The doorbell periodically chimes as guests arrive at First Hill’s historic Stimson-Green Mansion. Cold air gusts into the house as an usher tugs open the arched, hefty oak door. Over 60 guests mingle in the foyer. They admire the red-and-gold ceiling painted with watchful lions. The 1901 house has stories to tell if only the walls could talk.
Stimson-Green recently found its voice in Cabin Fever, an emerging Seattle performance company. In November 2013, Cabin Fever staged a two-week run of “Heart Content,” a blend of dance, theater and music, partially inspired by the mansion’s history. The project was part of 4Culture’s site-specific program. Launched in 1997, the program helps fund artists to create work at unconventional venues throughout the Puget Sound – everything from theater in IKEA’s showrooms to dance rehearsals in the park.
“We all have our own connection to the idea of home,” says Elana Jacobs, Cabin Fever’s co-founder, “The Stimson-Green space is saturated with stories and nostalgia. We wanted people to leave feeling connected to that in some way.”
Founded in August 2011, Cabin Fever’s vision is to create art in homes, the hope being to eventually use currently occupied residences. Stimson-Green, however, was the perfect launching point for what Jacobs describes as the “fullest culmination of our dream thus far.”
“It feels a bit like the Clue mansion,” commented one guest as the sold-out crowd congregated in Stimson-Green’s front hall for opening weekend.
The mansion has an actual billiards and ballroom, so there is always a faint feeling that that Colonel Mustard is concealed somewhere with a candlestick holder. Adding to the mystery, the audience was unsure of the setup and schedule. Word hadn’t yet spread of how the show works.
A small bell tinkled and instructions were announced. Performances were staged in seven rooms throughout the house. Guests were free to wander at their own pace and open any closed doors to explore the worlds within. All performances ran for an hour in a continual loop.
Nervous laughter rippled through the crowd at the thought of being a free-range audience. People were initially timid. Pockets of people headed downstairs to find musician Doug Barber playing acoustic guitar in the billiard room. In the reception-tea room, a group of female vocalists from Vancouver, Washington, improvised ethereal songs based on audience suggestions. Also on the ground floor, the dining room once again came alive with guests packing the space.
“Inconsequential moments that become part of your story even though you didn’t expect them to be,” recites Dylan Ward as part of his dance/storytelling presentation in the dining room.
Ward’s movement was structured around the home’s original, feast-sized banquet table. He tells stories about things that are not as they seem. It is an endearing nod to the room itself – how Mrs. Green repackaged butter in margarine labels to satisfy her husband’s frugality.
Down the hall, an ongoing, interpretative dance performance occurred in the call room – a tiny area where servants once awaited summonings. Emily Sferra moved within inches of the audience eliminating the line between personal and performance space.
“An audience is trained on how to normally conduct themselves, but walking into Stimson-Green, you have no idea what is going to happen or how,” says Sferra, co-founder of Cabin Fever. “The barriers and expectations dissolve. It’s a chance to offer a new, exciting, fresh experience for both the performers and audience.”
The delineations further vanished upstairs. Mike Rimoin provided musical accompaniment in the bedroom as dancer Sarah Lustbader frenetically dressed and undressed as she intermittently collapsed onto the vintage bed. In the bathroom, Anna Goren sang in the shower – so to speak. People crowded into the room, sat on the floor and even atop the antique toilet. Sometimes she punctuates songs by primping in the mirror.
“Is she brushing her teeth?” excitedly asked an audience member eavesdropping from the next room. “Can you hear that? Isn’t this fun!?” she exclaimed.
Seattle Outside the Box
“Artists need stories and stories need artists to tell them,” says Charlie Rathbun, arts program director for 4Culture. “I’d call them (Cabin Fever) ground zero in terms of the goals of the (site-specific) program right now.”
For the 2013 cycle, 4Culture pre-selected historic sites and funded 12 artist proposals. Mediums range from dance to plays and videography.
“Many people who live in Seattle have no idea what the history is,” says Rathbun. “We hear from people attending these performances that they a great time and at places they didn’t even know existed. The history of these spots – the physical attributes, architecture, design, textures – it’s all part of the artistic experience.”
Cabin Fever’s co-founders – Jacobs and Sferra – are both East Coast transplants to Washington. They deliberately choose to found their company in Seattle because of the distinct neighborhoods identities and general sense of connectivity.
“Seattle is an incredibly community-centric place for me,” says Sferra. “Coming from New York, I could live within 10 blocks of a good friend and never run into them. That doesn’t happen here. You continually cross paths with people. We felt like people would be more willing to open up their homes to art.”
Cabin Fever spent six months developing “Heart Content” at Stimson-Green and is planning to become the artistic storytellers for other residences. They hope that Seattleites will throw open their doors to explore the artistic worlds within.
“We’re shocked, grateful and humbled by the audience turnout and response,” says Jacobs. “It’s cool to be a part of a community where the work is important and there is a sense of making things happen. It’s why we moved to Seattle and all those reasons have proven correct.”
For more information about Cabin Fever, visit cabinfeverliveart.com.
For an upcoming schedule and information regarding 4Culture’s site-specific programming, visit sitespecificarts.org.