Arts Issue - Lucky Penny performs an experiment in sustainability

Does the Work Room help answer that eternal ATL question: 'How do we get artists to stay?'

Catching and diverging, catching and diverging. Choreographer Blake Beckham intones these words as five bodies shift in front of her in cascading movements. The floor squeaks under the pressure. In the afternoon light their forms appear like shadows as they pass in front of the large arched windows of Lucky Penny's Work Room. The long space is cool and dark and sparse. It emanates a church-like calm. Here, dancers do the good work of being dancers.

There is a conventional way to go about such work. It often involves short bursts of time, large sums of money, and flawed, sometimes dangerous spaces. Beckham wanted to upend that model, which favors working project by project and hour by hour. "It basically encourages you to work as quickly as possible and as little as possible and that's not really where creativity thrives," she says.

By design, the Work Room is not conventional. It is intended to help artists get better at not just being artists, but being artists in Atlanta. There is profound scarcity when it comes to safe practice space for independent dancers, explains Beckham, whose Lucky Penny organization creates and presents contemporary performance work. Opportunities for "daily, semi-daily ritualized practice — like going to work," as Work Room artist Melissa Word puts it, are rare, a fact that nearly drove Beckham from dance and Atlanta after 15 years presenting here.

"Something that artists genuinely need to survive is validation and I have to say that in the years that I struggled so hard to find space, I started to internalize this feeling of, 'you don't matter enough to take up space,'" Beckham says.

Rather than leaving, she began building.

On the second floor of a 19th-century wagon mill in East Point, Beckham and her Lucky Penny co-cofounder Malina Rodriguez are performing an experiment in sustainability.

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The 1,700-square-foot Work Room opened in July at Wagon Works as a home to eight young, experimental performance artists handpicked by Beckham, including Word, Anicka Austin, Corian Ellisor, Sarah Freeman, Hez Stalcup, MaryGrace Phillips, Erik Thurmond, and Okwae A. Miller. Beckham and the Lucky Penny's public art project Dance Truck will also use the space. Landlord Braden-Fellman has provided the arts organization a reduced-rate three-year lease. The artists receive regular access to the space and each pay a flat fee that adds up to cover the monthly rent. This spring the Lucky Penny successfully crowdfunded more than $7,500 to install a sprung dance floor.

"I wanted to create a space where I could do my own work but also create a community resource," Beckham says. "None of us have really had the chance to dig as deeply into our work as we've always wanted to. For the first time I think we're all getting to experience what it means to have a consistent creative practice."

Establishing the Work Room was motivation to stay and create in Atlanta for Beckham. She's hopeful that it can be an incentive for others as well in this city where people never seem to stop asking the question, "How do we get artists to stay?"

"Atlanta is always talked about like this emerging city, a city that has so much potential and I'm kind of tired of talking about potential," Beckham says. "It feels like if we're always going to talk about potential it's somehow unrealized, so how do we change that dialogue?"

Beckham says she feels more optimistic about herself, her work, and Atlanta with the Work Room as an anchor. "We've created a choreographic laboratory where people are free to experiment, to meander, to indulge. I think that's where real risk lives."

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