The Rural We: Shawn Fischer
Shawn and Kurt Fischer in the Spiegeltent.
Shawn Fischer is a teacher, director and actress who had a career in theater, dance, sketch comedy and improv in NYC for 25 years before moving to Tivoli full time in 2009. She now teaches theater at Woodbourne Correctional Facility through the non-profit organization Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA), and her recent workshop, “Theatricalizing the Personal Narrative,” has been featured in The New Yorker and on NPR.
My husband and I are both theater people, but my husband is an outdoorsman and always wanted to live, at least part-time, in the country. I had no desire to leave NYC and had a long list of MUSTS before I’d leave: MUST BE a college town with a progressive and diverse community, access to cultural activities, and proximity to NYC. We agreed to look for a weekend cabin and, after years of finding many not-quite-right places, we stumbled upon Tivoli in 2002. It seemed like a great fit: Five minutes from Bard, edgy and progressive, with cultural venues, great restaurants and interesting people, and it was nearish to trains. But the house we found was not weekend-cabin material and buying it would mean moving. It had been eight months since we watched the Twin Towers burn, and we had a nine-month-old baby. Red Hook Schools were known to be top-notch. But could we really leave the city? At the time, I was reading a biography of Eleanor Roosevelt in which her childhood home was described: Tivoli! It felt like a cosmic nudge pushing me over the edge. For the next four years, we spent weekends in Tivoli and renovated the house. We’ve been living here full time since 2006, and keep only a crash pad in the city.
I began an after-school arts and science program called Crossroads at Red Hook’s Mill Road Elementary School. Soon thereafter, I met a woman named Susan Slotnick who teaches dance in a prison arts program. I watched films of performances by Susan’s class and felt like I’d been hit by lightning. I contacted Katherine Vockins, executive director of Rehabilitation Through the Arts, and before long was teaching a three-hour theater class once a week at Woodbourne Correctional, a men’s facility in Sullivan County. RTA runs arts programming in five prisons in New York State, including Green Haven and Fishkill in Dutchess County. In my nearly five years volunteering for RTA, I’ve taught comedy, improvisation, scene and monologue study classes, and directed the play Twelve Angry Men.
RTA provides creative arts education that incarcerated people can use for personal, social and cognitive growth. This work has changed my life and has compelled me to deepen my understanding of how theater can be used as a vehicle for social justice. Last year I enrolled in CUNY’s Masters in Applied Theatre program, and I bring what I’m learning there into the prison to share it with the men.
I enjoy taking in local theater in and around Red Hook. We’re incredibly lucky to have first-rate theater and dance presented at Bard College. Taking in a show at the Spiegeltent on a warm summer night with the Catskill Mountains in the background is a special treat — it’s practically in my backyard, so I can always get a parking space! I also love the kinds of arts happenings here, particularly the grass roots feel of Community Music Space. There’s a warmth and sense of inclusiveness that infiltrates the classes and performances there; it feels like a connective hub of our community — the name really fits. I’ve recently begun teaching theater there and hope to create a forum for community members to share stories and perhaps create theater and dance. Though I’ll always feel a deep connection to NYC, I’ve come to appreciate the connectedness and beauty of the Hudson Valley.
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