• Cristee Cook

Artstillery performance collective returns to their roots with developing new work FAMILY DOLLAR

by Cristee Cook

I was introduced to Artstillery in November 2019 when I attended The Generations of Adam. An immersive performance installation housed in a west Dallas warehouse, the story centered on different abuses in relationships, and explored dynamics of religion and sexuality. There was no traditional theater seating; instead, you were an observer/participant in the maze-like journey.

I was fascinated by what I experienced and wanted to know more about Artstillery’s creative process. When Dallas Art Beat published our review of the show, the Artistic Director and Co-Founder of Artstillery, Ilknur Ozgur, reached out to me. We’ve had an ongoing conversation about their work ever since, and we’ve gotten to know each other a little bit. We are excited to announce that Dallas Art Beat will be doing a series of articles and interviews throughout the process of writing and creating Artstillery’s next project: Family Dollar.

Early fans of Artstillery will remember Family Dollar as the collective’s seminal project. The site specific performance took place in 2 shotgun houses on West Main in Dallas, and told the story of a mysterious former tenant of one of the houses: a woman named Shirley. When Artstillery opened Family Dollar in 2016, they also debuted an early version of who they are as a company, what type of work they would ultimately produce, and the emerging intricacies of their creative process. Ozgur said: “We knew we wanted to do site specific performance art. We knew that we wanted to do original narrative and that's pretty much what we knew. We knew we wanted to work together in a different way. We wanted it to be where everyone had a voice.”

Back in 2016, Ozgur was friends with a property developer who gifted her the use of the shotgun houses for one dollar a month. But in order to have any hope of using them as a performance space, they’d have to clean the houses out. Abandoned and dilapidated, the homes harbored mysteries and secrets. While a lot of what they uncovered was dark (they found evidence of drug and alcohol use, tragic family dynamics, and even animal abandonment), the experience sparked a creative idea when they came upon a journal.

OZGUR shared the story: “The second home, when we were cleaning it, we found a journal. I was there with [Artstillery Lead Photographer] Alisa Eykilis. She's taking photos and we find this journal and it feels like 150 degrees in this house. So we go out and we sit on the front porch and she's got her camera and I open the journal and I see words - it's full of words. And I accidentally drop it on the ground. Then, the wind picked up and started turning the pages. And at the same time, the train that ran behind the property started running. So Alisa started filming the turning pages. And when I picked it back up, I started reading it and I started to cry. It was this story of this woman who lived in this house. This is the last person living in this house. And it was so powerful, just reading one or two pages about her experience in that home. And so now there was this human aspect of that house. And then we felt her everywhere.”

The discovery of the journal led them on a journey to their story. They investigated Shirley’s life by talking to neighbors and community members. They became friends with the local church, and as Ozgur shared, “the community there looked out for us.” Ultimately, Family Dollar was a site-specific immersive performance that not only told Shirley’s story; it was also the story of neighborhood and community. It highlighted themes of race and class, and what happens to neighborhoods over time when inflation, new property development, and new businesses are introduced.

Pictured: The original promo poster for Family Dollar (top image). One of the original shotgun houses. Images courtesy of Artstillery.

Now, in the midst of 2020’s ongoing unpredictability, Artstillery is going back to their beginning by recreating Family Dollar. This time, they’re weaving in everything they’ve learned as a company, and what we’re experiencing collectively as a society. They’re currently in the research and early writing phase, with a core team working together including: Morgana Wilborn, Jennifer Lynn Culver, and Ava Dao Whatley. They won’t be using the same location because the original homes have been demolished. Instead, Artstillery Co-Founder and Technical Director Michael Cleveland will be recreating the homes at a new performance site.

Ozgur said that going forward, “We are still taking that original point of view, and that original inspiration, but from everything we're learning from the research that we're doing – well, we also allowed the artifacts and the houses help us figure out what was happening. And we’ve learned a lot more from Shirley, from the artifacts we were collecting. We knew a couple of things from the church members, but now we're having [long] interview sessions with people from the community: them telling us about when they were living there, how they remember the Kennedy assassination, and how bad that was for their community. How segregation worked in that neighborhood, which grocery stores they could go to and which ones they couldn't and how much they had to walk. And how the Family Dollar store coming into the neighborhood changed things. So now we're doing research about that and what it does to communities -- the good, the bad, and the ugly.” _________________________________________ Please follow Artstillery’s process of recreating Family Dollar for the next few months right here on Dallas Art Beat. To learn more about Artstillery, see past performance clips, and learn about their ongoing community involvement, please visit www.artstillery.org.

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