Ripe and Ready's Heartwork

There's something almost punk rock about performance art and poetry -- outside academic circles, both art forms exist at the edge of the art world, often at the fringe of the fringe. The women of Ripe and Ready might bristle at the punk comparison but it is in that do-it-yourself spirit that they have combined performance art and poetry with surprising results.

Formed in the spring of 1996, the Ripe and Ready ensemble create complete sensual immersions which, although grounded firmly in words, add elements of theatre, music, dance, and multimedia. They have thus far staged three productions at Hyde Park Theater and appeared at last November's Austin Free Poetry Festival. While these performances have included up to 19 people, the core group is its founders: Barbara Carr, Patricia Fiske, Christina Sergeyevna, Sharon Stuart, and Suzanne Vance. Newest member Constance Campbell, who has a degree in directing and is also a poet, joined in the summer of 1996 as the group's director, while Dr. Lynne Weiss, also a founding member, departed early this year.

At a March 16 performance, Ripe and Ready showcased the range of the group's influences and interests. Carr, for example, joined local denizen Herman Nelson in reciting Native American-influenced poetry while accompanied by a troupe of Native dancers. Vance appeared as an albino prostitute in Mississippi, while Stuart recited a piece about personal luminescence. Fiske contributed a gender-switched version of Orwell's 1984 performed by Sue Bilich and Gina Mears, and guest Mick D'Arcy performed a series of ceremonies. In the second half, Carr and Nelson, in addition to their original poetry, invited a series of guests to read with them and the dancers.

Vance described the sextet as "mainly a group of friends going to open mikes" who wanted to do something more. "We really strive to use performance art techniques," she says. "With all the props and all, it's a drama thing, but also what they call performance art. I consider myself a performance artist as well as a poet."

Fiske describes attending a performance at the Ruta Maya coffeehouse as an example of what Ripe and Ready would emphatically not do. "They had a light onstage behind the people; you could not see the faces of the performers, and you couldn't hear them. I thought, `This is ridiculous.' Having a background in theatre, it just seemed natural to take it into a theatre and put some lights on people and make sure they were able to be heard."

Each member draws from her own specializations to create a niche within the group. Carr, for example, is a professional piano entertainer and has performed with such ensembles as the River City Girls. Consequently, she creates the original music for the shows. Fiske and Campbell, with their backgrounds in theatre, take care of dramaturgical concerns. Sergeyevna, described by her colleagues as "one of the most published poets in Austin," has a knack for marketing and networking. Vance and Stuart are so committed to the format that they are taking acting lessons from local teacher C.K. McFarland. The symbiosis pays off; the Hyde Park shows were sold out, the group reports, and they commanded a sizeable crowd for an hour at the Austin Free Poetry Festival. "We're all communicators, and we're all attracted to theatre because we communicate. We're not cerebral poets, so people don't have to do guessing games about our poetry." Vance believes that "the common man who hates poetry relates to us."

Equally diverse are the approaches the women take to their subject matter. Carr celebrates mystical topics and earth magic, while Vance writes modern folklore about her experiences growing up in Mississippi. Fiske, by contrast, centers a great deal of her work on issues of therapy and recovery. "I would describe what I've heard from people as `heart work,'" Campbell says. "Whether it's about Barton Springs or a friend, there's a ring of truth to it, and I think a lot of people relate to that. They're not putting on words; it's very direct." Carr adds, "We have what we call planned spontaneity. If we're going to do our round-robins, we do an area like aging, or sin, or romance, so we're all doing things in the same vein."

Thus far, each show has been conceived of by one member; Vance oversaw the debut performance, which included Carr jamming with didgeridoo player Bob Mud, Sergeyevna accompanying her text with slides, and Fiske and Weiss collaborating with dancers. "One of us will say, `This is the program I'd like to put together,' and if they want to do it first it's like, `Yeah! Yeah! Go ahead!'" Vance says. Yet the members engage in regular brainstorming sessions and say a collaborative effort is in the near future.

While Fiske says that her original conception of Ripe and Ready was as a women-only group, men are welcome to participate. All point to poets Byron Kocen and John Smith as particularly supportive guests.

Ripe and Ready have no plans to be constantly out and about on the town; they have only the upcoming Austin International Poetry Festival and a Hyde Park Theater gig in August planned for the rest of the year. They say, however, that they are looking at additional locations, and focusing on quality over quantity. As obvious as that may seem, it is also evident in the work. As Vance says, "I don't think there would ever be women's competitiveness or jealousy, because we're all so different. And we love each other for that." -- Ken Hunt

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