“Carrying the Torch: Songs and Tales of Remarkable Women” at SUNY New Paltz

In honor of the Centennial Anniversary of the Suffrage Law passed in 1917, SageArts is staging a theater and music production entitled “Carrying the Torch: Songs and Tales of Remarkable Women.” The event will feature musical and theatrical performances celebrating eight extraordinary women from the Hudson Valley — Karen Peters, Barbara Sarah, Connie Hogarth, Manna Jo Greene, Joanne Steele, Ruth Faircloth, Janet Mills, and Darlene Pfeiffer. Pictured left to right are: Darlene Pfeiffer, Ruth Faircloth, Barbara Sarah, Joanne Steele and Janet Mills. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

Women in New York State achieved the right to vote in state elections on November 6, 1917. To commemorate the centennial anniversary of that milestone, SageArts will present “Carrying the Torch: Songs and Tales of Remarkable Women,” an intergenerational performance of songs and monologues celebrating eight influential women in our region who have devoted their lives to empowering women and advocating for women’s rights. The program will be staged at SUNY New Paltz’s Studley Theatre this Saturday, October 21 at 6:30 p.m. as a community celebration of the women’s leadership and spirit. Tickets cost $20 for adults, $15 for seniors and $5 for high school and college students.

The evening’s honorees were selected after nominations were solicited from the community. “We were looking for women who, in some way, were ‘fighting the fight,’” says Colette Ruoff, founder of SageArts. “We wanted to have a cross-section of women to represent diversity, and each of them represents another 100 women. These are not the only eight women who have been carrying the torch, but they’re an example of the many moving the cause forward for women’s rights and feminist values.”


Among the prominent women included are judicial trailblazer Karen Peters, the first woman to be appointed presiding justice of the Appellate Division of the Third Department of New York State Supreme Court, and civil rights activist Manna Jo Greene, who currently serves as an Ulster County legislator representing District 19. Connie Hogarth is a well-known activist for peace, justice and environmental causes. and Joanne Steele a longtime women’s rights activist and founder of The Majority Report.

Other honorees are less visible in the public sphere but nonetheless impactful. Barbara Sarah is founder of the Oncology Support Group for breast and ovarian cancer patients at Kingston’s Benedictine Hospital. Minister Ruth Faircloth has empowered migrant farmworkers and rural communities for decades, helping found the youth organization UNITY as well as The Daughters of Sarah, an ecumenical women’s leadership organization. Darlene Pfeiffer is an entrepreneur who owns multiple food franchise businesses and founded the Entrepreneurial Studies program at SUNY Ulster.

And then there’s Janet Mills, who Ruoff describes as “a real unsung hero,” adding that Mills was nominated as a role model in her community who steps up consistently to help those in need, “someone who doesn’t take a lot of credit for anything herself, but is a rock; someone that people depend on.”

SageArts was founded as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2014. Their focus is on promoting social inclusion and respect for the elders in our communities, who are “too often devalued and marginalized in our society.” Ruoff’s use of the word “elder” is deliberate, signifying the type of status accorded to elders in Native American culture, in which the accumulated wisdom of the older members of the tribe is valued and their experience is given weight and dignity within their community.

SageArts’ approach to bringing elders to the forefront has been to pair them with songwriters trained to collaborate on an original song that defines and distills the elder’s life experiences, created in a style that resonates with the type of music the elder enjoys. The resulting performance of the songs in concert gives the elders a voice, and allows the audience to share in the intergenerational experience, perhaps changing a few perceptions about aging in the process.

“I do think we suffer from not listening to those voices in our communities who are elders, who have reached the age of life where they are really more whole in themselves,” says Ruoff. “Many elders are interested in giving back and nurturing others. I think it’s something to look forward to, as we age, and we move from being less productive in the ways we’re used to and we shift our focus and purpose.”

The songwriters working with SageArts are trained to do an in-depth life’s review with an elder, after which they collaboratively write the song together. “It’s not a portrait,” explains Ruoff. “This is not a songwriter doing an interview and coming up with a song out of their own imagination. This is really something where we ask the elder to roll up their sleeves and participate in the creative process.”

And becoming involved is a serious time commitment for the participants, she says. “Our process is not superficial. The women in ‘Carrying the Torch’ spent a minimum of 12 hours with a songwriter, and most a lot more than that.”

SageArts concert director Julie Last will direct six musical pieces on Saturday performed by songwriters Elizabeth Clark, Kelleigh McKenzie, Bonnie Meadow, Vickie Russell, Sarah Perrotta and Elly Wininger. In a new twist to their usual methods, two of the participants — Barbara Sarah and Ruth Faircloth — have collaborated to write monologues instead of songs, working with theater artist Joanna Rotté. The two will present their own stories on stage. “I think that will be powerful,” Ruoff says. “There’s something about an elder bringing their own energy to their first-person story like that.”

Attendees will also view the unveiling of “Female Wisdom: An Intergenerational Art Exploration,” a collaborative project between four New Paltz High School students and four elders living at Woodland Pond. After participating in a series of workshops in which they engaged in dialogue — the younger women expressing their concerns about the journey to womanhood and the elders recounting their experiences — the four teens and four elders expressed what came out of those talks in visual form, creating two works of art, facilitated by teaching artist Susan Togut. One large work will form the backdrop on stage for “Carrying the Torch” and the other will be viewed upon entrance to the theater. One of the students involved, Carolyn Reeves, will speak to the audience during the evening about the group’s experience. The project was funded by the Maya Gold Foundation and Stewart’s Shops.

The concert is co-sponsored by the SUNY New Paltz music department and supported by funding from Arts Mid-Hudson and the Klock Foundation. “We’re hoping to attract a lot of students from the college,” says Ruoff, “because while it is about honoring these extraordinary women, it’s also about inspiring younger women in the community about what they can achieve. They’ll see that they should not sell themselves short.”

More information is available at http://www.sagearts.org/.