Posts tagged with The Arts

A Simple Thank You

I breathed a hesitant sigh of relief a week ago when the school board announced its plans for budget cuts. Face it, the task was so daunting that NO decision they made would make everyone happy or protect all of the programs that impact the quality of education for kids. However, despite some stipend cuts that will have an impact on our secondary music programs, the majority of our arts education programs remained intact...for this round, at least. We all know the importance of reading, writing and 'rithmetic, but how many of us know that the state of Kansas considers fine arts important enough to require arts education for graduation? Education should not only be about teaching kids to make a living, but education should also teach kids how to make a life. Unfortunately, the fine arts have historically been the first to go in school districts across the country when budgets get squeezed too tightly. It's like the young Thespian/football player said at the International Thespian Festival two summers ago when asked why he chose to do theatre instead of football -- he said "I realized I'm not going to change anyone's life by running a ball down the field." We can't live without the arts, and a solid educational experience in the arts makes for better citizens, better workers, better community. So thank you, USD 497 BOE, for doing what you can to uphold the idea that arts are essential, not extra.
Let's work to encourage our state legislature to support education so that the BOE doesn't have to make further cuts harmful to the quality of education for our kids.


Hang on there, Shutterbugs…

School plays are exciting events, especially if it's the first one that your friends or relatives have participated in. Most of us like to capture those magic moments for digital perpetuity with cameras, cell phones, and video cameras. If you're taking the camera along to an elementary school event, you can expect that pretty much everyone else in the audience will be snapping lots of photos and that's just part of the experience. However, when those kiddos get to junior high and high school, the rules of the photo game change. There are three major considerations: audience etiquette, respect for the performers, and legal issues.

Junior high is where we begin introducing theatre as an art form -- it's more than just getting kids involved in the 'school play.' It's also about teaching them all the conventions of theatre, including audience etiquette. We recognize the unique quality of the audience being in the moment with the performers on stage depends on not being distracted by things such as crying babies, ringing phones, crinkly candy wrappers, loud conversations, people arriving or leaving in the middle of scenes...and the electronic tones, whirs and illumination of a digital camera being readied for a shot. That glowing LCD screen is a distraction to those around you, and might even be blocking someone else's view.

Junior high students have so many distractions in their moment to moment existence. We directors spend six to eight weeks trying to focus them and move them beyond those distractions to create believable characters and captivating stories...which they do quite well until they are faced with the reality of going on stage in front of an audience. The flash of a camera can take the actor on stage out of the moment and bring a startling reminder that someone is watching very closely. These young performers take on a demanding task -- they only make it look easy, that's why it's called acting. They deserve to have their work seen by an audience who is practicing what the students have been taught about audience etiquette.

The last consideration is the least popular and most difficult one to explain to anyone who is not in my position, and that is the legal issue of copyright. Face it, most everyone is baffled by the complexities of copyright laws. Let me make it simple: I sign a production contract that gives me the right to produce a playwright's work. I do not automatically gain the rights to reproduce that work in electronic or recorded form (it says so right on the contract and on the inside of the script). A representative of a publishing company told a group of theatre teachers at a conference I attended that the theatre director would be the person held responsible for any breach of that agreement. My school board has a policy that says it won't be held liable for any monetary damages incurred by a teacher in any legal matter. In short, people take photos or video during a performance I direct that get shared and discovered by a publishing company and I am the one who pays the thousands of dollars in fines and possibly won't be allowed to get any further production rights from that company. That would not only be a blow to my family's personal finances, but also put a crimp on being able to do my job selecting plays for my students.

So, if you go to a school play and the printed program has a notice or the director makes a speech that requests no photos or videos be taken during the performance, please take the request seriously for the reasons mentioned above. If you desperately want photos, contact the director a couple of weeks in advance of the performance and ask to take pictures during dress rehearsals. Offer to share the pictures with the director, cast and crew and you'll ingratiate yourself like you can't imagine. Besides, when 'the play's the thing,' you should be enjoying the show from a wider vantage point than an LCD screen or viewfinder.


Turn it off, really, seriously…off!!

During our school theatrical productions, I am usually backstage managing students. My assistant supervises the students in the booth running sound and lights, and so has a great vantage point when it comes to seeing what is going on in the audience. After opening night of our spring production, he made the following plea to our teenage cast and crew members: Tell your friends that they at least owe you the respect and courtesy to not sit in the audience and text while you are performing your heart out on stage.

I echoed the same plea to the audience during my pre-show curtain speech that night, and got a round of applause -- from parents, I assume.

Seems like we as a society just can't put the cell phone away, or even bear to turn it off. I could understand if people in the audience were super-duper top secret government agents and had to rush off to save the world on a moment's notice, or even if parents kept their phones on to be in quick reach of a babysitter at home, but let's face it -- most of us don't have any real life or death need to be in constant communication with the outside world for the time it takes to watch the average play. See, what makes theatre unique is immersing oneself in the experience of the here and now, which one cannot fully appreciate when deciphering the latest "hey wt r u doin?" message flashing in the dark. Not to mention that everyone next to and behind the person with the phone is distracted by the blue light illuminating that area of the darkened house.

It's disruptive! It's disrespectful to the audience as well as to the performers! And, despite what some people think, it really does interfere with some of our sound equipment in the theater (which I found out firsthand last fall during a dress rehearsal). So to those who feel they ought to be hard-wired into life outside the building they're in: stop and think about the moments happening in front of you that you're missing out on while you stare at that little blue screen. And have a good answer when your friend asks "Hey did you see me on stage when I...?"


Say it ain’t so, Spidey, say it ain’t so!

The Spider-Man Broadway Musical proudly announced that it has a title -- "Turn Off the Dark" -- and it goes into previews January 2010. Say ....wha???
Yep, here's the official website:

And there it is...the poster in all its glory -- proclaiming the music written by Bono and The Edge and directed by Julie Taymor. Say it ain't so, Spidey, say it ain't so!! It's enough that producers on the Great White Way don't seem to want to bankroll any musical production that isn't based on a movie, play, book, or something that has intense marketing potential (must've taken a seminar from Disney or something). Now I have to look on in horror as my teen musical idols sell themselves out to one of the most unnecessary pop-culture adaptations of a super hero story? So here is my plea to them, in lieu of fan mail that I never sent...

Bono, Edge (and Adam, Larry)...I've loved you since that rainy day in 1981 when I defied my mom and watched some MTV while waiting for the school bus and heard for the first time that glorious sound that defined the rest of my adolescence and early college years. I defended you when everyone said you'd sold out during the Zooropa Tour. But to have it come to this? I'll just download "War" and "Joshua Tree" to my mp3 player and mourn for our lost relationship in morose silence.

And Julie -- you had me at "Fool's Fire." And the "Lion King" design still makes me weep every time I see it on stage. I was going to watch "Titus" but now...oh Julie, why? Why???

Look, I know that the two of you found "Across the Universe" a thrilling escapade, but couldn't your Broadway debut have been on a project more worthy of your talent? Something classic, something edgy..."The Tempest" or perhaps "Crime and Punishment"?

Wait...what's that ad on the right side of the entertainment web page where I read the story of your demise? "High School Musical 4" now casting...

...Oh, the inhumanity...


Waxing Philosophical

So there I was, willingly craning my neck at an angle that my chiropractor would cluck her tongue at and allowing Hannah to apply hot wax onto my bare skin. I braced myself and raised my eyebrows as she pressed strips of paper into the wax, then pulled. Ouch! With a few sure rips, my landing strip eyebrows were tamed into a graceful 1930s arch. “Oh,” I joked, “ the sacrifices we make for art.” But it wasn’t much of a sacrifice. After all, no one told me to get my eyebrows waxed into shape to play the teacher, Miss Shields, in the LCT production of A Christmas Story. It just seemed somehow…necessary. I’d done everything else I could think of to prepare to play this character – I did my character background and objective work, I developed movement based on an animal and a couple of teachers I knew (wonder if my high school Latin teacher ever thought she’d be the inspiration for character development?), and researched hair and makeup styles of the time period. I even watched The Wizard of Oz so I could emulate Margaret Hamilton in one of the fantasy scenes. Something seemed to be missing, though.My students frequently comment on my repertoire of amusing facial expressions, most of which involve some comical contortion of my eyebrows. I perfected the looks that garnered the most response from my students, and incorporated them into my character. The final touch! There was only one thing that would make my eyebrow work really stand out.And that’s what put me in the salon chair a day before our tech rehearsal, in search of cosmetic perfection that I hadn’t even pursued for my wedding day. I’ve only had my eyebrows waxed one other time in my life, and that was 1984 when I was a contestant in the Miss Kansas National Teen pageant in Wichita. Groomed eyebrows weren’t enough to distract everyone from the fact that I was the only contestant in braces. But that’s another story.I thought about the sacrifices I ask my students to make in their appearances for our productions. Most are minor, like asking that they don’t cut their hair without consulting me. Moms hate me for that, especially around family portrait time. Sometimes I’ll ask someone to get a haircut to fit a certain character, or sometimes students will have to wear layers of uncomfortable special effects makeup. Sometimes I have to ask students to sacrifice by holding off on radical hair color changes. “I’m fairly sure there were no blue mohawks in Dickens’ London,” I explain. Several years ago I knew I’d never last as a high school director when I had to add a “No new facial piercings or visible tattoos” clause to my production contract. Whenever any high school tackles a production of The King and I, the ceremonial shaving of the lead actor’s head always seems to make the hometown newspaper. My eyebrows are not nearly so newsworthy, but no less important in my own process of fully realizing my character. And an indulgence that made me feel – for a little while – like a pampered actor.


High School Musical — Redux

Think back to your high school days, and the buzz among the artsy performer types at your school as the selection for the year's musical was announced. Chances are, if you were in school more than a decade ago, you heard classic titles such as "Fiddler on the Roof," "South Pacific," "Hello, Dolly," "Guys and Dolls," or that quintessential musical of musicals "The Music Man." Every year, the Educational Theatre Association releases its "unscientific" survey of what musicals high schools across the US are producing. This year, about 830 schools responded to the survey, according to the EDTA's website. Usually there are no big surprises from year to year:until this year.Here's the survey URL if you're interested: "Oklahoma." For the first time in who knows how long, the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic (which many agree is definitive in marking the beginning of the American musical genre) did not make the top 10 list! "Anything Goes" is also:gone. Two standards of high school musical theatre ousted by:ugh:Disney shows. "Beauty and the Beast" ranked #1 on the high school survey; "High School Musical" was #8. The thought of hundreds, thousands more students across the US brainwashed by the insipid stereotypes in "HSM" makes me shudder...but I digress.Choosing material for high school musicals is challenging you have to find the balance between commercially successful and community-appropriate; balance the need to challenge students' artistic growth with the need to give them material they can perform successfully; and find a show with more than 2-3 major roles (yeah, good luck with that). But I loved seeing high schools take on some more modern choices over the past decade or so "Little Shop of Horrors," "Footlose," "Titanic," "Les Miserables," "Aida," "Hairspray," and yes, even "Urinetown." By now, even some of these titles are dated.Granted, the oldies aren't always goodies many of them have outdated social views about gender and race that pose their own eyebrow-raising problems; some of them have music that is written impossibly difficult for anyone but the most seasoned high school performers. But when faced with the Disneyfication of musical theatre both in high schools and on Broadway I can't help but long for the good old days of just a decade or so ago when musical choices were more:gutsy. I am not advocating that we confine our choices to the classics. Many new works have artistic merit and feature younger protagonists, making them excellent choices for high schools. But one has to ask the question: if high schools aren't performing the "classics," and opt instead for the cute and commercially successful, when and where will our students be exposed to some of the greatest works of American musical theatre?


No More Joy in Joyland

...the taste of sno cones, cotton candy, and popcorn mingled with late summer dust in the air......the smell of grease, the creaking of metal and wood, turning round and round and repeatedly glimpsing the grin of the clown......waiting, holding dad's hand, summer sun beating down making sweat trickle down my back until the cowboys finally duel it out on "Main Street"......feeling that rock of fear in my stomach burst into a thousand fragments of excitement as I make it onto the Tilt-a-Whirl, alone, for the first time......evening creeping slowly in until the incandescent bulbs burst to life, outlining the gentle curves of the white wooden roller coaster...I grew up in Wichita. I was a kid in the 70s. Like those of my generation and those a generation or two before me, I remember Joyland in its prime. I read today in the LJWorld that this once-beloved place where my father and I spent many a summer afternoon and evening is now overgrown with weeds and the target for vandals. It is soon to be sold and most likely razed for an office park.I remember hearing, though I cannot confirm, that the roller coaster was one of the last operating wooden coasters in the US. My friends and I congratulated ourselves every time we survived the coaster without catastrophe, considering all the stories of dry rot and termites we heard over the years. There was also the rumor of the reckless teen who stood up at the top and fell to his or her death. I think this cautionary tale had more impact on our behavior than those horrid accident films we would see later in driver's ed.I can't ever forget the mechanical maniacal grin of Louie the Clown, forever in motion, keeping time to the Wurlitzer at the carousel. Louie is apparently missing, whereabouts unknown, the object of a lawsuit. Even though he haunted me as a child, I hate to think of Louie being dismantled or discarded, that painted grin chipped or just...gone.Over the years I have been to many amusement parks. However, any time I have a dream set in an amusement park, it always resembles my faded memories of Joyland. I haven't lived in Wichita for 20 years, and only go back once or twice a year, so it's not as if this news is life-changing. But somehow, knowing that the place is going, going, gone is yet another reminder of how impermanent the past truly is. Unsettling to think a fixture of my childhood no longer exists.


Gone YouTubin’

"How do I get to Carnegie Hall?" the old joke goes. And everyone:all together: "Practice, practice, practice.""How do I get to Broadway?"Ready for this one?"YouTube!"Two shows that I know of currently on Broadway made savvy decisions in appealing to the target audience that would bring them success. Both shows, being original works, didn't have the name recognition of movie or book titles or A-list stars to draw in ticket buyers. So they went to where the potential audience was likely to be hanging around:YouTube.In the Heights has several videos of the show itself, along with some fun promos showing off Lin-Manuel Miranda's clever lyrical skills. One of my favorites is the video "Abuela" where a beloved character from the show gets to strut her stuff to the tune of Rhianna's "Umbrella" while promoting the show.[title of show]went a step further and has it's own ongoing series of videos on YouTube called "The [title of show] Show." I haven't watched any yet, because that would mean pausing the [tos] soundtrack on my iTunes to listen to the videos. But through the video postings, they developed a loyal fan base that carried this show from Off-Broadway onto the Great White Way. Funny, isn't it? That an internet phenom whose original inception seemed to attract the lowest common home video comedy denominator as well as inspire many people to become massive violators of copyright laws has now become a marketing tool for some of the most original and creative and inspiring work on Broadway.Hmm:maybe I should dust off my video camera:


Back in the Saddle

I began this blog many many months ago with a noble goal to write at least every two weeks. Fell off that horse pretty quickly. My life last spring was one theatre production after another until May, so I admit -- I quit writing. And then I had an artistic crisis. Don't worry. I won't bore you with details.But now we've begun a new school year. I like the beginning of the school year. Everything is fresh and new (I secretly love just to look at new school supplies) and full of promise. So I am writing again. For the past week, I have written at least three different blogs in my head, but they haven't made their way through my fingers to the keyboard yet. Who knows how often or how long I can maintain the habit, but the important thing is that I am getting back into it. This summer, I had the opportunity to go to Broadway for the first time. Up till that time, I had been living a fallacy, proclaiming myself as a "broadway babe" (you know, from the song "Lullaby of Broadway"?) in my email address, even though I had never been to NYC. I can now strike that from my conscience. I learned a great lesson that I have already shared with my students in just the first week of class. There's a great little show on Broadway right now called [title of show]. Yes, that is how it's supposed to look. Even the NY Times got it wrong. Anyway, this is the little musical that could. Two guys, two gals, one keyboard player, three white walls and plenty of laughs make up this new favorite of mine. The show is about how the creators created the show, and asks several pointed questions about the art of creating. As part of the workshop I atteneded, we got to spend an hour or so with the two guys and the music director (who is a Shawnee Heights HS alum) just talking about writing and composing and acting and such. At one point, someone asked why there was no big finale to the show, why so low key at the end? The answer: that would have been a celebration of making it to Broadway as the definition of success. But for these characters, who were also the creators, success for them happened as soon as they made the decision to write the show."How do you define success?" asked Hunter and Jeff of the 100 teachers in the room. "How do your students define success? Is it making the lead role in the play? Or is it the moment that student wakes up and decides 'Today I am going to audition.' ?" I shared that with some girls who were disappointed they didn't make the volleyball team this week. Made them feel a little better, and hopefully will help them focus on their strengths instead of getting mired in their sense of failure.What if no one reads this blog? How do I define success? For today...I have made it just by sitting here and typing.


Another victim of NCLB?

Recently, Charles Goolsby, theatre director at LHS, invited the district 9th grade English classes the opportunity to see a special performance of the current LHS production-in-progress, Romeo and Juliet. What a fantastic opportunity for students to see one of the works of literature they study in class brought to life on stage!But something was nagging at me...If this production were not tied directly to the 9th grade English curriculum, would principals and teachers have responded so enthusiastically to the invitation? Or would it be construed as an obstacle to getting students through the required curriculum in order to perform strongly on standardized tests?I thought back over my years as a student, and then as a teacher. I had a sneaking suspicion that there just weren't as many field trips as there used to be. So I polled my students, who said that field trips had definitely dropped off in junior high from the frequency encountered in elementary school. This is partly due to the large amount of fantastic and enriching programs and opportunities in our community for the elementary students.But the teachers I spoke to said that they had noticed a definite decrease over the years. "Not enough time -- we are already trying to cram everything in before the kids have to take their tests -- we can barely get through the required district curriculum." This from two math teachers, and I had heard similar comments from English teachers as well.So my question the struggle to adequately educate our children, and in the struggle to maintain the high standards and increasingly unreasonable goals set by NCLB, where do we make time to teach them about life? About culture? About music and theatre? About arts? About their environment and their community? We can't do those things in isolation in a classroom. They have to get out of the classroom to experience some of these things, but that takes away from precious classroom instruction time. For some of our students, a trip to LHS to see Romeo and Juliet may be the only chance they ever get to hear Shakespeare's work as it was intended. What else is passing them by while we keep them in the classroom, chained to the mandates of NCLB and standardized testing?