- Before she was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Elizabeth Strout spent decades finessing her unique narratives, often using her own upbringing as a touchstone.
- The celebrated violinist Pamela Frank was at the height of her career when she suffered a life-altering injury. After nearly a decade, she’s playing again, with newfound purpose.
- Rennie Harris and street dance grew up together. Today, he’s celebrated as the pioneer of hip-hop dance theater, but it took a while before he ever got paid.
Elizabeth Strout is a bestselling author known for her realistic, character-driven novels. Her accolades include the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Olive Kitteridge.
Born in 1956 in Portland, ME, she earned a degree in English from Bates College and a law degree from Syracuse University. She quit practicing law after six months and focused on writing, raising her daughter, and teaching English at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.
Although she published several short stories in literary journals, she didn’t release her first novel until age 42. This acclaimed debut, 1998’s Amy and Isabelle, was made into a 2001 TV movie by Oprah Winfrey’s production company. Stout’s Pulitzer-winning third book, Olive Kitteridge, a series of interconnected stories set in coastal Maine, was turned into an Emmy-winning miniseries with Frances McDormand. She published a sequel, Olive, Again—her seventh novel—in 2017. Her 2016 novel My Name Is Lucy Barton was longlisted for a Man Booker Prize and adapted into a one-woman play starring Laura Linney.
Pamela Frank is a celebrated violinist and professor.
Her parents were both concert pianists. Born in New York in 1967, Frank studied violin with noted violinist Shirley Givens from age 5 and graduated from Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music in 1989, four years after her first performance at Carnegie Hall. She has featured as a soloist with leading orchestras including the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony, and the Berlin Philharmonic, and played chamber music at international festivals across the world. She was recognized in 1999 with the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize, but soon after her playing career was sidelined with a series of injuries.
She continued to teach as a professor of violin at the Curtis Institute, whose faculty she joined in 1996, and was able to return to performance after changing her technique. After her recovery she founded Fit as a Fiddle with her husband, physical therapist Howard Nelson, to help musicians prevent and treat injuries.
Rennie Harris is a pioneering dancer, choreographer, and dance instructor. He is best known as the founder of Rennie Harris Puremovement, the first hip-hop dance touring company.
Born Lorenzo Harris in 1964, he grew up in Philadelphia and formed his first dance group at age 12. His outfits The Step Masters and The Scanner Boys performed with Salt-N-Pepa, Run-DMC, Madonna, Grandmaster Flash, and other pop artists of the 1980s. He worked on TV dance shows Dance Party USA and One House Street. In 1992, he formed Rennie Harris Puremovement to fulfill a commission from Movement Theater International. Since then, the ensemble has toured throughout the world, as has its youth offshoot RHAW.
Harris’s work has also been commissioned by Pennsylvania Ballet, Colorado Ballet, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and numerous other companies. He is the founder of Illadelph Legends Festival, the world’s longest-running hip hop dance festival.
Welcome to Articulate, the show that explores the useful truths that art explains so well. I’m Jim Cotter and on this episode, Wayfinders. Before she was a Pulitzer Prize winning author, Elizabeth Strout spent decades finessing her own unique narratives, often using her own upbringing as a touchstone.
Elizabeth Strout: My parents came from Puritan stock. That’s an entirely different culture. Which of course I didn’t know because I was brought up in it. They’re not particularly demonstrative.
The celebrated violinist, Pamela Frank was at the height of her career when she suffered a life altering injury. After nearly a decade, she’s playing again but now with new found purpose.
Pamela Frank: I was in complete agony and I just thought, you know, just help me. You know, and I will do what anybody says now.
Rennie Harris and hip hop dance grew up together. Today the choreographer is celebrated for the unique way he’s pushed the form forward.
Rennie Harris: It’s a difference than just making a salad or soup. You know that that’s a pepper and what the pepper’s gonna do. You know what the tomato’s gonna do. With bodies, with spirits, you know, you don’t know what you’re gonna get.
That’s all coming up on Articulate.
Today, Elizabeth Strout is a literary powerhouse. The author of seven novels, six of them bestsellers, she won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2009 for her bestselling collection of linked short stories, Olive Kitteridge. In 2014, it was turned into an Emmy Award-winning HBO miniseries. And, in 2019, the book’s hugely popular sequel, Olive, Again, reunited readers with beloved characters. So it’s a good thing that Strout didn’t give up when she failed to get published by age 30 or even 40. Her debut novel, Amy and Isabelle, came out in 1998 when she was 42. Many were surprised by her success, but not her daughter, Serena.
Elizabeth Strout: She had grown up, you know, eating her breakfast off the tops of manuscripts. She just always believed I was a writer. She’d come home from school when she was really little and she’d say, “Did you get an agent yet, Mommy?” And I’d say, “No,” and she’d say, “Oh, you will,” and she just believed in me. It was very interesting and so sweet.
Despite her relationship with her own daughter, Strout’s stories often revolve around strained parent-child relationships. Her characters face and work through discord and estrangement. They get knocked sideways by events that test or reveal their love. In 2016’s, My Name Is Lucy Barton, for example, filial ties bind but also cut.
Elizabeth Strout was raised in rural Maine by parents she has described as skeptical of pleasure, true to their Puritan roots. But encouraged by her mother, the young Strout filled notebooks with sharp-eyed observations about daily life in small-town New England. She was interested not only in outward appearances but in the hidden, inner lives of the people she encountered.
Strout: It is just about one of my earliest memories of just watching. Just watching people. We didn’t have a television, we lived in very isolated areas, both in New Hampshire and in Maine. So my sense of observing people goes back so far. And it’s not just observing them, it’s like I will look at somebody and think, oh what does it physically feel like to be in that pair of jeans? You know? So I’ve done that for so many years that it’s what my imagination does.
But putting her imagination to work for money seemed at first unimaginable. After getting an English degree from Bates College in Maine, Strout spent a few years bouncing around from waitress jobs, to temp work. She even played piano in a bar. Then she decided she wanted to be a legal aid attorney. But almost as soon as she tried it, she learned that practicing law was not for her. So she got married, had her daughter and for the next 16 years juggled fiction and family life. Teaching at a community college while continuing to quietly but doggedly write her own stories. Strout and her husband would eventually part, but still, she says their union fundamentally changed her understanding of relationships.
Strout: My parents came from Puritan stock. That’s an entirely different culture. Which of course I didn’t know because I was brought up in it. They’re not particularly demonstrative, there’s not a lot of—
AJC: Hugging and.
Strout: Hugging or kissing or anything like that. And then my first husband was Jewish. And it was amazing. It was like a whole barn door had fallen off and I realized, wow! You know there’s this whole world out there. Because they would talk about anything. And they would hug and kiss and my father-in-law would kiss my husband when he first saw him. You know, it was just an entirely different culture and it was so amazing to me. And that’s much more how my daughter has been raised.
AJC: Was it frightening to you or was it exciting to you, or both?
Strout: Both. At the beginning, it was a little frightening. Because I’d just never seen anything like it in my life. And as time went on, I realized this is a wonderful thing that’s happened to me. To be allowed to see this.
Today, Elizabeth Strout lives with her husband, James Tierney in New York City and in Maine. The quiet seclusion of her home state has always been her sanctuary. She goes there to drop in on her old friends, both real and imagined.
AJC: Because these characters feel so real to me…
AJC: I’m actually very interested in how real they feel to you?
Strout: Oh they’re so real to me.
AJC: Like relatives?
Strout: Probably closer.
AJC: Wow. So, therefore, do you miss them when they’re written?
AJC: Do their stories go on after you’ve written them?
Strout: Sometimes they do. And sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they’re gone.
AJC: Is that just because they—
Strout: Because I love them, I just—I’m like oh yeah, let’s you know, let’s see what they’re up to.
Strout: And when they came out, then they still had been sitting there.
AJC: Yeah, waiting. Right, right. It’s interesting.
Strout: Yeah, it is. It’s very interesting. But, you know, I don’t know ahead of, I mean, I don’t know until I do it that they’re gonna show up again. And then I realize, oh yeah. Absolutely, let’s go.
Olive Kitteridge for one, insisted on an encore. Strout’s seventh novel, Olive, Again, received rave reviews and spent weeks in the upper regions of the bestseller charts. Now 64, Elizabeth Strout is today still faithful to her Puritan roots. Keeping her head down while marching steadily on into her next chapter.
At the turn of the last century, Pamela Frank was one of the brightest stars in the classical firmament. Earning rave reviews performing with the world’s greatest orchestras and amassing a legion of loyal fans. At age 32 she became the recipient of one of classical music’s highest honors. But then, in 2001, the music stopped. After hurting her hand in a household accident, a botched acupuncture treatment made things worse.
Pamela Frank: And so, I basically looked like a stroke victim. My ulnar nerve had been injured. I couldn’t use this side for six months. I couldn’t drive, I couldn’t write, I couldn’t do it, let alone play the violin. Forget it, I couldn’t hold anything.
Sidelined from performing, Frank discovered how she could still be a musician without picking up an instrument. This revelation changed both how she thought about and taught music.
Frank: The thing that I hope to help my students the most with is how to practice less and better. People spend five, six, eight, 10 hours a day in a practice room learning notes but they’re not thinking. I’m trying to get them to think and therefore to practice what matters. Which is, ‘What are they saying?’ not, ‘How are they playing?’
But Frank missed performing. So much so that she’d often play through the pain. Until in 2012 she suffered another debilitating injury. This time to her neck.
Frank: I was in complete agony and I just thought, you know, just help me. And I will do what anybody says now.
It was then that she heard about Howard Nelson, a physical therapist known for his pragmatic approach. Helping patients change their pattern of movement and posture to promote healthy, sustainable alignment.
Frank: It was an empowering thought. It was an empowering idea, that you could actually influence how your body works and feels. And if you can harm yourself, you can also help yourself.
But at the time of their first appointment, Frank was feeling anything but empowered. Howard Nelson still remembers the day they met eight years ago.
Howard Nelson: She walks in the room and she’s got a cervical collar on and she’s cold and clammy. And is very freaked out about doing anything because the doctor had said she probably would need a surgical fusion of your neck.
But it never came to that. Nelson put her firmly on the road to recovery by altering the way she held her violin and moved her body as she played. It was a steep re-learning curve but she says she was able and willing to climb it because making music is all she’s ever known. It’s in her DNA. Her parents, Lilian Kallir and Claude Frank were both celebrated concert pianists.
Frank: Oh, I think I was spoiled, genetically. Nature and nurture, actually, because they would always just be talking about what the music means. And it wasn’t in any kind of academic, cerebral way. It was just, they were always searching for more and more content. You know, when they would just talk about music between themselves, and my father, of course, he was so reverent of the composers. He thought this was like God. I know that he felt that he was the vehicle. He was the middle man between the composer and the listener. And so he was totally selfless in that way. And I think he accomplished that goal.
Throughout her early life, Frank performed often with her dad, and later they would record together. When she got hurt, she found a silver lining in the hiatus because it gave her more time to spend with him and with her mother in their final years. But Frank too needed someone to lean on and she soon came to rely on Howard Nelson. Not only for physical therapy but more and more for friendship. Nelson, who as a teenager was a nationally ranked tennis player, spent most of his life working with athletes and had no experience with classical musicians. So Frank took him to concerts where he could analyze performers’ movements and refine his approach to her treatment. They’d debrief over dinners. For five months it was all very business-like until it became something more.
Frank: He went to visit his mother in Florida and he said something very uncharacteristic of him. He said, “I think I’m gonna miss you.” And I thought about it for a second, “Yeah, I think I’m gonna miss you too.”
While he was in Florida, serendipity brought Nelson’s feelings to the fore.
Nelson: She texted me a picture of the moon while I was looking at the moon and we both realized that we were looking at the same thing from New York and Florida. And that was sort of a big moment of connection. But when I got back to New York I said let’s meet for, let’s go out to dinner. And we went out to Pisticci in upper Manhattan and we had some food or a drink and I went over to the bench next to her and I just said, “I love you,” and I gave her a kiss at that moment on the bench at this restaurant.
Frank: The thing about Howard is that it just seemed like he was in my life all along somehow and it just took a long time to find him. There was a rightness about him, a familiarity with him almost immediately. I mean it was just a different level of comfort and trust that I had with him. And I mean, of course, I joke that you know, anybody that gets you back to playing you better marry because that’s the, you know. But that ends up sounding like it’s a gift to him. You know, to marry him, it’s not that. I mean, he gave me my life back and we happen to love each other.
Five years into their marriage, Pam and Howard are now also partners in a venture that helps others understand how it’s possible to make great music without damaging the body.
Nelson: I think working together is exponentially fantastic for me because when we look at a musician, I mean yes, the analysis is a big thing that we have in common. But you see things in people that nobody does.
AJC: How do you think you complement each other? Conversely, what are the things you think that she puts up with from you?
Frank: I think we’re perfect for each other in the sense that I’m really fast about everything. Fast thinking, fast speaking, fast-acting, I wanna get things done as quickly as possible and not necessarily to the best that they can be but just things need to be done. But I think fast and speak fast and expect speed from everybody. And you are incredibly methodical and you take your time and you think things through. You don’t do anything irrationally. And you always say speed kills.
Nelson: That’s a great answer, because, no because I need to speed up.
Frank: No you don’t.
Nelson: I think I do.
Frank: He’s just asking for compliments.
Nelson: And you need to slow down.
Frank: Yes and that is true.
AJC: Not big problems then?
Frank: No, not big problems. Are they?
Some people learn to dance. Others, like Rennie Harris, pioneer of hip hop dance, are born to it.
Harris grew up in North Philadelphia in the 1970s. And from the very beginning, he was constantly in motion.
Rennie Harris: My mom used to say, “Turn off that radio!” It’d be like 6:30 in the morning, I’d turn on the radio, start dancing, dance into the bathroom, come back, you know. Or I’m at the table, I’m dancing. My mom would like, smack me ’cause I’m trying to animate water with a glass of water without trying to spill it. You know, trying to. And so, like, it’s really a part of your day to day, like, for those who are like, who love, who are just like for some reason we just have to move.
AJC: You are a dancer, you don’t just dance.
Harris: Right, exactly.
Harris, the oldest of seven, was raised in a Catholic home and studied briefly for the priesthood. But ultimately, religion didn’t call to him as powerfully as movement. For him, dance binds body and spirit. It has a unique power to heal. At age 12, Harris formed his first dance group with his brother and a friend to compete in a church talent show. By age 15, he had founded The Step Masters and a popping crew called The Scatter Boys who would go on to perform with the whos-who of 1980s hip hop acts, including Salt ‘N Pepa, Run-D.M.C., and Grandmaster Flash. When he was passed over for the movie Krush Groove, the last in a string of popular films about street dancing, a discouraged Harris headed back home. In 1991, after a year of scraping by, a Philadelphia based dance company offered him $1500 to create a work that would premiere the following year. He still remembers getting that call from Michael Pedretti from Movement Theater International.
Harris: It was the first time someone offered me money ahead of time, a year before the gig. And I told him, I said, “Hey man, “I might not be here.” I said you know. He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Well, they just had a shootout right outside of my room at my house. I could be, not here.” I said, “Well, I’ll take your money, and I don’t know if I’ll show up but if I show up, we’ll do it.” And so he gave me half the money, and I was like, I showed up and the company was born from that moment.
Today, Harris’s touring company, Pure Movement and his youth spinoff Rhaw, short for Rennie Harris’s Awe-inspiring Works have been thriving for more than 25 years, performing across the world, in Europe, Asia, Africa, and beyond. Major dance companies around the US have also commissioned work from him. Harris develops each piece on-site, based on the town at hand. But since so much comes together organically in rehearsals, it’s often impossible for him to make, let alone communicate the master plan.
Harris: Almost every project that I’ve done, whether with my company or another company, I’ve always heard whispers of, “I don’t think he knows what he’s doing.” And, you know, it used to hurt my feelings but then I kinda got over it because yeah, that’s the part that you’re expecting me to create expression via a formula. I don’t approach it that way. It’s a difference than just, you know, making a salad or soup. You know that that’s pepper and what the pepper’s gonna do. You know what the tomato’s gonna do. With bodies or spirits, you know, you don’t know what you’re gonna get.
Rodney Hill: So when it comes to like, a normal recipe for what a choreographer would normally do, their normal process, Rennie just takes that recipe and he just rips it all up and scatters it all around. And say okay, let me see what I can get outta this. He trusts the dancers, and we trust him.
Joshua Culbreath: Rennie allows for people to be themselves. To be the individual. So for me, I’m a breaker, I’m a complete b-boy. I know how to do different styles, but he allows me to be me and shine as me throughout his work.
Phil Cuttino Jr.: You gotta be willing to take it somewhere. And he trusts that you can do it. It’s just that you also have to believe in him and believe in his vision and believe in yourself at the same time.
In the past few years, Rennie Harris has had to learn to trust his dancers more than ever. Now in his mid-50s, the choreographer has had both his hips replaced. He just can’t move the way he used to.
Harris: I can’t really actually demonstrate the movement. I have to, like convey the movement to the dancer and like, slowly process them through this movement. So in that way, I don’t know if the body was sort of betraying me, but sorta going through a transition to say okay, I need to slow you down and let’s see what you, you know. Let’s hone the practice, let’s hone what it is that you’re doing in a whole other way. I feel like I have a completely different insight now.
And for many of his dancers, Harris’s work hits close to home. His dances delve into the social, the political, the personal. Everything he brings to the stage an honest representation of his own experiences and observations. And this authenticity is what makes his dancers, including eight-year company veteran, Phil Cuttino Jr. trust Harris’s vision. In 2019’s “A Day In The Life,” Cuttino closes the show in a duet about two brothers who, while hanging out in their own neighborhood, become involved in a violent altercation with the police. It ends when a cop shoots Cotino’s character dead.
Cuttino Jr.: The reason why that piece is so important to me is because I got shot before, like. It wasn’t by a cop, but it was like, through crazy street violence and all that type stuff. So, it was just crazy to really see all of these different dynamics and ways of, he’s being my real reality. And to have to die on stage in front of like, hundreds and hundreds of people sometimes, that stuff is crazy. To really like, live that moment, and really like, tell that story and help people understand.
Harris has always been driven by a desire to help people understand both themselves and others. To find catharsis by pouring his deepest emotions into dance.
Harris: Work is actually a relief to get the thought out, process, and then to watch it morph in the body to say, you know, there’s still breath in what you’re saying. I put this pain in this body but that pain is not really radiating the pain I’m really feeling, but it also there’s a pain and I begin to see the beauty in that pain, the humanity in the pain that I’m putting into the body, right? And so then that affects me in a whole other way. Like, it’s almost, it kind of releases me from that thing.
Present at its birth, Rennie Harris continues to create dance that reflects his life, the communities that shaped him and the evolution of hip hop from the street into an international cultural phenomenon.