Small groups of people in heavy jackets shuffle between pink and green trees, staying six feet apart. They stop in front of a canvas the size and shape of a small house and watch the silhouette of a man amble around inside a projection of old wood siding and windows. A little girl bundled in a big pink coat flops onto the grass by her family as she watches the screen change to a view of a forest at night. A yellow moon hangs in the sky and dark trees pass in the foreground as a girl’s voice floats around the audience.
Welcome to The Gathering at the Poet’s Shack.
On the evening of Nov. 16, Bishop Woods and Upham Hall were lit with the spirit of creativity — and an impressive number of lights and projectors — for a celebration of art and collaboration across a multitude of departments at Miami.
The Gathering combined poetry, music and visual design in an outdoor interactive performance. Audience members could submit their own poetry at poetshack.com and see it projected on Upham’s southern wall with graphics and AI-generated music to go along. They could also use the site to interact with AR placards that dotted trees in the area.
A walk through a colorfully lit Bishop Woods took visitors — separated into small groups and 15-minute time slots — to the Shack itself, which displayed a show of bright graphics and eclectic poems: One was about the history of Miami and the land it stands on; one about seeing a tree on a road trip; one by Miami alumnus Rita Dove; one about love; one about youth; even one about brushing your teeth.
Project manager Nate Wilkens said the goal of The Gathering was to involve and immerse people in art.
The team called it “democratization of the arts.”
“The more people participate in art, the better and more vibrant world we have around us,” Wilkens said, gesturing to the luminous forest around him. “Vibrancy is the goal.”
Wilkens, a senior majoring in vocal performance and emerging technology in business + design (ETBD), estimates students devoted at least 100 hours each to producing The Gathering, and many put in closer to 200.
Students from many areas of study contributed elements. Musicians wrote music to accompany the poetry displays, theatre crew built the Shack, projector content was designed by students in ETBD and computer science majors worked with the high volume of technology.
The project was conceived at the beginning of the semester when associate theatre professor Gion DeFrancesco approached the ETBD department’s Artie Kuhn and Ben Nicholson about doing a show. The original idea was to have a theatre production using projections, but COVID-safety ended up taking precedence. Kuhn, an associate teaching professor, said one of their goals was to do something outside.
“Trying to be flexible with COVID instead of fighting against it, just lean into what we can do,” Kuhn said. “We had to pivot pretty quickly when it was obvious that you couldn't put people in a room.”
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Their new outdoor location ended up being very pertinent.
“It’s a happy accident that it’s 100 years since the original Poet’s Shack, which was right there,” said Kuhn, pointing to Bishop Woods.
He’s talking about the actual shack that was built for the poet Percy MacKaye, Miami’s poet-in-residence in 1920.
For all the hard work and attention to detail put in by the event’s organizers, The Gathering’s outdoor venue almost didn’t permit it to happen. Rain in the forecast for the original planned date of Nov. 14 prompted the team to push it back to Monday.
“With all this technology out here, we couldn’t risk that,” Wilkens said.
But the time was ripe Monday evening, and The Gathering was indeed a gathering, drawing sizable, socially-distant crowds to see all the students’ hard work come to fruition.
“I think what this represents, besides the celebration of creativity over the last 100 years, and what this place means, I think it also just represents what it can look like when students and faculty from disparate backgrounds collaborate,” Kuhn said. “Any one of those skill sets wouldn’t be enough to pull everything off, but when everybody kind of collaborates across disciplinary boundaries, that’s where the magic happens.”
“Magic” is a good word for the experience visitors got walking through the woods to visit the shack and seeing their poetry projected onto Upham Hall. It was the kind of magic that, in the middle of a pandemic, many people were glad to see is still here.