Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Engaging Boys in Theatre

As we enter our second year at Fairview South School with Northlight on Campus (NOC), we have heavily considered the issue of connecting young boys with theatre.  We have a wealth of female participation, however boys remain a struggle to engage.  Last year, we started NOC with four boys, but over the course of the school year, lost all of them to other activities or a sense of pressure in being the only boys.  This year, we have four boys again to begin the program and already we have seen some apprehension. On the first day of NOC, one of our 6th grade boys stood in the hallway looking in as we began working. As we coaxed him in, he nervously asked if there were other boys, when we told him ‘yes,’ he made the choice to come in and join the group.

The hesitation of boys to participate in theatre is a pervasive pattern that we notice in many of our theatre education programs. Curious about why male involvement in theatre (especially in the junior high grades) seems taboo, even in 2011, we asked some men in the theatre for their thoughts.
 Northlight’s Artistic Director, BJ Jones, recalled a story about a nun at his Catholic elementary school, who humiliated him, at the age of ten, in front of his peers when she found him carrying a play in his pocket. “She waited for the whole class to get seated, and then announced to everyone ‘Mr. Jones is a thespian.’  I didn’t know what the word even meant, but I knew it was demeaning.  Any boy who thought he might ask me about what I did on the weekends and after school in theatre classes was never going to ask me now.”  Northlight Teaching Artist Michael Leon had a similar experience growing up in a Cuban family.  “My opinion is that boys and men are raised and expected to be unexpressive and non-emotional. The way they present themselves to others should be strong and contained. This may be an old fashioned way of looking at things but I feel that a lot of parents still raise their kids like this.”

Philip Dawkins- a Chicago playwright, currently writing an original work, Rodeo, for NOC at Fairview- talks about gender expectations by comparing young adult literature for males and females. “Look at YA reader romance geared toward girls. Lots of story. Lots of relationships. Drama.  Look at the YA reader romances geared toward boys…  There are none… While young girls are reading Sweet Valley High, young boys (even young soon-to-be-gay boys) are searching under their fathers' beds for back issues of Playboy…A group of people who get together and act out long-winded scenarios about relationships and wants and desires?  Sounds more geared toward people whose fantasies were fueled by Sweet Valley High.  The hustle and bustle of the basketball court, competition, physical contact, rage, immediate gratification or disappointment:  Playboy.”

In our quest to engage boys in theatre, we have seen amazing support from the male teachers at Fairview. One 8th grade teacher, told an assembled audience of 7th-8th graders a story about being a male in high school theatre. Even though he was an athlete, one of the best experiences he had in high school was acting in a school play. He auditioned in order to impress a girl, but once he got cast, and she didn’t, he decided to stick with it and said it was one of his greatest memories of high school.

BJ Jones recognizes what participating in theatre meant to him as a young boy: “There is a stereotype, but it saved my life. I would have never left Cleveland, would probably be sitting at a neighborhood bar next to my uncles.  Instead, theatre got me out.” 

Monday, November 28, 2011

Short term and long term goals!

Connor and I had a great meeting a couple of weeks ago and talked about our short term goals and long term goals.

In the short term, our first step is to hold a work day in December to get the storage space looking sharp and to make the scene shop space a safer and cleaner environment. These work days become necessary at least twice a year. With so many different companies in and out of our facilities and renting and return the set pieces, it becomes a bit of a mess. With a small army and a little grunt work we will make it sparkly again.

Next, we are going to create a thorough on-line database of our inventory. The inventory is constantly expanding and we no longer have an up to date list of all that we have in stock. After that list is completed, we are excited about getting the membership program rolling and getting the Co-op up on the website. As all of this is happening we are also going to start keeping regularly scheduled Co-op hours. These are the hours that our two other staff members, Jeannine and Eliot, will dedicate to being at the space ready to assist people and ready to check them in and out with their Co-op rentals.

And finally, we have discovered that people in the community want more information on local designers. So we are planning on creating a designers database that will have information on local designers and what their rates are. This list will also include running crew and stage manager information.

In the long term (within 5 years), we are hoping to expand our space and create bigger shop and storage space. We are hoping to expand to provide delivery and pick-up services. We are also interested in continuing to expand our services to include lights, costumes, and sound equipment. The trick right now, is that we don't want the artist who need to make money from renting their goods (lights, costumes, etc) to lose any business. Our plan right now is to try to find a way to subsidize those rentals. We think this will be a way to ensure that the artists who are renting their goods are still making a decent rate and simultaneously provide Co-op members a little discount.

In the meantime, the Co-op is still as busy as ever and providing sets and tools and shop space to companies all over Austin.

Jenny Larson
Salvage Vanguard Theater
Scenic Co-op

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Wooster Group - video blog talk show

Why is the current dialog about theater artists and their work directed and controlled by journalists, academics, producers, and publicists -- who approach the work from their own perspectives -- as opposed to the artists themselves?

Our A-ha! project here at The Wooster Group is to institute an ongoing video series patterned after a talk show in miniature, in which artists across mediums will discuss with other artists, and the public, vital topics including their work, recent news events, current trends in the arts, as well as more expansive cultural and political issues. These discussions will be fully generated and guided by the artists themselves, and the videos will be posted on a new web destination. The platform for this discussion will grow as an extension of The Wooster Group's daily video blog, on which we have been posting a new short video piece every workday since September 2010 about various aspects of our company’s life and work.

Wooster Group member Kate Valk will lead the series, which will borrow elements from talk shows, documentaries, town-hall meetings, and others in an attempt to create a new rubric for the artist interview. By utilizing the immediacy of production the internet allows, we hope to be able to respond quickly to particular cultural events or moments, and we will take advantage of the project’s freedom from editorial oversight to ask potentially controversial questions, such as those about financing, producer-artist relationships, and more (have a suggestion for one? Post a comment below!) Our aim is to not only host an expansive civic dialogue, but also to provide an opportunity for people around the world to have access to some of the artists we interact with. The videos will feature theater artists as well as artists in other mediums to inspire cross-disciplinary dialogues and cross-pollinate fan bases, introducing the work of Mark Morris to fans of Young Jean Lee, for instance, or that of Butch Morris to fans of Joan Jonas.

Don’t touch that dial.

--Jamie Poskin, The Wooster Group

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Think It in Skagway (population 862)

On Monday, September 19, Art Rotch, the artistic director of Perseverance Theatre, and I boarded the six-seat plane that makes the 80-mile trip northwest from Juneau to Skagway. It was the typical Southeast Alaska day: windy, rainy and cold. Once in the air, luckily, the clouds were high enough that we could see the many glaciers of the Juneau Icefield. Feeling relaxed and thinking of all the things we could possibly “think,” I saw Skagway in the distance and the plane began to descend. And then for the next five minutes, I feared for our lives. Art and I have both been on our share of scary flights. It’s actually just part of living in Alaska, but this particular landing in Skagway definitely ranked among the scariest. After a terribly long five minutes, we made it safely to the ground. The rest of the flights that day in and out of Skagway were cancelled.

Armed with big, sticky sheets of paper, Sharpies, yellow tablets and a slideshow about Perseverance Theatre, Art and I walked through the town of Skagway on our way to the first Think It meeting at the Eagles Hall. Skagway has a few performance spaces, with the best one being in the Eagles Hall where The Days of ’98 show performs. A booming tourist town, Skagway makes most of its money on summer tourism. Running since 1925, The Days of ’98 is a historical summer musical about the Gold Rush and the legendary con man Soapy Smith. The artistic director of The Days of ‘98 Jonathan Baldwin was kind enough to let us use the space for the meeting. Margeaux Heaton, a longtime Skagweyian and head madam at the former brothel-turned-restaurant The Red Onion Saloon, helped get the word out about the convening.

The meeting began with three actor/singers, a producer, a director and a member of the Skagway Arts Council.

Having worked as a teaching artist and theatre educator for my entire professional career, I must admit that this was the hardest “curriculum” I’ve ever had to create. Art and I talked for a long time about how to shape this meeting. How do you ask questions that are open-ended enough for the group of artists to have a good, big-sky think, and at the same time, be pointed enough to serve the needs of our organization? Interestingly, we did find our way back to TCG’s 2011 conference theme “What if…” and it proved to be very useful. Mainly, we asked participants to dream big. What does Alaskan theatre look like? What do artists need to make Alaskan theatre more viable? What if Perseverance Theatre created a statewide artistic company? What is that? Who is it? What’s your role?

The folks in Skagway had so much to say. I learned a lot about their community and how, really, only a handful of people in the town are responsible for creating a whole lot of theatre. People in Skagway also felt that a larger statewide theatre conference, and ultimately, a community, would be useful. They expressed a real desire to know all the players in Alaska. The word “isolated” came up time and time again.

I left Skagway thinking about theatre, isolation, and Alaska. It’s true: Our entire state has only 600,000 people and an enormous 586,000 square miles. We’re extremely isolated from each other, and from the lower 48. The people in our state like it that way. The pioneering, creative, and adventurous individual thrives here. So, how do we build a company and a community of artists, and at the same time, draw heavily on the strengths of the individual?

Next up, Sitka. Population 8,889.

Thinking It,
Shona Strauser
Artistic Associate & Director of Education
Perseverance Theatre

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

How can you think in new ways about old problems?

At Curious Theatre Company in Denver, Colorado we like to live up to our name. Now in our 14th season, we are Denver’s only mid-size theatre company and our mission is to engage the community in important contemporary issues through provocative modern theatre. And we have become increasingly curious about two big questions:

How can we re-center artists within our organization to release their potential as primary organizational members?

How can one create a more effective staffing structure for mid-sized organizations operating in the field today?

We’ve explored both of these challenges through separate but corollary innovation processes anchored in the work of EMC Arts, Inc. -- whose conceit is that traditional models of growth capacity may now be replaced with the need for highly adaptive organizational capacity; or in Evans’ own words: “One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore.” Yup – we are talking about that scary world called “Change.”

So first, EMC Arts “New Pathways Program” brought together board, staff members, “great thinkers” from across the community to participate in this program designed to provide Curious a framework to explore and accelerate the design and testing of innovative change strategies.

Second, with the generous assistance of the MetLife/TCG A-ha! Think It program, a selected core team of 6 Curious artistic company members (including me!) spent last year exploring a reinvention of resident artistic company model for the 21st Century American Theatre through scrutinizing our own company, as well as exploring alternative practices and models across the field. We conducted interviews, traveled for site visits, brought in experts, created prototypes and conducted focus groups.

We entered the final phase of our process with three distinct options for new artistic company models, and as a result of the feedback received, created a new, hybrid model that we believe to be responsive and innovative, discontinuous from previous practice while inclusive of our past best practices and unique “organizational DNA,” providing an exciting new pathway to fulfilling our mission.

It was a challenging and exciting year of thinking – in fact my brain is still a little sore from it all. And now we get to do it!

With the generous assistance of the MetLife/TCG A-ha! Do It program, we are implementing artistic and staffing structural realignments at Curious, which move us from a primarily administrative model to a more integrated and holistic producing-based model. In overly simplistic terms, the “traditional” administrative model can be described as static, territorial, goal-focused and separated from the artistic work that is at the heart of our mission. Conversely, it is our belief that a producing-based model can be described as nimble, responsive, integrated, collaborative, and project-based. This new model would realign the traditional vertical organizational hierarchy with a more seamless, horizontal orientation, creating opportunities for shared leadership across both the artistic company and organizational staff.

How will it all work out? Keep checking back in!

Christy Montour-Larson, Producer in Residence

Curious Theatre Company

Denver, CO