Saturday, December 12, 2009

BoarsHead canceling the rest of the season

BoarsHead announced today it was canceling the rest of its season.

I've tried to withhold my opinion on this for a while, but I'll confess I'm angry. I'm angry at how BoarsHead has chosen to handle this for a long time now.

First, there was the ineptness in the firing of Kristine Thatcher. Even if they felt it was necessary, they bungled the handling of it. They treated her poorly and they treated their audience and supporters with contempt and arrogance. Theater is an art which brings a community together and helps them to make connections with one another. A theater cannot succeed when it tries to shut communications down and sever those connections.

A theater is not in business to sell tickets. If it is going to survive, it is selling an experience, an experience that involves people making connections.

Then with the most recent shut down, the board once again showed that it didn't understand what it was in business to do or how to survive. It was going to sit around and wait for corporate donations to come in.

I know that there were arts organizations that went to the BoarsHead board saying, "how can we help you?" But why wasn't the board out in the theater community asking for help? Why weren't they holding town hall meetings in which they invited their patrons in to talk to them?

Instead, the members of BoarsHead were told that they were not to speak to the public and a PR person was appointed who had not previously been a part of the arts community. There are influencers in our community who might have been able to help, but they were never approached.

BoarsHead was not beyond saving if it had been treated like an arts organization. Instead, it was presented as a business that had a need. Where was all the talk about how BoarsHead could help meet the needs of the community? How BoarsHead was important not just because they had existed, but because they could make our community better?

Honestly, why should people give money to a non-profit organization that can't properly articulate how it meets the needs of the community? Especially if that organization is supposed to be in the business of creating art with words.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Going Underground with LCP

Saturday night I finally made it to the renovated LCP space, which has been dubbed LCP Underground.

I've been very impressed with the choices that LCP has been making this year and the creativity and passion they've poured into reinventing the organization. It's not an easy route to take and it is one fraught with risks.

Lansing Civic Players is the oldest theatrical organization in the area. They have a rich history and loyal audiences. Those two factors, though, are not enough to keep an organization out of bankruptcy or to keep it thriving in a changing world. They were known for doing standards--shows that demanded little risk-taking, but which gave local actors the chance to perform in cherished, iconic roles. There is great value in that for a community theater.

What they are doing now appears to many like a 180-degree turn. They canceled their mainstage season in favor of intimate, interactive shows that can be performed in the space that they have long owned. While they cannot fit as many people into the space, neither do they have to pay rent or any of the expenses associated with moving a production into a space.

Nor are they simply trying to do the same thing in a different space. They are re-thinking themselves and offering a different fare to a different audience. They're trying things that may or may not work. They're also putting a lot of effort into trying to communicate what they are doing and in making themselves accessible.

Succeed or fail, I applaud Lansing Civic Players for taking actions that have transformed them from the staid, tried-and-true organization to the one taking the most daring risks and creative experiments in our community.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Life & Theater

Driving home from Peppermint Creek's "The Seafarers" last night, I got to thinking about my taste in theater, which admittedly at this point is pretty broad. I was tickled with a metaphor.

My taste in theater is much like what I want out of life:
  • Heavy doses of comedy to fill the days with laughter
  • Plenty of drama to challenge me, make me think, help me grow, and help me form healthier relationships with others
  • Strong dashes of absurdity to keep me on my feet
  • Small bits of the familiar to comfort me
  • A vast majority of new experiences to expand my horizons
  • Relevant stories that give me something to share with those around me
  • Lots of song and dance to celebrate it all

Monday, November 2, 2009

Arts Council Grants

The Arts Council of Greater Lansing announced the awarding of several mini-grants. From their press release:

LANSING, Nov. 2, 2009--The Arts Council of Greater Lansing recently awarded $17,462 as part of its new Collaborative Arts Grant Program to local arts and cultural agencies. Funded by the Council's Arts Advancement Endowment Fund, the grants encourage local organizations to work together on new projects in greater Lansing.

Organizations receiving awards for fiscal year 2010 are:

Community Circle Players - $3,000
Community Circle Players, along with Peppermint Creek Theater Company, will present public performances of the musical "Caroline, or Change" at Riverwalk Theatre in Lansing in September 2010.

Kresge Art Museum - $3,884

Kresge Art Museum will sponsor a new approach for greater Lansing area fourth grade math and language arts students touring their facilities through "The GESSO Project: Art as a Foundation for Academic Excellence" during the 2009-10 school year.

The Steiner Chorale - $3,578

The Steiner Chorale will work with the choral departments of Grand Ledge High School and Leslie High School for a workshop and performance under the direction of Nina Nash-Robertson, professor of music at Central Michigan University. The performance will be at the Plymouth Congregational Church in Lansing in May 2010.

Reach Studio Art Center - $4,000

Reach Studio Art Center, students from Michigan State University's Residential College in the Arts and Humanities, and professional artists will work with urban Lansing youth to create artwork to be exhibited in Lansing's REO Town and at MSU.

Williamston Theatre - $3,000

Williamston Theatre, along with the Performance Network Theatre of Ann Arbor, will present the premiere of "It Came from Mars" by Michigan playwright Joseph Zettelmaier during the theater's spring 2010 season.

LANSING, Nov. 2, 2009--Five Lansing organizations have received a total of $13,000 in City of Lansing mini grants through the Arts Council of Greater Lansing.

The City of Lansing General Funds Mini Grant dollars are administered by the Arts Council for arts and cultural events that take place within city limits, directly benefit City of Lansing residents, and are sponsored by small non-profit arts organizations.

Organizations receiving awards for fiscal year 2010 are:
All-of-Us Express Children's Theatre - $2,550

Collaboration with Reach Studio Art Center and Riverwalk Theatre to present performances of "Dragonsong" involving Lansing children in spring 2010.

Earl Nelson Singers Company - $3,000
Free public concerts to be held in November, January and April at churches in Lansing featuring guest artists to illustrate the history of Negro Spirituals in America.

Happendance, Inc. - $3,000
Performances and workshops for children in Lansing School District elementary schools throughout the 2009-10 school year.

Meridian Community Band - $1,450
Free and discounted admissions for Lansing students and seniors to attend the 16th annual Grand Sousa Concert at Pattengill Middle School.

Reach Studio Art Center - $3,000
Free, after school drop-in art sessions for Lansing youth and families from March to June 2010 at Reach Studio Art Center.

The City of Lansing mini grants are awarded once a year. Non-profit arts organizations whose programs and activities specifically serve Lansing residents are eligible to apply. Applications for the mini grants are available in mid-July and are due in mid-August. All events must take place between Oct. 1 and June 30.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

BoarsHead and Stormfield: Not or

Earlier this week, the founding artistic director of BoarsHead, John Peakes, sent a letter to the editor at the Lansing State Journal. It encouraged people to support the new theater that Kristine Thatcher is forming, Stormfield. It also encouraged people to pull their support away from BoarsHead.

The first part of that call is something I can completely get behind. I was thrilled to hear that Kristine would be staying in our community and continuing to bring in the works that made BoarsHead an exciting place to attend during her tenure. She will be filling a niche that true theater lovers can appreciate--producing those works that prove the art is still alive, evolving, and relevant. She'll be introducing us to works as a way of finding out whether they are worth loving.

The second part of John's advice is far more problematic. Yes, I understand the anger at how Kristine was treated. Yes, I understand that such a move reveals frightening things about the artistic direction of the oldest professional theater in the region. I also fear that they've chosen stagnation over necessary risk-taking. However, neither do I think it would be healthy for anyone in the arts if BoarsHead were to fail.

Forget about the personality conflicts for a few minutes. Let's look at things philosophically:

Theater as an eco-system

I've written about this idea so much in this blog that I'm sure my long time readers are sick of it. It bears repeating in reference to this issue. John's email assumes an either/or attitude--that we must choose one theater over the other to support. It's a model of competition. Yet, theaters are non-profit for a good reason and not just because they aren't financial cash cows. They exist to serve a purpose in the community. They enrich the community and the people who live in it, improving their quality of life.

Each theater company in the Greater Lansing area serves a purpose and an overlapping audience. While resources may be finite, live theater has not begun to reach the limits of those resources, particularly when it comes to audience members (and, if we are going to be cynical, the financial resources that accompany those audience members). I've had the good fortune to attend theater at all of the local theater companies. Yes, there is an overlapping audience, but each new group also brings new people to theater. As the years pass, you start to see those new audience members at other theater productions.

In other words, each group creates its own audience and brings more people to the wonder and miracle of live theater. Even with all of the productions that take place in the Lansing area, they are still a fraction of the number of movies that come out each year--yet you don't hear people making a call for fewer movies. There are few people who will ever try to see every movie that comes out and there are even fewer people who will see every live production that comes out. However, the play that one person has no interest in will appeal to someone else.

The more theater we have, the more people are able and willing to make theater a normal part of their lives. We have already reached the point in Lansing that you can see theater every single weekend. This is essential for a society that increasingly does things spontaneously--making decisions about their entertainment choices not a year in advance, but an hour in advance. Also, the more theater we have, the more passionate people become involved and passion is contagious.

If we want a healthy theater community, we can only benefit from trading the competition model for the ecosystem model. We can recognize that every theater has something to contribute and all of them support each other in a myriad of ways.

Both BoarsHead and Stormfield have committed themselves to different types of theater work. Those works will appeal to different people--albeit there will definitely be overlapping audiences. There is sufficient room in this community for both types of work. Indeed, having both types of work is going to make each of the other more successful because people will become increasingly aware of the diversity of theater offerings. Rarely will someone decide they don't like all movies because they don't like the horror genre. Yet, you will hear people write off all of live theater because they think the few shows that they've seen represent the entire spectrum.

BoarsHead as Employer

Aside from the artistic element of theater, there is another reason that the Lansing theater community would not benefit from the failure of BoarsHead. It remains the largest professional non-profit theater in the area, providing more artistic support and artistic jobs than other theaters in the area. Even with film incentives making it somewhat easier, it is still an extremely difficult path to make your living in the theater arts.

Yes, I understand John's anger at those who made the decision that they did about Kristine. But more people would suffer if BoarsHead went under than just those people. In fact, those people would probably suffer the least. There are people who rely on BoarsHead for their living. There are those who rely on BoarsHead as an important supplement to their income. It continues to offer an important educational service to the community.

No one will benefit from the failure of BoarsHead.

Let's not make our choice one of Stormfield OR BoarsHead. Let's make it a choice of Stormfield AND BoarsHead.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Theater, but not in Lansing

Last week, I took a trip with my mom, her two sisters and their daughters (my aunts and cousins). They had recently sold my grandfather's house and they decided to use the proceeds to take us all on a trip to Chicago to see "Jersey Boys."

I was excited about it because while I see a lot of theater, rarely do I see it with my relatives. Indeed, for my one aunt, this was her first time ever going to see live theater. She said it was on her list of things to do before she died.

So on Monday, five of us took the train into Chicago while my other cousin flew in from Arizona. We checked into the beautiful boutique property, Hotel Felix, and proceeded to go shopping at Water Tower Place.

On Tuesday evening, we headed to the Bank of America Theater to see Jersey Boys. We had a little trouble getting in as two of the six tickets had printed out in Japanese on my aunt's printer rather than English and we had to get that fixed at the box office. However, we all made it in in time for the first act. It was a pretty good show. I could tell it was a Tuesday night performance as the energy was low and some of the lead performers were struggling with mush mouth for the first half hour.

At intermission, everyone said what a good time they were having and we did the usual intermission things. After some time had passed, we realized that the intermission was lasting a really long time.

Then the ushers went to the front of the theater, and we watched as everyone in front stood up and started coming up the aisles. Sure enough, the ushers were evacuating the theater. They did so very calmly and efficiently. We all got outside and they moved us across the street. The Chicago police were there, as was the SWAT team.

Soon they evacuated the entire street and the hotel above the theater. Then people from the theater came out and told us all to leave, that our tickets would be refunded.

Later, we learned that two suspicious packages were found in the alleyway next to the theater. One of them had a note that read, "This is not a bomb." The other had a note that read, "This is not going to end good." (Obviously, they need to look for someone with an incomplete grasp on grammar.)

Eventually the bomb squad exploded the two boxes. There were not explosives inside and last I heard an investigation was going on to find who did it and hand them a bill for the city's response.

It was definitely a memorable night at the theater, even if we all left at intermission and can't tell you how it ended. Nor could the actors be blamed if the audience complained that the show bombed.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Fall Memories

Dear readers, will you indulge me for an entry that has nothing to do with theater?

I recently found something I wrote 8 years ago; something that I rather like and find it to be as true today as it was when I wrote it (except the years listed would have to add 8 to them). The event I was writing about was now 24 years ago, not 16 years ago and I've been married for nearly 17 years now, not nine. But the sentiments are surprisingly unchanged:

A Lunchtime Drive

Earlier today as I drove home for lunch I admired the vibrant strokes of color that had painted the trees and leaves. Squirrels bearing nuts bounded over golden carpets and trees wept red and brown tears against the overcast skies.

Autumn is one of my favorite seasons and it always makes me nostalgic. Today on the drive home it made me think of an autumn night 16 years ago. Two nervous teenagers were returning home from their senior homecoming dance and the young man stood on the young woman’s front porch preparing to bid her goodnight.

It wasn’t exactly their first date. They had spent an afternoon together after a forensics team trip to book stores in Ann Arbor. They’d shopped together at a mall and spent a few hours in a video arcade, shared a Toblerone bar, and gone out to eat at a Coney dog restaurant. When the teenage boy had taken the girl home that night, he’d pointed out that it wasn’t exactly a date, and so he wasn’t sure if he should ask for a good-night kiss. She, somewhat flustered, demurred and suggested she just give him a hug instead.

But the homecoming dance was definitely a date. She was decked out in a sequin-covered, 80s-style black dress and he looked especially sharp in a thin gray tie and matching suit coat and pants. The October evening was brisk, but not cold yet, much like today’s weather. He gave a smile that she would soon become addicted to, and said, “Now I know it’s appropriate this time to ask you for a kiss goodnight.” She blushed, agreed, and they exchanged what would now be considered a rather chaste kiss goodnight.

Later he would learn that he’d just given that 17-year-old girl her “first kiss” and their dating relationship would be rather tumultuous over the next couple years. After all, these two were yet children as much as they might have wanted to think otherwise. They had yet to learn that love is more than an emotion. They had yet to learn that passion is only one part of a successful relationship. It would be years before they would discover that love has only begun to grow once the initial excitement and ardor wears off. They would have relationships with other people before they would learn that a marriage is made of something stronger than a fluttering heart.

But my drive home for lunch today was rather short, giving me time to think just about this one enchanted fall evening so many years ago—not the painful lessons that those two would later learn from each other.

I walked into my house to be greeted enthusiastically by my blond imp of a son who quickly filled my ears with giggles. I then turned to his dad—my husband of nine years—and greeted him with a kiss. How sweet to discover that his kiss is as dear today as it was on that brisk October evening 16 years ago.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Round-up of Changes in Lansing Theater

I've been writing a lot lately, just not blogging very much. There is definitely a lot going on in our theater community, and not just because the new fall season has started. In the past several months, we've witnessed some pretty major changes:

(And I was about to use a bulleted list, but that screws with some people's readers, so I'll number the list and beg your pardon for the lack of pretty formatting.)

1. Kristine Thatcher's contract as Artistic Director was not renewed at BoarsHead.
2. Shakespeare on the Grand replaced Sunsets with Shakespeare as the summer outdoor Shakespeare company. Led by Lindsay Palinsky, Rita Deibler, and Tod Humphrey, they are associated with the Lansing Civic Players.
3. Len Kluge died.
4. Bob Gras died.
5. Lansing Civic Players announced that it was canceling its mainstage season and launching an Underground LCP Black Box season while they regroup and raise money.
6. The Renegade Festival in Old Town continued to grow by leaps and bounds and was an exciting event this summer.
7. Merrill Wyble died.
8. Paul Riopelle was hired as BoarsHead's interim artistic associate.
9. All-of-Us Express Children's Theater merged with the City of East Lansing and is moving into the Hannah Center.
10. John Neville-Andrews resigned as the Artistic Director of the Michigan Shakespeare Festival.
11. Kristine Thatcher announced the formation of a new professional theater company.

Things are changing fast around here. It's exciting times for the theater community.

I'm hoping in the next week or so to blog about a wonderful conversation I had with Jeffrey Sweet about theater and theater journalism. I also want to get a book he recommended and possibly share things from there.

In the mean time, if you're looking for theater this weekend, here are some of your options:

  • An Evening with Mark Twain at the Ledges Playhouse, Capital TheaterWorks
  • Things You Shouldn't Say Past Midnight, Creole Gallery, Peppermint Creek Theatre Company
  • Beau Jest, BoarsHead
  • Rocky Horror Picture Show, Pasant Theater, Michigan State University
  • 70 Scenes from Halloween, 168 Black Box Theater, Gannon Building, Lansing Community College
  • LCP Underground Grand Opening, LCP Firehouse (Reservations required--Saturday only)
I'll try to remember to come back tomorrow and stick in links for the Beau Jest review, the Rocky Horror picture show and 70 Scenes preview. Some of the other stories are no longer available online.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

R.I.P. Merrill Wyble

Merrill's obit is in today's paper here. It had to be cut far more than Bob's did, so I'll put the whole thing here. Granted, with the shrinking news hole, I'm glad they were able to get as much as they were in the print version of the newspaper.

On Aug. 29, the Lansing theater community lost another of its long-time members, the third since the beginning of July.

Merrill Wyble, age 80, died Saturday evening of complications arising from a colon infection. While he’d been ill for several weeks, he was recuperating and had been expected to be released from the hospital when he had to have an emergency colonoscopy Aug. 28.

Wyble was preceded in death by Spotlight founder, director, and theater critic Len Kluge on July 1 and director, actor, and teacher Robert Gras on Aug. 20.

Wyble, who retired in 1991 from the law firm, Church, Wyble, Kritselis & Robinson, PC, where he was a senior partner, was an active volunteer for Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Community Theater Association of Michigan (CTAM), and local theaters. Wyble was a prolific actor who appeared on stages at Lansing Civic Players, Riverwalk, BoarsHead, and Peppermint Creek. His final performance was in Riverwalk’s “Born Yesterday,” in the fall of 2008.

Winifred Olds, who along with her husband Wes and Betty White breakfasted with Wyble every Saturday, said that Wyble had slowed down a little in the past couple years.

“He decided to do smaller parts and to stick close to local theater—Riverwalk and LCP,” said Olds, whose husband Wes had a room at the hospital next to Wyble during his final illness. “We always went to Starlight Dinner Theater together—Merrill, Wes, Betty, and I. We always sat at the same tables so we could talk about the plays.”

Starlight’s Artistic Director, Linda Granger, said that while Wyble was skeptical about the viability of a dinner theater, he came to support it with his active patronage.

“What to me is most memorable about Merrill is that he spoke his mind,” Granger said. “I admire that in people and he was also the first to admit if he was wrong. He told me that my dinner theater would never make it and sent me a nice email some time later saying more or less, ‘I was wrong.’ When Judy Such, his girlfriend, was alive, they attended every single play in the Lansing area. After Judy passed away, Merrill kept going to all the local theaters. He was a regular customer at Starlight and I would see him at LCP or taking tickets at Riverwalk.”

Wyble’s volunteer contributions were many. He served several years on the board of LCP, participated in the Worship Arts team at Good Shepherd, and served on the board and several committees for CTAM.

“He was a good lawyer,” Olds said. “There was a time when he served on the board of LCP that a letter on his letterhead sometimes moved mountains.”

With CTAM, Wyble and his partner of many years, Judy Such, helped to organize retreats at Boyne Mountain and traveled around the state as adjudicators to help develop other community theaters.

“Community theater was his great passion outside of his profession,” CTAM board member Joanne Berry said. “He had a wit and charm about him and a genuine concern for people that drew others to him. He tackled many jobs having to do with community theater with great gusto. You could always depend on him to get done whatever had to be done for the organization.”

Berry said she is certain that people will be remembering and toasting Wyble at their Cadillac conference in late September.

Pastor Roger Straub said Wyble had been attending Good Shepherd for the past 20 years.

“He was very active in a number of areas in our church,” said Straub. “One of the things he brought to us was his interest in theater. He was an active part in the Worship Arts Group, whose purpose was as a group to enhance worship in a number of creative ways.”

Wyble’s eldest son, Rick Wyble, spent much of the last several months with his father. He said his father caught a cold at one of the nursing homes where he volunteered and it attacked his colon.

“He got through the first bout, but when it came back, he was too weak to handle it and became resistant to the antibiotics they were giving him,” Rick Wyble said.

He said that during the past few months in the hospital, he got to hear stories from his father about when he served in the army in Germany and first passed the bar exam. Rick is the oldest of six children and three step-children. Merrill Wyble is also survived by 14 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

The memorial service will be at 11 a.m. Friday at Good Shepherd with visitation an hour before.

“He was very specific on how he wanted it done,” Rick Wyble said. “He left us a letter of what he expects and how it will be done. There was one line in there that, ‘There will be no wailing or gnashing of teeth. It should be a joyous occasion.’”

Rick Wyble expects there will be a large turnout at the service as his father had made friends in many different circles.

“That’s one of the things he enjoyed most after he retired,” Rick Wyble said. “He was able to do everything. It gave him time to social network. He was very active at church, at theater. He got involved in mall walking. He has a circle of friends there, a circle of friends at theater, a circle of friends form his office, another for his family, and another from church.”

As the news spread of Wyble’s death, members of the arts community began their mourning and sharing memories.

“He will be greatly missed,” said Granger. “It saddens me that in the past two months we have lost three men who have been so pivotal in building and sustaining community theaters in the Lansing area.”

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

R.I.P. Bob Gras

While writing obits were one of my first assignments in journalism back when I was still in junior high and high school, it isn't that common for an arts writer to have to write them. Nor was it common for me to know the people about whom I was writing.

In the past several weeks we've lost two giant in local theater: Bob Gras and Merrill Wyble. I knew, respected, had worked with, and liked both of them. Writing not a tribute, but a feature obituary for them was tougher than I thought it would be.

The obit on Bob Gras appeared last week here. Merrill's obit will appear later this week.

I'm going to once again take advantage of my blog to "publish" that which had to be cut because of space. The cuts are from various points in the story--not from all one place, so I'm just going to reprint the whole thing here.

On Aug. 19, the Lansing theater community lost one of its stalwart supporters and creative drivers.

Robert Gras, age 69, died from complications of acute leukemia after being on life support for more than a month. A retired Eaton Rapids Public Schools English and drama teacher, Gras is survived by wife Linda, children Robert Gras and Cassandra Gras, and two grandchildren.

Gras performed for community theaters throughout the Lansing area and led the drama program in Eaton Rapids schools. He was a driving force behind Riverwalk’s Black Box theater. In 2009, he performed in the final Black Box production at the Creole, “Substance of Fire,” for which he won a Best Lead Actor Thespie from the Lansing State Journal and a Best Lead Actor Pulsar from the City Pulse.

“Bob hadn’t been onstage all that much in the last few years because of his back condition,” said Bill Helder, the director of Substance of Fire. “Seeing what a good actor he is reminded people of some of the earlier things he had done. Bob really could do everything. Before he developed his back problems, he could design sets and build them. He was a super director and was wonderful to be on stage with.”

Former students Terry Jones and Wendy Fall both spoke highly of his teaching and how he inspired them.

Jones first met Gras 38 years ago in 7th grade when his teacher introduced them. Gras promptly cast him in a high school production.

“In the years after that, we formed quite a bond,” Jones said. “I was cast in every show that he did. I always got the lead if it was a non-musical. If it was a musical, I got the dominant non-singing role.”

Then during Jones’ senior year, Gras overruled the music teacher and cast Jones as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof.” Jones lost contact with Gras until 1990, when he was cast as the title character in the first show that Gras directed at Riverwalk—Tartuffe.

“He went from teacher to mentor to friend,” Jones said. “He was a good guy. He knew his stuff.”

Fall said she still benefits from the motto Gras constantly repeated in his English classes: “Eschew obfuscation.”

“He wanted us to be precise,” Fall said, saying he was vigilant about removing all unnecessary words from their essays. She also said that he lit a passion for Shakespeare and great literature in his students. “He would get up and read it in his big booming voice with all his theatrical talent. It was incredible. When you’re a high school student, Shakespeare doesn’t make a lot of sense. But when he read it and brought the text to life for us, it was never the same. That was his particular talent.”

Playwright Eileen O’Leary described how Gras championed her new work, fighting to get its world premiere launched at Lansing Civic Players in 1999.
She had sent Gras a copy of her play “The Siege of Ennis.” He read it and wanted to direct it. At first, the LCP board resisted, saying that the financial risk of a new work by a new playwright was too great.

“Bob Gras told them that if they didn’t let him direct ‘The Siege of Ennis,’ he wasn’t going to direct any other play,” O’Leary said. “So they relented and put it on. I had never had anyone do anything like that for me before. He championed it and he put his neck out for it.”

O’Leary said that the production was gorgeous. She also said that she saw the financials after the show—and it made money.

“He was a real class act who would stand up for what he believed in. I thought he was fantastic,” O’Leary said. “He didn’t know me, but he liked the play and he didn’t want anyone to not allow him to put it on for a reason that was just financial. It was a wonderful thing to do for someone no one knew. Most people don’t stick up for others like that. He was amazing.”

Gras’ support continued to be inspirational to O’Leary. “I kept writing plays and I probably would have stopped writing because I was sort of at an impasse.”

Helder, who first met Gras during “The Crucible” in 1993 at Grand Ledge’s Spotlight, said Gras’ death is a real loss for Riverwalk.

“He really had taken the black box under his wing. He was the director of the first show in the black box at the Creole and starred in the last show. There is a certain symmetry there,” Helder said. “He was scheduled to open our first season in the new location with a Chekov piece.”

The Chekov piece has now been canceled.

“To the general public, (Gras will be) most remembered for the number of really solid shows that he directed,” said Helder. “He will be remembered as the kind of director that could direct everything: from a crazy farce like Noises Off to something like Hedda Gabler and on to something like Under Milkwood, which is really poetry on stage. He will be remembered for the variety of things that he could and all of them well.”

Friday, August 21, 2009

Renegade Festival

Last night's time at the Renegade Festival in Old Town was a reminder of why I love theater so much.

Live theater matters not just because of what occurs on the stage, but because of the community that it builds and the creativity and hope that it inspires. The population of Lansing may keep it from qualifying as a "small town," but anyone strolling through Old Town last night would have enjoyed the small-town feel of community with the cultural opportunities of the city.

On a personal level, after a summer that has been challenging (to say the least), it was uplifting and inspiring to be once again immersed in the life I love and surrounded by the amazing people that make Lansing an incredible place to live. You really don't have to look long or hard to find people who are creative, compassionate, intelligent, interesting, and caring.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Thinking about a new policy

I'm thinking about adopting a new policy. I may, in the future, refuse to agree to off-the-record conversations when the organizations refuse to keep their word about the release of information. I will act with integrity with information that I am given, but I do expect others to have that same degree of integrity.

Thankfully, most theater people and organizations in this community have a very high level of integrity and have shown sensitivity and honor. It's easy for me to expect people to keep their word because the vast majority of people in town do.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Chicago Thinks We're Crazy

The theater community in Chicago thinks we're crazy for letting Kristine Thatcher go.

While I work on composing the blog entry I'm working on about Gov. Sanford and "A Clean House," I'd encourage you to go read this blog here and the comments that were left.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Pondering Riverwalk’s the Dead and Lost Loves

Despite my plans, I did not, in fact, get to any shows this weekend. However, with my son still out of town, I did get some very high quality time in with Richard—the kind of time that every marriage should make room for once in a while.

On Sunday, I took a long walk, enjoying the beautiful day and found myself thinking back to Riverwalk’s production of James Joyce's The Dead. One of the beautiful things about great shows is how they stick with you and continue to give you things to think about long after they are done. The Dead had such beautiful imagery, language, music, and themes, that they’ve continued to resonate with me and to occasionally stroke my thoughts with new ways of looking at them.

The Dead is a memory play, but the memories central to the play are less those of the narrator and more those of the narrator’s wife. So why not have the wife be the narrator? That was the fascinating layer that my mind played with on Sunday. Joyce invites us to ask what we would do if faced with the narrator’s circumstances—what do you do when your love of a lifetime is flush with remembered love and filled with tears over the loss of a past lover, one who disappeared decades before?

This is where Doak Bloss’ choices and Mary Job’s direction was truly brilliant. For it was as much the facial expressions, the movements on stage, and the lighting as it was the words of the script that showed the husband’s choices. He was pained that the love he thought was exclusively his belonged in part to a memory. Yet, the love for his wife was so great that he did not berate her. He did not turn her pain into a betrayal of him or of their marriage. He didn’t try to exorcise the ghosts of the past, but rather, went and held his spouse so that they would not be alone during the haunting.

Would their marriage be the same afterward? Joyce doesn’t tell us, but if I were to believe the interpretation presented, I would say no. Neither person nor marriage would ever be the same afterward, but they would likely be better.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Free Theater this Weekend

June has been the month for free theater--and one of the best months in Michigan to do the outdoor theater thing.

Richard, Dominic, and I caught "Leading Ladies" last week at MSU's Summer Circle. It was quite the riot. I enjoyed it when I first saw it at Starlight last year and it was fun to see it again with the different interpretations.

Summer Circle closes its season this weekend with "Kid Purple" and the late-night shows of "Clevenger's Trial" from Catch-22. I'm especially curious to see what they're going to do with the latter.

Mid-Michigan Family Theatre is performing two one-acts at their home in Frandor this weekend. They're doing Pied Piper and Dick Whittington and His Cat. I'm planning to take some kids to that one this weekend, though my own is still off at his grandparents.

Finally, I very much want to see Our Town at Lansing Community College. It's got a stellar cast and it's one of those classic shows that I've only ever seen once.

If you're in town, treat yourself to an outdoor show--there is something about the non-contained environment that makes for a truly special experience.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Learning Courage from my Father

At the risk of turning my theater blog into a journalism blog, I’m going to make yet another entry that is more about journalism than theater, though it doesn’t abandon the latter theme. Also, with Father’s Day right around the corner, it is, perhaps, timely.

One of the things that has been very comfortable about being a performing arts columnist is that I’m mostly writing stories that my sources want to have told. People get angry at reviews, they rarely get angry at previews (except when I get something important like a time or a date wrong).

Like most people, I prefer to have people pleased with me rather than angry with me. However, I also learned a long time ago that such desires cannot be a driving force in good, moral decision making. How did I learn this? Many ways, I suppose, but what sticks out to me is one of my family’s stories about a choice my father made.

My Father’s Example of Moral Courage

My dad was a career journalist, one who was inspired (like many in the field) to enter the newspaper business because he wanted to make his community a better place. He graduated from college and immediately took a job as a community editor for a suburban Detroit newspaper.

This was during the Vietnam War, though because he had just graduated from college and was looking to pursue a master’s degree, he had received a draft deferral and his draft number was such that it wasn’t likely to come up yet for several years.

One of the early stories he covered were grand jury proceedings of a city politician who had hired a hit man to kill his opponent. The politician was furious at the coverage and brought a libel lawsuit against my father, seeking damages of $1 million. Eventually, the politician’s lawyer pointed out to his client that when it comes to libel, truth is an absolute defense and he was going to lose his suit as my father’s coverage had been accurate and truthful.

So the politician took another tack. He was chair of the draft committee in the community and changed my father’s number so that it would come up immediately. My parents were married on a Saturday and on that Monday, he received his draft notice. The politician took great glee and boasted about what he had done to his buddies in a local bar.

NEA Fellowship Instructor: “Be Brave. Be Specific.”

One of the things I’ve observed in the recent coverage of BoarsHead and the board’s decision to oust Kristine Thatcher, is that most of the public commentary has come from people out of town. Locally, people have opinions, but few are making any sort of public statement (with some notable exceptions).

I understand why this is the case. People locally have much more to risk, especially if they wish to work in a field that has very little opportunity in the best of times. I’ve had my own moments of paranoia—for while I myself have very little at risk in covering this story, I recognize that I could be jeopardizing opportunities for both my husband and my son. That thought pains me a great deal as I am a wife and mother before I am a journalist.

However, I have my father’s example to put that in perspective. My dad, by choosing to do the right thing, put his very life in jeopardy. Because he accurately and faithfully covered a story that needed to be covered, my brother and I might never have been born. I am faced with no such choice. Compared with the choices that my father made, mine are easy.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Listening Skills are Critical to Both Reporting and Reviewing

Michigan State University's J-School does a great job of training journalists—or at least, it did when I went there, I'm not sure what the program is like now. There was an emphasis on always getting facts correct (any factual error—even a typo in a proper noun—meant your grade on that assignment was an immediate 1.0), and a demand that you take a variety of classes so that you could be knowledgeable on a variety of topics. You had to take courses in English, history, economics, plus an emphasis that was different from all of those (mine was Russian). You were limited in how many journalism classes you were allowed to take because they wanted to make sure you had a broad knowledge base. We were also strongly encouraged (it might have been required, I can't remember) to get practical experience through internships and other methods.

Learning to Listen

The one thing that got very little attention was reviewing. While I was assigned book reviews while interning at the Grand Rapids Press, I don't think I ever had a class assignment in which we had to write a review or where we even talked about how to review. Those were skills I had to pick up through practical experience through the course of my career. Looking back, I would now encourage J-schools to make review writing a mandatory course. Why? Because being a good reviewer develops the same skills that are essential to being a good reporter and they are the softer skills that can be hard to teach—the skills of listening, of setting aside one's own ego, and of being patient.

When I first started reviewing, I would try to critique my experience from the very beginning. When I was reviewing a book, I would start taking notes while reading. When I did restaurant reviews, I tried to memorize as much of the menu as I could and would be thinking about what I was going to write from the very first bite. When I started reviewing theater, I would spend half of the show thinking about how I wanted to write the review based on what I was seeing. It was while doing the latter that I finally figured out the flaw in this approach. This "pre-writing" kept me from hearing the story. Because I was mentally engaged in my story, I wasn't hearing the story that was being told to me. I had to learn to discipline my thoughts so that I could be open to what was being performed and to fully experience the work before I started critiquing or figuring out what I was going to write. It is only after a show is over that I let myself begin the process of critiquing—of evaluating how well the story was told and whether the choices made helped or hindered what appeared to be the director's vision. It is afterward that the mental work begins—not during the show. It's also why I almost never take notes during a show—it distracts me and gets me focused on what I think I want to write later and not on the story that is being told to me.

Reviewing Skills Transfer to Reporting

When a few weeks ago I found myself again reporting, I discovered that those skills have made me a better reporter than I used to be (of course, years as a ghost writer and a researcher haven't hurt either). Being objective as a reporter doesn't mean that you don't have an opinion, but it does mean that you have to truly listen to each source you're talking to without pre-judging or pre-writing. It wasn't that I didn't have an opinion on the story that I was covering, but I did have to set that opinion aside and lock it safely away into a compartment of my brain. It meant that every person I spoke to I needed to truly listen to and try my hardest to understand what they were saying, what they wanted to communicate, and to hear their angle of the story. It meant being open and not asking only the questions that would tell the story I thought I wanted to tell. It meant not determining what the story was until after I had the information. It meant giving each person every opportunity to present their information so that when I did write my story, it wasn't a story that reflected my opinions but one that represented the facts as I was able to find. It meant being willing to have my opinions changed by what I learned—to go the extra mile to hear each side of the story before doing the hard work of shifting through each fact and each source's information.

I have my own distinct taste in theater. There are some types of shows that I like more than others. However, if my readers are able to discern my personal taste from what I've written in a review, then I've failed in that review. My personal likes and dislikes are irrelevant. What is important is the informed, disciplined opinion on whether the show accomplished what it was meant to accomplish. Was it a good show? A good script? A good performance? Those are the things that are worthwhile to write about. My likes or dislikes are merely a matter of egoism—which is why, frankly, blogs exist. In a blog, I'll reveal my likes and dislikes. This is one of the main reasons that I insist that what I write in my blog is not a review—because it does not meet professional standards for a review. I hope it is interesting to read and that it might spark a conversation about theater, but it is not a critique in which I am attempting to objectively evaluate the art that I experienced.

The same is true with a story. You don't cover the theater community for any length of time without forming an opinion about what is going on. Years worth of observations, conversations, and events help to inform those opinions. However, when reporting on something that is taking place in the theatrical community, those opinions cannot be what drives the story. Just as in a review you present an opinion supported by specifics, a news story presents events with facts and specifics that explain those events. Yes, reporters still interpret, but the interpretations must be completely divorced from their egos.

Being Respectful

I've noticed that many novice reporters take great glee in being rude to sources—they consider that rudeness is necessary to ask tough questions. They thrive on controversy and scandal. I was never comfortable with rudeness nor do I expect that I ever will be. I used to think that would hinder me as a reporter. Twenty years later, what I've learned is that the opposite is true. I can write a better story when I go in to each interview with an open mind and a willingness for each source to be able to tell his or her story and to be receptive to what I am being told. I need to treat each person I interview with respect and fairness. After the interview is done, I can sit with it, listen to it again, think about it and compare it to other information I have. After the interview is done, I can begin the work of interpretation and reporting knowing that I haven't pre-judged the information that I've received. I can search for the way to make the story as balanced as possible so that multiple sides are presented and given appropriate weight. Does that mean being na├»ve? Absolutely not. But it does mean that the filter doesn't get applied before the information is received.

I've devolved into a lecture on journalism when really what I intended with this blog entry was to share what has come as a discovery to me—that the approach I learned to effective review writing is an approach that works equally well in the very different product of news writing.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Rothschilds Resumes Tonight

I've been having a blast watching my son (and the rest of the cast) perform in Rothschilds.

Were I speaking, that last sentence would be slightly tongue in cheek as my son actually has a pretty small role in the play--only one song and two scenes in a play that is epic in scope. He's also only one of seven kids and one of 30 cast members. However, I'm a proud mama and I'll confess that I'm pretty focused on the antics of my son.

Being a Stage Mom, but Not a Mama Rose

So tonight I'll watch the show for the fifth time and will likely continue to beam through the entire show. For his part, Dominic has said he would gladly do another musical and that he's had a fantastic time.

While Dominic has grown up in the theater, we've tried to be careful about not pushing him into theater just because we're passionate about it. We've tried to make sure he's exposed to lots of other things so that he can make choices from athletics, outdoor activities, music, animals, etc. while trying hard not to overschedule him.

Working with Good People

Given that, our goal with his involvement in theater has always been for him to have good experiences. That takes precedence over everything else. Before we let him audition for anything, we try to find out who is going to be involved and how that person is with kids.

We let him do Macbeth with the Michigan Shakespeare Festival because we knew we could trust John Neville-Andrews and because his dad would be there to help make sure he behaved in an appropriate manner. We let him participate in Fantastical Friends because we knew we could trust Bill Gordon as a director and because there would be lots of other kids for him to spend time with. There are other shows that we investigated and would have let him audition for except he would sometimes say he didn't want to and that would always be the final word.

Neither Richard nor I want to be a Mama Rose and we do want to make sure that any theatrical participation is his choice and will be a good experience for him.

Rothschilds a Great Experience for Him

It's also one of the things I've been thrilled about with The Rothschilds. It has been a great experience for him and Jane Falion has been an excellent director, conscious of their need for sleep and for their studies. She's been a great guide for them, providing the structure that was needed and not hesitating to reign them in when necessary. The rest of the cast has also been very good to him--something that has made it a great experience for him. He's made friends and he loves going to every rehearsal and performance.

Lastly, but certainly not least of all, the show has been a good one--one that he can be proud of belonging to. He's gained wonderful experience in singing, dancing, and performing with adults on a thrust stage.

And if I weren't proud enough already, it doesn't hurt that he was also mentioned in the City Pulse review (which I'll have to make sure I get a copy of!).

Friday, June 5, 2009

Three Artistic Directors

Is it something in the water?

I posted yesterday about BoarsHead's Kristine Thatcher being told that the board would not renew her contract. She's joined by two other women in the state's theaters who have been given the boot as artistic directors of professional theaters:

Evelyn Orbach, the founder of the Jewish Ensemble Theater and its AD fr the past 21 years, is no longer with the theater according to the board president.

And Tipping Point announced that its executive director had resigned. They, at least, had the courtesy to thank her for her work and effort. Perhaps it is because, officially, she resigned.

Early Morning Thoughts

A few random thoughts after getting to see The Rothschilds all the way through for the first time:

If in life, we are fortunate enough to be given the blessing of doing some good, we are indeed rich. It's a big world we live in and very difficult for one person (or one family) to be able to significantly change it. Yet, in smaller worlds--in our individual communities, we are sometimes given the opportunity to do some small amount of good. I sometimes feel as though those chances are rare because the demands of scrabbling out a living can be so great. Also, doing good can sometimes be a risky business--a truth illustrated very well in this musical. How does one know that what you do will effect change that is meaningful and useful? How does one know whether one is on the side of angels, as it were.

Having a chance to make a difference in one's community is something that is worth striving for with a humility of spirit that acknowledges what an honor and a blessing it is. I hope I am aware enough to recognize opportunities when they come my way and to have the energy to pursue them. I hope also that I can remember that one doesn't have to alter the state of world affairs to make a difference. Perhaps it is enough to make a few people's lives somewhat more joyful.

Something else I was moved by: At several times during the play, the boys devolve into fights--either physical shoving matches or verbal shouting matches. Yet, despite the fights, there is an amazing bond between the brothers. They truly love each other and nothing could come between them.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Lots of Theater News

There is so much going on in the theater world right now, I hardly know where to start. Given that, I'm just going to post some links and a few comments.

Kristine Thatcher To Leave BoarsHead
I have opinions on this issue, but since I'm currently covering it as a news story, I will keep those opinions to myself. My need at this time is to be as objective and fair as possible. I will, though, gladly host any discussion on the issue that anyone might want to have here.

The Rothschilds Opens Tonight

I'm very excited about this show, in no small part because it is my son's first time in a musical.

Flyover, USA Review
I loved Kate's review and agreed with every word.

Wilde Award Nominations
Encore Michigan and Between the Lines have announced their Wilde Award nominations. Lansing theater-goers will recognize several of the nominees.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Flyover, USA from a playwright's perspective

I've been enamored with the concept behind the Voices of the Midwest series that Williamston is doing ever since I first heard about it. I've heard too many people who think the Midwest is a cultural wasteland and those who think that theater happens only in New York and London and everywhere else is just a pale imitation.

The Midwest series that Williamston Theatre is doing is fantastic because it "gets" it. I was fortunate enough to see one of the preview performances of Flyover last week and loved it. The day after the show, I was able to interview both the director and one of the two playwrights. The story was published here, but it had to be cut due to lack of space--and even when I first wrote it, I felt as though I left out as much good stuff.

So I'm going to share a little here. Joseph Zettelmaier is one of the two playwrights (the other is Dennis North). His play, All Childish Things, was performed at BoarsHead earlier this year along with a staged reading of Night Blooming. He and I talked quite a bit about Flyover. Here are some highlights:

I did (see Maidens, Mothers, and Crones) right before I agreed to work on Flyover--within a week. I tend to like theater for the emotional experience, so I tried to come in and absorb what was going on. I loved it--absolutely loved it. To be totally honest; I was a little nervous going in; I thought 'oh god, don’t let there be too many things about why men are the devil.' There absolutely wasn’t any of that; I thought it was pretty spectacular.

Dennis and I are both proud Midwesterners. We wanted to capture both parts of the series: That it is men and that it is the Midwest. I wrote the food fight scene, largely because I wanted to make sure we got a literal Midwest flavor into the show.

For most of the process, we went to our own corners and wrote. As we got close, we started sending in all our scenes and it was largely John (Seibert) and Tony (Caselli) who put together the play. At the first rehearsal I had 3 scenes I cut right away because Dennis touched on the same thing and did it better. The key to make a process like this work is to check your ego at the doorway. That’s the key to make any process work. I have no problem stepping aside for something that is a little better.

My favorite one to write, for different reasons: the Jack sandbox scenes are very personal to me. It’s something my younger brother went through almost verbatim. (Picking a favorite scene) is like picking my favorite kid. I liked food fight and first kiss as well. I like writing comedy.

First kiss—the scene with the young man taking the SAT after kissing the girl for the first time. We had a good read for it; but didn't know what to do with it. We’ve got John Seibert--he’s one of the best diretors in the state--he did so many different things with it. We looked at it so many different ways, each one just killed me; I was really happy. It’s very freeing writing that kind of thing. Every single guy could tell you the name of their first kiss within a milliscecond. Anything that happened more than five years ago hazes away, but I can remember my first kiss with crystal clear clarity. It was fun going back to that place. It’s a seminal event.

The big difference (in writing this play compared to other plays) is that it was a cowriting and it was a commission. Usually my plays are born out of whatever crazy ideas are running out of my head. I felt an obligation to really honor the work that was being submitted to Williamsoton. That was a different way for me to think. I like boundaries; I like structure. Maybe it's my German nature, having this framework to work in was really, really useful and to be honest, we got some amazing stories.

I take such solace with Midwesterners--we got so much of this in the responses--despite everything that is going on; the thing that I’m not getting is defeatism. It’s more a sense of a bad storm is coming and you weather it. That is something that I take great faith in. You prepare for it, you do what you can, and you get through it.

I lived in Georgia for four years and I’ll take Michigan winter to Georgia summer any day. That was what was hardest: the seasons aren’t really defined. It’s like there is sort of fall, but not really, sort of winter but not really; they all just kind of blend together. They have summer and then less summer. I like all four seasons.

During my first year in college, they got half an inch of snow. It was like the Apocolypse: No one knows how to drive in snow. I shuttled people around because people didn’t know what to do.

We’re in the new century. There are men who remember what our fathers taught us. We look at the lives that our fathers and grandfathers had and we're wondering what the hell are we supposed to do? We understand that the world changed; but we’re not sure what that means for us. They're just trying to find their voice and find their footing. Be it unemployment, understanding your father or your son: there’s something everyone is fighting for in this play.

Something that really came through in the submissions--and the voice of that was very strong--was how important family is and how important work is. I would personally gravitate toward that even if it wasn’t there, but boy, was it there. I think it is especially strong in a place; like in a lot of places in the Midwest where work is so scarce and laziness equals death. Get it done. Get a job. It was Dennis who wrote the unemployment scene. I love that scene. I love that it is about—"Look, I would love to work with what I know, but at the end of the day, I just want to work." I love that. Dennis is a brilliant writer. I love that he doesn’t say I “need” to work. He says I "want" to work. The need is obvious; but what is more interesting is the want.

With so many of these hunters, it’s not them against nature. It’s the exact opposite. It’s wanting to be a part of nature. It’s so easy to forget how massive Michigan is as a state. It’s gigantic. It takes as much time to get the U.P. as it does to drive from here to Georgia. So much of the state is natural beauty and forest and rivers and lakes. It’s one of the reasons I keep moving back here. It's just breathtaking. I can’t tell you how many actors I know have gone off to the big cities and keep coming back here.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Rothschild's Second Son Solomon

The Rothschilds opens at Riverwalk this Thursday. It will be my son's first musical and I've been splitting child wrangling duties with my husband this past week so that one of us is always there for him backstage. It's been impressive to see the incredible scope of this musical. To throw out a statistic for you--there are more than 300 props in this show, all period props.

I spent some time talking with the director today about the show and we digressed into the history of the play. It got me curious about the character my son plays and what his life went on to be. Here's what I found:

Salomon Mayer von Rothschild was born September 9, 1774 and died uly 28, 1855. When Mayer sent the boys out, he was sent to Vienna where he was instrumental in establishing the finances of the Austrian empire. When he was 26, he married Caroline Stern and the two of them had two children, a boy and a girl. His eldest son, Anselm, married his cousin--Nathan's daughter. His daughter, Betty, married her uncle James (who is called Jacob in the play).

In Vienna, Salomon founded S M von Rothschild, a business that helpd finance Austria's first steam railway. In 1822, he was made a part of the Austrian nobility, being given the hereditary title of Baron. However, it wasn't until 1843 that he was given honorary Austrian citizenship--the first Jew to receive that honor.

Salomon invested much of his money in art and antiquities, though he also gave large amounts of money to charities. He became interested in engineering and foundries. He, like his brothers, was also interested in gold mines.

Salomon also became somewhat of the family's historian. He first began to gather family documents into an index that would record the history of their accomplishments. This index became known as Salomon's Archive. He saved letters to his brothers in which he reminisced on when the five of them lived in a single attic room in the ghetto. Salomon's archive contains the original court document naming Mayer as a court agent of Hesse in 1769.

It was also Salomon who hired Moritz Oppenheim to paint significant events in the Rothschilds' lives.

After handing the banking firm over to his son, he retired in Paris. When he died in 1855, some of his art works were donated to the Louvre.

S M von Rothschild stayed in the family for four generations. From 1911 to 1939, Louis Nathaniel von Rothschild was its president. When there was the financial crash of 1929, he personally shored up Austria's largest bank to prevent financial collapse. His fortunes soured when Nazi Germany took over Austria in 1938. His brothers Alphonse and Eugene escaped, but Louis was arrested for being Jewish. Louis was held in prison for a year. It was only when his family paid a large ransom that he was released. He was stripped of his Austrian citizenship and had to leave the country empty-handed. In 1939, the Nazis took over the banking firm and then sold it to the German private bank of Merck, Finck, & Co.

The Nazis had confiscated all of the papers and archives of the bank--including Solomon's Archive. Those papers made their way to Germany until 1945 when the Red Army found them and took all of the archives they found (50 rail cars full) to Moscow. They were maintained by the secret police and the West didn't find out about them until the 1990s. It wasn't until 2001 that what was left of the archives were returned to the Rothschild families. In return, the Rothschild families gave Russia a collection of letters of Tsar Alexander II and Princess Yuryevskaya.

A quote of Soloman's:
We are like the mechanism of a watch: each part is essential" ... Solomon von Rothschild, 1818.

I will also say that I found some pretty disgusting Websites created by conspiracy theorists. These are sites that are filled with seething hatred toward the Rothschilds and toward those of Jewish heritage. One goes so far as to say that the Rothschilds have reptilian blood and that Salomon impregnated an innocent maid in his house--a maid who went home and gave birth to Hitler's father.

It is sites like that which underscore Director Jane Falion's comment that we are still fighting the prejudices that are illuminated in this musical. There are still those in the world who will rail against those who have risen out of oppression and try to help others who are oppressed. There are still those whose lives are so small that they have no room for anything but hatred.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Good Night, Desdemona

As I was going through some old book reviews, I found a review I wrote of the script, Goodnight Desdemona, Good Morning, Juliet.

It might be of interest to those of you thinking about going to see the play when Riverwalk does it this summer. Here's the link.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

What did I think of the show?

Ask a theater reviewer, and you'll find there are few questions he or she hates getting asked in the lobby more than that one. You'd think we'd enjoy it given that what we do is to write about the show. I think there are a couple reasons we hate that question--or since I shouldn't speak for all my colleagues, reasons why I hate that question:

Politeness. It may seem like some of us relish in making people feel awful, but really, we are quite human. Most of us do still believe in the social contract and the need to abide by it. We're also aware that our words are sometimes given more weight than those of the casual audience member--or at least that they are more likely to be picked apart.

Alan Alda wrote in one of his memoirs that the only proper thing to say to a performer immediately after a show is, "You were wonderful." You could extend that to anyone involved in the show (director, producer, crew member, etc.): "The show was wonderful."

As critics, we're supposed to be held to a certain standard of honesty, else there is no point in doing what we do. So to have to give the polite response sets up an immediate trap.

Time. Perhaps an even bigger reason for me has to do with how I watch shows. When I first started reviewing, I would immediately start critiquing the show, trying to figure out what I was going to say and trying to interpret things immediately as I watched it. Too often, though, that meant that I was working my way through a thought or a metaphor while there were still things going on on stage.

I had to learn to sit back and experience the show, fully aware and fully focused, without trying to think about it until it was over. While I am in the theater, my goal is to be open to what the actors, playwright(s), director, and technicians are trying to show me. I try to develop an attitude of receptiveness.

It is only after the show is over that I start to think about. I analyze what made me sit forward in my chair or at what points my attention wandered. I think about the story arc and whether the choices made on stage contributed to the story or detracted from it. I consider how the skills of the performers succeeded or were lacking.

However, if you catch me in the lobby, I haven't had time to do that thinking yet. I could tell you what I feel about the show, but not what I think. I need the time after the show--and sometimes with the person that I saw the show with so that we can both talk about what our responses were--to think, evaluate, and ponder.

To give an opinion in the lobby right after a show is over is to short-change the show by committing too early. It is unfair to those who put all the work into creating the production to make a summary judgment two minutes after seeing it.

It's one of the reasons I like going out after a show--because I do enjoy the discussions that engage specifics in the show without the pressure of having to give it a thumbs up/thumbs down or a number of stars.

So please, if you see me in the lobby and do ask that dreaded question, forgive me if I change the subject and don't jump to the conclusion it was because I didn't like the show.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Rothschilds: The pursuit of wealth

There is a beautiful number in the first act of The Rothschilds between Mayer and Gutele before they are married. Gutele sings about how she needs very little and Mayer insists that she will have more than a little.

Gutele talks about how all she really wants is a single room--a place to be with him and a few other items. She then says, "It sounds like so little. It's not." It's a sentiment that is easy for me to relate to. It comes down to what is important in life. It isn't the accumulation of goods or the creation of wealth that matters. It is spending life with those you love and being a part of a community.

Given my empathy with Gutele, it surprised me that I was equally touched by why Mayer replied that it wasn't enough. His response:

"I've seen our neighbors' wives, how quickly they grow old when the children coe. In one room, a dozen hungry mouths and not enough to fill even one of htem. To settle for little, for most wives, that's fine. I cannot accept it for mine. My wife will never have to see apologetic looks in her husband's eyes. My wife will have as good a life as my will and my bran can devise."

Later in the play, the accumulation of wealth becomes the means by which they plan to knock down the ghetto walls and end the mistreatment of their people.

Perhaps the key factor is that wealth becomes a means to end, not an end in itself. In this musical, wealth is sought for the sake of making better the lives of those whom they love--which also means sacrificing everything if it is necessary to get to the real end.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

One other note...

Has anyone else noticed that the area seems to cycle through playwrights? For awhile everyone was doing George Bernard Shaw. Now the playwright appears to be Lanford Wilson.

Catching up

I've been absent too long--and I thank those kind folks who wrote to inquire after my health.

Given the economic times we are in, I am not going to complain about an abundance of work. Rather, I'll just say that it is that abundance which has kept me from here. I'm doing a lot of writing these days and have spent what little free time I've had with family.

But a couple of random theater things I would have loved to work up into full blog entries (and maybe still will--but no promises):
  • My favorite number in Fiddler on the Roof remains "Do You Love Me?". While the plot seems to revolve around the daughters and their marriages, it is the love story of Golde and Tevye that has always struck me as the central story. Perhaps it is because there are relatively few musicals that focus on longstanding, solid marriages. When I was in high school, someone asked me to define what I thought marital love would be. I referred to the song "Do You Love Me?" My friend took that to mean that I thought doing dishes and housework for someone was true love (in which case Richard would have reason to worry!). But that wasn't it. To me, the song captured the ideal that a couple doesn't "feel" in love, they choose to learn to love. Then they stick with it for the rest of their lives, experiencing the ups and downs together regardless of how they might feel at any given moment. When you choose to love, the next step is choosing to be happy. Both are an incredibly freeing thing--to realize that you have the choice and it isn't simply happenstance or coincidence.
  • Seeing "The Glass Menagerie" on Mother's Day was a real treat. I loved the subtleties in this production.
  • Dominic is in "The Rothschilds" at Riverwalk. It's not a musical I'd heard of before this year, but I've been having fun singing the songs with Dom at home. They're really quite catchy. I've also been impressed with Jane Falion and her ability to stay calm while surrounded by a huge cast.
  • I can't wait to see "Goodnight Desdemona, Good morning Juliet" again--this time from the audience. It is one of my favorite scripts of all time.
  • I had some fun interviews over the past week with three women who were from Lansing but who are now all three performing in various Broadway shows in New York. I'll post a link to that article when it runs.
  • For those who have asked--yes, there will be Thespie Awards this year. We're waiting until after everything in the regular season has opened.
See you at the theater!

Friday, April 3, 2009

Calendar Quote of the Day

At a friend's baby shower last year I received one of those quote a day tear-off calendars called "Wild Words from Wild Women."

Today's quote:
Science prolongs life. To consist of what--eating, drinking, and sleeping? What is the good of living longer if it is only a matter of satisfying the requirements that sustain life? All this is nothing without the charm of art.
--Sarah Bernhardt, nineteenth-century stage star

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Part II: Integrating Arts Funding into Economic Stimulus

I sometimes wonder what that amorphous "public" thinks of when they hear the phrase "arts funding." Do they think of it as money that goes exclusively to paying artists, buying paint, building sets, stitching costumes, framing work, setting up exhibits, etc.? Is it purely the front-of-the-house performance/exhibit aspect that is considered? Or worse yet, do they see public art money as supporting the leisure time of the elite or merely an extra that makes things "look pretty"?

I ask because I think if we looked at arts funding in a broader manner, the public might not only understand it better, but be more willing to get behind it.

While working on a story last December, I spoke with BoarsHead's Artistic Director Kristine Thatcher about how the arts survive during tough economic times. She pointed out that during the Great Depression, some of America's best plays were written and performed. "It is balm for the soul. It brings comfort and hope. You get together live and in person and share an experience. That's why theater exists--to examine who we are and who we want to be. We do that by looking at all of our stories."

Art has far more to contribute to an economic recovery than just escapism and the stimulation of creative thought (though both of those elements are quite important). Art can play a role in such areas as infrastructure, housing, and urban redevelopment--particularly the latter. That's not even touching upon the crucial role that arts play in education--a role that has been bolstered by study after study. (One of these days, I'll compile links to all the different stories and studies about how art in education improves literacy, reduces recidivism, creates more responsible citizens, and reduces racism.)

Leslie Donaldson, executive director of the Greater Lansing Arts Council, talked in an interview last year about how businesses are starting to realize the value of artists and the need for them in their work. She said:
In fact, a lot of reports have come out fairly recently on the importance of having an arts degree or a master of fine arts degree when you are in ithe business field. A lot of employers actually seek people who have arts backgrorusnds because when they are put in difficult situaions they want people who can be creative in approaching whatever issues might be in front of them.

Not only is it important for our soul in difficult times; it is important as a way to learn how to problem solve and be creative in our every day life.

About a month ago, Richard Florida wrote an excellent article about the type of infrastructure that we need to be stimulating if we're going to survive. Let me share an excerpt (bold is mine) while encouraging you to go read the whole thing:
However, the facts are that the locus of economic growth has shifted dramatically and a stimulus that focuses on traditional infrastructure cannot succeed. What drives the economy today is not the old mix of highways and single-family homes but new, idea-driven industries. They range from software, communication devices and biotechnologies to culture and entertainment - and importantly the convergence of the two.

The familiar kind of stimulus - the "shovel-ready" kind that built highways and roads, and worked so well during the Great Depression and its aftermath - worked precisely because it didn't stimulate that period's aging agriculture economy. Instead, it accelerated the transition to a new economy based on housing, autos and all the products of the industrial assembly line, from refrigerators and washing machines to air conditioners and television sets.

The Keynes-derived notion of pouring money into public works built the roads and infrastructure that spurred postwar demand and primed North America for postwar global economic dominance, because the consumption embedded in our suburban way of life stimulated just the right kind of industrial production.

But eventually the system got out of whack. The housing and credit bubbles of the past decade ultimately biased and distorted our economy, channelling money and investment toward older industries, real estate and construction and away from more productive, innovative and creative ones.

For a stimulus to work today it has to stimulate the emerging creative economy, the engines of regional economic growth and higher incomes across Canada and the U.S.

Wonderful stuff there with a great historical perspective: the FDR New Deal worked because it moved us forward into a new economy. We now need to think carefully about whether we are trying to hold on to yesterday or whether we are forging a new economy, one that will make us productive in the future. Arts by their very nature are involved in the process of creation. We need the arts to help us create a new economy in which communication, technology, and creation are key players.


Some of the more exciting initiatives I've read about lately are the arts housing communities that are forming. They're still in the early stages and will have a lot to learn before they can be successful, but they're experimenting and taking the necessary risks.

The Jackson Arts Armory Project is one such undertaking. It creates housing and community where artists can live and create, incorporating studios into their living spaces.

The housing industry long ago figured out that they had to provide more than just walls and a roof to convince people to buy. They needed to create communities--whether gated or open--that gave people a reason to live in a particular place. They did this with suburbs and golf course and (more recently) spas. Art has always been about building connections and community.

Urban Redevelopment

It's easy to think about arts in such simple terms as creating murals in downtrodden neighborhoods--and those are wonderful, but the arts can go further in making a community somewhere that people want to live and where businesses want to invest. They help to give a voice to the people living in the community and to express how they want to live and what their concerns are.

Let me quote Kristine again, though this time from an interview more than a year ago:
If you can say one thing about the non-profit world, it is this: we’re big on ideas, short on cash. But it shouldn’t be that way. The not-for-profit world was created to fill a dire need in our communities. It doesn’t reflect commerce or regulations as do our businesses and our governments.

Both business and government can do precious little in terms of affecting social awareness and change. Non-profits exist to exalt the human soul, to rescue it when needed, to make life better, healthier, worth living. Hospitals, schools, churches, the Salvation Army, the Girl Scouts - that’s the work they do - they exist to change human experience for the better And by the way, the non-profits in this country are the country's largest employer.

We move forward together just a little bit to become a more decent and compassionate people. Theater does that whether we’re presenting serious drama or farce or light comedy. That’s why preserving the health of this organization is paramount. Lansing is a unique community - and this theater will reflect the life of this particular community.

If our urban areas are to survive, then they need to give people a reason to be there. They need culture--which is precisely where the arts come in. Think what could happen in Lansing or in any community if there were stimulus money available to build performance spaces, to construct outdoor arenas where the public can gather for concerts or performances, if studios were built to support the arts, to research the technologies of sound, light, and design.

Because I've already gotten too wordy in this blog (blog entries are supposed to be short, aren't they?), I'm going to post a few links to some urban development projects that incorporate art or artists:

  • Project where artists create a plan for unzoned land in consultation with residents.
  • Taking lessons in urban design from Thomas Kinkade's philosophy
  • A 60-page booklet published in 2003 on how the traditional arts can support and contribute to economic development. Part of its thesis is that there are three main arguments for why the fine arts should be a part of economic development: 1) Active cultural participation builds strong communities. 2) Strengthening cultural communities creates economic value. 3) The value created by cultural production can be harnessed for regional growth.
  • Seattle's efforts at creating affordable housing for working artists through targeted economic development.
  • Research abstract on cultural clusters and sustainable urban development.
Economic Recovery and the Arts

The Americans for the Arts went to Congress at the beginning of this year with several proposals for the role that arts could play in economic recovery. In their position statement, they wrote:
By investing in the arts, we're supporting an industry that is built on innovation and creativity, economic development, and the revitalization of America's communities and downtowns. When we increase investment in the arts, we are generating tax revenues, jobs, and a creativity-based 21st century competitive economy.
Some of their proposals included:

  • Artists be included in any unemployment and heath care benefits offered to part-time employees.
  • Boost arts projects in Community Development Block Grants. The "bricks & mortar" funding of the CDBG program is a primary government source for local arts instiutions of all disciplines. They called for $2 billion in funding for arts-specific projects to modernize, rehabilitate, and construct our nation's cultural facilities.
  • Provide economic recovery support to federal cultural agencies to increase current grantee projects. It encouraged the NEA to be able to allocate more money to formula grants that are administered through current local arts agency programs. This gets the money out to communities across the nation, disbursing local funding to all arts disciplines, employing artists and the cultural work force, and increasing access to the arts to leverage spending by audiences.
  • Include cultural planning through Economic Development Administration. Grants would help meet the increasing need for local cultural district planning and assisting municipalities with developing the creative economy in their communities.
  • Increase cultural facilities support in Rural Development Program.
  • Link Transportation Enhancements with state arts agencies so that they can contribute to transportation projects such as pedestrian and bicycle facilities, historic preseration and public art projects.
  • Expand the services available to workers in the creative sector and through arts instutions that can provide professional development training to help workers find new skills.
The arts aren't just something that cater to the cultural elite or are a frivolous extra more concerned with outer beauty than real community. The arts are something that belong to everyone and can benefit every single citizen.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Balm in Gilead

It's always a good night at the theater when I'm able to have some sort of epiphany or to learn something about myself and the world I live in. I had one of those nights Friday while at Lansing Community College's Balm in Gilead.

What I discovered was how very much my tastes in theater have changed over the past five years. Five years ago, I don't think I would have enjoyed Balm in Gilead much. I would have been bothered by the language and confused by the format. I would have wanted a show that was more conventional in its approach, spooning me softer food so that I could easily digest it.

That was five years ago.

On Friday, I found myself thoroughly enjoying the play, its presentation, and all of the experimental glory of Lanford Wilson's first work. The overlapping dialog and the multiple scenes provided the soundtrack for the actors who would only occasionally be given a solo moment to sing forth their part of the story. There was a cacophony that reinforced the chaos in each of the character's lives--a raucous rhythm that refused to be tamed into the melodic lines each of them longed for.

It made the quartet particularly potent, singing out their doo wops in the beginning with the New Yorkers rapt in attention, as if each still hoped that there could be such simple dreams expressed so clearly and easily. When that same quartet is later chased away, it is because their listeners have become more cynical, more hardened and are no longer pinning their hopes to a technicolor dream in button-down collars framing clean-shaven baby faces.

Balm in Gilead was a thoughtfully done play with staging and choices that each spoke in its own way, inviting you to delve into each image with all the allure of a Picasso hanging on a gallery wall. Neither will spoon feed you, but both are crafted with incredible attention to detail and fine artistic achievement.

Friday, March 20, 2009

A thought on Macbeth

I'm not in the least bit superstitious. I don't believe in horoscopes and have little use for much of the New Age philosophies.

That said, I don't speak the name of Macbeth in a performance space and have taught our son to do the same. I follow most of the superstitions of the theater, even though I don't truly believe that they will truly do harm.

While writing about Riverwalk's Macbeth today, I think I finally figured out why I do so. It's the tradition and ritual of theater. Traditions and rituals have value because they connect us to each other and give us a shared practice and a sense of history. They remind us of our stories and give us--however small--a piece of commonality.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

No Time to Write

But there has been a lot of awesome stuff going on around the community. Last weekend I saw Riverwalk's The Dead. It was a beautiful production and one I enjoyed far more than I thought I would given how much I dislike James Joyce. It was a slice of life speaking of loss, memories, and the richness of life.

Nor have I stopped thinking about Williamston's The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. It was a very well-done show that surprised me with how different it was from how I remembered reading it. It took me awhile to figure out why, but I think I finally did. When I read the script, I was a teenager. While my situation growing up was nothing like Tillie's, it was Tillie to whom I related the most. When in the silence of a reading experience, the voice that sounded the loudest was hers. She was the one whose story was being told. Now, 25 years later and sitting in a theater, the voice that was sounding the loudest was that of the woman who was screaming and spewing her toxic waste on all those around her. It became more of Beatrice's story and Tillie's ability to survive Beatrice.

You have one more weekend to capture either of those shows.

On Monday, I went to see Z at the Ruhala Performing Arts Center. I have far more to say on that show than a paragraph will allow, so I'm not even going to try unless I find more time.

Up next:
  • Tonight I'm headed to Wharton to see Spring Awakening. I've been completely entranced by the cast recording and can't wait to see the show.
  • Friday will be Tape at LCC
  • Saturday is Hedda Gabler at MSU
I was hoping to get Wappin Wharf and Brothers Grimm squeezed in there too, but right now it's not looking so good because of scheduling and my desperate need to get some freelance work done.