Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Highland Ballroom turns a new page

Posted By on Tue, Nov 13, 2012 at 11:14 AM

Chelsea Raflo
  • Chelsea Raflo
Nestled in the heart of Poncey-Highland, the Highland Ballroom has been known to host a wide variety of events: raucous parties, music shows, and weddings. Its distinctive, speakeasy decor and convenient location have made it a staple of Atlanta's event locations since its doors opened in 1927.

A number of literary events have been making themselves at home there as of late. Scott Daughtridge's LostintheLetters series launched in September and has hosted a number of literary heavyweights since including George Singleton and Jared Yates Sexton. This Wednesday evening the Ballroom will open its doors to the rowdy and riveted cult following of Write Club Atlanta, at which local writers spar over opposing topics for charity.

A main spur for bringing artistic and authored action into the ballroom can be traced to the space's new events director, Chelsea Raflo. Already a force to be reckoned with in Atlanta's art scene when she took the position this past June, Raflo's bringing a new, more literary vision to the Ballroom.

You've been heavily involved in Atlanta's arts community for a while now through your own art exhibitions at places like MINT gallery and MOCA GA. How did your involvement with the arts community influence your vision for the Highland Ballroom and Lounge?
I've learned that I work best when I can integrate my personal interests into what I'm doing; attempting to compartmentalize inevitably just makes me feel like a fake, and that ends up showing in the work that I do. And the Ballroom is kind of a dream for me. The space itself is so unique and has a cool, underground feel to it that sparks so many ideas for me all the time. In the past, I've taken on curatorial projects and planned events, but the prospect of establishing a new venue or an arts space of some kind has always been far too daunting for me to make any progress on, although its been a long-held goal. So this job is kind of more perfect than I could have planned for myself. We aren't trying to take Atlanta by storm, or take huge risky leaps, because we don't have to. The Highland Inn is kind of a fixture in the community, and I feel incredibly grateful that we have the luxury of being able to steadily make changes and try out new ideas without the added pressures that come with starting a brand new business.

How do you decide what kind of creative events are fitting for the Ballroom?
The Ballroom worked as a music venue for a while, but ultimately it wasn't the best use of the space. We want our hotel guests to be happy and comfortable and able to sleep, so no all-night ragers will be thrown, and in general, I think the events that we put on should match the personality of the venue itself. The Ballroom really does have a personality! It's cool, but not smug; it's a free spirit. It's an old soul. It definitely has the vintage speakeasy atmosphere, so it works well for events with that kind of theme, but I don't want the space to be pigeonholed into a venue that only puts on those type of events. I think the space lends itself very well to things like comedy events, performance art, theater, and, of course, readings, but also could be a very interesting choice for visual art. It's not a traditional gallery, and that forces artists to think about what they could do in this particular context. Site-specific art!

What are your hopes in fostering literature events here in Atlanta? How do you think those kinds of events benefit the community and what role does the Highland Ballroom want to play in that?
I think the more access that people have to art, the better, and I feel very strongly that art should be accessible, relatable. That's not to say that anyone should cater to the lowest common denominator, but if your art doesn't reach anyone, I have a hard time as seeing it as anything other than self-indulgent. With all the tools for communicating that we have these days, people speak less honestly and directly than ever, and art is where we should be looking for the antidote to these problems. Literature is different from other mediums in that it is so direct and therefore has so much potential for really affecting the reader. Fostering the literary scene here is such a clear way of giving Atlanta more of a voice, and more of a style. But, that said, I don't know if I see a benefit in drawing boundaries around different mediums and categorizing in that way. Plus, there's so many artists here who are blurring all the lines between writing, performance, visual art, music, dance, etc., and I think that's a great thing. It's out of this kind of synthesis, on a macro and micro level, that we will eventually see what, exactly, Atlanta's art scene really looks like. Anyway, adding to the pool of options for cultural enrichment is going to benefit the community no matter what medium you're focusing on. The Ballroom is a bar, yes, but who's to say that a bar can't take slightly more responsibility, not only for the culture within its walls, but also the culture of the neighborhood and the city where it exists?

If you're a young person in this city, there are lots of options, but not a ton of variety. You can go to a bar, go out to eat, or see a band play any night of the week here. Atlanta is not hurting for music venues, or restaurants, for that matter. And there are lots of really outstanding galleries and comedy clubs. But there's not much by way of an alternative, versatile atmosphere that doesn't involve going to a crowded show or just sitting around drinking, especially if you are looking for something affordable. I tend to hear the same kind of complaints about the scene here: that Atlantans loaf around with this blase attitude of being too cool to dance, too cool to care, that we have this complex of defensiveness based on not being an edgier, more interesting city overall. I just don't think that's true. I like activities. So do all of my friends. There are so many extremely interesting and different types of people around here. Give everyone a reason to dress up, get weird, or just do something different, and most of the time people embrace it completely.

Highland Ballroom
  • Highland Ballroom
What are your ambitions for the Ballroom over the next few years?
I really feel connected to the space itself and all of its potential, so I want to play to its strengths, and play to my own at the same time. That sounds corny, but it's true! I want everyone to feel the love that I do for the Ballroom, and to feel like they know about a great little local secret. At the same time, I want to be selective about what kinds of events we bring to the space, always choosing quality over quantity, and be an advocate for Atlanta's arts community while still keeping the best interests of the Ballroom from a business perspective as a priority. I really admire Anthony Harper and what he has done for Atlanta with the Goat Farm Arts Center. I'd like to ultimately have a number of monthly events going that cater to different arts disciplines. Along with our new literary lineup, I've been working with Ryan Smith of Native Crave to put together a monthly culinary event that I think will definitely make good use of the lounge atmosphere here and offer something new. I'm planning to curate some group visual art exhibitions that are tailored to the space itself and I hope for these to coincide with the Ponce Crush art walks, especially since Young Blood is right next door and we could help get more people over to our side of Ponce, for all the Crush-goers trying to walk or bike to the openings. There are many more still-nebulous plans floating around in my head or on Post-it notes all over my office, and, of course, I'd love to hear from people who feel like they have a project or organization that would fit in well at our space!

What do you like about hosting the Lost in the Letters reading series?
I really appreciate the integrity of the series. I love that Scott lets the writers speak for themselves, quite literally. He picks great writers, and gives them a platform and a warm, inviting environment to share their work with people. I like working with people who value substance over style, but style is important as well, and Lost in the Letters has both. It's very straightforward, these authors are reading directly off the page, but it's kind of naked and compelling in an unusual way, and the setting makes it feel very intimate. And it's especially interesting to hear the text read, presumably, in the voice in which it was written, with the author's own inflections and emphasis and pauses, etc. Plus, everyone feels very sophisticated for being there, and it's candlelit, and you're more inclined to be drinking something writerly, like bourbon, which adds to the whole experience, AND there's music, which is really nice. At least, from my observations.

What are your hopes for hosting Write Club Atlanta?
Oh man. I am just excited. I don't even know what I could hope, other than that they continue to be as awesome as they are, and I'm pretty sure that will happen. The first Write Club event that I went to was so much fun, and such a different kind of fun than I was finding anywhere in the city, but still attracting the kinds of people that I tend to gravitate toward. It is really inspiring, too, to get a glimpse of an art scene that is flourishing around a different medium than I am familiar with. I am more clued in to what is going on with visual arts in Atlanta, so to see so many very talented people who are active and supportive of each other's work in a parallel field makes me excited for all that Atlanta has to offer, and how much more there probably is that I haven't even had the opportunity to witness! And bridging mediums, finding connections between different types of art and the people making the art, I think that's when things get exponential.

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