Interview with Community Arts Festival Organizer Paige Walden-Johnson

When Paige Walden-Johnson and Rain Stippec met at Webster University, they were taking the same freshman psychology class and became fast friends before they ever danced together. Rain, who was on crutches for an injury that spanned her whole first semester in Webster’s dance program, needed help carrying her books up the stairs to class. Now, Paige is supporting her friend and fellow dancer in an even bigger way, with the Community Arts Festival.

On Superbowl Sunday — February 5, 2017 — Rain and a friend were sitting in a car in St. Louis city’s Soulard neighborhood when they were shot multiple times by two complete strangers. “They were just sitting in the car and two random people – they didn’t know her, she didn’t know them – and they shot them both,” Paige told me.

Both Paige and Rain are seriously well-connected and well-loved in the local dance community, and Paige’s immediate instinct was to respond to Rain’s horrific experience of gun violence by bringing local communities together through dance. The plan was simple: “let’s get a bunch of friends together, start dancing, just raise a little bit of money with whatever we can do.”

Community Arts Festival will present two dance concerts at venues in Grand Center, first at the Marcelle on Sept. 2 and next at the Grandel on Sept. 9, whose proceeds will benefit Rain directly. While her medical bills are astronomical (“in the millions,” Paige told me, “and that’s with insurance”), Rain is making a remarkable recovery.

Paige called Rain “the strongest person I have ever known and ever will know,” describing not only her physical recovery but also her mental strength as exceptionally striking. “[Rain’s doctors told her] ‘Oh, you’re never gonna eat again,’ well, she’s eating, despite the fact that she has 20 feet of her intestines taken out. There was a worry that her kidneys weren’t gonna turn back on. She had one left, and they were like ‘well, let’s start talking about what it’s like without kidneys’ and the next day her kidney turned on. They were concerned she might not be able to walk again. She’s walking. She left the rehab center without a cane, walker, anything. Walked right out.”

But, Paige isn’t planning to stop at helping just Rain; CAF, in the six or so months since the festival’s leadership (who Paige calls her dream team) started working on making it a reality, has made plans to reach survivors of violence in St. Louis through future performances. The festival will also include community workshops, open to the public, making resources for healing after trauma available to some who might not otherwise have access.

“And so it was, this festival was inspired by Rain’s story, however it’s grown so much bigger than that. This will become an annual festival. We are becoming a non-profit, so each year we’ll have a new supporter, a new survivor of violence, and we hope to get into the realm of not only just healing and educating, but we want to get into the prevention of violence.”

Paige and other CAF organizers are concerned and alarmed by the astonishing rates on violence in St. Louis, and have even noted audience apprehension towards attending events at venues like the Touhill Performing Arts Center — which is near Ferguson where there was massive civil unrest after Michael Brown was shot in 2015 — or venues affiliated with the Kranzberg Arts Center — located in Grand Center near St. Louis’ notorious Delmar Divide — because of safety concerns. Whether these concerns are justified is a different matter, but they are revealing in that they draw a direct line between arts and theatre audiences in St. Louis and the city’s fear and anxiety around facing its own violence.

Ultimately, the festival’s goal is bringing the community that surrounds Rain and her story together. “If you’re not able to come, if, to the performances, we would love to see you at the community workshops. If you’re not able to do that, we do have donations, a button on our website. […] If you have any organizations that want to partner, we are just now trying to build who we are, so we are loving collaboration, if anyone has ideas.”

More information on Community Arts Festival workshops and performances is available at the CAF website. The Saturday, Sept. 2 performance at the Marcelle will feature Thomas & Tricia Jöstlein, Jacob Henss, Khaldoun and Ahmad Hreedeen,, Gateway Tap Company, Movement Arts Center, SIUE Dance Department, andCarly Niehaus. The Saturday, Sept. 9 performance at the Grandel will feature Common Thread Dance Company, Big Muddy Dance Company, AshleyLiane Dance Company, Cheeraz Gormon, Karlovsky & Company Dance, Elliott Geolat, and EKHO Entertainment. Tickets to both performances are $20 each.

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