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Chance encounter inspires musical about dogs

By Sandra Dias
Daily Hampshire Gazette / May 28, 2011

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NORTHAMPTON, Mass.—A few years ago, Evan Curran was sitting on a bench in downtown Northampton, getting ready to eat a few slices of pizza, when he met a man named Kinnie and his two dogs, Shiprock and Anchordog.

Kinnie was a traveler who moved around in his Winnebago, spending time locally and out West. Curran was taken with the two amiable dogs; he learned that Kinnie had found one of them in the desert by Shiprock Monument in New Mexico. The dog, eventually named Shiprock, had been half-starving and apparently stayed alive by eating dead animals and insects.

Curran asked Kinnie if he could give the dogs a slice of pizza; he agreed and the pair gobbled it up.

It was one of those casual, easygoing encounters with a stranger that can happen on a sunny day on the sidewalks of Northampton's Main Street, but for some reason, it stuck with Curran. He never saw Kinnie again, or the dogs with the unusual names, but he found himself thinking about Shiprock and Anchordog. A budding songwriter, he penned a song about the dogs, and then another, until he had created a song cycle about them.

"That chance meeting was enough inspiration for me," he said. "I decided I wanted to do a whole series of songs about the dogs."

He teamed up with a college friend from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, percussionist Loren Halman, and over the past year, the two have performed their music about Shiprock and Anchordog at bars, cafes, open mics, schools and house parties. During the performances, Curran, 24, alternates between guitar, banjo and xylophone, while Halman, 24, plays a bass drum covered in a crocheted blanket. Curran also decided to weave into his story another of his passions - food politics.

About that same time, local performance/theater artist Nancy Vitale, 24, was looking for a performance project to launch. Vitale, who trained in theater at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and in Spain with Barcelona's Teatro de los Sentidos, heard Curran and Halman perform at a local house party, and thought the song cycle would translate well into a theatrical production. Also, as a farming apprentice at Stone Soup, an organic farm in Belchertown, a show about food seemed right up her alley.

Vitale worked with Curran and Halman over the past eight months to transform "Shiprock and Anchordog" into an "adventure musical" that details the nomadic adventures of two canines who embark upon an epic quest in search of food security.

The play, which is produced by I'm A Tiger Productions, features live music, dance and giant puppets crafted by another Stone Soup farmer, Emily Vail. During the outdoor performances, audiences follow the dogs in their travels through imaginary blueberry fields, oceans and forests - moving with the actors to separate locations in the field that are designed to look like the pages of a storybook.

Vitale says she wanted to stage the production outdoors, on farmland, to reinforce the awareness about where our food comes from.

"I really believe in site-specific theater, where the site really informs the telling of the story," Vitale said. "I want the audience to be as active in the theatrical production as possible so they can really get into the story."

Over the past few months, the group has been working with schoolchildren at the Hilltown Cooperative Charter School in Haydenville, who will perform in the show. Curran, who works as a teaching assistant at the school said he and Vitale were interested in having children participate, both so they could learn about theater and to draw families to the production.

"I wanted the story to have some really clear messages for the audience and I was also hoping to reach kids," Curran said. "The issue of food security is really important to me and I thought dogs would be great spokesmodels for food security because they are typically so food-oriented and kids also just love dogs."

While Curran said some of the messages about food security might go over the heads of young children, Vitale says she believes that many kids in the area have a basic grasp of the concept because they have grown up in families who buy locally produced food.

"But honestly," she added, "the kids are most excited about the dogs in the play and all the weird, kooky people they encounter on their journey."

Fourteen children from the charter school signed up to participate in after-school and weekend rehearsals. Most of the children are in kindergarten through third grade and two 7-year-old girls, Chloe Bucs of Easthampton and Lucia Cartmell-Toffoli of Northampton, play the part of Shiprock and Anchordog. Others perform as dancers, puppeteers and supporting characters. Most of the children have no previous experience with theater, but Bucs has acted before and recently performed in a play about ants at the Eric Carle Museum that was written by her mother, Hillary Bucs, a theater professor at Western New England College.

The story is mostly told through song, movement and pantomime, but there is some dialogue. Curran said the children have played an important role in crafting dialogue, developing characters, coming up with dance moves and sounds and creating sets.

"I think it's been a positive experience for them," he said. "They get to see what it's like to work seriously on a theatrical project that is very large in scope."

Halman said the song cycle about food security has become popular among Northampton-area "20-somethings," many of whom are involved in Grow Food Northampton or work on, or buy from, area CSAs and farmer's markets, or who just have a passion for locally grown food.

"It's been really exciting to bring 20-somethings back to the imaginative aspect of storytelling," Curran said.

Vitale said she wanted the larger theatrical production to appeal to her peers, but also to people of all ages.

"This is such an intergenerational piece," she said. "To me, this is something that a 5-year-old or a college student or a parent can enjoy. There is a childlike, magical, whimsical quality to the songs and the aesthetic of the show. We want everyone to be transported to a childlike state in the show, but it is not necessarily a show geared towards children."

Vitale said she wants the show to be a fun take on the sometimes-serious issue of food politics.

While, she says, dialogue about food can be "stale and academic," a play about dogs traveling around the country in search of a meal is fun and lighthearted enough to dispel some of that seriousness.

"Food politics can be really `blech,' " she said. "Watching two 7-year-old girls acting as dogs and running around and being silly is so much more fun. People can still think about this stuff and smile and have fun with it."