Saturday, January 31, 2009

Creativity as Service

I've been working on a preview article this morning and came across this quote by Donald Byrd, the choreographer for The Color Purple. He's talking about creativity:

Look at it beyond the personal. That, in fact, what you are doing is like a service. If I have a gift, my job is to use that gift to open doors for other people so that they are able to have insight into our shared humanity.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Getting Covered

While working on the Tiempo Libre story, I received an enormous press pack from their publicist. It was a fantastic collection of articles and interviews that gave me a wealth of background material. In it was an interview with their producer, Elizabeth Sobol, done by It was a fascinating article for many reasons, but one of the paragraphs jumped out at me as being appropriate for any art form, not just music. Just replace "timba" with any other art form.

She said:
I see so much commentary on timba newsgroups about how timba isn't given any attention. There's even often the implication that there is some sort of cabal--political or otherwise--that is standing in the way of timba receiving its due recognition...Media is not going to cover a genre. They cover artists. And the artists have to have a compellign story to tell in order for it to be interesting to the media. They have to deserve the coverage. Thinkingthat you're the best is not a story. Getting media attention takes time, it takes lots of work, it takes investment. And, once an artist actually gets their initial media opportunities, they have to have an innate sense of how to itneract with the media, how to give interviews, not to mention basic things like arriving on time and following media schedules.

The last, and very important point on this subject, is that the music business is a business. People have to make money--the promoters, th erecord companies, the managers, the radio, and the TV stations--not to mention the musicians. That means that they have to sense that there is an audience out there interested in and willing to pay money for that music. I am always amazed at how much moaning goes on here in Miami about the music scene and how little attention is paid to timba, but when the night of the show rolls around, most of the timberos don't show up! It's not unlike complaining about the current situation in the WHite House and then not going out and voting on Election Day.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Art and the Inauguration

This blog is not now nor ever will become a political platform. Yet, after watching the inauguration, I find I cannot let it go by without comment. Fear not, though, I shan’t stray far from the avowed subject of this blog.

I was struck while watching the inauguration by many things, but one thing in particular related to this blog’s topic: art.

It occurred to me that the ancient Greeks, from whom we derived the idea of democracy, might have looked with approval upon the inauguration.

The words were about change, about technology, and about moving forward into a new world. But they were delivered through ritual and celebrated with arts as ancient as memory. In a brief period, we heard the recitation of poetry, the presentation of a new instrumental composition by top-performing artists, the power of oratory, the lifting of voices in song—both solo and choral, and heard prayers lifted to the divine. This evening the event will be celebrated with more music and dancing.

Art is not dead—nor will it ever be so long as human beings have a soul. Art is the way that we express the divine in us. Without it, we have no language for hope, for peace, for dreams.

An education infused with the liberal arts is not a waste of time—it is a necessary part of a healthy soul. It is what allows us to talk to each other, to learn from the past, to be inspired, and to dream.

Art tells our stories and puts words to our dreams. It always has and neither the passage of years nor the changes in technology will alter that. 

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Riverwalk's Sherlock Holmes

Whenever I write a column, it always feels like I'm leaving out more than I'm putting in. For the most part, this is a good thing. The longer something gets, the less likely people are to read it. It's somewhat like theater itself. No one minds sitting through a three-hour play if it is compelling and engaging for those entire three hours. However, it is difficult to keep up that sort of intensity for that long. So with writing. The longer something gets, the more likely it is that the writer is simply lacking in discipline. (And yes, I know how long many of my blog entries get--I'm preaching to the mirror here!)
This week it was particularly hard to choose what went into the column and what got left out. So many people in the arts community give fantastic interviews filled with eloquent insight into the work that they do. I often feel selfish knowing that I've hoarded those words and reduced them to a few quotes in a story.

So today I'm going to do as I've done before and take advantage of the freedom a blog provides and share some of my interview with Terry Jones, who is playing Watson in Riverwalk's Sherlock Holmes this weekend and next. The full story you can read here--or better yet, go buy today's paper and read it in the What's On section.

I asked Terry whether the Watson in this play was the bumbling figure that has often been portrayed in various productions of Holmes stories or whether his was the everyman who seems slow only in comparison to the brilliance of Holmes.

His response (to that question and several others):

More of the second. Looking at Holmes himself: he’s so brilliant and aloof. Watson is his only friend. He has lots of contacts and exposure. Everybody knows him, but no one hangs with him. His idea of a good time is to discuss deep things--not so much to discuss, because before he gets into a discussion, he’s already decided what the answer is. He wants to see how more far ahead he is in that subject. He’s not a fun guy to be around for the most part. Watson, being a doctor; is very intrigued by just the biology and how Holmes works. He knows Holmes is a unique subject. He knows he’ll never come across another subject like that.

Holmes, maybe not on a conscious level, has someone he can continually bounce thngs off. He likes to chide Watson; but he doesn’t treat him like he does anyone else. He can get mean, but he would never do that with Watson.

In this particular play, you see Holmes at his most tender. There are a couple of parts where he wants Watson to be sure he understands how much Holmes cares about him. He mentions a couple times that 'I would hate to get you harmed; if you want to go about your own business I wouldn’t think less of you'.

I had a friend years ago who gave me this theory on friendship. He said with very good friends, there is something you really admire about your friend. It’s easy to see what you would admire in Holmes: he’s brilliant, over-observant. What is it in Watson that Holmes sees? He's accomplished in his practice, easy-going. Watson puts up with him.

Watson has been with Holmes for so long--he’s still dumbfounded at times and in awe--but he’s picked up on how Holmes works. The buffoonnishness is kind of gone; that was earlier when he was still getting use to Holmes. There are times when Holmes surprises him, but other times he knows where Holmes is going and arrives at almost the same time. Watson is very much more comfortable with Holmes. He doesn’t have a hard time getting a jab in to Holmes too, nothing vicious, but nothing he would have attempted early on in the relationship. He likes to push buttons; before he wouldn’t have been able to do that at all.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

It makes me giggle

"It makes me giggle" is not a good reason to publish something. Which is why when I wrote about the dogs in Legally Blonde for the LSJ, I did not refer to the understudy dogs as "underdogs." Even though I really wanted to.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Quiet Weekends

Given the amount of snow and the hazardous conditions of the road, it's probably good that there were relatively few shows taking place this weekend.

The one that I did go to see was lovely--it was a fund-raiser for Starlight Dinner Theater. They hosted "An Evening with Gershwin and Sondheim," with a quartet of singers: Emily English, Abigail English, Ben English, and John Delaney. All of them have incredible voices and it was especially thrilling to hear how closely matched all the voices of the Englishes were.

I was also amused that when I got back into my car, 91.7 was playing an evening of Gershwin music, so I listened to Rhapsody in Blue as I navigated the icy roads home.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Wherein lies my loyalty?

Loyalty is something I've been thinking about a bit lately--specifically as it has to do with my writing both as a full-time writer and editor and as a professional freelancer. Sometimes the waters can get a bit clouded and it is important that I constantly make sure what I'm doing is ethical and appropriate.

Ethics of Freelancing

I recently struggled with the ethical question of whether freelancing for a newspaper that had cut many full-time staff positions was contributing to what I consider harmful to the community and to the paper itself. I have very strong feelings about the importance of arts coverage--anyone who has read this blog for any length of time knows this. Arts coverage is important to the newspaper, to artists and arts organizations, to arts patrons, to the community, and (to get really philosophical) to the future.

It is the passion that I have for writing about the arts that has me freelancing for the Lansing State Journal at all. Newspapers don't exactly pay good rates for freelancers most of the time. It's not a way that you could make a living. It's why I will sometimes tell people that I consider the writing of my column to be my community service. I'm able to use what talents I have to support the artistic growth of our community. I write because I'm passionate about the community we have here and I believe that the more people who get involved in the community--whether as a participant or an audience member--the healthier of a community we are going to have in terms of economics, quality of life, safety, education, and interpersonal connections.

Priorities of a Freelancer

That said, no matter how passionate I am about the arts community, the harsh reality is that covering it is never going to be at the top of my list of priorities. At the top of the list are the needs of my family, which is going to mean pursuing work that keeps us housed, clothed, fed, and provides for my son's current and future education. Next on the list is going to be EI, the employer I have been with for 15 years. They are fantastic to work for and the writing I do for them and for the hospitality industry is interesting, challenging, and (hopefully) of benefit to people around the world. This is why a freelancer is never going to hold the same value to the community as a full-time arts reporter. Yes, I think that what I do provides a service to the community, but I never wanted to take the place of full-time arts writers who could truly cover the arts beat.

However, the stark reality is that my refusing to freelance wouldn't bring back a single full-time employee. The issues that newspapers are struggling with right now go far deeper than that. Nor would taking a stand by refusing to write benefit anyone--and it would end up hurting quite a few.

So there is one question of loyalty: What is my loyalty to the profession of arts writers and how do my actions impact that profession?

Another question of loyalty is whether my loyalty is to the newspaper first or the arts community first? I'd like to think that in most cases it is possible to be comfortably loyal to both. Yet there are times when the goals of the two can come into conflict.

What makes me a journalist?

I grew up in newsrooms as my father was a community editor who would frequently take my brother and I with him to work. I remember interviewing him about his work for a class project when I was in elementary school. As he explained to me why he was a journalist, I became star-struck with my own father. He passed on to me the value that journalism is about service--service to the community, to our country, and to individuals.

I started working on school newspapers in junior high and knew then that I would be a journalist. I took classes in it all through junior high and high school and eventually earned a bachelor's in journalism from MSU. By then, I was already working full time for the Journal (though I had to promise my editor that I would finish getting my degree).

Leaving the Journal to come to EI was one of the toughest things I ever did, even though I know now it was the right thing to do career-wise. However, a change in employment doesn't take the journalist out of a person. It remains my training and I retain many of the ideals that I grew up with.

I often think that the tension between the journalistic background and the love that I've developed for the arts community is a healthy thing because it forces me to evaluate what I do, to listen to what others are saying, and to stay constantly open to learning.

When I attended the arts journalism fellowship at USC a few years ago, I made friends with colleagues who shared the same struggles and brought a myriad of approaches to those issues. I saw that the types of things we struggle with here in Lansing are struggles found in communities all around the country. There is no lack of art in Flyover country, but there is a lack of coverage and awareness. The fellowship also made me aware of my own shortcomings and helped me identify areas that I need to pursue greater education. Sasha Anawelt, the director of the program (and an absolutely amazing woman), provided a lot of encouragement in this area, giving the wonderful advice that if I stay open to receive the art that I'm experiencing, then I'll find a fair way to write about it.

Now I've gone off on several tangents, when what I eventually wanted to get to was this: If I'm called upon to choose a loyalty, it actually won't be to either the Lansing State Journal or any individual arts organization in the community. Instead, it will be to my ideals; it will be to the necessity of both journalism and art for a healthy community.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Arts on a Budget

I'm always sympathetic to the job of an editor. I know how very difficult it is to cut things for space and still have them sound elegant and to the point. I'm not a writer who will complain about being edited (well, maybe every so often, but I treat such complaints as a vice to be eradicated). That said, sometimes I write something that I really like and there simply isn't the space for it to be published.

It is during those times, that I like to take advantage of this blog space. Yesterday's story was one I really liked--and I thank the editor who worked on it for squeezing in as much as she was able to. Here was the first half of the story (and then you'll have to go to the LSJ site--or better yet, go buy a copy of yesterday's paper) to read the rest of it:

Arts on a Budget

When difficult economic times force people to make difficult choices, participation in the arts can seem like a luxury. Yet, traditionally, people turn to the arts in hard times in search of solace, community, hope, escape, and creative solutions to the problems that they face.

“It seems that in difficult times, people want a connection on a different level,” said Leslie Donaldson, executive director for the Arts Council of Greater Lansing. “A difficult and an emotional time allows us to reflect differently and I think the arts help us do that in a lot of different ways.”

BoarsHead’s Artistic Director Kristine Thatcher agrees, pointing 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.”

“It’s definitely not just a luxury,” said Melissa Kaplan, Lansing Community College Performing Arts Coordinator. “Art keeps me happy. It keeps me hopeful. It is inspiring. Being hopeful and inspired helps you ride out the rough times. It helps you see how you might better manage those rough times. Sometimes it is just a great escape to get away and be transported by a performance, whether it is a story or a concert or a dance or in an art gallery.”

David Rayl, associate dean in Michigan State University’s College of Music and the director of the choral programs, points out that there is an intangible value for audience members in both the arts in general and specifically the performing arts.

“Art is something that can teach us about the human condition. The arts have the power to make life better, to transform people in some way,” Rail said. “Any activities that build community rather than tear down community; any activities that give (people) the opportunity to work together to create beauty instead of working separately to create chaos—there is a very real value to society.”

Communal experiences are something that have grown increasingly scarce in a society still in the early throes of its love affair with technology.

“We don’t have that many communal experiences because everything can come to us,” said Emily Sutton-Smith, development director for Williamston Theatre. “We don’t have to see our neighbors. No one is looking at each other. That kind of communal experience is essential to our cultural identity. If we lose that…”

“We become like Wall-E,” said Managing Director Chris Purchis, finishing Sutton-Smith’s sentence. “Everyone in their own little hovercraft in their own little television, not knowing there are other people around.”

No matter how convinced people are of the value of art, there is still the hard reality of ticket prices, parking fees, and gas. Members of the arts community have several suggestions for people who are on tight budgets.

Read more here.