Hortense Gerardo is a practicing playwright, movement artist, screenwriter, and professor of anthropology and performing arts who joined MAPC as an artist-in-residence in late 2018. As an artist-in-residence, Gerardo will promote creative placemaking and community resilience through art and help bring art and creative thinking to projects across departments.
Give us an idea of your background: What was your experience with performance art, playwriting, and academia prior to joining MAPC?
I was a research fellow in sensory physiology at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole at the same time that I studied world percussion. On a trip to Africa in 1995 to study with master drummers in Ghana, I was introduced to drumming as a form of communication. I wanted to understand how this language system worked from the perspective of cognitive neuroscience, so I applied to study at my alma mater, Boston University, where my thesis advisor was a neuroscientist as well as an anthropologist.
During my fieldwork in Africa, I learned that women were not traditionally welcome to engage in serious drum practice, so I had to learn African dance as a way to be around the drummers to observe their methods. My doctoral work eventually included the close observation of dancers and the non-profit companies they were forming in the Boston area, and this led to my dual degree in anthropology and performing arts.
Just before I started graduate school, I took a playwriting course at the University of Edinburgh and my first play had a staged reading there. I took Nobel laureate Derek Walcott’s playwriting classes while at Boston University and after I graduated, began sending out my plays to competitions. I also wrote screenplays while looking for a job in academia. My first screenplay was made into a narrative feature-length film, Fourhand, which was released in 2008 and won a couple awards at film festivals. My second narrative screenplay won a screenwriting competition and was sold to an independent film company but never fully produced. Once I received my full-time position as Professor of Anthropology and Performing Arts at Lasell College, I put screenwriting on hold, but I hope to get back to it and filmmaking during my time at the MAPC.
How did you weave those disciplines together in recent years?
My anthropological work has always been concerned with issues of power and identity, and in the last two years, I seem to have taken a more proactive stance in creating original plays and movements works that are more personal and more closely addressed to the immigrant experience, intersectionality, and hegemonic influences in the social matrix.
What are some recent projects or installations you’ve worked on prior to coming to MAPC?
Recent examples include:
THE TOKEN FALLOPIANS OF MIDDLETON HEIGHTS is a dark comedy that follows Meena and her Filipino family as they assimilate to life in a Midwestern suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. The play traces the historical events that reflect the political divide in America today, refracted through the lens of the Asian-American immigrant experience. This is Part 2 of a Trilogy of plays on the theme of the Asian American experience.
Do you have any prior experience with using art to promote community engagement and placemaking?
I was commissioned by Odaiko New England and the town of Brookline to create a performance work that would reflect the diversity of Brookline’s population. The result was a piece entitled, DRUMS OF A COMMON LANGUAGE.
What was the appeal of MAPC’s Artist-in-Residence position?
The job description for the position of Artist-in-Residence was the first time I had seen a position that seemed to perfectly map onto my prior experience and future interests. I had been interested in finding a way to meld my creative work with a proactive approach to advocacy and public service. It just seemed like the right way to give back to the community somehow.
What opportunities to you see to bring performance art and plays into MAPC's work? Are there any specific projects you're excited about?
I’m still in the early stages of my residency and getting a feel for the various departments and their projects, familiarizing myself with the tools and services I will have to work with as the artist in residence.
I’m planning to take three months to familiarize myself with MAPC, another three months to identify, propose, and plan projects, and then a good 12 months to recognize the reality of what I’ve bitten off and chew and adjust accordingly to bring a few of the projects to fruition.
But I am interested in the vision of MetroCommon 2050 and hope to contribute to its implementation through the lens of systems thinking. I am also increasingly interested in ways that this position might be of help in addressing the opioid epidemic.
In my second month at the MAPC I had the opportunity to sit in on the staff meetings of several departments at the agency and learned of the various projects each group is tackling. The common thread in all of these meetings was the need to acquire from or disseminate to a given sector, a body of information; to my ears, this translates to storytelling.
How can art build community and connect people? What value does art bring to placemaking?
I believe live, performative art is our last bastion of shared, communal experience. It serves in a way the same kind of function that attendance at church or any ritualized form of worship used to serve in creating social cohesion and group identity. Early on in my residency I have heard the performing arts referred to as “disposable art” and if there’s anything I’d like to impress upon people during my time here, it’s that performance creates a shared experience that lives on in the collective memory. I’d like the performing arts to be thought of as Experiential Art. As the saying goes, Ars longa, vita brevis (Art is long, life is short.)
Did you have any prior knowledge of planning before you came here? What have you learned?
I did not know much about the field of urban planning prior to my arrival at the MAPC, but I am learning about the role of the artist within the context of project planning. To that end, I’ve created a kind of tongue-in-cheek syllabary of terms used at the MAPC and their equivalencies from the world of theatre, anthropology, and science:
Proximal Meaning: The person who provides context, background and the overview of a project
Practice Run of Activities
Proximal Meaning: Preparatory run-through by players of a public presentation
Request for Proposal
Proximal Meaning: A mini, visual version of a much larger project. In screenwriting this is a form of brainstorming.
Proximal Meaning: A project overview that details objectives, participants, projected costs and outcomes.
Proximal Meaning: The artistic product that ensues from the input of several persons.
Application for Professional Development or Grant Support
Proximal Meaning: A form of accounting for one’s time, so that it can be billed to the proper agencies. In academia, this is a way to account for time other than one’s usual teaching load, advising, and administrative duties such as attendance at meetings, presentation of papers, etc., usually off campus. At MAPC this accounting is in the form of half-hour and hourly increments documenting meetings during the course of the day.
Proximal Meaning: A project that is conceptualized and designed in such a way that takes into account the physical locality and context of the venue in relation to the work.
Activation of Space
Proximal Meaning: Bringing people together for a shared experience.
Open Air Performance Space
Proximal Meaning: Open Space & Recreation Plan