The three multi-faceted performers who make up The Fourth Wall are creating a new art form by fusing together music with dance, drama with slapstick comedy.
Two of the trio's members —trombonist C. Neil Parsons and percussionist/accordionist Greg Jukes — have been long interested in hybridity.
While an undergrad at Oberlin, Parsons made up an individualized major, Interdisciplinary Performance and Education, to allow him to follow his many blisses. Now a Bloomington resident, he's collaborated with both Bloomington Playwrights Project and Windfall Dancers, a modern dance collective for whom he's choreographed several pieces.
Jukes has worked with orchestras around the world as both narrator — reading scripts for Ravel's Mother Goose Suite and Russell Peck's The Thrill of the Orchestra, among other works — and percussionist. He's also been involved with a rock band, electro-acoustic ensemble and chamber music groups over the years.
Parsons and Jukes met as performers in Tales & Scales, an Evansville-based musical storytelling, or “musictelling,” ensemble that has since 1986 presented out-of-the-box productions designed to interest young people and their families in the arts.
The other member of the Fourth Wall, flutist Hilary Abigana, has earned plenty of awards as a soloist and ensemble player on her instrument of choice, but she'd never been challenged to play difficult lines while pirouetting and plie-ing before she joined the group.
NUVO: What’s unique about what you do?
Hilary Abigana: I wanted to perform a recital that involved elements of dance and theatre throughout to create a well-rounded audience experience. So I asked Neil and Greg to help put together a program, and voila! — The Fourth Wall was born.
Greg Jukes: We got our first performance opportunity when Hilary was invited to perform at the National Flute Association’s Annual Convention in 2010. Working in the hybrid arts has opened my eyes to a whole new world of expression. Even if I’m just playing music, I now think about the dramatic arc of the piece and how my physical movements while playing percussion instruments will read to an audience.
C. Neil Parsons: We’re interested in [changing] expectations of what constitutes a “chamber music recital” to communicate more directly with the audience by “breaking the fourth wall” that usually separates them from the performers.
NUVO: What do you want audience members to take away from a performance?
Jukes: Our hybrid arts approach allows us to tap into all the different ways people experience a performance — being moved by the beauty of the music, the grace of a movement or the lyricism of a text.
Abigana: We encourage active participation, and we often ask audiences to help us perform our pieces. We want our audiences to leave feeling they just experienced a really cool roller coaster ride.
Parsons: We don't want audiences to respect our art form; we want them to be excited by it.
NUVO: How do you build your performance arc?
Jukes: Instrument logistics is a major factor. We put the pieces with the most involved percussion setups at the beginning of the show and first after intermission. Hilary’s shoes make some of our decisions. While it’s awesome having a flute player en pointe, she can’t exactly sustain that for a 90-minute to 2-hour show, and those shoes don’t just slip on. So we take similar considerations with shoe changes as with percussion setups.
Parsons: There is an inherent variety due to our shifting focus between music, dance and theatre elements. Lacking an established repertoire of pieces for flute, bass trombone and percussion provides us a certain freedom and we are constantly developing new pieces, either through commissioning new compositions or adapting established works for our instrumentation and eclectic performance style.
Abigana: In addition to performing, we offer schools workshops and master classes designed to encourage out-of-the-box thinking and creating. With so many schools having to teach their students what is on a standardized test, creativity is being left for later. We lead theatre, movement and music games that encourage creativity.