Recently by FlyOver

There's a pretty thorny mess sprouting in Montana these days, concerning the way the state expects venue managers and promoters to deal with musicians and other performers. Some say the issue could literally shut down live music and other types of performing arts across the state, if not rectified. You can read about it here
March 27, 2009 12:56 PM | | Comments (0)

About a month ago, Orange County Register blogger Paul Hodgins wrote a post about his conversations with various theater professionals around the Los Angeles area.

His findings are no real surprise:

Those who bemoan the state of American theater should consider this sobering fact: even for its most successful playwrights and directors, it's a world without money or security.

Of course, Hodgins bases what he says on the anecdotal evidence he sees around Orange County and L.A.

Which makes me wonder: Is it better, or worse, in smaller cities around the country? My gut tells me worse; there's certainly no-one in my town of Missoula making a living as a freelance theater professional. In fact, even here -- more than 1,000 miles from Los Angeles -- the only folks I know making a living by writing scripts or acting do pretty much all their business in Hollywood.

But I also know that life in Missoula is a lot less expensive than in L.A. (just ask the scads of transplants who come here every year to get away from the big city, pushing up local housing prices....Not that I'm BITTER or anything...grrrr).

And as a journalist, I had an eye-opening conversation with a senior Chicago Tribune reporter a year ago in which it became clear that my standard of living here is actually no worse and in some ways infinitely better than his.

Journalists aren't theatricals, of course. But I do wonder, can people make a decent living acting, directing, and/or writing plays outside the major metro hubs in America?

February 27, 2008 10:18 AM | | Comments (0)

I'm standing in a crease between two towering folds of brushed stainless steel, looking up. A wall of glass fills the seam, partially reflecting the cold glint of metal and city lights outside, simultaneously revealing the warm glow of welcoming light and blond wood inside the building. Rooted in my tracks, gawking, I know I look like a tourist, and I just don't care.

I'm supposed to do this, of course - supposed to be overwhelmed with awe as I walk through the doors of Walt Disney Concert Hall, the most audacious work of architecture in the extravagant history of Los Angeles and the most paradigm-busting concert hall built anywhere in the world during the past generation. A few minutes later, standing inside the lobby, I watch through the glass as a well-dressed couple stops outside the front door and repeats my heavenward gaze.


WDCH-view_from_courthouse_hiCan you see what I see, feel what I feel? No, of course; you can't. To twist a familiar truism, writing about architecture is like dancing about music. Words can't create the experience itself - especially when the experience involves Disney Hall. Great architecture, like a great concert performance, demands first-hand engagement for real appreciation.

February 20, 2008 2:38 PM | | Comments (5)

How to rebuild an economically languishing community's identity around the arts? Well, here's one solution: Build a place for artists to live and work.

The city of Ventura, Calif. has apparently sunk millions into the project, which will combine "54 affordable housing units for artists and their families, 15 'supportive' apartments for people facing severe poverty and trying to end their homelessness, and 13 ocean-facing, market-rate condominiums likely to fetch upwards of $850,000," plus "a gallery-theater, park and arts-related commercial space."

Reminds me of the old joke....

Q: What do you call a drummer without a girlfriend?
A: Homeless...

...unless, of course, he lives in Ventura!

February 15, 2008 6:43 AM | | Comments (0)

Yes, it's contest season for us daily newspaper reporters, the time of year when we break out the glue-sticks and tape to assemble our personal best-of work from the past year, in hopes that someone, somewhere, will give us the thanks and recognition that we so rarely get from our own employers.

Do I sound cynical? Well, I guess I am a bit cranky about the whole thing. After all, as an arts journalist, my chances of winning an award are slim to none. While some might assert that that's a function of my lousy writing, I find myself stuck at the starting line.

February 14, 2008 11:48 AM | | Comments (1)

A couple of months ago, a magazine called Inside Arts commissioned me to write an article about how performing arts presenters - that is, concert halls and theaters that host shows by touring performers - go about localizing the touring shows they present. In the course of working on the story, I ended up calling more than a dozen presenting companies around the country.

During a few of those conversations, it came up that I live in Missoula.

"Oh, Missoula," the refrain always came. "Great theater town."

I heard the same thing from several people last February, when I attended a theater journalism institute in Los Angeles, presented by the National Endowment for the Arts.

In the arts world outside Montana, Missoula is practically synonymous with theater - and for good reason. Montana Repertory Theatre, now celebrating its 40th year as a going concern (see related story), spends each spring traipsing across the nation, performing in major and minor halls to oft-enrapt audiences, earning rave reviews at practically every stop: "This is what theatre is meant to be," crows the Charleston Gazette; "an outstanding afternoon, filled with power," says the Green Bay (Wisc.) Press-Gazette.

Meantime, Missoula Children's Theater has made an international name for itself by sending crews of theater professionals to some of the most far-flung regions of the earth. During its 2007-2008 season it will send a total of 27 teams to raise 900 shows with over 55,000 children in all fifty states as well as Canada, Europe, South America and Asia. No other children's theater company in America comes close to equaling what MCT does.

It's funny how different things look from inside the city limits of Missoula itself.

As I typed that last sentence - as if by divine intervention, or at least a stage cue - my phone rang. It was a woman from Kalispell -- a small city about two hours north of Missoula. She was in Missoula visiting for the week.

She wanted to know if there was any theater worth seeing while she's here.

"I looked online and couldn't find anything except ('A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum' at) MCT," she said. "I saw that already, so I was wondering if there are other things going on."

No, dear caller, there are not. Nor, for the most part, are there ever more than one or two plays running in Missoula at one time - even if you count student productions and independent productions.

Professional theater, with paid actors? It practically doesn't exist. Next week, we Missoula-folk will get a quick run of performances of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," this year's Montana Rep show. Unless something surprising happens, the next time we'll see paid actors on stage is when Montana Shakespeare in the Parks comes through Missoula - which usually happens sometime in August. Then, we'll be waiting until February again, for the next Montana Rep show.

That may sound more dire than warranted. For one thing, the season of shows by University of Montana students is often chock full of great plays done surprisingly well; same with the community productions put on by MCT.

Additionally, Montana Rep Missoula has emerged in the past couple of years as an exciting new local production company, presenting challenging modern plays to local audiences. The goal of that company - started by Montana Rep director Greg Johnson -- is to reach a point where a full season of shows performed by paid actors and crews can be presented in Missoula.

And every few months it seems that some independent group appears on the scene, putting up a short run of a play, often with fine results.

But given Missoula's reputation out in the world, isn't it just a little strange how little theater we have going on here in town?

"It's a great irony, isn't it?" muses Greg Johnson. "I think about it often."

In fact, Johnson has tried to remedy the situation before, as far back as his own history goes in this town. When he arrived in Missoula in 1990, he immediately founded the Young Rep, a company focused on presenting new plays to local audiences, employing student actors. That company petered out around the beginning of the new millennium.

"It sort of ran its course," says Johnson. "We decided to close it down and see what would happen next."

What happened was Montana Rep Missoula, a similar company with less reliance on student actors and crew. Since its founding in 2003, the company has enjoyed increasing success, often selling out tickets when it performs at the Crystal Theater.

"We're on the cusp, I think," says Greg Johnson. "Demographically, socially, economically - we're almost there where this town can support a local theater company."

In the meantime, we in Missoula should probably be careful to count our blessings -- to enjoy the fact that people around the nation and the world associate our city's name with theater. It's better than being known as the Tire Capital of the World, or Clam Town, USA.

"I always try to see shows when I come down to Missoula," noted the woman who called earlier, "because there's nothing happening in Kalispell."

(cross-posted at Nickell's Bag)
January 24, 2008 3:13 PM | | Comments (1)

It's that time of year again, when every ballet school in America trots its young students on stage for their production of "The Nutcracker." For that reason, it's also the time of year when journalists like myself struggle for anything new to say about this old chestnut.

A couple of years ago, I took a stab, after attending a performance here in Missoula, MT. I figured it'd be a good opportunity to talk about some of the cultural issues surrounding the choice of a ballet over a ballgame. As much as anything, it's a salvo aimed at those who unwisely believe that the things that are meaningful to them are somehow more important than the things that are meaningful to others.

I happened to come across that column today while looking back in our newspaper's archives for something else entirely, and thought I'd share.

The 'savage ballet'
Football and other sports mimic art more than some care to admit
By JOE NICKELL of the Missoulian

Last Friday, I watched a team of young people cap a season of intense practice with a remarkable performance. It was a spectacle of physical artistry: They leapt, they spun, they flipped and flung. Girls in extremely short skirts gleefully vaulted around, while muscular guys in extremely tight pants demonstrated acrobatic skills and deft moves that drew spontaneous cheers from the crowd.

Meantime, someplace else, the University of Montana lost its national championship football game.

For the rest of this article, please click through to the Missoulian archive.

December 11, 2007 2:36 PM | | Comments (5)

Good cheer can be expensive, apparently. My colleague at the Missoulian, Rob Chaney, wrote an excellent behind-the-scenes piece for our paper this week about the surprising costs of putting on Christmas concerts, specifically related to sheet-music rentals. It's an issue that is likely shared by every school orchestra, community band, and small-town orchestra in this country -- and really not just at this time of year.

This story is just the tip of the iceberg. In speaking with John Driscoll, the executive director of the Missoula Symphony Orchestra, a couple of months ago, I was surprised to learn that his biggest challenge in trying to program modern music isn't his audience's willingness to listen to it.

The problem is the cost.

"It's really not cheap to program great music, and it's particularly not cheap to program contemporary music, be it contemporary classical, or pops, or movie themes," said Driscoll. "We have to be very cognizant of budget when programming the repertoire for all our concerts. That's often disappointing. For example, we program one or two big pieces on the summer (pops) concert; for the rest, a lot of that is music we either own or borrow from the other members of Montana Association of Symphony Orchestras, just so that we can afford to present the concert."

Driscoll cited numerous examples of works he had tried to secure for the orchestra at his music director's behest, only to find that he couldn't afford the part rentals. Somewhat tangentially, he further pointed out that, for the money he spends, he usually gets disorganized sheaves of instrumental parts that are often marked up willy-nilly by musicians who have used the parts previously.

This seems like a shockingly absurd problem in this modern era of cheap, on-demand printing -- to say nothing of digital distribution. I'm almost afraid to opine on the problem from where I stand, since I fear I'm maybe just missing a basic point of economics in this equation.

But what I do see now, more clearly, is that there are hazards beyond audience acceptance that make it hard for new music to reach listeners; and meantime, there are exorbitant hidden costs that can truly bruise a small or struggling orchestra.

December 5, 2007 10:36 PM | | Comments (4)

Art is an intensely local experience. But what arts organizations really put local considerations front and center when they design their programming, educational strategies, and other activities?

I'm not writing to tell you the answer. I'm honestly just throwing the question out there. I'll admit, there's a personal reason to ask: I'm doing a freelance piece for Inside Arts magazine, about this very topic. I'm looking to tell the stories of arts organizations that employ strategies that reflect the peculiar local circumstances of their communities. It's a broad examination of how local demographics, geography, and so-on influence the identity of specific arts organizations. I know some examples, but I want to hear more.

So in a sense, this post is a solicitation. But I suspect it's also the lead-off for further discussion here.

I'll throw out one example that I believe does a fine job of focusing on its local circumstances: the Missoula Art Museum. For one thing, the museum's programming is intensely local and contemporary. Indeed, touring shows and exhibits of work by artists from outside a half-day drive from here are the exception rather than the rule. They've also employed strategies such as their popular Artini series to capitalize on the peculiar demographics of this town.

Who else does this well? I'd love to hear.

October 26, 2007 8:34 AM | | Comments (2)

A couple of weeks ago I attended an event here in Missoula that reminded me why I live in this place, why I love these people, and what can happen when an artist in this small town believes that anything is possible.

The event was a CD release concert by David Boone, a local musician whom I've written about several times over the years. Still in his mid-late 20s, David has lived quite a hard life here in western Montana. He left his broken family in his mid-teens, lost the man he considered father in a random murder, drifted around, fought with episodes of severe depression and mania for years. In the up times, he has produced an impressive body of work, including ten full-length albums in the past eight years. In the down times, nobody hears from him for awhile.

For the release of his newest record, "A Tale of Gold," David decided to put together a massive concert at Missoula's third-largest concert hall, the 1,100-seat Wilma Theater. It was a bold move; other local musicians have tried and failed to pull together events at the grand old theater.

But David did it right, and the result was a nearly sold-out concert that truly ranks as one of the finest I've ever witnessed. Indeed, it was more than a concert; it felt more like a community waking up to itself. In this city of just over 60,000 people, more than 1,000 showed up for the concert. Using somewhat fuzzy math, if the same percentage of locals showed up to a concert by an unsigned hometown artist in New York City, there'd be over 130,000 people in the crowd.

I wrote a preview of the concert, talking about the new CD and how the concert came together; you can read the full story here.

I also wrote a column - more an ode - after the concert. You can read that here.

If you're a fan of folk-rock music in the Coldplay/Counting Crows vein, I'm even willing to make a rare plug: You should buy "A Tale of Gold." There are some wonderful songs on it, and you'd be supporting one of the most earnestly good people I've ever met.

October 24, 2007 9:32 AM | | Comments (1)

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