[Femke Rousenbaum] fell off her bicycle three weeks before the festival. She broke her jaw. She couldn’t talk so suddenly I found myself in charge. I just started getting more and more involved. I used to do carpentry full-time but now this is my full-time gig and if someone has something that’s broken then I can try to fit it into my schedule.
The Wake Up The Earth Parade.
K: How did you start making puppets and walking on stilts?
M: I ran into a wonderful set of mentors along the way who were kind enough to give me responsibilities. The initial connection was with Food Not Bombs. They would go around to different events to raise money to supplement the meals. The food all comes from surplus from the capitalist food production system.
The way I became involved with Food Not Bombs was because the job that I had gotten in Boston was out of Temple Place and Food Not Bombs was right there on Park Street in the Boston Common. I would pass by and see the sign and would go over and make a donation. They would say ‘Why don’t you come have some food?’ and I’d say‘I’m good. I already ate. Thank you.’ The next week they were there again and I gave them some more money and, again, they said ‘Why don’t you have some food?’ and I said ‘I already ate. I’m on my way to work. Thank you.’ This time they responded ‘See that big church over there? We cook over there. Why don’t you come by and help sometime?’
The meal always consists of some fresh vegetables, some sort of legume for the protein, herbal tea and brown rice. They needed to raise money for the ingredients, cups, spoons and plates. They’d go to different events like WUTE and sell hummus sandwiches for donations. They’d raise money, have fun and talk to people about Food Not Bombs. We’d go to the Bread and Puppet event up in Glover, Vermont. It was one big weekend of shows at the end of the summer that would attract thousands and thousands of people. We were up there and I went to see a puppet show on a giant football field. There were thousands of people cheering. When you’re working on the streets with homeless people and you’re standing there and watching all the regular people go by you think ‘Am I crazy?’ But when you’re in a setting where all these people seem to get it you realize ‘I’m not crazy and this is an awesome way to communicate ideas. This is way better than handing out a flyer.’
When we got back to town my friend Eric, who was the main facilitator of Food Not Bombs at the time, told me there was a place in town called the Puppeteer’s Cooperative where you could borrow giant puppets. I met Sara Peattie, the facilitator, and I looked around and I said ‘You’re really going to let me borrow these puppets?’ and she said ‘Yes.’ I would write-up little puppet shows that I would recruit people on the spot to create the animation. I would make signs for the puppets that fit the theme of the show.
Eventually, Sara asked if I wanted to teach a puppet making workshop and I said ‘Sara, I haven’t made a puppet.’ She’s said ‘Ah, it’s easy.’ She set me up with the materials and a place to go and rough instructions. That was a rare opportunity because, technically, after that moment, I was a professional because I got paid to do an art workshop for a bunch of kids. The class was at the Open Air Circus in Somerville.
That summer my son came along to check it out. Right after my workshops there was a stilt walking class. My son was interested in doing that so I stuck around and helped with the class. I learned how to teach stilt walking that way. Eventually, after teaching the kids for about 4 years, they were asked ‘How come we never see you walking on stilts?’ and I told them that I didn’t know how to and I had never tried it. They were like ‘WHAAAAT?!’ So, after they left that day, I quietly put on a pair of stilts and started walking around. I’m pretty good at it now.
K: What’s your role with Spontaneous Celebrations nowadays?
The Lantern Parade.
M: For the last seven years both WUTE and the Lantern Parade have been my responsibility. I certainly don’t do it by myself. At WUTE there are many different people who come back to reprise their roles every year. We have small stipends for some of the coordinators but most people volunteer. As I got more involved with Spontaneous they realized that I could build stuff. I fixed the front porch. I built the bathrooms. That’s the hybrid nature of my involvement. I do stuff like that and while helping with the festivals and the after school programs.
K: How long has Spontaneous Celebrations existed?
M: Well, as a concept, the first WUTE was 38 years ago. As an official entity 1991 is when there was first something in the name of Spontaneous Celebrations. It was originally a phone line in the basement of the old Firehouse Arts Center. When the building was bought everyone had to go and that’s when Femke and her family bought this place and leased it to Spontaneous for like a buck. The organization eventually raised enough money to buy the building from them for what they paid for it.
The building is like a 170 years old. It was originally built as a German social club. There were a lot of breweries and a lot of food processing plants around here. There were a lot of German immigrants and they missed their homeland so they created a little space for themselves. They moved out in the ‘60s I believe. In the 70’s it was briefly a women’s club. In the ’90s Femke found it and started turning it into what it is today. In the seven years that I’ve been involved there’s been about half a million dollars in improvements to the building. There is an overarching master plan that they created 14 years ago and that was the vision for this building if there were unlimited resources. They came up the idea of having an elevator to make the whole building accessible, expanding the kitchen, adding more dance studio and more office space. We’ve been renovating the building piece by piece. We redid the front stairs, the back stairs, the roof and the parking lot. We got a grant to add a wheelchair ramp so at least the first floor of the building is wheelchair accessible. We got funds to insulate the building and put in a new HVAC system. It allows us to do more programming in the summertime because it used to be unbearable in here.
K: What are some of the activities that Spontaneous does throughout the year?
Drumming at Spontaneous Celebrations.
M: When the market went down in 2008 we lost a lot of our foundation funding for our middle school program. During that time we tried to strategize about how we could get other organizations to get involved in utilizing the building and space. Seven years ago Girls Rock Camp started here and the Ladies Rock Camp still goes on here. Kids Together in the Arts just wrapped up a five-week summer camp. Ballet Roxbury joined our crew two years ago and they do after school ballet. La Piñata, a cultural family network, is here and they’ve been here since the beginning. The National African Community Organization has their office space here.The Beantown Society has been here for about nine years now. We have toddler drumming, bucket drumming and percussion jams. We have stilt classes. Meta Movements is here and they’re doing Latin dance classes. We’ve got a capoeira class here. We’re running out of space on the calendar. One opening that we’re trying to figure out how to fill is the weekdays before 3pm. Now that we’re climate controlled better maybe we could have art for seniors or daycare. We get a lot of requests for the space. There’s private rentals here on the weekends. There’s a lot of little kid birthday parties. In a lot of ways we are an extended living room for the neighborhood to come by and use.
K: What would you like to see happen to Jamaica Plain in the future?
M: I understand cities grow and you need housing around transportation hubs as populations grow. That’s important. I’m not necessarily opposed to building big buildings near the public transportation systems. How do you get the people who have been living here into those situations without just replacing them? That’s the hardest part. Gentrification seems to be a word that describes something that’s happening and it’s not just like a physical noun.
I build stuff. I know how much things cost. The woman that bought this place [Spontaneous] way back when couldn’t afford this now. Heck, I couldn’t afford my house now. Back in 1995, we got it for something like $130,000.This is the first year that I’ve lived here longer than I lived in the North Shore. It’s been 26 years in Boston. I can almost say I’m from here now. I like that feel of the joint. I just wish so many people weren’t getting pushed out. Knock on wood that my situation allows me to stay here.
To learn more about Spontaneous Celebrations please visit: