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Interview with artist-writer-artist Lynn Shapiro

Lynn Shapiro with one of her hand-made books
Lynn Shapiro has a fascinating resumĂ©: Juilliard-trained professional dancer, drama coach, writer of fiction, writer of a column for "Dance" magazine, and lately a maker of artist's books. She is also one of my colleagues at Columbia College Chicago, and she is just one of the loveliest people you could ever hope to meet. I started the interview by going back to the beginning of her career.

PH: How did you first become involved with dance?

LS: My father was an avid dancer. In fact the whole family, led by my grandmother, would often play popular records and dance together in the living room after dinner. Their favorites were Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Glen Miller, and various calypso tunes.

I loved dancing with my dad. Every night, when he’d come home from work, before dinner or anything else, we’d play my favorite song, what I called “Fernando’s Hideaway,”  and dance together, my little feet riding on top of his shoes.

He and my mom loved classical music—opera and symphonies mostly, but they had records of all the great ballet music, too, like Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” and “Swan Lake,” Delibes’ “Copelia,” Chopin’s “Les Sylphides,”  Offenbach’s “Gaitee Parisienne,” and Prokofiev’s “Sleeping Beauty.”

Music drove me wild. If music was playing on the phonograph, I couldn’t sit still. The music made pictures for me in my mind, gave me a world of stories I made up and had to act out in movement.  I would dance by myself for hours, living out the drama that music stirred in my body.

Heaven only knows what my parents were thinking when they took me to the ballet for the first time when I was three years old. I know I was completely hooked on dance by then, but so are a lot of little kids. We had to drive for an hour to get to the the Civic Opera House in downtown Chicago. The New York City Ballet used to tour there every year, and that year, my first exposure to ballet on stage, I saw Maria Tallchief dance “The Firebird.” It was a heartbreaking story of a prince who falls in love with an enchanted bird he is hunting. In the middle of it, I cried out, in full voice, “She loves him!” My parents shushed me, but the audience laughed at my passionate outburst. After that, I knew I wanted to be a ballerina when I grew up, and would stop at nothing to reach my goal.

I begged for ballet lessons. Fortunately for me, my mother had read somewhere that children shouldn’t start formal dance training before the age of six, and for good measure, she made me wait until I was eight, when she finally located a competent teacher in the suburbs. From then on, I trained to be a dancer. When I was old enough to take the train to Chicago by myself, I began studying at a professional studio, going every day after school, and Saturdays. That led eventually to New York, Juilliard, The Martha Graham School, and my first professional job dancing in New York, then later in Chicago. I danced professionally for twenty years.

PH: As a writer on dance, what range of dance forms interests you?

LS: I’m most interested in concert dance choreography, whether ballet, modern, jazz, or tap. By concert dance, I’m referring to choreography as an art form and virtuosic dance. Today, there’s so much cross-over of idioms, you see all those forms merging.

PH: What was the process that led you to Columbia College’s Fiction Writing Department?

LS: It was really through theater that I got to Columbia. From the time I could hold a crayon, I had always written—stories, poems, plays. I began journal writing when I was ten, after reading “The Diary of Anne Frank.” By the time I was in high school, I had begun experimenting with text in my dance compositions. Right out of college, early in my dancing career, I had a marvelous opportunity to develop a dance curriculum and teach at The Latin School of Chicago. There I was lucky enough to collaborate on theater productions with the drama teacher, a graduate of Goodman. I choreographed his productions, and then, under his guidance, began writing dance dramas—plays that integrated music, dialogue and dance—for the high school students to perform for the Lower School. They were so well-received, we even toured one of them to several magnet schools in the city.

Latin School led to a teaching job at Goodman School of Drama (now known as The Theatre School, DePaul University) where I taught movement for actors, choreographed productions, and continued writing plays, learning theater craft on the job.

Still dancing, I continued writing for theater, eventually collaborating with The Maxwell Street Klezmer Band to adapt Yiddish folklore to theater. Together, we created seven Klezmer musicals that toured the Chicago area and the Midwest for twelve years, our most popular being “Hershel and The Hanukkah Goblins,” which toured and played annually to sold-out audiences at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie. It became sort of the Jewish Nutcracker.

Front left: Lynn Shapiro in the 'Jewish Nutcracker'.
Several of the Equity actors I worked with were involved with Piven Theatre Workshop, so I decided to check it out. At Piven, I studied Story Theater, a form of theater performance that lifts literary fiction directly off the page and gives it legs. Developed by Paul Sills and his mother, Viola Spolin, the originator of “Theater Games,” Story Theater completely captivated my imagination. It was a perfect blend of everything I loved—literature, movement, script, and a style of acting based on impulse, discovery, and visualization.  I found my writing taking off in new directions from the work I did with my teachers, Joyce and Byrne Piven, who had been part of the original Compass Players that spawned both Paul Sills Story Theater and The Second City.

By the time my knees started giving out, and it was clear my dancing days were numbered, writing had become the artistic anchor of my work, and I began looking for a way to develop myself further as a writer, primarily of plays, I thought at the time, but of stories as well.

I didn’t have a graduate degree when I began teaching at Goodman, but twenty years later, I couldn’t expect to resume college teaching without one, so I began looking around for a program that would meet my interests. The Story Workshop Method taught at Columbia’s Fiction Writing Department sounded like the Piven’s approach, and I decided to try Fiction I as a summer course. I felt an immediate artistic home in the department and applied for the graduate program for the following fall semester.  The rest is a continuous wonder and discovery.

PH: What are you working on in your writing?

LS: I’m in the middle of a second draft of a novel, playing around with several new short story starts, and developing an artist’s book version of a story I wrote last spring. In addition, I continue writing for Dance Magazine (link here).

excerpt from 2020 Broadway, a novel in progress
No music. My back is a vine pushing up through earth, penetrating light, a new life being born. My fingertips shoot silver filaments into the air pulling strands of hair, eyes, lips into the light, lifting me up until my limbs unfold into space and reach beyond, infinitely beyond. An extended leg carves a tunnel through opaque light. I enter the tunnel, pelvis first, then ribcage, then shoulders, then head in a glorious backbend, arms and hair trailing behind. My spine snakes upright, the momentum tossing an arm overhead, lingering on suspended breath, I lean into space until my weight gives way, my torso rounds forward. An elbow catches the movement, pulling me the opposite direction onto one leg, off-center, a shoulder, torso, head, wrist, hand, fingers, the other leg extending to the side, higher and higher until my body is stretched like a starfish, touching five distant points in space, and when it can reach no further, snap! Gravity zaps me into a lunge, a plunge, a dive, it would consume me but I use the energy of falling to pick up speed and I’m off! Runrunrun leap! Again! Leaping, falling, gathering breath, a spiral turn, arms whip an invisible lasso around my body, head follows, body arching through space, upside-down, inside-out, the room flies past me, into me, across my eyes, spinning, a twisting evolution of spine and legs, I’m sure, I’m steady, I’m in the center of my center, riding the energy, sweeping the audience into my world. I’m alive! And then, slowly, life begins to ebb. The circles narrow.  Energy wanes, until my body is confined in the small pool of light that began my dance.  My fingers reach up one last time. The light begins to fade, I feel their breath hovering, and for once I’m not alone.

PH: You’ve also begun exploring visual art recently, particularly the artist’s book. What connections do you see, for you personally, between these different art forms of dance, writing, and visual art?

LS: I’ve always enjoyed drawing, especially dance and movement, and I illustrated most of the stories I wrote as a kid, but I never took my drawing seriously. Then, as a faculty member in the Fiction Writing Department, I learned that I could take any course tuition-free, so I took “Journal & Sketchbook” last spring, thinking that would be a fun thing to explore. Little did I expect the creative explosion that has set new work in motion. Keeping a sketch/journal, I discovered that drawing actually requires me to activate physically in the same way that dance does. 
Lynn Shapiro, artist's book
More importantly, my response to stimuli of any kind is first and foremost an impulse to move.  You have to move in order to draw, and I recognized the connection between seeing and internalizing what I saw as a kinesthetic impulse that transferred to the page. That happens when I write as well. Drawing became the glue between writing and dancing, so that whether I was drawing or writing, I was dancing on the page. It was a joy to be able to integrate my impulse to dance with writing and drawing.  Now, I am exploring the seamless flow of visual imagery and text, not “illustration” but a true integration of storytelling through both mediums. The artist’s book is almost like a miniature theatrical set upon which I envision dance and spoken text. That has yet to happen, but it’s certainly a brew I’m stirring.

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