Arts & Literature

Art in Paradise: What She Knows

Easthampton’s arts community talks about preventing sexual abuse.

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Thursday, October 25, 2012

Easthampton has, for a long time, seemed like Northampton’s scrappy cousin, an up-and-comer in the Valley’s arts scene. In some ways, the transformation from oldfangled mill town to newfangled small business and arts community has gone swimmingly.

Some impressive businesses have taken root in Eastworks, the large old mill building that’s found new life in recent years. Others have made Cottage Street more vibrant, places like KW Home and White Square Books. Easthampton City Arts has likewise proved an energetic gathering point and coordinating force for artistic efforts—the group’s site offers a rundown of businesses, artists (of all kinds) and exhibits citywide, and invites participation for artists and fans of art alike.

It’s undeniable that a lot is going on in Easthampton, and a lot more than was the case even a decade ago. In some ways, however, it’s proved an uphill battle for artists to transform the town into a mecca. Arts Walks often draw a steady stream of visitors, and the annual Bearfest brings bear-peepers galore. On the other hand, even the town’s geography can make it hard for new businesses to draw customers in—”downtown” stretches out in a weird way, constrained by the old mill ponds, and it’s quite a walk from Eastworks to Cottage Street, a walk sometimes populated with art-related destinations and businesses, sometimes peppered by rundown housing. Longstanding residents of town seem variously nonplussed, enthusiastic about or indifferent to the gentrifying newcomers.

Add to those extant issues the arrival of an honest-to-goodness scandal, and it’s hard to know exactly where Easthampton’s arts community stands in the estimation of everyone else. When PACE (Pioneeer Arts Center of Easthampton) co-founder David Fried-Oppenheim was accused, then convicted of the statutory rape of a teenage girl in PACE’s theater training, the arts community seemed to wonder, “What now?”

PACE itself has moved on, sans connection to Fried-Oppenheim, redubbing itself Metacomet Stage. But questions, naturally, remain, especially for parents of aspiring young artists. The theater community, in tandem with city businesses and government, seems to offer a clear answer to concerns about safety in a set of events slated for this weekend. Those events are, in finest Valley fashion, arts-centric and participatory.

“The starting point for all participants in and sponsors of this event is that the safety of children in any organization and community is essential,” says Donna Jenson, whose one-woman performance What She Knows: One Woman’s Way Through Incest to Joy is the central event on Thursday, Oct. 25. “Giving the community, both Easthampton and the arts community, a context to affirm that point is essential to starting a public conversation.”

Jenson’s play is an examination of her own experience growing up in a sexually abusive family, and the performance aims to foster a conversation in the wake of the concerns raised by the PACE-related events—the performance is followed by a facilitated conversation about the prevention of sexual abuse.

“In that affirmation and conversation, it is imperative that we look at both the painful effects of the sexual abuse of children and the possibility for healing to occur,” says Jenson. “My performance and the post-performance dialogue opens people up to consider those issues together and start that conversation. [It’s] a conversation that is woefully missing in most organizations and communities.”

In the wake of a scandal like the one that struck PACE, employing broad, even confusing terms like “effects,” “issues” and “healing” is understandable—it’s still awkward to talk specifics of sexual abuse. Neither the advertising nor the press material for the events, in fact, mentions PACE at all.

That lingering awkwardness is probably why the weekend also includes some straightforward practicalities; the next day, Joan Tabachnick hosts a workshop for theater organizations aimed at helping them create the right environment and policies to avoid the issues that arose at PACE.

“In the workshop for theater arts groups working with children and teens,” Jenson says, “all of the participants are speaking to one clear thought: Regardless of who we consider of all the people affected by this, and similar tragedies we are witnessing locally and nationally, it is clear that a coherent commitment to and understanding of prevention would have changed the lives of all involved!”

On Saturday, Oct. 27, audience members who wish to further process the conversation begun by Jenson’s play are invited to participate in a writing workshop.•

What She Knows: Oct. 25, 7 p.m.;

Workshop for theater organizations: Oct. 26, 1-4 p.m.;

Writing Workshop: Oct. 27, 10 a.m.-1 p.m., Eastworks, 116 Pleasant St., Easthampton.

For information, seat reservations or workshop registration, email Donna Jenson at djenson@crocker.com.

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