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The Daily Tar Heel

Dana Coen connects performance with art

When the opportunity to combine his love of visual and performing arts arose, professor Dana Coen took the chance to recreate an older concept in a fresh way. 

Ekphrasis, a rhetorical device used centuries ago by the Greeks to connect various artistic mediums, will serve as the basis for "Activated Art," which brings five inanimate pieces of artwork at the Ackland Art Museum to life for the third year tonight.   

Coen, the artistic director and producer of “Activated Art,” will bring together five 10-minute plays that represent different works found in the permanent collection of the Ackland Art Museum. 

Coen received a grant from the Institute for the Arts and Humanities that has given him the opportunity to combine his love for visual and performing arts into a theater endeavor in the museum. While this provided challenges in terms of space and lack of technology, Coen said he feels it only adds to the creative aspect of the performances.“These things are actually very freeing — they can be liberating. These kind of constraints can be liberating,” he said.

Ian Finley, director of education for Burning Coal, a professional theater company and nonprofit, is one of the playwrights involved with the performance. Finley wrote the play “Bronze,” which was inspired by the bronze head of a female statue that caught his attention last year in the Ackland. The mythology behind the figure became the platform for his idea — putting a twist on the story behind the statue. 

“I used the Greek mythology as a sort of jumping off point, but then I leave a lot of the details in rather differently,” Finley said.

“It’s not necessarily a happy ending story about finding love, but I took it a different direction, about what it is to give up love for some reason or another.” 

Finley said he was excited about taking his idea for the art piece in a different direction, and he also had a personal advantage in writing the fine-tuned play. He discovered halfway through the writing process that he already knew the perfect actress for the part: his colleague Angela Santucci.

“She’s a very fantastic actress, and knowing that I would be writing for her, I was able to take advantage of her rhythm as a performer,” Finley said. “So that’s always a lot of fun for me as a writer.”   

The performances are meant to not only connect to the audience, but also to the actors and the playwrights’s interpretation of the art pieces that inspired them. “Activated Art” promotes open interpretation of the art and encourages expression in different ways.

“What I enjoy about the process is observing how other writers are touched by another person’s form of expression,” Coen said.

Allison Portnow, public programs manager  at the Ackland, said she is elated with the success of the program and how its audience connects to the performance.

“The fact that the playwrights are all inspired by different works of art in the collection is one thing because you get to experience the artwork that you’ve walked by or didn’t notice in a different way before,” Portnow said.

“You just get a really unique theater-going performance. I just don’t think you can get it anywhere else.” 

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