When Lauren Edson and Andrew Stensaas launched their multifaceted arts organization LED four years ago, they deliberately went big. Despite a handful of concerned voices, the husband-and wife-team planned the company’s first evening-length show at the Morrison Center. Edson, a dancer and choreographer, and Stensaas, a musician and composer, wanted to demonstrate what they were capable of creating on a large scale.
“We didn’t want to tiptoe into our future,” Stensaas says. “We wanted to get in there.”
The risk paid off.
“This Side of Paradise,” based on the tumultuous relationship between Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, premiered to an enthusiastic audience in fall 2015, and LED quickly garnered a strong community following. In the intervening years, the company has drawn crowds to the Morrison Center for two other original shows and to venues across the Treasure Valley and Pacific Northwest.
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LED’s newest work “Jabberwock,” premieres March 2 at the Morrison Center.
And this month, the arts nonprofit is taking another step to deepen its Boise roots, relocating from its rehearsal space and offices on Broadway Avenue to a larger, more visible spot in the former Alloway Electric building at 15th and Grove streets. It’s a move that will offer more opportunities to invite in the public and other artists.
At 2,400 square feet, the new Linen District location is twice the size of LED’s previous space, where there wasn’t enough room for a band and dancers to rehearse at the same time. The new studio has a bigger dance floor, a recording studio, dressing rooms — which they didn’t have before — and offices and seating areas. And with large windows surrounding the space, Edson and Stensaas are hoping passers-by will see what they’re doing and feel compelled to learn more about the creative process.
“We’ve been wanting people to be able to see the iterations of the work as it develops, and we just haven’t had the ability to do that,” Edson says. “It feels like we pop in for our one-night show and then we’re out. … For people to see how the work evolves can be exciting, and to experience the art so close is something that will be really great, too.”
The move is a huge step for LED, Edson says, and one that was made possible through the organization’s supporters. A community fundraising campaign for the new studio brought in more than $39,000, surpassing the original $35,000 goal.
In addition to opening the studio up for showcases of LED’s work, Edson and Stensaas hope to collaborate with other creators to find unique ways to use the facility, even offering up the walls for visual artists. It’s the kind of artistic space that is rare in Downtown Boise, Edson says.
“We have the ability to use the space in a really wonderful way,” she says.
And it’s a serendipitous location for another reason: “It’s pretty fun that we’re moving into an old lighting company and we’re called LED,” Stensaas says.
The transition to the new space comes at a time when LED is already busy rehearing its newest work, “Jabberwock,” which is set in a dystopian 1950s-inspired office and adapted from Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem “Jabberwocky.”
“Often for us the best ideas or the most interesting ideas just kind of come subconsciously, and I have no recollection of how they got into my head,” Edson says.
Such was the case with the Carroll poem. When it came to mind, she couldn’t immediately recall the specifics of it, but she remembered the intrigue she felt when first reading it years ago. When she did more research, she was further drawn to the structure of the poem: a classic hero’s journey.
From there, Edson and Stensaas explored how they could adapt material from the poem and the book where it appeared, “Alice Through the Looking-Glass,” as well as from Carroll’s life, to create a narrative of their own. As with all their works, Edson says, the story, themes and points of interest are all their creation.
“This certainly isn’t ‘Alice in Wonderland ballet,’” she says.
They were drawn to the aesthetic of the 1950s because of the layers it presented — the ways things aren’t always as they seem, she says.
“We’re setting it up for you to think that you’re entering a world that is saccharine sweet with song and dance,” she says. “And then the journey of the protagonist takes us through this space that is her hero’s journey. She is literally and figuratively having to slay the Jabberwock.”
Stensaas notes that there are also comparisons to be drawn between the abstractions of the original poem and the nature of dance, which often prompts questions about meaning.
“It’s interesting because when you read the Jabberwock, there’s a lot of made up words. It’s nonsensical — that’s the whole point of it, it’s a nonsensical poem,” he says. “But you can understand what the plot is of it just simply by having some touch points. … You understand what a hero’s journey is, you understand what slaying beasts are, whether that’s internal or external.”
“Jabberwock” marks the first time Edson won’t be joining the dancers on the Morrison Center stage. With a baby on the way, she’s had to exercise new skills to get what she wants out of the performers without always being able to demonstrate her choreography. But she’s working with what she describes as a “dream team.”
“To have dancers who are so skilled, it feels like I say a word and they manifest that vision,” she says. “Which is what you want in any creative process.”
Five of the seven dancers have come from out of town, staying in Boise for two months of dedicated time to work on the show. That’s an unusual opportunity for freelancers, says Maxwell Perkins, who is based in Chicago and is one of several dancers involved in the project who had never been to the Treasure Valley before.
“It’s such a precious opportunity to have eight weeks to dedicate towards an idea, towards an image, towards a production,” he says, noting that he’s been involved in other projects where dancers simply shared videos up until a final rehearsal instead of doing full run-throughs together.
Dancer Lukasz Zieba, who is originally from Poland and is now based in New York City, says energy is often scattered on dance projects because people are working on so many things at once. That’s what makes the process of working on “Jabberwock” so special, he says.
“Even though most of us have not worked with each other professionally, it’s nice to have that integrity,” he says. “Everyone’s on the same page.”
Emma Lalor, who also traveled from New York, says she appreciates the generosity she’s experienced in Boise. LED supporters have welcomed the dancers into their homes, and they quickly got to know other community members through their connection to the company.
“It really is amazing to feel like our work is supported by a big group of people,” she says. “I’ve been in cities where it feels like the work that we’re doing gets a little bit lost.”
A qualitative model
Though LED initially launched with the central focus of putting on a good show, Edson and Stensaas quickly learned about the other facets of running a nonprofit, like branding, marketing and administration. They’ve also had to ask questions about the kind of organization they want to be, Edson says, aiming to make decisions that allow for the best creative work.
“We’ve been really mindful about creating a model that doesn’t feel like a traditional nonprofit organization because often they’re run like big ships,” she says, with set seasons, large staffs and production decisions sometimes made years in advance to secure grant funding.
Instead, she says, LED’s goal is to remain nimble so that the team can take on anything that interests them — perhaps making a movie one year instead of simply putting on a show because it’s dictated by the calendar. One element of that model is that the company only has three full-time employees – Edson and Stensaas, who serve as creative directors, and Kyle Morck, the managing director and filmmaker. Other musicians, dancers and designers are brought on per project.
“That allows for us to hire the best artists, which is really exciting,” Edson says.
They’ve also found sources of income that aren’t solely based on a nonprofit model, including Stensaas’ musical compositions, commercial opportunities, a YouTube channel and performances at company events. Touring is another big component of that, and “Jabberwock” was created with that in mind — the set is easily transportable, and the music in the production is recorded rather than live.
Although that kind of qualitative model can be a bit trickier as an organization grows, Stensaas says, the product should sell itself if that growth stems from the creativity of the work.
“There’s only room in the field of business for creativity,” he says. “The only reason you ever hear of anybody making any moves in business is simply based off their creative ingenuity and doing something that’s unique.”
Edson acknowledges the challenges that come with balancing creative needs and business. She’s learning that they actually can serve each other.
“I think that so often as artists or creatives, you’re told that those tools that you’ve discovered aren’t necessarily applicable to this other side. It feels like you’re put into different camps,” she says. “But we’re really trying to have the business and those elements echo what it is that is so unique about the art that we’re creating.”