Friendly Artist Collaborative brings artists together to speak to the times
By Anna-Maria Goossens | Monday, July 13, 2020
By Anna-Maria Goossens
Monday, July 13, 2020
Sometimes, an idea comes along at just the right moment to help you express what you’re feeling about the world.
A few weeks ago, Isabelle Marseille ’20, who has just graduated with a theater minor, was looking for a way to express her feelings in the wake of the protests around police brutality and inequity toward Black people. Meanwhile, some fellow alums had just had an idea called Friendly Artist Collaborative (FAC). Founded by Erin Hamilton ’18, the platform uses the technology some people have easily at hand, and the talents of an affiliated collective of artists whose skills range from singing to sound editing to videography, to create performance videos of favorite songs, scenes, and moments from musicals and plays.
Out now on YouTube and social media is Marseille’s first project with the group, a rendition of “I Know Where I’ve Been,” a powerful song from Hairspray that is about the show’s fictional 1960s desegregation efforts but is very much speaking to our time.
“The song is just so accurate to what the Black community has been feeling and what we’ve been going through,” Marseille said. “Even though this is fictional, the storyline is so relevant to today. It’s the same thing, it’s just a different interpretation of it now.”
Art Finds a Way
Hamilton formed FAC just two months ago as a way to connect with fellow artists.
“COVID happened, and I was already, prior to that, feeling like I wasn’t pursuing the art I wanted to,” she said. To counter that feeling, she connected with a few UMass Theater friends and asked if they wanted to make a video with her. They were game, and in short order, Hamilton, Samantha D’Orazio '20, and Kate Skerry '19, assembled a cast including themselves as well as friends Tanya Avendaño Stockler '18, Sabrina Victor '18, and Chelsea Cannon (all current or past theater folks) recorded their take on the song “Ex Wives” from the musical Six (View the video here). It was fun, it scratched a creative itch — and it left Hamilton hungry for more.
“It accidentally turned into a bigger thing than I intended,” she said, as the group realized they probably weren’t the only ones feeling this way, and concluded, “let’s just start a little collaborative.”
With Recruitment Director Samantha D’Orazio in charge, they reached out to alums and current students (many, but not all, are Theater-affiliated) to create a group of artists and associated who were interested in participating in projects. People have the option to either join a project that needs their talents, or come to the group with an idea for a project that they want help in executing. In addition to performers, the collaborative now includes people with video editing, musical arranging, publicity, and other skill sets.
Parts must be recorded individually and without an audible backing track (most wear headphones so they can hear the track playing), so until they’re mixed together, Hamilton noted with a laugh, watching one’s own recording can be pretty awkward.
“It looks ridiculous when you’re watching these videos but it comes together really well,” she said.
Once a project gets selected, Skerry, now the Programming Director, arranges logistics for the participants, setting a deadline for having the recorded videos. Allyson Waddell '19, who manages FAC’s social media, requests photos, bios, and things like in-character promo videos to help hype the upcoming video.
Hamilton and Marseille both noted that the student community at UMass Theater is a passionate one, where people both push and encourage each other, which helped them have the confidence and motivation to take on these projects. Hamilton also credited Willow Cohen, the department’s general manager, with grant-writing skills, as she investigates ways to fund projects for the future, while Marseille said Iya Judyie Al-Bilali inspired her work ethic.
Speaking to the Moment
Marseille’s video of "I Know Where I've Been" is her first to be posted, but it is not the first she recorded.
“With COVID happening, I was feeling so confined, and I was feeling so creatively confined as well,” Marseille said, and when D’Orazio reached out to her, she laughed, “I was like, ‘OK, I think the universe heard me’!”
The group tapped her to sing Regina George’s part in “Meet the Plastics” from Mean Girls as well as “Summer Nights” from Grease. The social media campaign for “Meet the Plastics” had just gotten underway when news of George Floyd’s killing broke, and protests against police brutality and the inequities against BIPOC people began.
“We decided as a team that it wasn’t an appropriate time for us to be taking up space on social media so we decided, we’re going to put that on pause,” Hamilton said. The team pivoted, instead, to sharing posts about Black artists of all disciplines, under the series title “Black Artists Matter.”
Meanwhile, however, Marseille had been looking for a way to express the tumult of emotions she was experiencing. She turned to her favorite musical, Hairspray, and the song “I Know Where I’ve Been” jumped out at her. The musical is about civil rights and desegregation, and the song, performed by “Motormouth” Maybelle during a civil rights protest, is in many ways the emotional core of the musical; offering her own take on the piece felt like the right way to offer her own comment on our times.
She reached out to a handful of Black performers she knew from UMass, her hometown north of New York City, as well as people she met while working New York’s Fashion week earlier in the year, and even some folks from her community who had been in a past production of Hairspray with her. It was a powerful experience for everyone involved.
“To say the least, it was very tough for me to take a video without crying by the end of it,” Marseille recalled of her recording session. “It was also super empowering. When I saw the final product of it, seeing everyone coming together and putting their all into the video, you can tell that everyone was passionately singing. It made us look united, which is what the Black community needs right now.”
Technically, FAC is still on pause from business as usual, but work is still happening. Video shoots that are already in the can are being edited and prepared for when it seems appropriate to share them.
Additionally, one new project has hopped to the front of the line: a recording of scenes by Black playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, likely to be shared late this month. The FAC is also planning its first dance video; they’re starting work on it now but will share after they un-pause.
Performers and theater artists and technicians who are interested in joining either of the upcoming projects or in being part of the collaborative are welcome to email Hamilton at email@example.com.