By RICHIE DAVIS Recorder Staff
GREENFIELD — Everyone at Double Edge Theater talks about the weather, but Ashfield farmer Ray Gray actually does something about it.
Gray is one of the farmers the internationally known, Ashfieldbased theater company counts on — not only to make sure approaching electrical storms don’t wreak havoc with outdoor summer spectacles, but also to make sure the theater stays closely connected to its community. His careful weather watch, honed from years of farming, comes in handy for the theater company, which moved to town 21 years ago, and often mounts outdoor events — the reverse is true as area farmers’ animals use the theater-farm’s pasture.
Discussion and recognition of that connection between the arts and this rural area was just one element of Friday’s all-day Creative Economy summit, which drew more than 100 designers, film and media artists, digital game creators and crafts workers from around western Massachusetts.
The fifth regional summit was presented by the year-old Pioneer Valley Creative Economy Network as well as the Franklin County Fostering Art and Culture Project to focus on growing an industry that is estimated to represent 26,000 jobs in the for-profit and nonprofit sectors.
Earlier annual summits, held around the county, have offered practical how-to workshops for writers, theater, video and film, graphic and other artists, focused on marketing, business skills and other complementary skills. But Friday’s conference was more strategically oriented, driving home the importance of networking and collaborationsthroughout a wider region.
Hannah Jarrell, during a rehearsal of “Shahrazad,” performed by Double Edge Theatre in Ashfield.
Recorder file photo/Paul Franz
Workshops dealt with overcoming obstacles to creating work space in the region’s old mill buildings, discussed creative ways to get access to capital and develop businesses, and considered ways to attract and keep talent, as well as how to make creative work visible to a wider audience.
“What you do is key,” said Robert Pura, president of Greenfield Community College, which hosted the event. “Innovation and creativity is essential to survival,” as well as an economic pillar of every business.
At a morning session on visibility, around the topic of branding a creative project, Associate Producer Amrita Ramanan of Double Edge told how the 33-year-old theater company has turned to a New York branding consultant who helped it develop its first-ever brochure and redevelop its website to showcase the compelling visual nature of its productions.
“The power of the Internet, especially being based in Ashfield (with a national and international following) and what that can do” was key, said Ramanan, especially as the website moved away from a text-oriented format. “Our work is highly visual; some of our stories don’t even have text in them, and so we started to incorporate more photo albums, more videos … We found different ways to tell the story.”
Balance business and art
Yet as creative artists try to build up their business development skills, there is a delicate balance, said Ramanan and other panelists at the morning workshop.
“Most creative people are always wearing many different hats anyway,” said Justin Thomas of Easthamptonbased Ugone & Thomas Fine Lighting and Home Accessories. “That’s what keeps you creative and keeps whatever you do interesting. My day ranges from straight business numbers to running production to cleaning bathrooms to dealing with a client on the phone to selling direct to people, doing marketing and what not. The art thing is still there … but one really feeds and informs the other.”
He advised the gathering, “You’ve got to work. Don’t be afraid of being labeled a business person, of taking that on … It’s OK to think of yourself as your brand.”
“Having a balance between stuff that can pay the bills but also is true to your artistic origins,” said Steve Porter of Holyoke-based Porterhouse Media, a multimedia company that does media campaigns for Disney, ESPN, NBC and other clients. “We’ll do something for a corporate company like Cisco, which is not exactly amazingly creative, but then we’ll go and do something for “Funny or Die,” which just gives us total creative license.
Power of Internet
At Double Edge, everyone plays dual roles in the creative and business aspects of the company, said Ramanan, who is a producer, dramaturg and scriptwriter. “There’s a reciprocity … (that) feels very holistic.”
Panelists, describing how they got their businesses noticed, said everything and anything is fair game, from hosting open studio events and making sure they engage face-to-face with audiences after performances to judicious use of Constant Contact email and periodic post cards sent through the mail.
“We don’t count anything out,” said Thomas, whose lighting company used to market its lampshades, wall décor and other products only through trade shows. “It’s really amazing what works and what doesn’t work: Pinterest and Instagram and Facebook and you blog. You kind of do have to try everything. … All those things do add up to visibility out there.”
“Parties!” urged Holyoke metal sculptor Kamil Peters, who said as an “old-school” artist, “I like the person- to-person interaction and shake someone’s hand and say this is who I am. … They will go out and talk to other people about me.”
But even if they have to work at drawing audiences and customers from far afield, the creative businesspeople say it’s worth it to be immersed in the region’s quality of life.
“There’s this element where you’re playing your own version of SimCity,” said Porter. “You just grow the building up and you put people in it or you put artists in it. That’s something you can do here that you can’t do in New York unless you’re a multi-billionaire. You’ve got an open canvas in western Mass.”
Ramanan added, “There’s something so amazing, so captivating about the essence of space and community in this area,” reflecting back on how the theater’s founders weren’t sure how their former dairy farm could be used when they moved here from Boston.
“This environment is true inspiration, every time we’re outside.”
You can reach Richie Davis at: email@example.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 269
Double Edge Theatre performs “Shahrazad.”
Recorder file/ Paul Franz
Copyright © 2015 Greenfield Recorder 05/16/2015