Will Smith has been working to bring "Poetry in Motion" to the stage for the better part of the last year. In 2022, he was awarded an Art Matters grant by the Roanoke Arts Commission as part of the group’s Year of the Artist program. Photo courtesy of Will Smith.

Participants in Roanoke’s Art Matters grant initiative have collaborated to create “Poetry in Motion,” a performance filled with poetry, music and dance that’s designed to reach both hearing and deaf audiences.

The event will take place May 13 on Mill Mountain Theatre’s Trinkle Main Stage.  

The performance was created by producer/director Will Smith, a professional dancer and member of the Roanoke Ballet Theatre company. “My interest was in taking American Sign Language and crafting it into the vocabulary of the ballet,” Smith said. 

ASL interpretation has been woven into the performance to allow deaf and hard-of-hearing audience members to fully enjoy the show. “The end goal is to have a ballet performance where a hearing person and a person with a hearing impairment can both watch it and walk away thinking they saw a show just for them,” Smith said. “The person who understands ASL will find more nuance, but everyone will find something that they are able to enjoy.” 

Smith has been working to bring this performance to the stage for the better part of the last year. In 2022, he was awarded an Art Matters grant by the Roanoke Arts Commission as part of the group’s Year of the Artist program.

At first, “Poetry in Motion” was going to consist of dance and ASL set to a musical interpretation of George Meredith’s poem “The Lark Ascending.” Then Smith invited other artists to get involved. Evan Odson has provided the choral work, and Betsey Quillen has helped with the ASL interpretation. Fellow Art Matters grantees Bryan Hancock and Kayla Saunders are also participating in the project. 

The proposed visual impact of words appealed to Hancock, so he said he gladly accepted a speaking role. “Will asked me to help bring his collaborative vision to life, to help bring bodily movement, poetry and music together for a hearing-impaired audience. We are focused on the full experience and the visual impact of the words.”

Hancock will perform a reading of “The Lark Ascending,” which describes the skylark and its joyful song as it embraces its natural surroundings. According to Hancock, the poem presents an organic rhythm for the reading. Hancock says that he will also incorporate his own style into the performance. “I’m going to be me, regardless of the room. But at the same time, I’m choosing the part of me that will be in that mix. Collaborating with these artists is a blend.”

This performance naturally correlates with Hancock’s personal mission. “My goal essentially is wanting to see artists flourish and letting the audience know that art doesn’t have to come from this scholarly place all the time. Being an artist is about finding out what your art is or what your gift is, who you are, why you are, and why people should be listening to you right now,” Hancock said. 

Like Smith, Hancock is a 2022 recipient of an Art Matters grant. His project focuses on introducing at-risk youth to expressing themselves through poetry. Through this initiative, he has provided writing workshops at the Melrose Library that will continue through the summer. In October, the Roanoke Poet Laureate will be selected from the students who have been participating in the workshops.

“I think it’s important to get the community in a place of knowing that they’re there and that they’re valuable,” Hancock explained.  

Filmmaker Saunders, another recipient of the Art Matters grant, agrees. A trailer of her short film “Like Moonlight on Water” will be shown at the “Poetry in Motion” event. The film is about a ballet dancer who loses her hearing at age 16. Saunders said Smith collaborated with her on the film, working as part of the choreography team. Afterward, he invited Saunders to showcase the film at his event.

Saunders, too, has incorporated ASL into her work. “People in the entertainment world have been neglecting this beautiful community. ASL is a means of expression that we should be using,” Saunders said. She hopes that her film will be more accessible and inspirational to children who have hearing impairments.

Saunders also sought out deaf and hard-of-hearing actors and dancers to perform in the film.

“If you’re going to write about a community that’s not your own, you need to include people from the community,” she explained.

In addition to filmmaking, Saunders works with deaf and hard-of-hearing children. She hopes that this film will inspire her students — and their parents — to realize that they’re capable and can do anything that they put their minds to.  

Betsey Quillen is a member of the deaf community, an actor and a performer. After losing a significant amount of her hearing at age 16, she said, she became fluent in ASL. As an actor, Quillen plays the role of Liz’s mother in Saunders’ film. In addition, Quillen served as a consultant on that project. 

Quillen is also a consultant for “Poetry in Motion.” She says that a mutual friend put her in touch with Smith. “I was instantly interested [in “Poetry in Motion”] and knew that dance and sign language were something that could go hand in hand,” Quillen explained. To prepare for a project like this, she spends as much time as possible with the material, making sure she understands the heart of it. 

Quillen explained that the process for this particular performance was unique because there are so many different components. Each portion needs a different method of interpreting. For example, Quillen is focused on conveying the message of the poem. Regarding the process of interpreting the lines and breaks in poetry, she says, “By manipulating the parameters of individual signs, there are ways to create equivalents of rhyming patterns, of alliteration, of tempo and pauses. The possibilities are endless for what this beautiful language can create and convey.”  

Quillen will not be the only ASL interpreter at the performance; she has a team of professional interpreters who will work alongside her.

The performance will feature many talented artists. Smith says that around two dozen people are directly involved in the performance, not including the stage crew. 

Doug Jackson, Roanoke’s arts and cultural coordinator, said that the Roanoke Arts Commission had hoped that artists would come together and work with other artists and organizations that they had not worked with before, as these Art Matters grantees are doing.

“That’s where rich collaboration can happen,” he said. 

The grant committee sought artists whose projects would promote justice, wellness and inclusion through the arts. “A sense of belonging is foundational to wellness. We wanted artists to help show us the role of art in making more people feel like they belong in the community,” Jackson explained. 

The Art Matters Project is part of the commission’s Year of the Artist initiative. The $3,000 grants were funded by an American Rescue Plan Act grant and a Grants for Art Projects Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, with additional funding from the city of Roanoke, according to a Roanoke Arts Commission news release. The city planned to invest more than $300,000 in community-driven and artist-led projects advancing the community in a variety of key areas during the 2022-2023 fiscal year.

“We are extremely pleased with the diversity and breadth of our 30 Art Matters projects. Using the performing, visual, and literary arts, our community is addressing challenges and celebrating our people and our place,” Roanoke Arts Commission Chair Meighan Sharp said in the press release.

Jackson further explained the importance of collaboration with and within the arts community: “If we can work together and build our collaborative muscles, whether it’s across neighborhoods, across artists, or across organizations, we’re going to be able to do things in a better way, whether that’s responding to emergencies or planning festivals.”

To purchase tickets, call the Center in the Square box office at 540-342-5700 or use this link. Tickets may also be purchased at the door. The performance will take place at 5 p.m. May 13 on Mill Mountain Theatre’s Trinkle Main Stage at Center in the Square. 

Lindsey Hull is a 2023 graduate of Hollins University, where she studied English, creative writing, and...