Thursday, March 11, 2010

Announcing New CRADLE Website and Blog

I am thrilled to announce that the website for the Center for Rural Arts Development and Leadership Education (CRADLE) has just launched a new website and blog. I'd like to thank Charles Olbert (my stepson, in the interest of transparency) for his excellent hard work in creating the site. (He does terrific work, and if you have a website you need designed, check out his work at

This website is the first stage of the development of the CRADLE project. It is my intention to make it an information and communication hub for people in the field of rural and small town arts development. Over time, I will continue to add annotated links to on-line reports and resources, and books that might be of interest to the field. I also intend to begin doing a podcast in the future, and provide a variety of ways (Skype conference calls, threaded discussions, even in-person conferences) to increase communication.

There is also a link to the TACT (Theatre Arts Curriculum Tranformation) blog that Tom Loughlin and I began a few months ago. TACT is the educational wing of CRADLE.

What this means for Theatre Ideas, which is now one of four blogs to which I am contributing (the fourth is "Play Analysis 101," which my partner Cal Pritner and I have created to go along with our textbook Iintroduction to Play Analysis), is a likely reduction in the number of posts I do here. Much of what I currently write about here will end up on either CRADLE or TACT, but any commentary that isn't appropriate for those sites will wind up here.

I hope that my readers will follow me to my "Rocking the CRADLE" blog (Chris Wilkinson, I'm talking to YOU), as well as keep up with TACT. Consider this not a shutdown, but simply a move from a rented apartment to my own specially-designed home.

You're all welcome.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Please, Please Stop the Madness

So in the February 24th edition of Stage Directions Magazine, there is an article entitled "URTA Launches National Showcase Calendar." The calendar "provides a way of tracking the many school showcases produced each spring in New York City." Here is the money quote as far as I am concerned:
Each spring more than 70 schools with professional MFA and/or BFA programs in acting, performance and musical theatre produce showcases in theatres throughout the Big Apple. With some schools offering both BFA and MFA degrees, more than 80 showcases are presented over the months of March, April and early May. Each showcase seeks to introduce a graduating class of performers to casting directors, agents and other professionals in the nonprofit and commercial theatre, and in related industries from cruise line productions and corporate industrials to advertising, film and television. Showcases allow training programs to provide invaluable assistance to graduates transitioning into an always challenging job market.
 Some quick math sends a chill up my spine. Let's say that each showcase averages 15 grads -- that's 1200 actors trying to get a foot in the door in NYC. I know that these programs think they are doing their students a service, and no doubt the students think so too, but I just find this horrifying.

First, why are there that many BFA and MFA programs in this country?

But aside from that particular elephant, what rips my heart out is the thought of so much wasted talent pouring into a theatre scene already bursting at the seams, where actors who actually have their Equity cards experience 85% unemployment. How many of these talented young adults will spend five-ten-fifteen years searching valiantly for chances to practice their art, only to come limping home battered and disillusioned.

From an ecological standpoint, it is so wasteful; from a human standpoint, it is almost criminal. There's got to be a better way. Why keep flooding the system?

Tom and My SETC Presentation Now On-Line

Over at our blog TACT (Theatre Arts Curriculum Transformation), Tom Loughlin has been good enough to provide a link to our SETC presentations slides and a recording of the presentation. The volume isn't great -- we were moving around a lot while using a stable mike -- but at least you can listen if you want. Thanks, Tom!

Ian David Moss and the Quality of Discussion

Over at Createquity, Ian David Moss is comments on his post "Economists Don't Care About Poor People" -- one is, apparently, from his boss, which shows a willingness to exchange ideas in marked contrast to the oh-so-careful-about-my-career theatreosphere.

From my extremely limited knowledge of economics (although in the interest of transparency, I should admit that one of my best friends on campus is an economist, and I do spend money fairly regularly, so I guess that makes me an expert), I would like to say that I agree with Ian's distrust of the neoclassical approach to economics, which might have been relevant in the society for which it was designed, a society in which sellers and buyers were more likely to know each other and emotional advertising was not a constant mind-addling drumbeat, but in our media-saturated global marketplace it seems decidedly out of touch.

However, what I would draw my reader's attention to is the level of discourse exhibited in this discussion, which is quite high, carefully argued, and deeply knowledgeable. By calling into question neoclassical economics, Ian is definitely taking on the status quo represented by the Chicago School of economics most closely identified with Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman, and yet not a douchebag or asshat in sight.

Thanks for the object lesson, Ian, and good luck with your boss!

Tom Loughlin on Indie Theatre and Gentrification

In what I suspect will be a controversial post (but lately, what non-mainstream post isn't controversial) entitled "The Indie Theatre Ghetto," Tom Loughlin discusses data from the Innovative Theatre Fund Demographic Survey of OOB Practitioners that reveals a disconnect between Indie Theatre and the surrounding city. RTWT, but here is the final paragraph:
The biggest question I know of in theatre is “Who is theatre for?” At least in the early part of the 21st century, the data seems to tell us that theatre is primarily for immigrant/urban, ghettoized white people. I think this should change. Sure, I think white people should have a theatre that’s reflective of their community, their history and their values. But I don’t think they should overtake urban areas to do so. It smacks of colonization and a “gold rush” mentality, where the indigenous population gets run out or ignored. We can, and we should, be able to do better than this.
As someone once said, sacred cows make the best burgers...

Monday, March 08, 2010

My Life in Theater, or Notes from an Audience Member

[As my readers know, before I left for SETC, I invited my wife, Laura, to be a guest blogger in my absence. Unfortunately, she was unable to do so, but today she wrote the following post, which I am pleased to share with you.]

Why do I go to plays? Because I'm The Prof's wife. That would be the easy answer. But not the true one. Or rather, only the partial one. I grew up in the small town of Lexington, VA. My parents had to work with a group of parents to bring a dance teacher in from Roanoke, 55 miles away, so that a handful of little girls who were interested could take classes in tap and ballet. We had two colleges--but both were men's colleges, one of which was VMI. It was not an arts-rich environment. Nonetheless, I had a grandmother who was a drama queen. She had wanted to sing opera when she was younger, and after her children were grown she did a lot of little theater work. She was a diva with all the mental illness that the name implies. One thing she did, though, was give me the sound track for My Fair Lady for my birthday, and send me her old copies of American Theater. I think she had appointed me theater diva to follow her, but alas, my mental illness ran in the opposite direction. Painfully shy, I was never going to be the self-promoter that one needed to be in the arts. I feared putting myself "out there" for others to judge and possibly scorn (thanks, Don Hall).

When I became an adult, I noticed that my parents had become theater-goers. Who knew? They lived in a larger Virginia town by then, Lynchburg, which had a very active and innovative Community Theater. My parents went to many, many plays whether they "got" them or not. They just went. For a few years they lived in Northern Virginia where the opportunities for theater were greater. They often shared with me what they had seen and what they thought about it.

Then, I moved out to Normal, IL with my first husband and two small boys. That same first husband was pastor of a large Lutheran church, across the street from which was an interesting castle-like building that was home to the Illinois State University-sponsored Shakespeare Festival. They used our church for parking. It was hard to miss. It was hard to avoid. After living there for about 5 years, I finally started to buy tickets. I took my sons to a show here or there. It was magical. Shakespeare done well, under the stars. Who cared if the loud car drove by or the occasional plane went overhead? I was finally seeing and understanding Shakespeare live, spoken well. We loved it. After the first husband left, money was extremely tight. Sometimes food stamp tight. But every spring when the flyer came I scraped up money for 3 season tickets in the cheap seats and I and the boys would go. During that hard time, it was something that kept us together, that provided relief and respite. It was something to look forward to.

Then my oldest son tried out for -- excuse me, auditioned for -- his school's production of Superman. He was a fireman. He was cute. But his school was kind of unique and it would have been unusual for a child NOT to have auditioned. The next year he auditioned for Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. He was 13. He got the role of Joseph. I was stunned. I didn't even know he could sing. He was off to the races after that and theater became a much larger part of my life.

I met my current husband and the writer of this blog at a little league baseball game. Getting to know him had nothing to do with theater. I was as surprised as the next person to find out he was Associate Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Festival. He was surprised to find out that I was an audience member. Thus began a long and interesting marriage that involved going to plays with people in it whom we knew, then going home, pouring a glass of wine and talking about that play. That is as much pleasure as the show itself. But the motivator for going is that someone I know is involved with it. I've gone to very little theater where this was not the case. I'd just rather stay home.

So what theater do I go to? Theater with which I have a connection. Theater is not competing with film or TV for my time. I rarely go to movies and I don't have a TV. I don't rent movies, either. I'm interested in people I know, people with whom I have a relationship, people I care about. If they are involved in theater, then I'll go to their show. I am not seeking adventure, so being "challenged"--a euphemism, more often than not, for "insulted"--is not my idea of fun. I experience it as a slap in the face--and it hurts. I've commented on this blog twice--both times when I thought that audiences were being either insulted or let down. Don Hall has insulted me both times. I'm using the word "insulted" a lot. What I'm trying to say, I think, is that I am real person out there beyond the lights. I bring a lot of hope and joy to the theater. I come because I know someone or have some sort of connection to the show. I am not part of an amorphous mass that can be categorized. I am smart, funny, interested. When I am disdained or disrespected by the playwright or the director, I know it and it hurts, and it makes me loathe to take that risk again. I come with hope and joy, and I share it with all my heart from my seat. Can you feel it? I'm in there with you. Really. I'm not your enemy.

-- Laura Sue Walters

Ben Cameron on the Artistic Reformation

(Big h/t to Andrew Taylor)
Below is a video of former TCG director (now Doris Duke head) Ben Cameron at the Calgary TEDxYCC. If you listen carefully to his message, delivered articulately and passionately, you will hear many of the same themes I am sounding in CRADLE.

Cameron compares the current situation in the arts to the Protestant Reformation, which was driven by technology (the printing press) and fueled by the question of who was allowed to practice. And while Cameron acknowledges that the Reformation didn't eliminate the traditional church (i.e., the existing arts institutions, which bafflingly he refers to as the only opportunity for "economic dignity" for the artist -- really?), it did lead to a revolution in all aspects of society.

Today, Cameron goes on, the means of production and distribution have been democratized, and he notes that while arts audiences are shrinking, arts participation is exploding. He goes on to laud what he calls the "hybrid artist," artists who use their art in service of society. He mentions Liz Lerman and the Dance Exchange, Cornerstone Theatre Company, and Rhodessa Jones, all community-based artists who work with the communty to tell stories about them and with them. "The power of the arts," Cameron asserts, rests in the ability to "promote understanding of The Other," to allow marginalized people to tell their own stories.

I was inspired to hear this from someone like Cameron, whose has great knowledge of the field and who has a bully pulpit from which to speak. He ties in to the NEA's focus on "Art Work," repeating the importance of the arts to economic revitalization, but the real center of his speech is about the contributions that artists need to make to the Greater Good.

Again, thanks to Andrew Taylor for the link.


So I just spent about an hour writing a detailed response to this, and then...well, I just started laughing. I laughed about the idea of Don "you're a douchebag" Hall addressing a class at Columbia College about "arts journalism." (What next? Tiger Woods giving a seminar on fidelity?) I laughed about what kind of overblown sense of self-importance leads him and XXX to think that they can serve as judge and jury about another blogger. But mostly I laughed at myself for getting upset over this.

In the interest of what Don calls "transparency," here is my policy regarding commenters:
Any person who comments on this blog, known to me or not, is treated with the same level of anonymity. That anonymity is set by the commenter, not by me
That has been my policy since I started blogging, and will continue to be my policy in the future. If the commenter wants to be completely anonymous, that is their choice (my blog allows anonyous commenters); if the commenter wants to provide their name, address, and social security number, that is their choice; and every variation in between is their choice. As much of a hassle as it is, I am going to leave comment moderation on in the future, so that if someone from outside this blog wants to identify a commenter, their comment will not be posted until I have permission from the commenter for that to occur. I didn't do this when I received the opening email from XXX (apparently, Don feels the need to protect the identity of only those who are his friends): "Dude, either you can tell everyone that laura sue is your wife, or I can.Talk about deception." I should have. Threats that start with "Dude" deserve comment moderation...

If you believe that following the above policy is duplicitous, dishonest, deceptive or any other unflattering d-word -- well, I suggest that you either get counseling for your sense of paranoia, or remove this blog from your feed and spend your time with Don, devilvet, and Joshua .

The fact is that that trio has spent years trying to undermine my work, and for some inexplicable reason they think this is the issue to do it. They have spent years complaining that I don't pay the proper respect to Nylachi, and to every artist who works there. At the same time, they want the right to insult people who live in small and rural communities, dismiss regular audience members, and attack me for the unforgivable fact that I am a professor and an NEA grant recipient. What really gets them angry, as the comments on Don's post make all too clear, is that I didn't "apologize" for...I don't know what...having the temerity to think that the theatrical world doesn't revolve around Nylachi, I guess.

Tellingly, Don writes in his comments, "until he can openly admit that his argument for more funding for rural theaters is fueled by his disdain for the kind of stories we "self absorbed, contemptuous" urban artists tell, his argument will always be disputed as nothing but an old college professor's screaming at the kids to turn that music down." Right... My argument for more funding for rural theatres is fueled by a sense of justice and equity, and in order to create greater equity and justice, the first thing that has to happen is wrenching some money out of the grasping, greedy fingers of the Big Nylachi and Nylachi-fed institutions, and addressing the mindset that allows it to happen. And that takes more than polite words and deference.

This blog stands for respect:
  • Respect for people who live in and create in small and rural communities as well as metropolitan areas.
  • Respect for the power of the arts to communicate.
  • Respect for the idea of the artist as servant to the Greater Good.
This blog does not respect:
  • The Nylachi mindset that believes in a hierarchy of value based on geography, class, and budget size.
  • The idea that artists are somehow superior beings whose sole job is to express themselves.
  • Artistic obfuscation.
I hope that is "transparent" enough.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have some actual work to do. I just got back from SETC, where I saw about 500 high school students and undergrads being encouraged, lemming-like, toward the Nylachi precipice, lured by the dulcet tones of Tituss Burgess singing that he will believe in them.

If you want to discuss this non-issue more, Don's comment section is wide open. But here, we're moving on. No comments, either for or against, will be approved on this post.

Think Again: Funding and Budgets in the Arts

Every once in a while, I think I'll post a link or two to posts written earlier in the life of Theatre Ideas that seem worth revisiting ...