FlyOver: September 2007 Archives
Madison's afternoon daily, The Capital Times, recently ran an item on how the current school year will likely be the one in which "minority students become the majority in Madison's elementary schools." Counted together, Black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American students will account for over 50% of elementary students.
For those reading this outside of Wisconsin, this number may be surprising given the state's largely Germanic image (and, frankly, I wouldn't exist were it not for German immigrants to Milwaukee). Yet while the makeup of Milwaukee and Madison is more varied than the state as a whole, numbers such as these do indicate that Wisconsin is an increasingly diverse place. And as the younger generation in particular becomes more diverse, so does our state's future.
What does this have to with the arts in smaller cities? Quite a lot, for reasons that are not hard to fathom. While part of the role of the arts is to give us glimpses into other worlds and other people's experiences, I think all of us also want to see our own experiences--whatever they may be--reflected in the arts from time to time. A pluralistic society needs a rich variety of arts experiences.
Some related questions that have come into sharper focus for me this year are these: How does the art we see in our community reflect our population? What do local arts programming choices say about us as a community? And whose stories are being told?
While these questions may seem painfully obvious, for arts writers they're also easily lost in the rush of doing a review of a particular play, art exhibition, etc. Sometimes, given all that there is to say about a specific work and the limited amount of space a writer has, larger questions of context and community fall by the wayside. And even when they're raised, they're not always appreciated; arts organizations can wind up feeling defensive.
For arts critics in small to mid-size cities who may be reading this: how have you addressed such issues in your reviews? Or do you feel you've not had the space to really delve into it? Or is it an issue you think is ill-suited to arts criticism?
On a related note, I've also been pondering issues of diversity in terms of local print publications. They, too, are a mirror of how Madison and cities like it are changing. In addition to Madison's two daily newspapers (the Wisconsin State Journal and Capital Times) and alternative weekly, Isthmus, there's a lot more in town, much of it serving specific populations: the brand-new Our Lives, which bills itself as "Madison's LGBTQA Magazine"; the multicultural papers Capital City Hues and The Madison Times ("The Paper That's More Than Black and White"); La Comunidad, publishing articles in both English and Spanish; and Wisconsin Woman--and I'm sure I'm leaving a few publications out.
While I have no grand insights to offer as I write this late on a Monday night, I do think that those of us lucky enough to write about our local arts scenes must take time to consider the community context of what we see--and don't see.
One of the misconceptions one sometimes encounters about the arts in the "Outback" is that there is little original work being created here, or that people in smaller communities are in "trickle down" mode, waiting for touring shows or performers from bigger cities to make it here.
Of course, it's not news to those in smaller and mid-size cities that there is quite a lot of original work being created, much of it of high quality. In that spirit, I wanted to share a story in today's Wisconsin State Journal about the Off-Broadway debut in New York of the Madison-made musical "Walmartopia," a zany yet pointed spoof of the mass retailer and global economic force that enjoyed a successful run at Madison's Bartell Community Theatre in 2005 (under the auspices of Mercury Players Theatre). It was one of my favorite local shows of that year.
After a brief extra run locally at the Barrymore Theatre, "Walmartopia" moved on to New York's Fringe Festival and is now Off-Broadway.
While the whole story by Katjusa Cisar is well worth reading, this part seemed most germane to our concerns here on Flyover:
[Co-creators Catherine] Capellaro and [Andrew] Rohn stress that it was the enthusiasm of people in Madison, not money, that got them to Off-Broadway.
"It bounced us to the Fringe Festival (in New York) and then bounced us here," says Capellaro.
Rohn adds, "I keep wanting to convey to people who do art in Madison and other small places that I don't think there's a qualitative difference between here and there. The soul and spirit of performers is the same."
For any New Yorkers who happen to be reading Flyover, I highly recommend checking out this show--and feel free to post your thoughts about it in the comments (I'm curious about changes from the Madison version). And in the meantime, we Madisonians will have to await Rohn and Capellaro's musical about intelligent design and creationism--if their previous work is any indication, it should be a hoot.
Update: Here's some additional coverage of the New York version of "Walmartopia" from Madison's alternative weekly, Isthmus, the Guardian, the New York Times (which gave a quite negative review) and MSNBC.