Monday, July 29, 2013

Young People and the Theater

There is something about seeing theater that lifts the spirits, whether the show is a comedy, tragedy or something in between.

This past weekend was a treat for many reasons. For starters, I got to see four shows through the course of the weekend. But greater than the quantity was being able to take a group of students to see Shakespeare--and for them to enjoy it--and then to see such a large group participate in a local children's production.

It is energizing to see young people enjoying theater, to see them getting turned on and excited about it. I strongly believe that our job is just to get young people to the theater. Once they're there, the art will work its magic on them.

On Saturday, we took a group of Waverly High School students to the Michigan Shakespeare Festival. We saw "Twelfth Night" and "King John", attended the talk back and bard talk and played theater games in between the two shows. After the final show, some of the actors came out to the lobby and talked to our students. They offered comments that were insightful and articulate. Our students left turned on to theater, excited, energized. It was a perfect day.

On Sunday, we saw "Charlotte's Web" at Riverwalk. It was an enormous cast and it was thrilling to see so many young people doing theater--getting an experience that they'd always remember. For us it was especially rewarding to see our friend's daughters Bella and Josie Croff as the goose and Avery, respectfully. We also loved seeing Waverly students in several important roles including John Henrikson as Wilbur, Sarah Kennedy as one of the narrators and Xavier Carroll as Unk the Pig.

If young people continue to get involved in positive experiences in theater, we have a promising future for the art.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A teaser

Hey, I still have the password to this blog.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Thank you, Mr. Waldschmidt

“I liked it. It was gud. I will tell my frunds abut it.”

Every time I sit down to write a review, those sentences go through my head. They were sentences that my high school English teacher frequently wrote on the chalkboard. It was his way of mocking the papers he received that claimed to be book reviews or literature essays.

It is one of those things which has stuck with me as the epitome of how not to write a review. Granted, I would hope that I have enough sophistication as a writer at this point in my career that my writing would be neither so crude nor so poorly spelled. However, each of those sentences represent other temptations that are easy to give in to when I’m not being vigilant.

“I liked it.”

Who cares? Really now, if I’m writing a serious review, it matters not one whit whether I liked the show or not. I hate Heart of Darkness, but that is irrelevant in any serious writing. My likes and dislikes are subject to my personal tastes, my emotions, how I’m feeling on a given day and what my life experiences are. None of those are relevant to other audience members nor to my readers.

For a Facebook status, a conversation with a friend, a blog post or even an informal radio segment, I’ll say whether I liked a show or not. With my friends, they know my biases. They know which of my judgments they share and which they don’t. They can ask me questions about why I liked it. On a recent evening I told a friend of mine how moved I was by a particular production and told him that he absolutely had to go see it. He laughed at me and said, "Yes, but you're a sucker for Greek drama." I agreed and then referred him to my husband for his opinion. 

In the context of a review, my focus must be more on providing those details which will let my readers decide whether they will like the play. I have to provide sufficient information for them to be able to make an informed judgment that is independent of whether it was my kind of show or not.

“It was gud.”

This second sentence gets even trickier. Critics are supposed to make judgments about technique, aesthetics and the emotional power of a production. That includes stating whether something worked, whether it had worth, whether it succeeded in accomplishing what it set out to accomplish—in short, whether a choice was good or bad.

So why is that sentence a no-no when it comes to writing a serious review? It represents an unsupported and unqualified judgment. A critic’s job is not to merely return a verdict of thumbs up or thumbs down. It is to explain why the thumb is pointing in the direction that it is pointing. It is meaningless for me to say a show is good or bad. What is useful to the reader is to provide details that support a critical statement.

One of the questions I constantly ask myself when working on a review is "Why?" Was the choreography good? Why? What made it good and what evidence can I provide to show that it was good? It's not enough to say that something is good or bad. I have to show why.

"I will tell my frunds abut it."

This final sentence serves to remind me who my audience is. I am not writing a letter to send to my friends or an email blast telling those closest to me what I think of a particular show. If I'm doing my job correctly, I'm providing a detailed, well-supported evaluation of a performance based on commonly accepted criteria. 

Those closest to me will tell you that the way I describe a show to them is very different than the content that I put in a review. There are different standards. With my friends, we share a long history of shared likes and peeves. We have a shared vocabulary and certain short-cuts that let us quickly communicate without having to provide detail. 

In a review, on the other hand, the criteria that I use to judge a show is ideally based on wider, more accepted standards. They are those standards that have evolved through centuries of theater criticism and performance. 

Thank you, Mr. Waldschmidt

Mr. Waldschmidt, I know you're no longer living, but if you were, I'd find you and thank you. You drilled those phrases into my head and because of that, made me a more conscious critic. I won't forget.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Cue Bette Midler: "You don't own me"

I’m a great believer in transparency when it comes to issues of ethics. That is one of the reasons I have this blog. It gives me the opportunity to talk about issues surrounding theater and the coverage of theater.

What I am about to write next applies to very few people in this community. The vast majority of the arts community in Lansing is populated with individuals I am honored to be associated with. They are people who enrich those around them through their art. They are amazing, generous, and brilliant individuals. I have many times expressed my love for this community because it is truly filled with dynamic, caring, and talented people whose diverse individuality make Lansing a wonderful place to live. What I am about to write is something 98% of this community would wonder why I even find it necessary to state the obvious. To those folks reading this, I apologize. I also thank you for not treating me the way I am about to describe.

For all that I believe in transparency, that does not mean that I believe I have to share everything about myself. There are some explanations that I don’t owe anyone because they are of a personal nature that has nothing to do with my ability to cover the theater community. Even more important, my covering the local arts community does not mean that the community owns me any more than I own it. We are wayfarers with similar destinations, but how we take the journey is for each of us to determine.

Setting Boundaries: "I'm not one of your little toys"

So allow me to set a few boundaries for those few who need it. You don’t get to dictate what I see and what I don’t see. You can choose to take it personally if you wish, but you don’t get to tell me how I spend my time. You don’t get to tell me which shows I have to see or that I have to see each group’s show in even amounts. You don’t get to tell me the type and quantity of experience that I need to have in order to cover you—only my editor gets to do that. You don't get to tell me who I can write for and who I can't. You don't get to tell me what I'm allowed to write and what I can't. In truth, the second amendment gives you the right to say all those things, but I don’t have to listen and from now on, I won’t.

You are welcome to pass whatever judgment on my character that you wish. I couldn’t stop you anyway nor do I have any desire to. However, I also don’t have to be subjected to your tirades and I choose not to.
You don’t get to tell my husband what he can and cannot do. You don’t have the power or the right to tell us that one of us must choose a career and the other must drop it. You don’t get to tell me who I’m “allowed” to be friends with and who I must not be friends with.

You Probably Don't Own the Media Either

Also, while this may disappoint some people, I must advise that no newspaper is required to cover you. They aren’t required to give you equal coverage. They aren’t required to have a single policy which equally spreads coverage around. Their obligation isn’t to you. Their obligation is to their readers (though, nowadays, most newspaper executives would say their obligation is to their shareholders). If you want to be covered, then make a compelling case to the media as to why you ought to be covered. If you simply say, “I’m here and I’m doing something,” well, not too many editors or readers are going to find that compelling. You’ll fare even worse if you say, “You covered this exact same thing when another organization did it.” Telling a newspaper that they need to be redundant in these days of reduced news hole isn’t going to get you very far. Their response will be—“we already told that story.”

If you want the newspaper to cover you, tell its editors why your story matters to their readers. Tell them why it will appeal to a broad group of people. Tell them what makes it compelling and what makes it different. Tell them how it will make a difference in people’s lives. If you can’t do that, don’t be surprised that they don’t jump when you say boo. Don’t be surprised when they are merely bemused at your attempts to tell them how to run their business.

I'll talk, talk, talk about it

I welcome discussions of anything I write—I relish passionate debate on issues, debate that challenges word choices, that examines ideas. Tell me what I've written is wrong and why. Who I am as a person is not up for debate or discussion. At least, it isn’t with me. You can have whatever conversations about me that you want with other people, though I am not so egotistical as to think that I am very frequently a topic of gossip. I will not discuss my personal life choices (including how I spend my personal time) with you simply because you think that I ought. Nor will I engage in debate with you about me as a person.

I’ll gladly discuss journalism, theater, the arts, and the Lansing community with anyone who is interested. However, I’m still old-fashioned about manners. I will treat you courteously and I will expect the same in return. If you abuse me or attack me personally, I will cut off any future dialogue with you that isn’t strictly professional. I’ll do my job and cover you when you do something newsworthy. I’ll be as objective and fair as possible when I review you. I will not, though, allow you to threaten my health or well-being by tolerating abusive behavior. I won’t bear you ill will, for I have no desire to poison my outlook or become cynical about people in general. I will, though, refuse to allow you any further access to me than what is strictly necessary.

Celebrating Everyone Else

The real advantage to cutting abusive people out of one’s life is that you are able to be more open to the vast majority of people who are not. By refusing to engage with people who make unhealthy choices in their dealings with others, I have more time and energy to engage with everyone else. Once again, I will express gratitude that so few people need to be told what has been written here.  

Friday, September 17, 2010

Twelfth Night: The Shakespeare Club

One of many reasons that I haven't been writing here is that I've been helping Waverly High School by writing their fall play (it opens in a month, and no, I'm not done with the script yet). To go along with the play, I'm putting together a rehearsal blog to provide dramaturgy on not just Shakespeare but the plays time setting--the 1980s (which you already figured out from the subtitle, right? If not, your hint is: Scrambled eggs and bacon.

If you'd like to read my theater writing over there, the link is

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

*cough, cough*

Hi! Still here. Still recovering. Will write more once things are on a more even keel.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A qualification or two

Generally speaking, I'm not overly fond of talking about my credentials. It isn't that I don't have them, it's that I do not wish to be arrogant or boastful (For more about that, you can read this note from Facebook). I also continue to believe that as a reviewer, I have to reprove my credibility internally with each review that I write.

Also, being a woman of "a certain age" (42 to be exact), I really don't feel like I have much to prove. I have enjoyed a wonderful career so far and I look forward to new opportunities and challenges in the years to come. A career is a fluid thing and the most important thing is to be engaged in lifelong learning and to be open to new experiences and new ways of doing things.

Sometimes it is also better to be quiet about one's credentials because there are times actors need to be able to call your credibility into account so that they can discount what you say. That's OK. If a performer needs to believe that I don't know what I'm talking about so that he or she can get back up on stage the next day, then go for it.

Knowing what I do about my qualifications, I'll confess that I was amused to hear them portrayed in a rather unfavorable light in "An Artist's Nightmare" last week. My experience was reduced to liking theater, having seen a "few" plays, and being willing to learn. While all of those things are true--I do like theater, I have seen a few plays (though a few every weekend would be more accurate) and I am willing to learn--they are major understatements. Now, I recognize that it really wasn't personal. I was being used as a device to present a particular point. I'm not offended and I continue to find it sadly amusing. I also recognize that I had the opportunity to boast to the playwright when we first met and chose not to because I was there to interview him and learn about his school, not to put myself forward.

For any curious, I'll post a more detailed version of my professional background. Everyone else can just skip to the next entry which I hope to make in the next week or so.

ewing experience

  • 27 years of professional writing experience
  • B.A. in Journalism from Michigan State University (I graduated either magna cum laude or summa cum laude, but I can't remember which--it didn't really strike me as important.)
  • Winner of Serwach Leadership Award in Journalism ("This award recognizes undergraduate journalism majors who have demonstrated superior leadership and reporting and writing ability for campus or professional media.")
  • Second place winner for the Focus:Hope Journalism Olympics award
  • Alternate for Dow Jones International Journalism internship in Brussels, Belgium
  • Executive Editor of my college newspaper at Olivet Nazarene University
  • Editor of the opinions section of my high school newspaper and editor for two years of my junior high newspaper
  • Temporary entertainment editor and reporter for the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers
  • Intern at the Grand Rapids Press--which included writing book reviews
  • Copy editor for the Lansing State Journal--which included editing theater reviews when they came in and writing restaurant reviews
  • Editor of hospitality textbooks and training materials for the past 17 years
  • Writer of training materials and textbook chapters for the hospitality industry for the past 17 years
  • Author of numerous books for the hospitality, private club, and spa industries
  • Ghost writer for marriage self-help book, football biography, several ph.d. papers, natural hormone replacement therapy book, textbook chapters on everything from turfgrass to training.
  • Category Lead for the Book, Newspaper, and Magazine category of, a consumer review site. I wrote for them for 10 years, primarily reviewing books but also writing travel and theater reviews. I was a top reviewer for many years.
  • Publisher and primary contributor of Book Help Web, a consumer book site that included exclusive author interviews, book reviews, author bios, and related book news. I created content for more than 1,500 pages.
  • Freelance writer for a variety of organizations including General Motors, Michigan State University, EduGuide, Lansing CityLimits magazine, Dramatics Magazine, National Parks and Recreation Association, Club Managers Association of America, International SPA Association, Pulse Magazine, and others.
  • 2007 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for Arts Journalism in Theater and Musical Theater at the University of Southern California Annenburg.
  • Was a founding contributing blogger to Flyover, a national arts blog focusing on theater outside the country's major theater centers. It is hosted by Arts Journal.
  • Theater reviewer for the Lansing State Journal and Encore Michigan
  • Performing arts columnist for the Lansing State Journal
  • Weekly theater correspondent for Michigan Entertainment Internet radio and occasional co-host at live theater broadcasts

Theater Experience
  • Performed in theater in junior high and high school
  • Performed in pit orchestra
  • President of the forensics team my senior year and competed on the team for three years
  • Was part of a religious acting troupe
  • Took several courses in dramatic literature
  • Performed in several community theater roles from minor parts to a lead.
  • Directed a show.
  • Assistant directed several shows.
  • Produced many shows.
  • Costumed shows.
  • Worked lights and sound for shows.
  • Served on two community theater boards.
  • Volunteered extensively for several years for a professional theater.
  • Taught drama to K-3 grades for four years.
  • Wrote, produced, and directed children's shows.
  • I also see an average of 100 live performances a year (mostly theater and musicals but also opera, dance concerts, symphonic concerts, and vocal concerts)--and have seen them all around the country.

(And I'm not sure if this counts or not, but I am married to an Equity actor and have learned a lot from him and his colleagues. Also, my father is a journalist and I hung out in newsrooms from the time I could walk.)

Saturday, August 21, 2010

"Real-world" experience

Does geography matter when it comes to experience?

Is art only art if it takes place in certain agreed-upon locations? Do we only count experience if the person gained it in these locations?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Rejecting Mamet's Glasses

I've never liked the plays of David Mamet.

I used to think it was because of the foul language and how I felt verbally assaulted after I'd been to one of his shows. However, strong language in other shows didn't bother me. I'll even use vulgarity myself when the situation seems appropriate (though never profanity and I do draw a very distinct line between the two--if I say "God," it's because I'm talking to or about him).

So why is it that I don't like David Mamet plays? It's because of the characters themselves. So often they are people who exhibit the worst human qualities. They are cruel, heartless, selfish, and amoral. Many of his characters could easily be diagnosed as mentally ill--sociopaths and psychopaths.

While drama is an excellent way to explore social diseases, Mamet's outlook is far too pessimistic and ultimately lacks authenticity. The societal problem that it skirts isn't that there are people like the ones he portrays in the world. The problem is that we look at others and see monsters like the ones Mamet creates. How many times do you hear someone come out of a Mamet show and say, "I know people like that."?

I've met a lot of people in my life. While there may be people who resemble Mamet's characters and who engage in some of the behaviors, none are as lacking in empathy or soul as he portrays. When you take the time to listen, you discover that the person does have redeeming qualities. For some people, it might take a lot of listening and a lot of empathy.

Hatred is easy. It's a pretty destructive habit to have. It's far easier to scream obscenities at the person who cuts you off when you're driving than to say to yourself that perhaps that person is having a bad day or didn't see you or any of a number of reasons that would make their actions understandable. It's far easier to classify someone as an idiot, jerk, or any of a number of stronger terms that to simply acknowledge that we don't like some of their behaviors--anymore than they likely are fond of some of our own behaviors.

We get to choose how we see people. We get to choose what sort of interpretation we put on their actions. While it is not wise to be naive, it can take great courage and effort to choose to see the best in people. We could see the world through cynical eyes that believe others to be criminals, wastrels, and users. Or we could see the world through compassionate eyes that believe others to share in our own struggles and to be searching for ways to be healthy and happy.

The latter may be more difficult, but it is also far more rewarding.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Difference

What is the difference between community theater and professional theater?

Aside from the obvious difference that one is a volunteer organization and the other pays its performers, how are the missions different?

There are many people who want to define the difference by creating some measure of quality. There is some validity to that measurement, but what is it that contributes to that quality?

Anyone who knows me, knows that I am a huge supporter of community theater. Yet, you will not hear me say that community theater is as good as professional theater. To me, that would be a bit like saying a strawberry is as good as a carrot. They’re both good, but both different in core ways. They both provide different but necessary vitamins to the human body just as the different types of theater provide different but necessary forms to the arts community.

Why do I value community theater?

I value community theater because it gives a wide variety of people a chance to participate in the art as an avocation. It enriches their lives and makes them more committed to the community in which they live. It helps them to form long-lasting bonds with people who share a geographic home with them. They’re able to connect to people who have similar interests, temperaments, and personalities.

Community theater, when it is true to its mission, is focused inward on the participants.

Why do I value professional theater?

I value professional theater because it elevates the art form and allows audiences to participate in the art as a transformative experience. The performers matter less than the story being told and the effectiveness with which it is being told. The story is the medium in which people are talking to people about things that matter to them. Theater becomes a way of exploring issues, experiencing catharsis, and laughing deeply.

Professional theater, when it is true to its mission, is focused outward on the audience.

In community theater, production values can take on a lesser role as what is important is providing the support and structure for the performers to be able to explore and create. Choices are made based on whether they challenge, encourage or distract the actor. The audience is coming to see their friends, co-workers and families. They’ll be far more forgiving and far more inclined to praise a show because the priority isn’t what the audience was able to feel, but what the performers were able to do. Performers want to be treated with respect because they have given up their free time and worked hard at something for an extended period of time.

In professional theater, production values are of extreme importance. Even a bare set needs to be executed well. Choices are made based on whether they will challenge, encourage, or distract the audience. The audience is coming to be entertained, moved and transformed. They’ll have high expectations for the time they are spending in the theater and will have high expectations. They want to be treated with respect and have the show creators think that the audience was worth the effort.

In community theater, the performers are learning on the fly in an invigorating, collaborative effort that allows them to transcend their daily lives. A show’s success can often depend on whether the cast is able to bond with each other in mutual respect and admiration. The participants should be given a chance to learn, grow, and develop. Once the show ends, the relationships can continue and all are likely to be given opportunities to perform together again.

In professional theater, the performers are already proficient and trained in the skills the art demands. A show’s success depends on the strong collaboration of artistic and technical staff that is focused on the work and not the personalities. When the show ends, the artists will go their separate ways, maintaining a professional respect and connection, but no longer a part of each other’s daily lives until they once again end up at the same theater.

In community theater, it is essential that an effort be made to draw in new people who may not know much about the art or the craft. There needs to be room for participants to grow as performers. They should not be required to be great performers when they first show up. A community theater stagnates when it doesn't allow "less talented" people to be part of the shows.

In professional theater, it is essential that every performer from the lead to the walk-on role, from the stage manager to the box office manager, have all of the skills required to do the job. The theater should make sure it is hiring the best people possible for each role and job and not just the performers and technicians with whom they are most familiar and comfortable.

Community theater fails when it treats its performers poorly or ignores their needs and abilities. They succeed when they select work that allows their participants to stretch without asking the impossible.

Professional theater fails when it ignores the needs and desires of its audience and gets caught up in what it wants to do to the degree that it shows contempt for their patrons.

Community theater enriches society by giving people the chance to perform.

Professional theater enriches society by giving people the chance to experience performance.