic director PJ Maske that was initiated nine months ago. As part of the group’s “Other White Man” project, Maske asked her collaborators to consider their experiences growing up as white men in the South during the last several decades. Among the questions the group considered: What were they taught about being a man in this culture as they were growing up? And what have they learned differently since then?

Having grown up in the small-town South myself, I can report that it makes an enduring sort of sense when Jimerson’s character reports feeling “disunified” and “diffuse.” A jagged and broken set of beliefs, folkways, expectations and prejudices has left more than one generation of men grappling with a map that no longer has much, if any, bearing on the world they live in.

We see one face of this dysfunction in the production’s location: the back of the clothing store that once stood at this downtown Raleigh address. In it, a man in flight from his own conflicting recollections seeks a ceremony that might allow him to reintegrate, and, in the script’s words, “assume a solid and unified form.” Jimerson’s take on this troubled, hyper soul is never less than riveting. Under Maske’s direction, his character is driven to a recital of sometimes manic, sometimes nerveless confessions to a camera that he cradles at times as gently as a lover.

But exactly who is it that he can never get close enough to, on the other end of the viewfinder? That revelation, along with others, await those who take on this rewarding psychological mystery.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Southern discomforts.”


An Essay Published on HowlRound, August 2013