ARTBARN creates original site-responsive performances, activating unexpected spaces in order to engage a community of artists and audiences in asking big human questions.


ARTBARN was founded in 2013 with the intention of developing a unique residency model in which artists can create site-responsive work collaboratively. We do this by pairing a full year of research and development among our core creative team with a compressed residency model with a full company. We bring actors, designers, dramaturgs, a director, a writer, and a chef together from around the country for an intensive residency in which we rehearse and build the show within the performance site, utilizing the unique architecture of the space and crafting a truly immersive experience for audiences. Each day the company gathers around a large table to share meals and open up opportunities for organic collaboration and meaningful connection. The residency culminates in public performances inviting audiences to follow a story through a variety of environments – through bedrooms, into the woods, across lawns, past turbines, and into small crevices. The outcome mirrors the immersive nature of the residency and creates an audience experience that is part theatre, part installation, part walking tour, and part shared meal.


2013: Home Stretch at the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony
In June 2013, ARTBARN produced Home Stretch, a site-responsive installation and performance event inspired by the Robert Frost poem, In the Home Stretch as part of the Byrdcliffe Festival of the Arts. As a company we had a hunch that retreating from our lives in the city (we were all based in NYC at the time) and escaping to the woods of upstate New York might not only offer a welcome retreat, but open up the possibility of a new way of collaborating and creating. Equipped with a series of scenes written by Melissa, Jess, Deb, and actors Joel Ripka and Kelly McCrann filled a car and truck up to the brim with potential costume pieces, chandeliers, and a hodgepodge of ingredients to build an immersive world. Our chef, Kate Baker Linsley, curated our meals from afar and we spent less than two weeks living, eating, rehearsing, workshopping, writing, editing, building, and creating together. As a tiny team, we worked around the clock to prepare this piece for an audience. When Deb needed help hanging lights, we’d pause rehearsal and become her crew. When dishes needed washing, it was all eight hands on deck. By the end of our time we had created a new piece that led an audience of over 30 people on a journey with one man, one woman, and a deer. Audience moved between interior rooms, lawns, a deck, and the woods as they watched a couple pack, un-pack, build things, break things, dance, fight, love, and navigate that relentless tension between the toxic but invigorating excitement of the city, the call of the woods and promise of quiet, and the disillusions wrapped up in both. We left Byrdcliffe both exhausted and invigorated. We knew we had something worth investing in – we just needed a bigger team.

2014: This is a Ghost House at the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony
In 2014 we grew and added Alex Peterson to our core creative team. Her contributions significantly impacted our company’s ability to establish itself beyond a single experiment in the woods. In May of 2014, ARTBARN created This is a Ghost House, inspired by the notorious hoarders of Harlem, the Collyer brothers. This is a Ghost House explored the psychology of labyrinths and the lengths we go to hide from ourselves. The piece was performed in the historic White Pines estate on the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony. Jess K Smith and actor Kathryn Van Meter traveled from Seattle; Melissa D. Brown, Deb O, Kate Baker Linsley, actors Dave Droxler and Nick Dillenburg, and an exceptional team of interns from NYU all traveled from NYC; and Alex Peterson joined us from MA. Without being programmed as part of a festival like in 2013, we expected fewer audience members. Instead, we were thrilled to attract an audience of almost 70 people (more than double from the previous year). Word had spread! Audience moved through grand rooms, up staircases, into side-by-side bedrooms, offices, bathrooms, and corridors all imaginatively designed by Deb O and executed with the help of exceptional interns. And for the first time, ARTBARN incorporated food into the performance event as a way to reflect our process in our product. The piece started with audience noshing on small baguette sandwiches, then moved on to include a champagne toast, small hor d’oeuvres, and ended with a spread of individual mason jars filled with vegan stew at end the show. Audience lingered on the lawn after the show surrounded by lamp light and the beautiful Catskill stars, eating their stew and talking. We were heartened to see the ways in which food transformed the performance experience for audience and mimicked the residency experience more fully.

2015: The Circle at the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony
In the Spring of 2014 we articulated the significant ways in which we wanted to grow as a company. We wanted to take on larger spaces with a bigger team of both performers and interns, for more performances, with more food. With a team of eleven interns from both New York University and the University of Puget Sound, four actors, two writers, and a creative team of five, we created The Circle: A Guidebook to Peace, Happiness and Truth Through Personal Geometry. The piece was inspired by Shakespeare’s final play The Tempest and William Butler Yeats’ prophetic and terrifying poem The Second Coming, The Circle told the story of a group of idealists who attempted to turn their back on the pain and suffering of the world only to discover that sometimes, the harder you try to keep something out, the more you end up letting it in. Over 80 people joined us during three performances and followed the story past installation spaces, through intimate studios, grand dining halls, and outside. Because we were able to incorporate a full meal, installations, and moments where the audience was split into smaller groups to experience individually crafted moments, it felt for the first time that we were operating on all cylinders.

2016: We Remain Prepared at the Georgetown Steam Plant
After three years as a company in residence at the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony, we felt like we had established the ARTBARN process and developed our aesthetic voice. We were hungry for a space that would meet the scale and scope of our imaginations. In 2015, we met that space when Jess walked into the towering and historic Georgetown Steam Plant in south Seattle. The plant’s immense scale and rich history called to us, but we knew we couldn’t do it alone. Jess, Deb, and Melissa teamed up with members of Seattle ensemble, the Satori Group to develop an intensive producing model that spanned over a year and a half. Together they assembled the most impressive artistic team to date from around Seattle and across the country to build our largest piece yet. With a team of thirty artists including performers, writers, directors, designers, producers, choreographers, dramaturgs, and stage managers in addition to a cohort of over a dozen interns from both the University of Puget Sound and New York University, we produced We Remain Prepared to sold out audiences and critical acclaim for two full weeks. We welcomed over 300 audience members to travel through boiler rooms, past towering turbines, and into ash chambers to follow the story of three workers who search to create meaning for themselves when their work fails to provide it for them. The show was lauded by the Seattle Times for a kind of immersiveness that “spills into real life”.

2017: Workshop Showing at Warner Gym, University of Puget Sound
This project began in the fall of 2016 when we visited Fort Worden for the first time.  We were struck by these imposing batteries, expansive views, architecture with the purpose of both violence and protection, hard lines and historic masculinity. We wondered what  would happen if we draped it in soft fabrics? If we populated these tough and resonant spaces with an ensemble of women? The space and larger political environment led us toward a piece explicitly about women. For a core company comprised entirely of women, it was about time. Over the spring, we worked alongside our tremendous intern, Claire Martin, to develop and research a list of revolutionary women. Inspired by the myth of Demeter and Persephone, Margaret Atwood’s feminist dystopian classic, The Handmaid’s Tale, the imagery and meaning of rock cairns and the power of compassionate resistance, we quickly realized that in order to truly honor the stories of these women and to take on the size and scope of the project we were envisioning we would need more than one year. We committed to developing a piece with and about women over multiple years to eventually be performed throughout Fort Worden.

The 2017 Workshop was the first major step in this endeavor. We came together on the University of Puget Sound Campus with an exceptional team of interns and collaborators, working over the course of two weeks to research, devise, write, design, and ultimately produce a workshop showing of material to an audience. We told our own stories and those of the women in our lives, we wrote material based on our research, we read through and staged wonderful writing contributions we’d received from collaborators, and Melissa continued to develop the core narrative. Kate led the company in a workshop in how to bake fresh bread from scratch and we incorporated each step into the structure of the piece. Visiting collaborators Lacy Katherine Campbell, Sara Keats and Alyza DelPan-Monley  led us in exciting experiments in adaptation, physicality and world-building. Hannah Ferguson led the immersive design, transforming an abandoned gym into a beautiful archive. And Jess, Melissa, and affiliate artist, Zoe Levine Sporer, worked to address some of the challenges we’d set ourselves as a company: to slow down and consider how to improve our collaborative process, to let design and story inform each other organically in development, to create non-narrative installations and opportunities for the audience to have some autonomy in their experience of the piece and, most of all, to do our best to honor the women whose stories we were telling.  At the end of the two weeks, we invited audiences into a transformed Warner Gym to contribute their own stories of important women in their lives, to meet the characters we imagined created this space to preserve stories, to help mix the flour, knead the dough and taste the delicious, freshly baked bread, and in the
end, to take the stories they had learned into their hearts and out into the world
with them.

ARTBARN is led by Jess K Smith and Melissa D. Brown.