New theater with Cornell connections rises on Ithaca's inlet

Cherry play rehearsal
Actors Camilla Schade, Jeffrey Guyton, Jordan Dunn-Pilz, Josh Sedelmeyer and Robin Maze rehearse at The Cherry Arts theater in Ithaca.
Cherry Arts puppetry
Scott Hitz, left, director of puppetry at The Cherry Arts theater with actors Jeffrey Guyton and Camilla Schade.

The new theater being built on Ithaca’s Cayuga Inlet will be a “multidisciplinary locavore arts venue,” and Cornell faculty are deeply involved.

For the co-founders of The Cherry Arts, artistic director Samuel Buggeln and board president Nick Salvato, associate professor and chair of the department of performing and media arts (PMA), the idea for the theater was born after their half-year stay in Buenos Aires, where they watched pioneering theater performances created on shoestring budgets.

With that inspiration – and an unexpected profit from an apartment sale in New York City – the two formed Performance Premises LLC, and purchased land on Cherry Street in Ithaca for the nonprofit theater company’s new building.

’The Snow Queen’

The Cherry Arts’ production of “The Snow Queen,” Dec. 16-18 at the Kitchen Theatre, includes puppetry, masks and projected illustrations creating a rich, textured experience. This is not a “Disney-fied” adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen tale, says Nick Salvato. “What Anderson did is twisted and disturbing; this production affirms those aspects of the story rather than making it a caricature so it’s more palatable. It’s the contra-‘Frozen.’”

Asking what kind of humanity it takes to be a good adult, the play is a piece for adults as well as young audiences. “The show speaks to contemporary concerns, such as the fragility of our planet,” Salvato says. “And one can experience the character of the Snow Queen, with her large ego and appetite for power, as having resonance with the current political moment.”

The play also has humor and hope, he says: “Strength, celebration and love are earned through their predication on acknowledging darkness. We couldn’t have anticipated this is the holiday show we’d need this season, but I think it is.”

“The idea is to be generous landlords and rent The Cherry Arts space at a very low price,” Salvato explains. “Keeping the overhead low means that all sorts of artistic risks can be taken and we can be fully experimental.”

In addition to theater, the new space set to open in early 2017 will host concerts and burlesque, dance and opera performances; art exhibits and installations; film screenings; poetry and book readings; jam sessions and more. Salvato says the space will “serve theater in a primary way but also be open to other uses and other imaginings.”

Salvato sees deep parallels between PMA and The Cherry’s mission. “In PMA we are increasingly interested in moving beyond distinctions and categories that might be limiting,” he says. “We’re interested in more capacious ways to understand what live performance and media can be and do, and how the scholarly dimension can richly inform and overlap with the artistic work. A real driver in both PMA and The Cherry is an openness to the possibilities for multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity as well as how we can be more global.”

For Salvato, his creative work with The Cherry offers exciting opportunities for theoretical, scholarly and philosophical inquiry.

“I might want to ask a question, like how to think about gentrification, and answer it one way in a monologue for an actor in ‘Storm Country’ and another way in my scholarly writing," he says. "There’s a texturing and deepening of thought that can come from oscillating between a creative and more scholarly approach to answering philosophical questions.” 

The Cherry is structured as a collective, with 75 percent of the box office from its upcoming production “The Snow Queen” going to company members. In addition to professional actors in the company, other artists contribute to productions – like Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, associate professor of English, who wrote the lyrics for “The Snow Queen” and wrote parts of the company’s inaugural piece, “A Cherry Timedive.”

“What I like about collaborating with The Cherry is the sense of being part of a community, of working with brilliant, creative people with whom I’ve wanted an opportunity to collaborate for a long time,” she says.

That work has involved what she calls “a combination of terror and safety.” Before working with The Cherry, she’d never written a play or lyrics, but “they give me the opportunity to push myself beyond what I would usually be doing in my own creative work.”

The creative team for “The Snow Queen” also includes PMA visiting assistant professor Aoise Stratford as dramaturg, and lighting and costumes designed by, respectively, PMA senior lecturer and resident lighting designer Edward Intemann and PMA costume shop manager Lisa Boquist.

Linda B. Glaser is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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Rebecca Valli