New England Scene: Albee, Nichols, Sarah Jones, Michael Chabon

MacDowell Colony Medal Day
Sarah Jones, playwright and performer, welcomes guests to her cabin. Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg

One day a year, the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire -- usually a quiet place for artists to work -- becomes a cultural tourist trap.

Cars snake along the approach road. Long lines form for picnic baskets. Crowds gather around the best-known artists.

On Sunday, they included novelist Michael Chabon, chairman of the colony; playwright Edward Albee; Mike Nichols, who directed the film version of Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”; and Sarah Jones, who starred in her own show on Broadway, the Tony-winning “Bridge & Tunnel.”

The occasion is Medal Day, as the festivities include the presentation of the Edward MacDowell Medal, named for the composer whose wife, Marian, founded the colony on their property in 1907, shortly before he died. There are 28 artists currently in residence on the 450-acre campus for periods as long as eight weeks.

This year the medal went to Albee, who recalled his first visit to the colony 60 years ago.

“I spied a shortish, baldish man lurking in some pine trees,” he said, “and I asked him to read my poems.”

The man was playwright Thornton Wilder, and as Albee recalled, he went over the poems and then asked him if he had ever thought about writing plays.

“I took his advice,” Albee said.

After the ceremony, 1,500 visitors picnicked on the grounds and waited for the most fun part of the day: three hours to visit artists in their cabins.

The colony provided maps to help folks navigate the unmarked dirt roads that lead to rustic one-room structures tucked away in the woods.

‘Gingerbread Home’

Playwright Stephen Karam described his cabin as “a gingerbread home fit for a hobbit,” and noted that James Baldwin once occupied it. The view was better than that of his New York basement apartment, he said.

Karam is using his residency to rewrite two projects coming to New York this fall. The Roundabout Theatre Company is presenting his play “Sons of the Prophet,” and Gotham Chamber Opera will produce “Dark Sisters,” an opera about Mormons with a libretto by Karam and music by Nico Muhly.

Karam had attached to one wall an array of pink index cards on which he’d written things like “Wife No. 19” and “clothes trapped in a washing machine.”

“This is my dream wall,” he said, “Even I don’t understand what will come of it.”

‘Tempest Fantasy’

Composer Paul Moravec offered visitors a CD of his Pulitzer Prize-winning composition “Tempest Fantasy,” which he started at MacDowell. He is now working on a piece for wind ensemble.

Performance artist and Joni Mitchell impersonator John Kelly showed off the walking sticks he has collected and painted while at MacDowell. He said he will use some of them in his October performance at New York Live Arts of “Find My Way Home,” a retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice set in the Great Depression.

The ebullient Jones said she does everything in her cabin, including yoga, dance and working on a commission for Lincoln Center Theater.

For Medal Day, she covered the walls of her studio with press clippings about her work.

“It’s not normally up there,” Jones said. “I’m not a narcissist or anything.”

Chabon applied for a residency to escape his brood of four kids, he said. “In your cabin, in February, you cannot hear your children crying to watch another episode of Sponge Bob.”

(Amanda Gordon is a writer and photographer for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are her own.)

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