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Headshot of a man.
Photo courtesy of J. Dash

Musician, composer, producer, and arts advocate

You might know J. Dash as the man who wrote and performed the double platinum song “WOP,” but that hardly scratches the surface. J. is a musician, composer, and producer who is also a great advocate for arts education. He works with schools in his hometown city of Jacksonville, Florida, and his current town of Austin, Texas. And J is a longtime volunteer with the National Association of Music Merchants’ Foundation, or NAAM, making yearly trips to Congress to lobby for more Title IV funds and working with students trying to break into the music industry. Even though he is best-known in the hip hop world, J. Dash is also a big fan of jazz and blues (he used to play in a blues band). And he also has begun to score films and television shows. Have I mentioned he has a parallel career as a computer scientist? What sparks his creativity and how does he juggle all the aspects of his careers? Listen to the podcast and find out…..

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Photo courtesy of The Highwood Theatre

Artistic Director of The Highwood Theatre

Matt Nicola, the artistic director of the Highwood Theatre, believes deeply in the company’s double-pronged philosophy: “anyone can do theater” and “theater builds community.” Highwood is an educational theater with classes for students from kindergarten to 12th grade covering all aspects of theater, from acting to lighting to set and sound design to directing. In addition, the students put on 12-13 full-fledged shows a year, taking care of all aspects of the production with some guidance from theater professionals. The shows are sophisticated—these students are performing in shows like Sweeney Todd and Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. They are also uniformly very well-received, which is a bit of surprise since there are no auditions for the student productions. Whoever signs up, gets a part. But Highwood has discovered that given an opportunity and a certain amount of guidance, students are capable of extraordinary things. In this week’s podcast, you can hear about what theater teaches students, and what the students teach Nicola and the rest of the Highwood staff.

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Photo by Michael G. Stewart

Dancer, choreographer, executive director of Urban Artistry and of Next Level

Junious Brickhouse is a dancer, choreographer, and executive director of two cultural organizations—Urban Artistry and Next Level. He’s a powerhouse who is on a mission to teach and preserve urban dance traditions. There’s no question that urban dance is a vibrant and creative art form, and it’s one that’s deeply rooted in community. It is extremely democratic allowing people to tell their own stories through dance. Brickhouse sees hip-hop as modern folk art, and he is clear about its connection to the blues. As he says, like the blues, hip hop ”is rooted in our communities about things that makes us laugh and things that make us cry.” His realization of that connection brought Brickhouse to NEA Heritage Fellow and Piedmont Blues harmonica player Phil Wiggins. And he is now also dancing to the blues as part of Wiggins’ House Party. I spoke with Brickhouse backstage at an urban dance competition that he was hosting. It was a perfect setting for a dynamic conversation about urban dance both in community and around the world, his own experiences as a dancer, and his dedication to documenting hip hop’s deep value to American culture.

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Photo courtesy of Stephanie Kline

Marine Corps veteran and comedian

Marine Corps veteran Stephanie Kline is a DC-based stand-up comic. At loose ends after leaving the Marine Corps and then dealing with the end of her marriage, Stephanie turned to comedy through a workshop with the Armed Services Artists Partnership. There she found the camaraderie she had been missing and she found a way to tell her story that provoked laughter not pity from the audience. It’s not an easy path. As Stephanie says in the podcast, ”for a lot of us, we are taking some of the most painful experiences and issues, we are breaking them down and putting them together in a way to get people to laugh. That is terrifying…. (But) I think the response of laughter really helps build us back up.” Stephanie Kline talks about her time with the Marine Corps and the different kind of strength it takes to get up on a stage and let it all hang out. She’s also very funny.

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Photo courtesy of Dr Nina Kraus

Neurobiologist and director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University

Dr. Nina Kraus is a professor of neurobiology at Northwestern University where she directs the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, also known as Brainvolts. She has made the study of how we biologically process sound her life’s work. She and the Brainvolts’ team have conducted long-term, multi-year studies looking at the brainwaves of children and found that making music—whether with instrument or voice—actually makes biological changes to the way the brain processes sound which, in turn, strengthens the ability of the brain to better apprehend the depth and breadth of language and speech. Simply put, creating music builds our capacity to turn sound into meaning. Nina is passionate about sound—she remembers as a child sitting under her mother’s piano as she played. She brings that same sense of wonder and excitement to her rigorous biological research, and you’ll hear it throughout the podcast…which is a perfect way to explore the way we process sound.

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Photo © Tony Powell

Sculptor and three-time NEA grant recipient

Sculptor and three-time NEA grantee Ursula von Rydingsvard’s art is unlike anything else. While she works with all manner of organic material—including the fourth stomach of a cow—von Rydingsvard is best known for creating large-scale, often monumental sculpture from 4x4 cedar beams. These are cut, stacked, assembled, glued, and laminated before being rubbed with graphite. The result are textured, many-faceted surfaces, work that’s both sensuous and massive—that at once conveys solidity and movement. Born in Germany during World War II to a Polish mother and Ukrainian father who spent time in a Nazi labor camp, von Rydingsvard and her family made their way to the United States after years in refugee camps. She senses a connection between her work and Poland—much of her work is given Polish names—but the connections are so subtle that’s she’s unsure of their meanings herself. In this podcast, we talk about von Rydingsvard’s four-decade long career. She explains how she makes her labor-intensive massive sculptures, her early years as an artist when she was poor but joyful about creating art, the importance of her NEA grants, coming to the U.S. as a child of seven, and why she began to make art with the fourth stomach of a cow.

Headshots of a man and a woman.
Photo credit Fireworks by Grucci

President and pyrotechnician at Fireworks by Grucci

Fireworks are such a wonderful amalgam of artistry, science and tradition; and, for six generations the Grucci family has been lighting up the skies with innovative pyrotechnics. Just in time for July 4, I speak with President and CEO of Fireworks by Grucci Phil Grucci and his daughter Lauren who is a pryrotechnician and photographer. In today’s podcast, we learn how the Grucci family put these glorious displays together. From the Brooklyn Bridge centennial to the bicentennial of “The Star Spangled Banner” and all the July 4 celebrations in-between, Phil and Lauren take us behind the scenes of these spectacles of color and light: we learn about the innovations they led in pyrotechnics, the amount of planning that goes into each event, the magic when it all comes together, and the family history that remains at the center of the work. It’s a great way to celebrate July 4!

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Photo Courtesy of Victor Lodato

Author, playwright, former NEA Solo Artist Fellow

Author Victor Lodato has written two highly acclaimed novels Matilda Savitch and Edgar and Lucy. Nearly a decade in the making, Victor calls Edgar and Lucy “my New Jersey gothic.” And he’s not wrong. It’s an epic novel that’s part mystery, part love story, part ghost story, part family drama. It is both unexpected and perfectly believable. It’s set in Victor’s native New Jersey, in a working class Polish/Italian family much like Victor’s own. But that’s where the similarity ends. Edgar and Lucy are a son and mother; and, while the book concentrates on one very difficult year in their lives, it actually examines their relationship over the course of their lifetimes. It has its comic moments and heartbreaking ones—both with an attention to character and language. Happily, Victor Lodato is as thoughtful and compelling as his book. In this podcast, we talk about his very complicated characters, his childhood in New Jersey, why he was attracted to theater, and his move to novels.

Linda Goss
Photo by Edwin Remsberg

2019 NEA National Heritage Fellow and Storyteller

Storyteller Linda Goss, one of the pioneers of the Black Storytelling Movement, has just been named a 2019 NEA National Heritage Fellow. Goss is known as “Mama Linda” because of her pathbreaking work, which includes co-founding (with Mother Mary Carter Smith) the National Association of Black Storytellers, unearthing and documenting nearly forgotten stories, serving as a mentor to younger storytellers, and her own exuberant way of telling stories. From the beginning, Mama Linda has recognized the transformative power of storytelling and the importance of bearing witness. She’s a mesmerizing speaker—beginning each storytelling session with her trademark bells and a call to the community to come and listen. She draws listeners into the heart of the story she’s telling; she’ll draw you into the podcast as well! The NEA National Heritage Award is the nation’s highest honor in folk and traditional arts. Have a listen—you’ll see why Mama Linda is a national treasure.

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Photo by Kyle Cassidy

Author of NEA Big Read title Borne

Jeff VanderMeer writes fiction that defies classification—it has elements of speculative fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and eco-fiction, with an attention to language that literary fiction would envy and a voice that is utterly distinctive. VanderMeer’s novel Borne, which is a recent addition to the national community reading program NEA Big Read, is a case in point. Borne is a post-apocalyptic novel about a woman and the mysterious creature she finds in a city broken by a biotechnical company and terrorized by a five-story-tall flying bear. It sounds crazy, but it is a compelling, moving page turner that looks at the connections creatures make, or try to make, with one another. It’s an unpredictable cautionary tale—quite an unlikely combination. But so is VanderMeer. He spent a good part of his childhood in the Fiji Islands, immersed in the natural world with his parents, an entomologist and a biological illustrator. He was enraptured by the biodiversity of the islands and became an avid birder, which led him to writing. He remains immersed in the natural world and entranced by life in all its forms while living in Northern Florida, where he spends a great deal of time hiking through swamps and parks. In this podcast episode, we hear about it all—from Fiji to Florida. VanderMeer talks about his singular creative process, the themes he returns to in his work, his interactions with readers, and his excitement about Borne and the NEA Big Read program.

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Photo by Cathy Waite

US Army Veteran, actor, and founder of DE-CRUIT

Stephan Wolfert had been in the army for six years when he saw his close friend killed during a training exercise. Wolfert “lost it,” as he put it, hopped a train, and went on a drinking binge that lasted quite a while. He ended up in Montana and wandered into a theater where Richard III was being performed. Wolfert saw in the title character a veteran like himself who did not fit in and who spoke directly and eloquently to the audience about his anger and contempt for those that did. Wolfert’s life was transformed. He left the army, went to graduate school to study acting, and immersed himself in Shakespeare. He quickly saw that Shakespeare populated his plays with soldiers and veterans who faced their own bloody losses and seemed to speak directly to the trauma Wolfert was facing. Believing that Shakespeare and theater could be as transformative for others as it is for him, he began working with veterans using Shakespeare to help them unpack their own experiences. He eventually started the non-profit DE-CRUIT whose basic premise is theater is medicine and Shakespeare can be the key to healing. In this podcast, Stephan talks about his time in the military, his “Aha!” moment in Montana, how Shakespeare helps veterans both penetrate and contain their own experiences, and the unlikely parallels between theater and the military.

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Photo by Janie Airey

Translator and NEA Grantee

Literary translator and National Endowment for the Arts fellow Jennifer Croft was passionate about Polish author Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Flights—so much so that she spent ten years trying to persuade a literary house to publish an English translation. Croft would translate excerpts of the book and send them to journals trying to gin up interest in Tokarczuk’s distinctive work—a compilation of 116 chapters or fragments that travel through centuries and countries, ranging from single-page ruminations on airports or hotels to 30-page-long stories about a man searching for his wife and child who disappear as they are all vacationing or Chopin’s sister smuggling the composer’s heart back into Poland. With a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Croft was able to complete the translation. She also persuaded an independent English publisher to take a chance on the novel. The result: Flights was awarded the 2018 Man Booker International Prize, which is awarded to the best work of fiction translated from any language into English, and it was also a finalist for the National Book Award. In this episode of the podcast, Croft talks about Flights, the strange alchemy that goes into translation, the importance of grants and the Arts Endowment to translators, and how her own interest in Slavic languages began (Hint: figure skating played a central role).

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Photo courtesy of Arena Stage

Actor

From Hotspur to Antonin Scalia, actor Edward Gero can (and does) play all manner of parts. An actor’s actor, he is a shining light in Washington DC’s theater community. He began his career as a classical actor playing some 60 roles for over 26 years at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. But he made the transition to contemporary work seamlessly. Bringing an authenticity and precision to roles as disparate as Mark Rothko in Red, Harry Brock in a revival of Born Yesterday, Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, and Antonin Scalia in The Originalist a role that was created for him. In this podcast, Gero talks about playing Shakespeare, his move to contemporary work, how Washington DC is a distinctive theater-town, and the power and wonder of theater. He is smart, funny and generous—a true bon vivant. Enjoy!

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Photo: Courtesy of Mary Rand Hess

Poet, Writer,and Multi-Media Artist

In this week's podcast, poet, writer and multi-media artist Mary Rand Hess takes us into the heart of her collaborations with Newbery medalist Kwame Alexander. Together MAry and Kwame have written two best-selling YA titles Solo, a book that has rock and roll weaving through it and Swing, a book that centers around jazz and baseball. Both tell rich and complex stories of teenage boys trying to grow up in a world they didn't create--and both do it entirely in verse. Mary talks about writing for young adults and kids, what draws her to poetry (she started out wanting to be a rock star!), and making a life as a working writer.

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Photo courtesy of Great Performances

Executive producer of Great Performances

Great Performances has been on the air for more than 40 years and Executive Producer David Horn has been there for 39 of them. In many ways, Great Performances, which is the longest running performing arts anthology on television, has been shaped by his vision. The series has brought the performing arts into American homes—from opera to dance, from musicals to drama to concerts. In this podcast, Horn takes us behind the scenes of Great Performances: he explains what goes into putting a Broadway play on television; why and how he brought Shakespeare back to public television with some major star-power; his experiences directing Chita Rivera, Tony Bennett, and Lady Gaga; and his embrace of new technology and new media to both enhance the viewing experience and build new audiences. He’s a deeply thoughtful man who has done a wide variety of extraordinary work for decades. He knows everyone, and I’m not sure when he sleeps.

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