March 2008 Archives

Does reality trump fiction? Are there some experiences so close, so raw, that they need to be made into art only by those who experienced them?

In early February, a student veterans' group at the University of Oregon produced a show that was very much based on "reality," a show that might be called a work of nonfiction. The play, called Telling, featured the stories of the actors and other veterans who were students at the UO. More than 20 student vets spent the summer talking about their experiences with two writers (one staff member and one grad student). The students then took a fall-quarter course on stage movement and acting with the chair of the theater department, who signed on to direct the play. They started off winter quarter with intense rehearsals of the script the playwrights produced. The play ran for three performances in Eugene's Veterans' Memorial Hall (where Ken Kesey used to hang out, back in the day, or so they say).

Some of the veterans who acted in Telling were anti-war when they entered the service, and some are anti-war now (but certainly not all of them). Some of them didn't serve in Iraq or Afganistan. Their politics aren't cohesive, and there's a range of ages, experience levels and backgrounds. They told me that the recorded play would eventually be up on their website (though I haven't found it yet), where you can also read more about each actor and her background, should you want to.

I wrote a cover story in advance of the play for my paper. I attended three or four rehearsals, read the script and interviewed the students, the playwrights, the director and a writer who acted as a "consultant" for the process. Though the play itself had a variety of rough moments -- thanks to the demands of melding two dozen veterans' stories into some sort of narrative to be performed by 10 people, few of whom had any acting experience -- I found the entire experience both infuriating and moving.

A week and a half ago, journalist David Wright published an essay about the play on Inside Higher Ed. Although in my piece I record two actors jokingly referring to taking the play to D.C., I now hear this may not have been a mere rumor. And the goal of the playwrights and some of the student veterans is to export the model to other campuses -- to help other student veteran groups find some way to connect with the rest of campus. I'm glad they're getting some national attention for this process of producing art as a way to build community dialogue, But as a theater reviewer, I wonder if I have been in some way spoiled by my immersion in this story for other plays about the Iraq War.

March 31, 2008 4:15 AM | | Comments (1)


Natural Light is key to the philosophy of

Natural Light is key to the philosophy of "patient-centered" hospital design

My first trip to a hospital came after I discovered my arm had a new right angle.

It was 1979. I was five years old. I'd dropped out of a tree and snapped the bones in my right forearm. I don't remember if I was in a lot of pain, but do remember asking my mother if I was going to die.

While the emergency room did a lot for my arm, it did little for my state of mind. The hospital smelled funny. It was gloomy and dingy and strange. I've since forgotten most of the details, but I do recall this: the buzzing of fluorescent lights and the feeling that I was in a place where bad things happened.

I wanted to get out. Soon.

It's a commonplace experience. We get sick, go to the hospital, dread our time there. Hospitals scare us. They're big and impersonal and boring. They force us to focus on things we'd rather ignore: illness, chaos, death.

Plus, they're expensive. Heart-bypass surgery, for instance, requires a long convalescence. The longer it takes, the more it costs.

When the Ashley River Tower, the Medical University of South Carolina's new heart, vascular, and digestive disease hospital, opened on Feb. 4, it got a lot of attention from newspapers around the state, and justifiably so.

It's big -- 641,000 square feet with 156 single-patient rooms, including 32 beds in a state-of-the-art intensive care unit. It's new -- a team of local and international architects designed it to reflect the neighboring urban landscape, with elegant curves echoing Charleston's nautical history. And it has a whopping price tag -- about $400 million, including all the equipment. It's the first of five proposed facilities.

What really got the attention of reporters and editors, though, was the role of visual art in the facility: MUSC amassed one of the largest collections of art by local and regional artists on permanent display -- paintings, drawings, photographs, sculptures, pottery, and even traditional Lowcountry sweetgrass baskets -- with the rationale that it will help sick people feel better faster.

More than 850 works were purchased with the help of Mark Sloan, director of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art. Organizers placed art on every floor, every patient room, and in every waiting area in the hospital believing they would reduce stress and facilitate healing.

It was a no-brainer news story.

Still, I had more questions than answers.

MUSC wanted to showcase the work of local and regional artists, build a facility unmistakably grounded in a distinct place, and support art by educating the public. And, of course, there was the feel-good, New Age-y mantra of artful healing. That all sounds terrific, but why?

I personally believe art helps people, especially sick people and their families. Perhaps, as doctors straightened my crooked arm with a plaster cast, some aesthetic beauty, natural light, and smart interior design would have made my first hospital trip less dreadful for my mother and me.

But hospitals are in the business of medicine, not art. Why spend the time and effort searching, buying, collecting, and presenting hundreds of works of art? Why go to great lengths to launch an intense fund-raising campaign that exclusively targeted private sources?

What's the whole story behind the Ashley River Tower?

It turns out that ART, as MUSC's new tower is called, is among a new breed of hospital popping up around the country. These structures have been shorn of the Bauhaus severity of postwar America, in which hospitals, like the one I went to in 1979, were pretty much big concrete boxes with some windows in the front more suitable for religious ascetics and Spartan warriors than people in need of medical care. Benefitting from 30 years of sociological research and architectural innovation, these new buildings are being conceived with the patient in mind -- more natural light, more natural decor, and, importantly, more art in patient rooms, waiting areas, everywhere.

This is not just about the meeting of art and medicine. Research does indeed show patients benefit from exposure to nature and beauty during recovery. But there's another dimension here, and that is how art is being used in smart and sophisticated ways to help solve major economic and management problems that hospitals face in the 21st century -- soaring health care costs, patient satisfaction, fiercer competition, staff retention, 76 million baby boomers.

As we enter into a new age of building design, hospitals are increasingly turning to art. The Ashley River Tower has far more than a nice collection that helps people; medical experts and building designers are hailing it as a new architectural standard of patient care and cutting-edge hospitality.


March 30, 2008 10:42 AM | | Comments (1)
Last spring, Williamston Theatre, then the newest professional theater in mid-Michigan, had to cut short the run of one of their shows. There were a number of factors contributing to this, the biggest one being that Michigan had frozen all of its promised grant money, leaving many organizations in the lurch without the money they had budgeted for.

This past week, Williamston announced the extension of their current show: Hate Mail. They're keeping it open for an additional two weeks and 10 performances, something that is rarely done in this neck of the woods.

To quote their press release:

"Due to the rave reviews from both critics and audiences, we decided it just wasn't time to close this show," said Executive Director, John Lepard. "We are thrilled to be able to give the public ten more opportunities to see this wonderful production, and to give this talented cast and crew a few more weeks of work."

March 27, 2008 8:16 AM | | Comments (0)

Vasantasena (center, Miriam A. Laube) jests with her servant Madanika (Eileen DeSandre) and her confidant Libertine (Tyrone Wilson). Photo by David Cooper.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival first opened its doors in 1935, when English prof Angus Bowmer ran three performances in a "festival" over the Fourth of July weekend, two of Twelfth Night and one of The Merchant of Venice. WIth a hiatus for WWII, the festival has been running since then. Funny story about the first one, recounted at every Backstage Tour (the backstage tour is most tremendously fun; I've been on, I think, four so far and will go again this year): The city government worried that the Shakespeare plays wouldn't make any money and decided to run a boxing match during the day to make up for projected Shakespeare losses. Ennnh! (Buzzer sound.) The boxing match lost money; the plays made money -- and the plays bailed out the boxing losses.

The OSF runs 11 plays (four Shakespeare and seven by contemporary or "classic" playwrights) a season, in rep, on three stages, with 783 total performances during the February-November runs (not all plays run at all times). There aren't usually boxing matches although, of course, any production of As You Like It contains the Orlando v. Charles wrestling match. Ashland's just off of I-5, 3 hours south of Eugene and about 5-6 hours (your mileage may vary) north of the Bay Area. It's 19 miles from the California border, and most of the OSF's patrons come from Cali (something like 45 percent, with 35-40 percent from Oregon), so it's no surprise that many of the plays (last year's Tracy's Tiger and  Distracted and this year's Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter, for instance) contain many, many California references. The audiences laugh a lot; Oregonians like me get annoyed but understand. You can see clips and listen to longer info pieces here.

In any case, info dump aside, the OSF has never produced a "non-Western" play. Not as in non-Gunsmoke or something, but as in non-Western-literature play. Until now.
March 24, 2008 9:47 AM | | Comments (2)

I had to laugh out loud when, after a brilliant "Daily Show" segment on Sen. Barack Obama's speech on race, Jon Stewart dropped the yuks for a moment and said (to paraphrase): "And so it is that a prominent politician spoke to Americans about race as if they were adults." Stewart hit the nail on the head. Although I haven't had a chance to watch Obama's speech in its entirety yet, from what I have seen, it was an honest, direct and nuanced attempt to grapple with a complex problem.

All of this leads me to something I had meant to blog about a couple of weeks ago, when I saw a preview performance of Madison Repertory Theatre's current show, Thomas Gibbons' "Permanent Collection." The show blends art-world and racial politics as Sterling North, a black corporate exec, takes on the directorship of the Morris Foundation, which houses a priceless collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, as well as some little-displayed African art. North's desire to incorporate more of the African pieces into the displays rankles the museum's white director of education, and controversy ensues.

After the preview-night show, I felt invigorated in way that, frankly, I rarely do when leaving the theater. Sure, there are good plays to be seen in Madison, but this seemed to me an almost perfect blend of entertainment with meaty ideas. The production was fiery, at times funny and offered characters with real moral complexity. It's a play on race and culture that treats the audience as if they were adults, capable of seeing the merits of each character's position from shifting angles.

I was previously unfamiliar with this play, and I'm glad Madison Rep chose to make it a part of its season. Madison is a changing city but its older generations - you know, the people who are more likely to go to professional theater - are largely white. We like to think of ourselves as an enlightened, progressive place, and to a good extent I think Madison is, but anyone who doesn't believe that they have blind spots regarding race is probably fooling themselves. In that way, I thought Madison's Rep choice of this play was especially well suited to its community. Being entertained and being made to think - in equal measure - is, for me at least, a perfect night at the theater. And if art, as well as political speeches, can move forward our national dialogue on race, I think this is the sort of play that can accomplish that.

For some local reviews of Madison Repertory Theatre's production of "Permanent Collection," see Isthmus, the Capital Times and the Wisconsin State Journal. The show runs through March 30 at the Overture Center for the Arts.

March 20, 2008 8:00 AM | | Comments (1)

Two weekends ago I experienced San Antonio theater from the other side of the fourth wall. Yes, I, a critic, was in a play. Written by another critic. And I played a man: Menander, the master of New Comedy (so I'm not sweating it either).

This particular production was especially commissioned for an interactive Greek and Roman art exhibit/event at the San Antonio Museum of Art, a castle-like structure just a short walk from my pub's headquarters. Called "The Complete Fragments of Menander: Some Assembly Required," William Razavi's one-act was billed as an "edu-tainment" play for all ages. And indeed, the performance incited laughter from Classics professors and small children alike.

The show was reportedly met with enthusiasm from a representative of another local vis-art institution (which shall for now go nameless) possibly interested in collaborating on something in the same vein.

I always get psyched when different art-form tribes join forces. In mythical, Factory-like environments the lines between media, vis, and theater artists are always represented as blurry. I'm still learning about how much of that exists here (holy crap, look at this: http://www.potterbelmar.org/); our arts editor tells me that SA's other major art museum, The McNay, has begun to develop a resident theater troupe. I'm on the edge of my seat (on the side of the stage where I probably belong).

March 17, 2008 3:11 PM | | Comments (0)

Uk_symphony_carnegie_hall

The University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra performed in New York's Carnegie Hall with Arlo Guthrie in November, under the baton of John Nardolillo. The ensemble also performs in Lexington regularly, including a February concert with cellist Lynn Harrell. Copyrighted photo by Aaron Lee Fineman | for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

A few weeks ago I took a look at the front page of Arts + Life, our Sunday features section in the Lexington Herald-Leader. There was a story about a double bill of plays by University of Kentucky Theatre, a piece about UK soprano Afton Battle in the national semifinal round of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and, inside, a story about a new UK ­musical and operetta club.

A few nights later, I was in UK's Singletary Center to hear the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra, and I noted that concertmaster Daniel Mason directs UK's string program, principal violist Joseph Baber teaches composition at UK, principal ... well, you get the idea.

Even when you're not dealing with a UK organization, there's a good chance there will be a tie to the university.

That is not to diminish the efforts of artists from other area schools. I'm reminded of folks such as Stephanie Pistello, a Transylvania University theater graduate who now directs the New Mummer Group in New York; John Ellison Conlee, who graduated from Centre College's theater program and went on to a Tony Award nomination for his performance in The Full Monty; and singers such as Corey Crider and Norman ­Reinhardt, who got their starts at Morehead State University and Asbury College, respectively, before filtering through grad school at UK on their way to burgeoning opera careers. We have a wealth of colleges and universities in Central Kentucky with substantial arts programs. And covering UK arts extensively is not a subversive effort at boosterism (my dirty secret: I was born and raised a Duke fan -- one of UK's mortal enemies in basketball).

There's something to be said for having a major land-grant university in your city. It elevates the possibilities for what you can do and what your community demands.

March 15, 2008 9:01 PM | | Comments (0)

Should promoting audience etiquette be part of our jobs?

I'm thinking about this because of a Guardian UK blog post about theater etiquette.

I'm also thinking about it because in the town where I grew up (which I believe Terry Teachout calls something like a "second-tier" city, in no doubt much more elegant terms), the classical music critic for the daily paper wrote about audience etiquette. I'd say "often" or "a few times," but the truth is that just because I have strong memories of the few times doesn't mean it was, or wasn't, often.

That critic, whose work I remember reading in high school and perhaps college, was Scott Cantrell, now of the Dallas Morning News. (I emailed him to see if I was making this up; I'll update when I get a reply.)

March 14, 2008 8:53 AM | | Comments (3)

Humana_the_civilians

Michael Friedman, Jim Lewis and Steven Cosson (L-R) discuss This Beautiful City, the play they created about the evangelical community in Colorado Springs, Colo., which is part of 32nd annual Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actor's Theatre of Louisville. Photo by Maggie Huber | Lexington Herald-Leader and LexGo.com.

Last week, I saw a performance of Lee Blessing's new play, Great Falls. It was an excellent piece of theater that belied the bells and whistles of so many shows today by focusing on two terrific, well-traveled actors under the guidance of a first-rate director.

And I was nowhere near New York City. Not even Chicago or San Francisco. I was in Louisville, a town most people only think about the first Saturday in May. But every year, somewhere around the last weekend in March, the Derby City becomes the center of the theater world with critics and theater professionals flocking in for the Humana Festival of New American Plays.

The festival, which has launched critically acclaimed plays such as Crimes of the Heart, is now into its fourth decade. It has had its up years and down years, but with recent hits such as Dinner with Friends and Omnium Gatherum, people still come to Humana hoping to be among the first to discover the next great thing.

Nowadays, when people describe Humana, it's often compared to the Sundance Film Festival, another major arts (yes, it attracts glitterati, but most of its offerings are geared to the art houses) event that thrives outside of major mets. Look south to Charleston, S.C. (John, are you ready?) and we have Spoleto, a major arts festival with a schedule that will make you da-rool, da-rool.

Chatting with Jim Clark, the president and CEO of LexArts, the United Arts Fund here in Lexington, he pointed out that one of the common denominators of these and other major arts happenings outside of the cultural capitals of America is that they didn't have great infrastructure to launch. What they had was a great vision that serious and substantial work could be done right where they were. It's the kind of success that should make you look around and wonder what could happen, wherever you are.

March 11, 2008 8:11 PM | | Comments (1)

fiddlerphoto-2_resized.jpgI don't know Carol Furtwangler, but I'm sure we'd have a lot to talk about. She's the Post and Courier's theater critic (in Charleston, S.C.) and she turns reviews around on a regular basis. Problem is, she doesn't have much room to do a proper job.

For Fiddler on the Roof, a production that opened Friday and that was the first time the Charleston Stage Company had collaborated with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, her review got six paragraphs. By the time she'd finished with the requisite exposition, there was little inch-count to make a sound judgment.

I know what this is like. When I was a daily reporter, I wrote reviews that we shoehorned into the smallest of spaces. Aware of space restrictions, and cynical about being cut even further by insensitive copy editors, I wrote tight without much nuance, even if that meant veering into hyperbole.

In Furtwangler's case, she leads by saying Fiddler on the Roof was "a triumphant production," but doesn't expound. Inference does the work for her: The very fact that Charleston Stage did this big, ambitious, and expensive project with the CSO made it triumphant. The next five graphs of the review were devoted to who did what and when -- in other words, the exposition.

I have to give the P&C credit: It devotes space to the arts. I spent years writing overnight reviews that ended up near the obituaries. That's pretty disheartening. Though Furtwangler's reviews are small, at least they are present. And they are present on page 2A -- a great endorsement for the arts.

Still, why not more? Furtwangler's review had to compete with wire copy from the Associated Press, stories on J.K. Rowling's suing of a Potter fan and Frank Sinatra Jr. getting a star on the Walk of Fame (with a large picture that takes up a lot of space). From a editorial perspective, one has to weigh the value of copy. For my money, the local theater review is the most valuable. The other stuff can be found elsewhere, but a newspaper can't buy a local theater review from the wires. That's unique and therefore the most valuable.

I could talk about how daily newspapers don't get it (that it's not enough to put material out there; that they must also engage readers in order to keep them), but I think the P&C does a pretty good job. Like I said, at least the arts are present in the paper. Other publications are doing away with them altogether.

The problem with tight space is this: Furtlanger wasn't able to be accurate. It is indeed a triumph of sorts for a city's professional orchestra to accompany a city's largest professional theater company. But that isn't enough.

I attended the opening of Fiddler. The show was not triumphant. I would say that it could have been triumphant, that it had all the ingredients for triumph, but it was far from that for one key reason: John Fennell, the lead actor (pictured).

Aside from a passel of debits (uneven pacing, stalled momentum, that dreaded sound problem that continues to plague Charleston Stage shows) and bevy of credits (great costumes, a terrific dream scene, and touching chemistry between actors, especially between Tevye and Golda), Fennell just couldn't sing well.

Maybe he was sick, I don't know. But his singing voice was bad. His acting was superb. He was very, very funny. But his singing? Not good. With his character playing a central role in the story, and with the CSO providing the music to which this central role sang, the collaboration was hardly triumphant.

I would give this show a mixed review. (So did CP critic Kinsey Labberton. She noted the sound problems and Fennell's lackluster performance. She also asked why choose Fiddler when a historic collaboration between two major arts groups in Charleston was an opportunity to be really daring. A fair observation.)

Because it's the obligation of the critic to explain himself when leveling a mixed review, he or she requires space. Without that, you're stuck giving a mere thumbs up or thumbs down. If Furtwangler wants to try her hand with the City Paper, we'd give her the space she needs. She's welcome to call me anytime.

Like I said, I think we'd have a lot to talk about.

Cross-posted from Unscripted.

March 8, 2008 1:48 PM | | Comments (2)

Jen's Arts Day may be over, but I have a question: Should arts journalists be arts advocates?

If so, how should we do that -- simply by writing about the arts? Or should we do things like go easier on a theater company or art gallery that is having a hard financial time? What's our responsibility to our communities and to the arts that we cover?

What about podcasts (I like those of Jen Graves at The Stranger, Q&As (Rich is really good at this on his blog), panels and other ways for arts writers to get the news out about the arts?

Maybe this is a "duh." As in, "Duh, Suzi, if we aren't arts advocates, we won't have jobs at all." But I'd like to hear what others think about ethics, balancing reviews and previews and informational articles, mixing financial analyses with the desire for local arts groups to, well, keep on going, etc.

March 7, 2008 4:10 AM | | Comments (2)

Yo! Eugene checking in.

I'm Suzi Steffen, career graduate student, still (after almost two years) thrilled to have a job where they pay me to write. Even though I adore that job -- as performing and visual arts editor (and copy editor -- small paper) at The Eugene Weekly -- I'd rather be living in Portland. But I guess that wouldn't be flyover-land, and I'd be sad not to be living my dream and blogging for Flyover.

I'm a rather serious person, given to long contemplation of Serious Topics About Art and Architecture and Books and Funding and Music and Theater, but I also like LOLcats. I expect both to influence my posts here.

March 5, 2008 4:30 AM | | Comments (1)

Tomorrow, March 5, is Arts Day here in Wisconsin. It's an annual event organized by Arts Wisconsin, a statewide arts advocacy group. Although it works closely with our state Arts Board, it is an independent organization. Part of the goal of Arts Day is to get Wisconsin's artists, arts administrators, educators, etc. together with state legislators. Legislators are unlikely to fund what they don't even know about, and they need to know about what their constituents are doing. Arts Day is spearheaded by the vocal, passionate and determined Anne Katz, and I've asked Anne to do a guest post one of these days to talk about the role of arts advocacy from her perspective.

Arts advocates have had some recent successes here in Wisconsin, one of which is the passage of tax breaks for films (and other forms of entertainment) made in Wisconsin. While the knee-jerk liberal in me typically views any sort of corporate tax break with suspicion, I think this is great news. We've lagged behind nearby states in this regard, losing potential business to them. The first major film to be shot here, after the tax incentives took effect on Jan. 1, is "Public Enemies," based on Bryan Burrough's book about John Dillinger and starring Johnny Depp, Marion Cotillard (whee!) and Christian Bale. UW-Madison graduate Michael Mann will direct.

According to the AP, the film company plans to spend about $20 million in Wisconsin and will earn about $3.9 million in tax credits.

While Wisconsin's Arts Day will no doubt touch upon these sorts of large-scale economic issues, the overall vibe is much more local and grassroots, and the arguments put forth in favor of the arts are certainly not all based on dollars. Rather, it's a time for anyone who cares about the arts and arts funding to have a say based on what is most important to them -- and it's a challenge to all of us to try to become arts advocates in some form throughout the year, not just one day in March.

March 4, 2008 7:34 PM | | Comments (0)

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Jeff Day, at The State newspaper (in Columbia, S.C.), reminds us that Renee Fleming, at the top of her game as the Met's leading opera diva, got her start at Spoleto. His article today also serves as a reminder that artists of Fleming's caliber had to start somewhere. In fact, Fleming graduated from the same small New York state school that I did: The Crane School of Music at SUNY College at Potsdam. She eventually went on the Eastman, as many Crane graduates did. Before being taken on the Metropolitan Opera, she gigged with Spoleto, just as many artists past and present have. Fleming is among opera's elite, but her journey took her to many out-of-the-way places outside of New York, London, and Milan.

In recent weeks, Renee Fleming, one of the biggest opera stars in the world, has been singing the role of the doomed Desdemona in the Metropolitan Opera's "Otello."

But 21 years ago, she was a young singer just starting out when she filled a supporting role in the opera "Platee" at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston. The opera was reviewed by The New York Times, but she wasn't even mentioned.

She was back at Spoleto in 1989, singing the role of the Countess in "The Marriage of Figaro," which she also performed at the Italian version of the festival.

That time she got noticed.

"Spoleto was actually my training ground," Fleming said in an interview from New York last week. "I spent three summers at the festival both in Charleston and Italy. It was a terrific experience -- I loved both places."

Full story . . .

Cross-posted from Unscripted.

March 2, 2008 9:30 AM | | Comments (0)

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