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Creativity is like a muscle. To remain strong, it needs exercise. Or that is the idea, at least, behind Hannah Hessel‘s Project Gym, a program designed to help performing artists keep their creative juices flowing. It works a lot like your local Washington Sports Club.
“I ask people to bring in a project where they feel stuck,” says Hessel. Housed by Forum Theatre Company in Silver Spring’s Round House Theatre, Project Gym gives theater practitioners a chance to develop theater projects in weekly, three-hour meetings. Each meeting includes a warm up, a class, and project time, and they’re taught by a member who’s tasked with sharing any artistic skill they have, from audition techniques to Flamenco dancing. As the gym’s “creative trainer,” Hessel adjusts the program each week. “You get to use the room to build new perspectives,” Hessel says.
New members have to go through an application process to be accepted, but membership is open to professional artists and nonprofessionals. Prior to their project time, Hessel meets in private with each member “to figure out what is helpful for them before they come into the room, so that they’re prepared for that workshop.”
Hessel, who works as the audience enrichment manager at The Shakespeare Theatre and the senior dramaturg at Forum Theatre, came up with the concept for Project Gym while earning her MFA in Dramaturgy at Columbia University. She wrote a 70-page theoretical business plan for her graduate thesis. The big idea was to create a “different model for artists to be creating and to have a continuity of artistic inspiration,” she says, in the form of a full-time artistic “fitness center” that includes a library, a work space, and a theater where audiences can see works in progress.
In its current form, Project Gym serves as a microcosm of what Hessel hopes will become a viable business. Last year, she tested Project Gym over two semesters; Round House donated space and all artists participated for free. This year the gym takes a big step forward: After members told her that the program is worth paying for, Hessel decided to begin collecting membership fees, paying rent, and offering both full-time and drop-in membership options. Full-time members will each still teach a gym session, but now earn a portion of that day’s drop-in membership fee. Though most of the gym’s members are theater artists, Hessel says the program can work for anyone whose medium requires collaboration.
The incorporation of an audience into works-in-progress at Project Gym may be far off, but Hessel hopes its time comes within the next few years, even without a full space. “I think having audience in the room is really important to the creation process,” she says. For now, she says, Project Gym still provides a much-needed resource, even if it doesn’t aim to develop specific theater works. “It’s telling artists they are more than what is on their résumé.”
Applications for memberships will be accepted through Feb. 4. Photo by Wyckham Avery