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Performance Arts: Joan Dickinson's theater without walls

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"Right now, it's just so beautiful out here you can't hardly believe it," Joan Dickinson says about the Woodstock countryside where she lives and works and where she'll bus the audience for her new performance art piece, Drove Road, this weekend. "Particularly at sunset, things really light up in a different way. Filmmakers call it the magic hour. And the fields now are different shades of bronze. It's just gorgeous. I chose the day and time because I do want that kind of heartbreaking beauty, so people can have this experience--physical geographic beauty right in your face. It's intentional on my part, and it's part of the performance."

But there was nothing intentional about it in the beginning. Drove Road grew from the landscape, says Dickinson. "It came from riding my bike a lot and stopping and listening to things. There's a certain sound that's out here that I don't hear in other places. Part of it has to do with the amount of corn that's planted. A cornfield makes an incredible sound, a rustling and a crackling. If you're on the top of a hill, next to a cornfield, and everything's quiet, and all you hear is the cornfield, you get this sense of this being, almost"--she hesitates for a second--"speaking. I've had the same experience at the cemetery we're stopping at. It also has the quality of a presence. There's a pine tree there, one of the largest I've ever seen, that makes a sound and emanates that pine smell. I think people who are outdoors a lot will know exactly what I'm talking about and people who aren't will think I'm a little goofy, but there's a presence to a really old tree that's inescapable when you're around it. There's a presence to a field that has sort of an expansive quality. You can't escape who they are."

Dickinson's work is always loosely autobiographical. Just recently, she says, she realized that Drove Road, which starts at a cemetery and ends by dropping the contents of an urn into a pond, is about acknowledging death, about how the dead are a part of us. She doesn't want anyone to be scared off by that. "It's not morbid," she insists. "And it's also kind of funny." The audience will be herded to five stops along a 22-mile route, encountering a parade, a circus, and a serenade, pausing at a Dairy Queen, and, if past performances are any guide, developing the giddy camaraderie that grows among strangers dropped into exotic territory. "They always have a great time," Dickinson says. But the roots of this performance sprang from the nine months she spent nursing her father through the final stages of dementia, listening to what she had never heard before, discovering a presence that had been obscured through much of his life. "I really felt that I grew close to him, which I never had been," she says. "I got to really like him. This other part of him came out. You couldn't understand him or anything, but there was a real decency there, even demented. It was hard but it was good."

Drove Road, the fourth in a series of local outdoor performances by Dickinson, begins at 5 PM Sunday, October 1, on a farm west of Woodstock. Reservations must be made in advance by phone. Admission, which includes a map and a 12-page book, is $10; tickets can be picked up at Gallery 312, 312 N. May. Bus service from the gallery is available for $2, or you can drive yourself. The bus leaves promptly at 3:30 PM. Call 815-568-1049.

--Deanna Isaacs

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Joan Dickinson.

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