First Night

Stay up Late

Caught in flight: As part of First Night, Ann Woodhead will greet the new year with an exposition of her bold modern dance style.

New Year’s Eve will never be the same after First Night

By Gretchen Giles

When auld lang syne is celebrated across the nation, our healthy American tradition is to get roaring drunk and hope to make it home with ourselves and fellow citizens intact, with perhaps just a dribble of vomit on our party clothes.

But imagine the ordinary turned upside down. Strolling through a local city’s downtown district on New Year’s Eve, the dirty and drunk and mundane are erased, and in their stead are artists working, performing, and interacting with the public. In an ordinarily darkened doorway a harpist is stroking her strings; across the way a belly dancer undulates to the ching-ching of her jewelry; in the lighted storefront of a bookstore, the pierced performers in a punk band crunch down over their instruments. The symphony tunes up in the city hall; and down the way, oblivious to their heavy candlelit loads, paper swans glide across the courthouse pool.

You don’t have to imagine it. You can experience it for the first time on First Night.

Conceived in 1976 by a group of artists in Boston as an alternative to the alcohol-drenched infinitive “to party,” First Night is a non-profit celebration of the arts and the community. It’s just a happy sideline that the event is strictly mandated to be alcohol- and drug-free.

But that’s how First Night director Ellen Draper became involved. As the organizer of Friday Night Live, an alcohol and drug prevention program for troubled teens, Draper became interested in the idea of an arts festival that celebrated clear thinking and sober fun. “I fielded a lot of calls from the general public asking what there was to do during the holidays–and particularly on New Year’s Eve–where the focus wasn’t on drinking,” Draper says, standing in her organized offices. “And there just wasn’t anything.”

Reading about First Night in one of her professional journals, Draper sent away for literature on the event, and has found herself immersed in the project for the last two years. Santa Rosa’s First Night will become the only such event in California north of Monterey. Organizers expect an attendance of upwards of 10,000–rain or shine.

Because the rules of the event stipulate that organizers hire primarily local artists and–of all things–pay them, Draper turned to Barbara Harris of the Cultural Arts Council of Sonoma County for help in spreading the word to the art community. The response has been overwhelming. Over 120 artists and performers will be stationed in the First Night “footprint,” an area between Third and Fifth streets bounded by E Street to the east and the railroad tracks of Railroad Square to the west.

Jack London expert and living history impersonator Mike Wilson will appear in costume to tell stories and answer questions about Sonoma’s most famous writer. Robots will whiz and whirl underfoot. Giant puppets will loom over stilt-walkers and an I Ching diviner, sidestep an accordionist and squeak to a stop near the twangs of a Chinese dance group or Japanese drummers while bagpipers wheeze a few doors down, Piner High students adorn walls with chalk murals, and puppets cackle and whack each other to the tinkle of children’s laughter.

The Sonoma County Repertory Theatre will be open with live theater all night–including a production of an original musical based on the board game Clue–and local children’s theater wizard Raymond Comstock-Skipp will lead his little ones in a performance of an original piece. The Oriki Theater will present live performance based on the African experience while members of the Junior Anti-Sex League break their mother’s hearts down the block.

All of this and food, too.

One of the most unusual features of the event is what Harris calls “resolution sculptures.” Designed in mixed media by five artists, this interactive art encourages people to bravely draw up their plans for the future and then to paste them up for all to see. It’s tantamount to announcing plans to quit smoking; the declaration helps force the result.

“Most of the sculptures will be just for that night, to mark the passage of time,” Harris says enthusiastically. “That’s part of the joy of the event, in that there are some ways in which people can literally participate in the old year being finished and the new year being welcomed.”

Artist Natalie Timm will be creating a resolution sculpture shaped like a star to which people can adhere their hopes for the new year, and then just walk away, effecting a kind of unburdening. Recycling is the focus. “I will encourage people to talk about their wish for the environment,” Timm, an administrator at Garbage Reincarnation, says emphatically.

Roy Iwaki is constructing a wire “cage” that “allows me to hang a mask of the past and a mask of the new year”–a rat and a boar, based on the Chinese calendar–within it. Iwaki will instruct visitors to “make resolutions for the coming year and to signify the concerns of the past.” Then he and his volunteers will “fur” the cage in papers. “My original plan was to burn the hopes and cares at midnight,” he says sadly. The fire marshal has demurred.

Mask maker Lorena Laforest will have her hands full, as masks and a carnaval atmosphere are integral to the First Night theme. Event organizers hope that most revelers will create and don their own masks. Laforest hopes that people will “energize [their masks] with images that they’d like to see for the next year” and also write sentiments across the paper visage. “It’s about self-discovery,” she declares.

Diversity is the buzzword for First Night, with music for all ages–ranging from the thrash-and-burn punk sensibilities of Mickey and the Big Mouths to the throaty honky-tonk of singer Sarah Baker to the tamer sounds of the Santa Rosa Symphony–with plenty of world beat, jazz, and blues in between.

By far the most visible of the performers will be the Cirqué du Silly, the brainchild of artist Green Greenwald and ad man Glenn Martinez. “We have a reputation as hambones and wise asses,” Martinez says proudly. Originally banding together to blow out the Apple Blossom parade each year, this energetic team of pranksters will be donning foam costumes and tap-dancing on bubble wrap, jiggling inside seven-foot-high spider costumes, juggling, and “training” fake animals. “It’s like a circus gone mad,” Martinez declares.

Featured prominently in the procession (“We’ll be our own parade,” Martinez boasts), these ham bones created the Cirqué du Silly just for First Night. “In a way, I wonder how we roped ourselves into this,” says Martinez, who has been working his befoamed behind off on this project. “But all around us, we saw the arts being squished by the Newts of the world, and it’s wonderful to see them flourish.”

Roy Iwaki agrees. “It’s the highlight of the winter.”

First Night runs from 4 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 31, until midnight with a surprise. The event kicks off with special events for children, including mask making, storytelling, clowns, juggling, and theater. A kids’ procession begins the adult section of the evening at 6 p.m. A First Night button admits you to all of the events, both inside and out. You can wander the area without a button, and some performances and happenings are free. Buttons are $5 advance, $10 on the eve. Free parking is available at the Santa Rosa Plaza garage, and the Plaza will be open to foot traffic as a breezeway from each side of the event. For details, call 524-7212.

From the Dec. 21-27, 1995 issue of the Sonoma Independent

This page was designed and created by the Boulevards team. &copy 1995 Metro Publishing and Virtual Valley, Inc.

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