Farewell to Muse

Savannah's cultural community reflects on inspiring legacy of Muse Arts Warehouse

SITTING IN the waning afternoon sunlight outside the metal door of 703D Louisville Road, JinHi Soucy Rand has no regrets.

The founder and director of Muse Arts Warehouse has wrapped the last of more than 2000 plays, performances, film screenings, activities and events in the middle suite of the brick Freight Building, its black box stage slated to give way to a student housing project, and Rand counts every one of them a victory.

“I’m not as sad as I could be, because I think we’ve been successful,” she says of the venerated venue that will host its final hurrah this Saturday, Feb. 11. “We accomplished our mission.”

click to enlarge Farewell to Muse
Photo by Megan Jones
JinHi Soucy Rand with Muse's signature signboard

That mission was honed seven years ago, when she and her husband, Mark, called a meeting for various creative folk to see if they could make a go of an accessible, affordable space for Savannah’s arts community. Both longtime veterans of Savannah’s bustling-but-broke community theater scene, the Rands had seen plenty of local companies struggle to produce plays while trying to make rent. When the Little Theatre of Savannah lost its lease at 703D, they took up the mantle.

“I called everyone together and said, ‘I think we can keep this space, but it’s going to require that we share it,’” recalls JinHi. “And they agreed to trust me to manage the chaos.”

The Rands knew better than to produce anything in-house, so filling the docket was up to the others. Past tensions were put aside, and the actors and directors agreed to save the drama for the stage.

“We’d been theater here long enough to remember the rival companies and all that,” confirms Mark. “It seemed like that mentality melted away here.”

The doors opened as Indigo Arts and soon morphed into Muse Arts Warehouse, welcoming not only the theater kids but the poets, the film buffs, the dancers, the activists and the prayerful.

As Collective Face Ensemble and Savannah Shakes brought contemporary and classic theater to audiences, CinemaSavannah and the Psychotronic Film Society screened weird and wonderful gems, the Odd Lot busted guts with their lightning fast improv, Agape Empowerment Ministries preached their message of inclusivity, Abeni Cultural Arts soared with unforgettable performances like their annual Odyssey in Black Dance and the Spitfire Poetry Group continued Clinton Powell’s legacy of lyrical expression—sometimes all the same day.

“We would have a play happening, then a midnight Spitfire spoken word event, and a church group in the morning. There was an understanding with the casts of the plays that other people would be on their set, or we’d have to move it around because there was a film on Sunday,” describes JinHi. “There were a few moments over the years when schedules and egos were tested, but mostly everyone was cooperative and collaborative.”

Professional productions had sold out runs, and smaller ideas found an incubator to develop and refine themselves. Vinyl Appreciation Night spun its first records at Muse, and the 24 Hour Play and 48 Hour Film Festival drew an ever-increasing following with each incarnation.

Tickets prices were priced so that productions could recoup their expenses and low enough to afford, a model that worked as long as expectations didn’t get any more highfalutin for the non-profit.

“People wanted to know how we were doing as a business. The space almost completely covered itself, but it was always more of a project,” says JinHi thoughtfully, adding with a laugh, “No one was making a living here.”

That didn’t stop Muse from donating any free time to community gatherings and fundraisers like StattsFest in 2013. More recently in 2015, dozens of local artists came together to auction off fabulously decorated lawn ornaments at Flamingo Fest to help cover JinHi’s mounting medical expenses.

The muse of Muse has been generously and unflinchingly honest about her terminal cancer diagnosis, and her uncommon strength and alacrity was especially challenged over the last year. Yet she has fulfilled roles onstage and off all along, continuing to invigorate Savannah’s performing arts scene. (She’s co-directing Bay St. Theatre’s production of “The Vagina Monologues” later this month.)

While health had nothing to do with the landlords’ decision to sell the building, Muse’s closure brings a relief from the responsibilities.

“We’re looking forward to spending some time at home,” says Mark. “It’s been awhile.”

Saturday’s event won’t be a formal performance, just chilling and milling with the many characters who have been touched by Muse Arts. For posterity, a group photo will be taken at 8pm.

The ancients muses might have a reputation for being fickle, but the Rands maintain full faith that Savannah’s indefatigable artists can and will manifest another collective space. As the stars align, they remind that the launch pad may be gone, but the rockets remain in full orbit.

“We’re all still here, we’re all still producing,” reminds JinHi. “I hope people will continue to support the companies they knew here and follow them to their new spots around the city.”

She also enjoins to keep Muse Art’s spirit of experimentation, enthusiasm and self-reliance strong in this era of budget cuts and corporate art.

“As an American, I believe the ownership of culture and arts belongs to us,” she says with one of her definitive nods.

“We are a self-governing people, that’s part of the freedom and the ideal of our country. It’s our civic responsibility to support the arts.”

As long as we feed the muse with that commitment, she promises, the show will always go on.

We at Connect Savannah vow to be there. In the meantime, we asked some of Muse family to share their memories of and gratitude.

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David Poole, center

David I. L. Poole, Artistic Director, The Collective Face Theatre Ensemble

WHO would have known that this brick, wood, and metal façade would become the haven for our collective ensemble, a place of magic making, a place of enchantment, a place of great storytelling. Over the past seven years the Collective Face Theatre Ensemble has performed over 22 full productions and one staged reading on the solid floors of 703D Louisville Rd. A place we graciously called home.

Each of our performances at Muse holds special personal meaning to me. I look at the relationships, community building, and artistic initiations that this place has brought to life and think of how wonderful this building will live on in our memories.But a building is just a building.

What made this Muse soar was the vision and drive of JinHi Soucy Rand and Mark Rand. Without these two Willy Wonkas, this factory of wonders would not have been. They took a chance on us when we first approached Muse to see if it could be a platform for the crazy, sometimes zany world of theatre that we created. This risk allowed us to have affordable performance space where we could grow and flourish.

Even though we will mourn the loss, this isn’t the end of the Collective Face Theatre Ensemble—it’s only the beginning. Having had this home nest gave us the chance to grow and be stable enough to continue with our productions. We have embarked on a search for our own home, where we can build, rehearse and tell stories for years to come. This search continues.

In the meantime, we will finish out this season at Savannah State University’s Kennedy Fine Arts Theatre in partnership with Players By The Sea. I can’t wait to see everyone at Kennedy Theatre for our next productions (“9 to 5: The Musical” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”) and promise we will continue with the same quality that we have become known for. Stay tuned to where we land as we leap from the nest and soar with the wings of the Muse.

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Bill DeYoung, right, from a production of Frost/Nixon

Bill DeYoung, Collective Face actor and former Connect Arts & Entertainment Editor

I WAS proud that Connect was so plugged in to Muse and the Rands’ open-door philosophy from Day One; that everything that everyone did there got attention in our paper. All of which is another part of the nurturing process, and so vital to an artistically-minded community.

Long before I ever performed in the space, in 2009 I wrote the very first story about JinHi Soucy Rand and her hopes for what she originally called Indigo Arts. At that point I had no idea that the funky little train depot/loading dock/whatever the hell it is would be my virtual—and beloved—home for the next five years.

When I think about Muse, the word “home” always comes to mind. Somebody from your extended family was always there, even if you were lost, blind or just foundering in your “regular” life. So it was kind of like being silly and play-acting in a really, really big living room.

I think that’s what JinHi and Mark intended from the beginning—to create a safe, comfortable, artistically nurturing environment for the ever-widening circle of artists, actors, musicians, dancers and crazies in Savannah. I had some of the best times of my life in that place, met many of the greatest friends I’ll ever have. From “Twelve Angry Men,” “Frost/Nixon” and “The Odd Couple” to the half-dozen Collective Face productions I was in, I’ve never laughed so hard, before or since. I even sang a few songs there over the years.

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Elder Erika K. Hardnett, left

Elder Erika K. Hardnett, co-founder, Agape Empowerment Ministries

AGAPE Empowerment Ministries is a non-denominational, Christian church that is inclusive to all people. We are grassroots and rely solely on the membership and other generous supporters to cover operational costs. In 2011, after a very rough period, our membership had dwindled to a little over five people. We were in no financial position to rent a church space. I will never forget the day that we met with JinHi and she listened sympathetically to our plight. She and Mark were heaven-sent. She agreed to allow us to rent the Muse space at a price that was affordable to us.

What a blessing the space has been to us. Our congregation has since grown, over the years, we have used the Muse for more than just church. When we fought for Marriage Equality we used the space to hold a press conference. When Pulse Night Club experienced the worst mass shooting in recent American history, we used the Muse to hold an active shooter training for the community. We have held forums that opened dialogue between inclusive and non-inclusive church leaders.

The Muse has been a very accommodating venue for us, and we are eternally grateful. Our church has been in search of a building , and we think we have found a spot only a mile and a half from the Muse. This is particularly good, since we distribute goods to the homeless tent camps downtown. We will not have to move too far from those people who have come to know and love and anticipate our arrival on the third Sunday of the month. We have been able to service the people of downtown Savannah, especially the homeless, with ease because of JinHi and Mark. Thank you guys for making ministry so convenient for us.

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Muriel Miller, far right, with the Abeni Arts ensemble

Muriel Miller and Darowe J. McMillon, Abeni Cultural Arts

THE MUSE was more than a place to perform. It was our home to create. JinHi and Mark literally gave us the keys, and on numerous occasions, entrusted us with their baby. And each time we made sure we protected it like our own. It was our own. When we moved “Visions” to the Muse in 2013, it literally took on a different feel and emotion. We stretched our imaginations and thus, came up with the final product you all see.

Every show we did there, from our PAC Variety Show to “Black Nativity” to our 10th Anniversary Show and Kokumo Collective Dance Company concert, were all enhanced by being at Muse. The comfort we felt when we entered the doors will be missed. Looking at all the cool pictures and forgotten props will be missed.

But most of all, being able to call the Muse our second home will be missed. You cannot find another place that as welcoming and peaceful as the Muse.

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Jim Reed of Psychotronic Film Series

Jim Reed, film journalist and founder, Psychotronic Film Society

I DIDN’T really get to know JinHi until Muse was close to opening.She came to one of my Psychotronic Film Society screenings at the Sentient Bean and invited me to look at the space. Even in its unfinished state, the site was impressive, and held great potential. She was very sweet, kind, and encouraging, and wanted the venue to be as inclusive as possible.

Above and beyond providing an outlet for people in town who were already putting time and money into presenting cultural events, my impression was that Muse was designed to be an incubator - a catalyst for people who might never have thought of producing something for the public.

Once they invested in upgrading their projection system and screen, it immediately became very well-suited to some of the types of movies I wanted to bring to Savannah. Though the PFS home base has always been the Bean, some people simply aren’t into the DIY vibe we embrace there. They only want to see films in a theater – which I understand and respect. Muse was a darker and quieter setting. It was close enough to a traditional movie theater for those folks to enjoy themselves.

The Psychotronic Film Society will continue to host around 60 screenings a year at the Bean, and I’m currently in talks with some other interesting, independent venues about launching a couple new, site-specific film series. Look for an announcement on those developments very soon.

I’m sad Muse is closing, as it’s a great loss for Savannah. But I also see it as a tremendously successful experiment. Mark and JinHi were nothing but 1000 percent positive, supportive, helpful and generous with me since the start of our collaboration and friendship. For me at least, Muse was not the building and equipment. It was the people running it, who really believed in and appreciated this quirky little organization I’d started, and wanted to help it grow.

Tomasz Warchol, founder, CinemaSavannah

MUSE was a gift you wished for but knew it could not be real. The day I stepped inside it some five years ago, I felt elated. It was a perfect fit for CinemaSavannah at a perfect time for the program, right after The Lucas Theatre and The Jepson Center priced us out. I felt an instant connection with JinHi and Mark, Muse’s gracious and gentle hosts, who put me on their busy  schedule  whenever they could, at least once or twice a month.

I am pretty sure it was the indefatigable Jim Reed, director of The Psychotronic Film Society and the man behind  Savannah’s alternative film and music culture, who first brought me there. We shared the available dates and frequently cosponsored each other’s events or presented joint events.  CinemaSavannah had about 50 premieres there, mostly new releases that would have otherwise never come to the city. Typically, they were foreign and independent films, a mix of major international hits and domestic arthouse gems. For CinemaSavannah fans, that was the place to be, their favorite venue. It had a fabulous large screen, impressive audio system, and the best popcorn in town.

JinHi and Mark made me very welcome, but that’s how they made everyone feel. Muse’s patronage was never about money. If a film cost more or a turnout was poor, JinHi would offer lower rental rates. If the film did well, I was glad to pay her more.

Money was secondary, just the necessary means to run our operations. I had very little to stress over: JinHi ran the box office, Mark set up the marquee and made the popcorn, and Jim Reed did the projection. I “hired” Jim whenever he was available because nobody in this town can match his amazing technical expertise and an ear for audio synchronization. That obviously didn’t mean all went smoothly all the time.  We had Blu-ray/DVDs that wouldn’t load, screeners without subtitles, even a film we could not show because I got in the middle of a disagreement over international distribution rights. JinHi, Mark, and Jim handled those situations with  professional composure and a smile.

Thanks to Muse and its hosts, CinemaSavannah had its true home and a real relationship with art community. Thanks to Muse, CinemaSavannah could establish its name and reputation in the city and the area. Thanks to Muse, CinemaSavannah created a place and a time where film fans could come together to share their love of cinema, where they could watch it, talk about it, and then talk about it more.

Thank you Muse, thank you JinHi and Mark.

Know that, no matter what the future holds, what you have given me, my program, and my crowd, can never be replaced.

click to enlarge Farewell to Muse
Dandy Barrett

Dandy Barrett, Actor and Managing Director, The Collective Face Theatre Ensemble

NOT LONG after JinHi Soucy Rand opened the Muse Arts Warehouse in 2010, a small band of actors and directors calling themselves The Collective Face presented a staged reading of the play "Frozen” in the newly upgraded space. They went on to produce four more plays during 2011 and 2012, and having gained strength due to the availability of Muse’s affordable performance space, The Collective Face Theatre Ensemble, a repertory theatre company, was formed.

Now in its fifth full season, TCFTE has garnered several Connect Savannah acting, directing and production “Best of” awards.

Muse Arts Warehouse allowed TCFTE to nurture nascent actors, to build the beginnings of a healthy subscriber base, and to continue to provide the high-caliber theatre productions that some have compared to Broadway. Without Muse, none of this would have been possible.

One a personal note, I have been able to hone and practice my acting craft, watching and working with some of the best actors I’ve encountered over a 30-year acting career—Maggie Lee Hart and Richie Cook come to mind—all the while under the tutelage of the uber-talented David I.L. Poole and, on occasion, the gifted Karla Knudsen.

For me, each production is a master class. And I’ve been afforded the opportunity to tackle roles long on my bucket list: Amanda Wingfield (“The Glass Menagerie”), Violet Venable (“Suddenly Last Summer”), Carrie Watts (“The Trip to Bountiful”) and Dr. Vivian Bearing (“W;t”).

In large measure because of Muse, TCFTE is strong enough to continue producing its stellar plays and now musicals. In cooperation with the Savannah State University student drama organization Players by the Sea, we shall finish our 2016-2017 season at SSU’s Kennedy Fine Arts Auditorium.

In the meantime, we are—dare I say frantically?—seeking affordable space so that we can continue to provide Savannah with quality, affordable theatre.

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Chris Soucy, far left, with the Odd Lot crew

Christopher Soucy, Savannah Shakes actor and founder, Odd Lot Improv

THE MUSE Arts Warehouse earned its name every day of the last seven years. It was a place of inspiration, art, music, theater, and love. The absolute strongest woman I have ever known, my sister JinHi Soucy Rand, has been a supporter of local arts organizations and individual artists for over 25 years here in Savannah. And when the space destined to become Muse Arts Warehouse needed someone to carry on the essential work of an arts venue, JinHi stepped in and brought her never ending passion for Savannah’s artists with her.

I can remember those first months of planning and reaching out and painting and knocking holes in walls like it was yesterday. Everyone knew that with JinHi at the helm and Mark Rand at her side, there was a home for all the hopeful creators and dreamers of Savannah.

I have had the extreme pleasure to witness the growth of the Savannah arts scene through the eyes of the Muse Arts Warehouse. The companies I helped found owe their very existence to the Muse, and thereby JinHi and Mark. Odd Lot was born in that building. Savannah Shakes was brought to life in that building. It will always be a part of us whatever we create next.

But a building is a building, JinHi is the true muse of that warehouse and all of Savannah. cs

About The Author

Jessica Leigh Lebos

Community Editor Jessica Leigh Lebos has been writing about interesting people, vexing issues and anything involving free food for more than 20 years. She introduces herself at cocktail parties as southern by marriage.
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