Undercover Playground

Prospect Park in Troy
Prospect Park in Troy

Year: 2011-2012
DanceForce Member: Kim Engel
Artist: Ellen Sinopoli
Community Partners: Abram Lansing Elementary School; Ellen Sinopoli Dance Company; Stewarts Shops; Yates Magnet School
Audience: 825
Counties: Albany, Rensselaer, Saratoga, Schenectady, Warren, Washington

In Undercover Playground, I worked with the Ellen Sinopoli Dance Company (ESDC) to create a spontaneous performance that happened at playgrounds over a seven week period of time in the late summer and fall of 2011 in six NYS counties. Administratively, the project was planned by Ellen Sinopoli and me. Artistically, the project was led by Ellen.

The creation of the work was begun in the spring at two local elementary schools with which the company already had a relationship — Abram Lansing Elementary in Cohoes (Albany County) and Yates Magnet School in Schenectady (Schenectady County). ESDC spent two days in each location creating and rehearsing the work in an open rehearsal format so that students from the school could observe and comment on the process. Approximately 120 students were involved. Several rehearsals also took place on public playgrounds in these and the other counties.

During July and early August, local playgrounds were “scoped out” on weekend afternoons to ascertain if 1) the layout and equipment of the site was conducive to the performance work and 2) if they were heavily trafficked locations. This part of the planning was predominantly done by Ellen Sinopoli and several of her dancers. Once locations were selected, the order of the performance sites within each county were determined.

Starting with the last weekend in August, ESDC performed Undercover Playground on weekend afternoons in public playgrounds. The dancers and and one of two musicians (Brian Melick or Zorkie Nelson) showed up unannounced at the sites and spontaneously performed the work to the unsuspecting audiences. Once it was over, information on who and what it was, funding credits and upcoming dance performances in the region were given to those who were treated to the performances. The performers informally talked with the audience members about what they had just seen and answered any questions. They also signed the flyers for the children. The artists then moved on to the next playground and repeated the process. Three to five performances happened each day and an average of 30 people were present for each performance. The actual number of individuals present for any one performance ranged from as many as 75 to as few as four. The schedule was as follows:

Saturday, August 27
Derby Park, East Field and Sagamore Park in Washington County

Saturday, September 3
West End Park, Montcalm Playground, Crandall Park, Freedom Park and Guerny Lane Park in Warren County

Sunday, September 11
Clifton Commons, Malta Community Park, Saratoga Spa State Park and Gavin Park in Saratoga County

Saturday, September 17
Riverfront Park, Frear Park, Prospect Park and Grafton Lake State Park in Rensselaer County

Sunday, September 25
River Road Park, Central Park and Terry Burrell Unity Park in Schenectady County

Saturday, October 8
The Crossings, Loudon Green Park, Ganser-Smith Memorial Park and Washington Park in Albany County

Since the performances were intended to be spontaneous and surprising, promotion was approached very differently than most projects. An overall press release about the project was issued in early August which yielded a small article in the Times Union right before the project’s kick-off. The article prompted two invitations to the company to perform at local sites — one was from the Park Naturalist at Grafton Lake State Park (that site was added to the Rensselaer County list) and the other was from the Greene County Council on the Arts offering the Dutchman’s Landing playground in Catskill as a site. Unfortunately, this latter one could not be realized because Greene County was not one of the counties we planned to serve and, at that point, additional funds would have had to have been raised and there was not sufficient time to do so. However, it does open up a potential opportunity if the project lives on in future seasons.

Two days before each performance date, photo opportunities were disseminated to the main newspaper for each county (Glens Falls Post Star for the Washington and Warren dates, The Saratogian for the Saratoga date, The Troy Record for the Rensselaer date, The Gazette for the Schenectady date and the Times Union for the Albany date). These yielded a review in The Gazette and large articles in the Glens Falls Post Star and Times Union. Also two days before each performance date, the list of locations was posted on the Ellen Sinopoli Dance Company’s website and Facebook page. When leaving each playground after the performance had taken place, a large poster about the project was posted and left behind letting visitors know that we had already been there and how to get information about upcoming performances at other playgrounds.

The main goals of this project were audience engagement and interaction. The project was devised so as to provide an experience in dance to families in a setting in which they were familiar and comfortable. The barriers of getting them to come to a theatre and pay an admission fee were avoided and the “surprise” element of the performance was intended to build excitement. Live musicians were used to draw the audience in and the choreographic approach was to present lively, fun and physical movement which would further engage the audience. Each performance was followed by some time when the performers informally interacted with the audience through conversation and autograph signing. In a way, the performers became “ambassadors for dance” in the Capital Region since 1) the project brought dance to many who normally wouldn’t experience it and 2) the printed materials that were distributed provided information on performance opportunities for the entire season with the anticipation that some may take advantage of them.

Stewart’s Shops (a local convenience store/gas station chain) sponsored the project. They have supported ESDC in the past.
When approached about this project, they pledged their support without hesitation. They were drawn to the unique opportunity that it provided to families and especially liked the fact that performances were happening right in the communities in which their stores were located. As an added bonus, Stewart’s provided coupons for free ice cream cones that were distributed with the promotional materials after each performance. ESDC also did a campaign to its individual donors to raise funds and utilized some of the company’s operational budget to support the project.