Snyder ’16 Reflects on Her Experience with Forklift

On Oct. 14, Forklift Danceworks will present WesWorks, a performance that celebrates the skilled movement and the often unheard stories of the people whose work sustains the daily lives of the Wesleyan campus.

In this Q&A we speak with Penny Snyder ’16, who works as the communications manager for Forklift. At Wesleyan, she majored in English and received High Honors for her general scholarship thesis on art museums, architecture, and public space. She is an incoming graduate student at the Lyndon B. Johnston School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. 

Penny Snyder '16

Penny Snyder ’16

Q: Hello Penny! How were you first introduced to Forklift Danceworks?

PS: During my senior year at Wesleyan, I was a student member of the College of the Environment’s Think Tank on Urban Environments and Urban Engagement. There, I met Allison Orr and Clara Pinsky ’16 who made her senior thesis with Allison and the other student member of that think tank. As I was working on my thesis on urban development and public space at art museums, it was exhilarating to be in dialogue with people researching and working on the same issues in academia and the real world.

After working for a year in communications at a planning and design firm in Boston, I moved to Austin to work at a museum and started volunteering for Forklift and attending performances. I figured if I hung out for long enough Forklift might have room for me. Then Allison finally called me in December of 2019 and asked if I’d help out more officially!

Q: What personally made you want to stay involved with Forklift after Wesleyan?

PS: I always felt connected to Forklift’s belief that everyone is creative and that art can exist in many forms and settings outside of traditional arts institutions. I grew up in Oklahoma, a place where there’s not a ton of traditional (or even non-traditional) arts institutions, but nonetheless, is a place I’m deeply tied to and holds inspiration and potential for me.

Most of my family are civil service employees—my mom is a school teacher who taught in public schools for many years, my dad works for Oklahoma County, my grandpa who recently passed away worked in line maintenance for the City of Oklahoma City for more than 35 years, and several other members of my family worked as teachers, vice principals, environmental quality staff, and social workers. So despite coming from a conservative area, I was raised to value public institutions and saw what they brought to communities and to individuals; local governments are big employers there, for example. But I also saw the work that went into sustaining those services, from my mom spending her nights grading to my grandpa pulling 16-hour shifts. The value statements behind Forklift’s work: that the people that work for the public in our communities matter, that even the notion of the public matters, and that everyone can be involved in art speaks to me on a fundamental level.

Q: What is unique or stands out about community-based performance and collaborative dance-making as opposed to traditional performances?

PS: I come from more of a visual arts background in terms of the bulk of my work experience. But with community-based work, you’re creating the artistic work together so a community’s desires or needs can hopefully be centered throughout the project. Typically, traditional arts institutions bring people and communities in towards the end of the process, just to see the final product. I feel lucky to have seen and worked around community-based models early in my career, because I see a lot of potential for using this way of thinking, listening, and deep engagement with community in other realms.

Q: How does the process promote civic engagement?

PS: Forklift is very good at getting a bunch of people together in a unique, non-hierarchical space which, when you think about it, is very democratic. Throughout the process, typical relationships or hierarchies are flipped or challenged. Instead of the choreographers telling our collaborators what to do, the choreographers learn the movement from the workers, physically doing that work with them. After the job shadowing period, the choreography is largely co-developed between the choreographers and the workers. And when it comes time for the performance, audience members often find a new way of seeing our collaborators, who might have been previously anonymous to them. Cultivating this kind of space really opens up possibilities of redefining our relationships with each other that can continue after the performance.

And practically, as our projects got more complex over the years, Forklift began convening advisory councils alongside the performance-making process. These are gatherings of workers, managers, community members, and others that are connected to a place or job that meet while the performance is being made. It’s often in these groups that some of the civic issues begin to emerge. Typically there’s not a didactic goal at the beginning of the process, other than to highlight workers through a dance. So out of the relationships built and strengthened, community members convened regularly, and then the performance itself which is seen by an audience of hundreds to thousands—engagement around issues, people, and places can unfold.

Q: What should audience members expect, learn, or gain from watching the “WesWorks” performance

PS: At a Forklift show, you’ll learn more about the physical movement of the work that’s all around you and supports your life in some way or another. My favorite part of this is hearing people’s personal stories, which are recorded and played with Austin-based composer Graham Reynolds’ scores. Forklift always uncovers amazing, singular people as the performances come together, many of whom already have a creative practice of their own. Some examples are Mauricio Segura, an urban forester who sings love songs he learned as a child on his father’s ranch in Mexico to the trees as he tends to them; Orange Jefferson, a legendary blues harmonica player who worked at Austin’s sanitation department for decades; and Allen Small, an amazing slam poet who worked for Austin Energy for 27 years.

I love Forklift shows because they show that there are interesting people everywhere; you don’t have to have studied at a liberal arts college to have an artistic practice or creative mindset. For me, that’s helped reframe my expectations of other people—everyone has a story to tell, if you create space for it.

Q: On a personal level, what do you find to be the biggest takeaway from your performances?

PS: There’s nothing in the world like going to a Forklift show. It feels almost utopian (at least to be in the audience, I’m sure behind the scenes is a bit more hectic). It’s really an emotional experience to me because there is a throughline of trust that flows between the choreographers, the performers, and the audience. I’ve always been one of those people that cries at movies and live performances, because I can feel that everyone around me is having feelings too. Forklift shows are cathartic in that same way, but they also have a feeling of promise or change that’s future-oriented too.

When I’m at a Forklift performance, I can see the city I want to live in embodied for a few hours under lights and with live music: where people valued for their work (and beyond their work) instead of being ignored or overlooked, where we trust and support people to tell their own stories and make their own choices, where creative thinking and perspectives are used to help us solve problems, where we can come together beyond class and race barriers while respecting lived experiences and difference, and where we can have an emotional experience of people and place in public together.