PearlDamour sees the way home in the stars over Milton, America

The North Star is how travelers have found their way home for thousands of years. Located on the handle of the Little Dipper, the most recognizable constellation in the sky, the North Star points true north where maps and even compasses can fail, getting travelers home safely.

It is this concept of home, and finding home by looking up to the sky, that was the jumping off point for PearlDamour’s MILTON project.

PearlDamour is Katie Pearl and Lisa D’Amour, working in conjunction with theatre director and community organizer Ashley Sparks on MILTON.

Milton is a man’s name. It is the surname of the famous 17th-century poet and polemicist John Milton, of Paradise Lost fame; the given name of TV’s golden era “Uncle Miltie,” Milton Berle; and that of famous toymaker Milton Bradley. It’s a common, basic name; one that doesn’t really give a person much pause. It’s so common, in fact, that one of the most common city names in the country is Milton. Which is why PearlDamour chose it to be the focus of their ongoing project.

“We literally just Googled the most common names for cities,” says Pearl. “Milton caught our attention because it seemed to have narrative possibilities.”

PearlDamour started in Austin in 1997, when D’Amour was attending grad school as a playwriting fellow at Michener Center for Writers and Pearl was in town with a college friend’s theatre company. Pearl had just come from a big adventure in Wales focused on site-specific theatre and says she was “really on fire” about site specificity. Her friends told her she needed to meet D’Amour, and eventually they did meet and made their first piece together: a slow-evolving system of tableaus that cycled through 14 hours, designed to be seen by cars as they drove by this one particular patch of land.

From there the two continued to collaborate, but it would still be a few years before they gave themselves a name: PearlDamour.

Pearl says that in the 17 years they have been working together, they have almost never lived in the same city. Currently D’Amour is living in New Orleans and Pearl in Brooklyn, though they have, at different times, bounced between Austin, Minneapolis, New York, and New Orleans, and those were also always the types of areas they focused on in their work – big cosmopolitan cities, each with their own uniquely urban identity.

MILTON is a conscious departure from that.

“One of our initial impulses was to do something small and it ended up doing biggest project ever,” Pealr laughs. “We were really feeling all of our work was being made for and seen by a very specific audience who was like ourselves: living in major cities, [with similar beliefs and experiences].”

The idea for MILTON came up during the last election cycle, when candidates and supporters alike would accuse everyone who dared to disagree with them as being “un-American.”

“We thought, you know what, we barely even know what that word means because our experience is limited to [that of the] urban, educated, [financially stable young city dwellers]. We wanted this project to force us to break out of our bubble.”

The MILTON project seeks to answer the question, does an “American community” really exist? And what does that mean to people?

To approach those questions, PearlDamour needed to structure the project in a way that would provide cohesiveness, and the idea of highlighting towns with the same name came about.

Once they selected Milton as their American town name, they then had to choose which Miltons to work with. They ended up with five Miltons total: Massachusetts, North Carolina, Louisiana, Oregon and Wisconsin. Drawing lines between the cities on a map of the United States, they created their own “Milton constellation.”

“We were thinking about constellations a lot and how they kind of orient and guide us through the unknown,” says Pearl. “The Milton constellation helps orient us towards the idea of what it means to be an American.”

They shot 24 hours of film footage of the skies above each Milton, forming an earth-bound constellation that would be incorporated into their live experimental performances through surrounding video. It might look like being inside a planetarium, or being outside at a backyard family barbecue, or a night out at the opera – the interpretation varies from place to place and performance to performance.

When they were choosing the Miltons they were looking for the towns to be as different as possible. The individual towns represent a wide range of demographic makeup and population size, from Milton, Massachusetts with 27,000 at the largest – a bedroom community of Boston, ranked among the top three places to live in the country by US News and World Report – to Milton, North Carolina with a population of only 164 people as of the 2013 census.

One of the most interesting things they have learned during the MILTON project so far, Pearl says, is how deeply systemic racism is in the United States and how each of these towns are dealing with those issues.

“One thing we heard again and again was, ‘Things are changing; everything’s changing.’ Sometimes that means industry development, but more often it means new, different people coming in.”

In Oregon’s Milton, the Latino population is quickly creeping up to 50 percent of the population, and the town’s Anglo leaders are working hard to figure out how to bridge the two populations, many of whom speak two separate languages.

In Milton, Massachusetts, there has been influx of Haitian, Eritrean, and Vietnamese immigrants and people of color colliding with the historically Anglo Saxon Irish Catholic “old money” of the community, and the town is trying to understand what its identity is now. “It’s so incredibly diverse,” Pearl states. “In those schools it’s like being in the United Nations. [Our question became], how can the diversity that exists amongst the children continue into the adult population? Why is it primarily white families that go to [cultural] events?”

North Carolina’s Milton has a deep history of being in the segregated South. Even now, black and white residents are friendly with each other but still socially separate. It was also once a hotbed for tobacco farming. That industry has since moved elsewhere and the town has been dwindling and dying ever since. For this Milton, PearlDamour looked at how they could raise the visibility of Milton in the region to get people to come explore their main street, which is chock full of art, history, and great food.

The MILTON project involves multiple site visits and in-depth relationship building that will ultimately culminate in a collaborative, participatory performance that in some way addresses the community’s sense of identity and of home at each of the Milton sites. “Our goal is that [the communities] are left with some tools to continue moving forward in the work they were able to do with us; that some bridges are built and serve as active invitations to bring people together, and that those bridges remain [after we leave].”

As artists coming into these communities, Pearl says, the impact PearlDamour has is that they are able to provide a space and structure for people to have conversations that have not occurred before because there just wasn’t space or structure in existence before. “They’ll see, ‘Wow, we’re are all in the same room together and we all have different belief systems and points of view, and a lot of times we don’t even want to be in the same room together, [but now we’re here].’ We see how our project can be situated within the work and dreams they already have, and provide space and context for them to loosen up and produce dialogue and action.”

Each of the MILTON sites are at different stages of development. So far North Carolina is the only one that has been brought to completion. “We spent a significant amount of time leading up to show and doing the show, and the outro is how is the town going to move forward with the experience. They are now committed to two annual arts events as a result, and this year we were able to totally step back.”

It has been about three and a half years since their first site visit, which was in Massachusetts. To build the kind of relationships and trust they need to build for this project to be a success, they need to visit each site regularly and hold workshops, in addition to writing grants to fund their efforts…a slow-moving process considering the time and financial investment involved in doing so in five different cities across the country. Oregon will be the next city to be completed with the show, supported by an NEA Our Town grant, scheduled for June 2016, and then Massachusetts will follow in the spring of 2017.

“Our hope is to bring all five to fruition,” Pearl says. “That actually turns into a 10-year project.”

And because this is an interconnected constellation, they do want there to be some exchanges between the different Miltons as well.

At the beginning they would initiate person-to-person gift exchanges from people in one Milton to another. After doing the show in North Carolina, they saw that people from North Carolina might be able to offer people in Massachusetts solutions based on the experiences their own town has had, and vice versa. “They see, ‘Oh, this city encountered the same thing and the way they dealt with it was to create an arts event. Oh, that’s what we should do – we should make one of these public concerts a multi-cultural festival.'”

“We’re witnessing how powerful that work is and how much change can really happen,” says Pearl. “As theatre artists we’re kind of educated to not be local; the wider your impact, the more important you are. This project is really teaching us how deeply the ripples can be felt in your own home space.”

They also continue to keep their production standards as high as they would be in any other city that they work in, which has also impressed people (that they haven’t dumbed it down). “We’re dipping into places outside our own community that don’t have access to high quality, adventurous, experimental theatre work, and that opens up a whole new possibility to young people where there wasn’t before.”

Perhaps an unexpected result for Pearl and D’Amour has been that, as they become more invested with such intensely focused energy on each of these five communities and really fall in love with the cities, they are even more acutely aware that these are not their home communities, giving them a new appreciation for these places they call “home” themselves. In its own way, the MILTON constellation has guided them home, too.