Tiny pianos, big ideas: Witching Hour and FEaST bring playful creatives to Iowa City this fall

Witching Hour: Chromic Duo

The James Theater, Friday, Oct. 21, 7:30 p.m.

Chromic Duo/Witching Hour

When Lucy Yao and Dorothy Chan began collaborating with each other and creating as Chromic Duo, both were already experienced educators and performers, looking for a way to foster community and lift up the Asian American diaspora in New York, which at the time was increasingly the target of racist violence.

“I think eventually, when Lucy and I started working together more, we found that … the core of what makes us want to create and connect to the people and community is to look further inside. To find the little moments, the joys, the reckonings of those little thoughts in your head and really capture and remember the importance of them,” Chan said in a recent chat with Little Village.

She was speaking of a phrase that stands out in Chromic Duo’s bio: “the small wonders of the everyday.” It’s an apt starting place for any discussion of Witching Hour, the festival-cum-series that Yao and Chan will be part of this fall. For eight years now, Witching Hour has helped Iowa City gain insight into the creative process, into the reckonings and connections that spark vision. And it’s often the smallest wonders that blossom into the grandest and wildest concoctions.

Chromic Duo is the third offering in Witching Hour’s new reimagining as a series, rather than a self-contained festival, preceded by Debit in September and the locally sourced Nakatani Gong Orchestra at the start of October. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Witching Hour, a co-presentation of Englert Theatre and Little Village, has remained dynamic and resilient, finding ways to foster community even when physical connection was restricted. It’s a testament to the deep thread of curiosity that runs through audiences in the area.

Collaboration and community are at the core of all of this fall’s Witching Hour events, both in terms of content and presentation. As a collaborative enterprise itself, Witching Hour certainly has skin in the game when it comes to working together. This year, the series format offers even more opportunities to reach out and incorporate others into its own creative process.

Take, for example, Feed Me Weird Things, a listening series following the opposite trajectory of Witching Hour by launching its first self-contained festival, FEaST, at the beginning of November. FMWT was a co-presenter (along with Public Space One) on the Nakatani Gong Orchestra event, and Witching Hour in turn is co-presenting the centerpiece of FEaST, Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

FMWT is the brainchild of programmer extraordinaire Chris Wiersma, and the series launched a few years after Witching Hour hit the ground. FEaST is a celebration of five years of esoteric acts with undeniably broad appeal. Wiersma was also, for a long time, on the programming committees for both Witching Hour (nb. So is this author) and of the Mission Creek Festival, which he lent the same idiosyncratic flavor with his skill in, essentially, teaching audiences what their next favorite band should be.

The twin spirits of community and collaboration animate the search for the unknown elements of the creative process that Witching Hour has centered its philosophy and meaning on. And they influence the performers it attracts.

Chromic Duo, in their installations, performances and virtual/augmented reality work, center their explorations on toy pianos, welcoming audiences into a space that encourages the openness and self-acceptance that precedes creativity.

“That’s what I think the toy piano represents, for us. It’s funny that it’s become like a symbol of being able to give yourself the permission to play, and to be able to give yourself permission to not judge yourself, and to show a little bit more empathy for yourself and for the people around you,” Yao said. “A toy piano … might be something that you think is just for a kid to learn. But then when you start to look a little bit deeper, you notice that the toy piano actually has this beautiful character and all these different toy pianos are characters in themselves.”

At its heart, all collaboration is play. It often feels instinctive when we are children, but the skill is seldom encouraged and atrophies easily. Fostering community allows us to surround ourselves with other seekers. And the more we practice, the better we all get. Yao approaches community-building in the Asian diaspora and beyond from a UX design perspective.

“How can I meet my students or my audience where they’re at?” she asks. “And how can I create something that feels inclusive and compassionate in the programming, whether that’s like, including a piece of work that they’re familiar with — that’s very close to us, we very much love classical music, grew up with that, playing that. And then from there, it’s like, ‘Well, if you love this piece of music, then what else can we show you? We can love the same things, and maybe we can show you something else. Go a little step further.’”

The steps can seem small, but, Chan says, you just need to trust the process.

“There’s so many things, so many people that we want to reach, and it just feels insurmountable,” she said. “I need to remind myself that the more conversations we have, the more of these experiences that we share, … progress is made, little by little.”

In Iowa City, even just attending a Witching Hour or FEaST performance allows you to become part of that progress. Especially if you come prepared to let go and play.

Witching Hour Events

Chromic Duo, James Theater, Friday, Oct. 21, 7:30 p.m.

Hrishikesh Hirway + Jenny Owen Young, Englert Theatre, Thursday, Oct. 27, 7:30 p.m.

Another Stage of Staging Ourselves, Englert Theatre, Saturday, Oct. 29, 7:30 p.m.

FEaST Events

Buy passes here

Olivia Block, Patrick Shiroishi, Trumpet Blossom Cafe, Thursday Nov. 3, 9 p.m.

Rachika Nayar, Englert Theatre, Friday Nov. 4, 6 p.m.

Lubomyr Melnyk, Englert Theatre, Friday, Nov. 4, 7:30 p.m.

Duma, Joe Rainey, Masma Dream World, Gabe’s, Friday, Nov. 4, 9 p.m.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Marisa Anderson, Englert Theatre, Saturday, Nov. 5, 7:30 p.m.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 311.

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