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Berkshire Profile: Liz UrbanBy Susan Bush
12:00AM / Sunday, December 17, 2006
Welcome to Berkshire Profile, an iberkshires weekly feature appearing on Sunday. Each week, iberkshires will highlight a Berkshires resident or entity making a contribution to the Berkshires way of life.
North Adams - For Elizabeth "Liz" Urban, there truly is no place like home.
At 27, she is an instructor for the Northern Berkshire Creative Arts initiative, project manager for the Greylock Theater Project, president of the Mill City Productions community theater troupe, and an assistant manager for the soon-to-open North Adams Cinema 8 Movieplex.
"We'd Create It"
Her passions include theater arts and dance; while a student at Drury High School, she acted in several plays and was a drama team member. She was a theater major at Skidmore College and graduated in 2001.
And then she brought her education and her talents home to hone.
"A lot of my college friends are in New York City and L.A.," Urban said during a Dec. 15 interview. "I came back after graduation and worked that summer at the Williamstown Theater Festival. A lot of my [high school] friends came back and we decided we were going to make it work [in North Adams]. If there was something we wanted and it wasn't here, we'd create it."
That attitude contributed to the creation of the MCP. Urban is one of the original troupe founders.
From "Group" To "Troupe"
She was assisting with a Drury production of the Wizard of Oz when she and numerous other individuals launched a discussion about community theater.The discussions evolved into Saturday morning meetings at the former Appalachian Bean cafe.
The "group" transitioned into a "troupe" and the first company performance - a presentation of comedic acts - was rehearsed in Urban's living room, she said.
The performance was deemed a success, she said.
"We had a ton of people come to see it and the question was 'what's next?,'" she said. "And now it's become a huge thing, I'll tell people that I'm president of Mill City Productions and they'll say 'I've heard of that.'"
An Atmosphere Of Inclusion
Art interests have poured into the Northern Berkshires as a foundation for economic revival. Out-of-the-area artists are now living in housing specifically created for them by artist and property developer Eric Rudd.
The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art draws tourists and hosts "Kidspace" for area children. The city's Main Street hosts art exhibits and craft shows periodically and the added arts excitement is believed to complement existing art venues such as the renowned Williamstown summer theater festival, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, and the Williams College Museum of Art.
Urban is committed to bringing art, particularly theater arts, to the native community. Community theater permits participation at a variety of levels and delivers an atmosphere of inclusion, she said.
"I want to continue bringing theater and the arts to the community," she said."I want to continue working with the kids. That was so much a part of shaping who I am. I don't know what I would have for a career if it wasn't for the Drury Drama Team, Jenny's Dance Center, the Berkshire Dance Theater. I don't know what my life would have been like without it."
Making the arts inviting for local families is key to an arts economy, she said.
"Part of what needs to happen is to make arts accessible to people who wouldn't ordinarily go to a play," she said. "We have be welcoming. We don't want to alienate people."
Children who live in every socio-economic demographic usually exhibit a sense of creative freedom when exposed to the arts, Urban said.
"A lot of children do well with the arts," she said. "They love knowing that there is no 'wrong' answer."
Radin: "A Big Influence"
Urban lived on West Main Street as a child and spent her growing-up years with friends and family.
"I spent a lot of time in the Marion Avenue, Notch Road area," she said. "My grandmother lived on Marion Ave, and she put me on the school bus in the morning and took me off in the afternoon. I went to Greylock elementary school, and I had a lot of good friends. We all used to do the [Fall Foliage Festival] Children's Parade and it was fun. I used to be so shy, it's a wonder that I ever became an actress."
Urban's shyness abated and her confidence grew as she grew older, in part because of the guidance of Drury drama team director Len Radin.
Under his tutelage, Urban tackled roles such as "Mary Warren" in a 1996 high school performance of "The Crucible." Urban also acted in a high school performance of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
Radin encouraged Urban to tackle new challenges, she said.
"He was a big influence," she said. "He got me doing choreography, and I think that now I've done choreography for about 10 plays."
Patience Is A Virtue
Mill City Productions welcomes folks who have little or no theatrical experience, and it is often the troupe itself that introduces many people to endeavors such as acting, dancing, singing, and set construction.
Urban said teaching dance steps to novices can be challenging but rewarding.
"It can be a challenge, especially when the dance choreography is for people without experience," she said. "But that is one of my specialties and I tell people that if they give me 100 percent, I will be patient and teach them the same step 100 times over."
Greylock Theater Project:"The Writing Is Pure"
Urban's involvement with the Greylock Theater Project is very fulfilling, she said.
The project links Greylock housing complex children with professional directors, actors, costume, sound and lighting experts who come together to produce one-act plays authored by the children. The project operates during the summer months.
"The project focuses on the creativity and the accomplishment of writing a play and not on spelling and punctuation," Urban said. "These kids, their self-esteem just grows."
The writing component covers a nine-week span, and once the plays are written, a director from New York City is charged with turning paper conversation into performance dialogue. Actors perform the plays on a WTF stage.
"The plays are presented in one evening and the playwrights sit on the stage with a sign that says 'playwright,'" Urban said."I love it, it's the best. The last two years, I was an actor and that was fun. But I love to sit in the audience and watch [the children] as they watch their own play being performed."
The plays written by the young project participants are brimming with honesty, Urban said.
"The writing is pure," she said. "They are not thinking about what someone else is going to think, they are expressing what they want to express at that time."
Public school arts programs are constantly under the state education revenue axe and community arts groups may be the answer to arts access within public education, she said. Members of the MCP plan to deliver a dramatic reading titled "Fireside Yuletide" at the Brayton school on Dec. 20, Urban said. The reading includes Hanukkah and Christmas stories, she said.
Lucky In What She Has Here
Urban is hoping that community theater and additional community art pursuits could begin to turn a profit, which would allow the entities to offer paying positions. That in turn would allow a home-grown participation within an "arts economy," she said.
Urban is married to Tim Mangun. The couple live on Notch Road with a cat, "Shelby," and a dog, "Casco," named for summers Urban spent with her family at Casco Bay, Maine, she said.
And the bright lights of Broadway or the fast lanes of L.A. aren't quite enough to lure Urban away from the bosom of Mount Greylock.
"I feel very lucky in what I have here," she said. "I am pretty grounded here. I think it's pretty cool to have a theater company and be teaching kids. I think it's pretty cool to be able to do something I love, something that doesn't feel like work. That's what I have here."
Susan Bush may be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 413-663-3384 ext. 29.