07 April 2009

Animals: Is the Stage Home to All Creatures?

In exploring the blogosphere this week, I was interested to find two very different views on a topic that I had never before considered in conjunction with theatre: the use of animals. Although many modern plays use various creatures as significant characters, I had never considered whether their use was appropriate or even necessary to the storyline, or in theatre in general. I have commented on the two posts with my own thoughts and questions, and have reposted the comments below, along with links to the original blogs.

Theatre of Cruelty: Animals on Stage?

Your post raises an interesting question: Where do we draw the line when using animals in live performances? Personally I feel that the answer is two-fold, dependent upon both the animal in question, and it's role in the performance. In the example cited in your post, the animal happens to be a lobster (see left). Due to their aquatic habitat, lobsters are not generally kept as pets, and on the rare occasion that they are they would seldom be called "cute" or "cuddly" or any other adjective that might be used to describe a more conventional pet. Because of this, it seems that people are less likely to get emotionally attached to the poor creature, and have little remorse dumping one into a pot of boiling water (although boiling a lobster is hardly the same as suspending one on a stage and seemingly torturing it before finally putting it out of its misery.) In contrast, few Americans can fathom eating a cat or a dog, another warm blooded mammal with whom they might be more likely to sympathize with were it being tortured on stage (it is important to note that in this case, scientists have concluded that lobsters do not feel pain, while a cat or dog, or even a rabbit, would.) It is also interesting to note that, while most Americans think nothing of sitting down to bacon for breakfast, chicken salad for lunch, or a steak for dinner, few would be willing to actually go out and kill a pig or chicken or cow to get their food. Despite a dependence on meat in our diets, few people are comfortable with personally taking a life, even that of an animal, in order to feed themselves.

The second aspect is the animal to be used in the performance. While some larger animals are easily trained (dogs, cats, and even horses), no training is fool proof, and there is always the risk that the animal may refuse to cooperate during a show. If and when this happens, the safety of both the actors and the audience must be taken into consideration. Obviously a lobster poses little threat, barring a seafood allergy, or the actor getting his finger pinched if he takes the rubber band of the crustacean's claws. As the animals get larger, the potential for danger gets greater. Even though horses are not generally dangerous, if one were to get spooked during a show it could trample an actor or even find it's way out into the audience where the potential for injury would be great. The potential for catastrophe grows greater still when the animal is innately dangerous. The tragic attack on Roy Horn of Siegfried and Roy (see right) is a perfect, somewhat recent example. The duo had performed 30,000 live shows with no major mishaps, and the tiger in question had been raised by them from kitten-hood, performing on stage for six and a half years. Despite all of this, a single distraction from an audience member, combined with a less than perfect handling of the distraction, lead to a reversion to natural instincts and nearly to death for Roy. This clearly highlights the point that wild animals are just that: wild. There will always be a risk associated with their use in performances, and their actions can never be fully anticipated. Thus, for me, the line should be drawn at using animals that pose the least threat possible to the actors and audience, and making sure that they are treated with respect, as the sentient beings that they are.

To answer the question of whether accepting human carnage while detesting animal cruelty, one must consider the factor of helplessness in animals. Humans have the ability to defend themselves in most situations. In cases of animal abuse, the animal is most certainly at a disadvantage (you'd think twice about kicking your house cat if it were replaced with a lion.) Most would react the same way to child abuse, as children are similarly helpless. Also, whether the situation is real or not is important to consider. In TV shows and movies, the death and destruction that humans bring on each other is pretend, and as such we don't react the same way as when, say, we see it on the news or in a documentary.

Is it wrong to use animals in plays?

This blog points out an interesting dilemma: What role to animals really play in theatre, and how appropriate and acceptable is their use? Whether cast in a leading role or simply as a supporting character, I feel that animals with thematic or emotional significance do have a place in theatre. I recently participated in a scene from the play Mary's Wedding. Most of this play focuses on the relationship between the two main characters, Mary and Charlie. However, a horse also enters as an important character, and plays a large part in the storyline. While the use of a real horse would add a great deal to the story, the safety of the animal, actors, and audience must be taken into consideration. Due to this, many companies opt to use a statue or dummy in place of a live animal. While this does solve the problem, I don't feel that it is the best solution, as I feel that it would tend to distract the audience and take them out of the moment. I feel that a better middle ground might be to replace the animal with a human actor, thus allowing more personal interaction, letting the character take cues from a director more easily than an animal would, and ultimately causing less disruption to the continuation of the story (though some might argue that it would be more distracting than the dummy or statue.) In some cases, such as Prymate the use of animals would be nearly impossible and potentially illegal or at the very least immoral and unethical. While highlighting the brutish characteristics of creatures such as gorillas can be used to create a controversial plot discussion, it does little to present any kind of interesting thematic argument.

Ultimately, the use of animals isn't necessarily "wrong" so much as it is not always the most effective way to present the characters and storyline. Certainly there are situations where animals are appropriate and even necessary, but if their use can be avoided, with the same or better effect, then why shouldn't it be?

31 March 2009

From Spidey to Thriller: Innovative New Musicals Receive Approval for 2009-2010 Season

As I have previously discussed, the world of theatre was recently introduced to a new genre: musical political productions. The stories surrounding both ex-Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich and President Obama inspired the creation of theatrical performances around the world. Now, the music industry and comic book world are working to find their way into the theatrical stage in the coming year. With the help of Bono and the Edge of U2, the punk band Green Day, and the “King of Pop” Michael Jackson, three new musicals have been announced for the upcoming season. All three plays will tackle extremely different themes, characters, and plot lines because of the varied backgrounds, musically and production-wise. Along with these differences, I believe that each will aid in genre innovation and the evolution of the musical. On the contrast, I am unsure if these upcoming unique performances will be successful in the current theatrical world both economically and thematically.

According to the New York Times, The Nederlander Organization made a statement in mid-January announcing “that it had acquired the rights to produce a musical based on the Michael Jackson album Thriller and its groundbreaking video, in which the King of Pop transforms into a werewolf while he’s on a date.” While a similar show celebrating Jackson’s career is currently running in London’s West End, its US counterpart will instead focus specifically on the plot of the famous music video, which is said to be “horror film spoof in which a young couple are out on a date on a beautiful full moon evening, when suddenly the young man, played by Jackson, turns into a werewolf.” Though a creative team, Jackson’s participation, and theatre have not been officially announced, those already involved are excited about the performance. Unlike American Idiot with its politically driven message, Thriller will attempt to bank on the popular culture reference. As the producers focus on ideas to draw in crowds, fans will be happy to know that the “Thriller” album will not be the only one used in the production. The musical will also include songs from “Off the Wall”, including “Billie Jean” and its infamous sidewalk. Extremely intrigued by the idea of a music video musical, I wonder if fan support alone will be enough to keep this idea afloat. Similarly to the Obama musicals, I think that plays heavy in popular cultural references are attempting to latch on to the coattails of, and profit from, someone who already successful on their own.

Broadway is also gearing up for a musical about one of its most famous fictional residents: Spider Man. Though rumors circulated for a while, the official word on the production was finalized at the end of February. This is the first time a comic book character has found its way to a potentially successful run on the Broadway stage, though many have found their way to both the silver and television screens over the years. Because the show is still in much of the working creative stages, like American Idiot, many of the specific details about the superhero’s musical are still unknown. However, it has been announced that Julie Taymor, of Lion King fame, will direct as U2’s Bono (see right) and The Edge write the music and lyrics. The performance, titled Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark, will “retell the superhero’s origin story, about a nerdy teen bitten by a radioactive spider… [and] include mythical elements not seen in the Sam Raimi pics” according to Variety. Though still officially un-cast and in the process of open audtions, rumors say that Evan Rachel Wood and Jim Sturgess will come together again to play Peter Parker and his love interest, Mary Jane Watson. The pair previously worked together, as well as with Taymor, in the 2007 film Across the Universe. While the idea of an action-driven superhero musical could open up a new genre of “guy musicals” to the theatrical community, I believe the innovation may not be enough to save the production financially. With the current economic situation being what it is, many of the larger, classic shows in production, such as Gypsy, have found themselves facing final curtains already. New productions are also suffering, many offering discounts before the show even opens. Because of these financial factors, I believe that the tentative $35 million dollar budget for the web-slinging superhero may cause more problems at the box office when the show finally opens in February of 2010.

On the other side of the country however, yet another musical phenomenon has found its way to the theatrical stage. The New York Times recently announced plans for Green Day to team up with Berkeley Repertory Theater in California to create a musical, which will open the company's 2009-2010 season. Based on the band’s 2004 Grammy-winning album American Idiot(see left), the musical will also include songs from their upcoming album 21st Century Breakdown. Titled American Idiot, it will tell the nihilistic coming-of-age story of two teenagers. Specifically Variety announced that the show will follow “disaffected contemporary American Everykid Jesus of Suburbia as he morphs into violent, drug-dealing alter-ego St. Jimmy and falls for anarchist girlfriend Whatsername.” While the creative team, which includes Spring Awakening’s Michael Mayer, is extremely quiet about the exact plot, Billie Joe Armstrong has said that the narrative is “not the most linear story in the world.” This musical is viewed by much of the dramatic world, including myself, as a new innovation to the theatrical community, combining popular music with political themes. Many articles on the production, such as the one written by Daniel Krips of Rolling Stone, cite “the Tony Award-winning success of the rocking Spring Awakening — and the past triumphs of the Who’s Tommy musical” as the reason behind the opportunity being available to the California-based band. Personally, I believe that the success of the play will rely on many factors. The popularity of 2004 album will be a factor in selling tickets, however I also believe the "politically charged eipc" may outdate itself considering the recent presidential cabinet change. The decision to open the play in a smaller venue will also be a driving factor in the popularity of the musical, perhaps pushing it to Broadway. Though there are no definite plans for such a move to the New York stage yet, the creative team has not nixed the option, instead focusing on the west coast this fall.

Despite the innovative creativity surrounding all three musicals, the biggest aspect of all is the relevance of their underlying themes. I agree that it would be interesting to see a revision of the infamous music video, to see Spider Man sling his way around a Broadway theatre, or to be able to put faces to characters mentioned on the Grammy-winning album. However, the various innovations each new production is attempting to bring to the stage may not be enough to keep them afloat long. If the economic crisis is closing famous classics, hurting extremely popular shows, and devistating the lesser-known new shows, where will these creative musicals fit? When the curtain goes up and the performances begin, will entertainment value alone be able to save all three of these endeavors?

09 March 2009

Take It or Leave It: High School Controversy Surrounds Production of "Rent"

With the popularity of the original musical and the 2005 film version of Jonathan Larson’s Rent, it is no surprise that Music Theatre International has decided to administer the rights to an edited version of the musical for high school production. The 2008-2009 school year is the first year in which “Rent: School Edition” is available, having just been approved by the author’s estate. However, the edited version is receiving as much criticism, if not more, than the original production. While MTI’s website lists 63 upcoming productions, many of the theatre groups who wish to perform the show are unable to. Much of the concern for the show comes from the outside community, many of whom are concerned with the adult themes addressed in the production. While many who advocate continuing the productions emphasize the themes of love and acceptance, others are concerned with drug use, homosexuality, and the HIV/AIDS virus. Recently, the controversy revolving around this show has become international news with articles from the New York Times, Playbill, the Los Angeles Times, and the International Herald discussing the off-again, on-again production at Corona del Mar High School in Newport Beach, California. The major issue in this specific case is differences in the reason behind the original cancellation of the show. In an attempt to explore the issue further, I looked at the arguments of my fellow bloggers regarding the cancellation and “he-said-she-said” blame game between the director and the principal. While Barenaked Joe makes an interesting argument providing paraphrasing from both sides of the argument, GottaLaff of the Political Carnival provides insight and comparison to her own personal experiences regarding producing high school theatre. My comments to both can be found on the respective blogs, as well as below.

“High School un-cancels production of 'Rent'”

I was really impressed with your original post regarding the cancellation of the Corona del Mar production of “Rent” this past month. It was interesting to see the original source not only incorporated into your argument, but to also see your personal experiences with theatrical censorship. With the wide availability and easy access to various types of media today, I agree that it is a bit absurd to attempt to censor something that many, if not all, of the students involved have already had access to.

However, I do not necessarily agree with the point you make about how the reading of a production versus viewing the performance “skew(s) one’s perception and focus.” As a theatre student, I have on numerous occasions read plays specifically for their tone and themes, which are often very easily distinguishable. While it is possible to happen, I believe that the communities surrounding the production are perhaps closer attributed to many cancellations. Patrick Healy emphasizes in his article the reasons other school administrators have cited for denying the continuation of the productions. Susan Collins, the superintendent of a school in West Virginia who canceled a production this past winter emphasized the community effect, as the district has “alumni who come back [and] bus in children for [the school shows.]” While she personally said she had no problems with the themes of the play, she did not think the school district would find the content appealing. Similar concerns were also raised in Rowlett, Texas, where the director canceled the show after a heated community debate during a school board meeting. Though community was not directly a cause of the original cancellation, Martin was quoted saying that he chose the “show for the high school because [he] had an agenda,” in which he hoped to counter some homophobia that seemed to be creeping into the Newport Beach campus. Now that the production will continue, do you think that thematic censorship really was the underlying issue of this controversy, or perhaps were people simply “crying homophobic wolf” because that is was a major concern surrounding the original production?

“Who do you believe in the ‘Rent’ controversy? Why?”

Your post about the “Rent” controversy at the Corona del Mar high school is a very interesting way to look at the various arguments. It’s great to see someone attempting to take a neutral view in the discussion over who was in the wrong. However, I think there’s a big issue that is rarely addressed in articles and blogs, including your own. According to the Los Angeles Times, the principal had never asked to review a script before this production, regardless of “adult content,” which is what she seems to be trying to push as the reason for the analysis. Shows portraying controversial themes, like prostitution in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and alcoholism in “A Streetcar Named Desire”, were approved “without raising administrator’s eyebrows.” Though I agree that perhaps “crying homophobia” was not the best solution for those involved in the cancellation, I understand the school’s reluctance at expressing that as a concern. As one of the producers of the national tour, Jeffery Seller, said, “Like it or not, we’re right smack in the middle of an enormous cultural shift right now, and that shift will give way to acceptance of homosexuality and acceptance of gay characters… but it’s a process, it’s a messy process, and it makes sense to me that we’ll take steps forward and hit a pothole and take a step backward.” This shift has many people in power walking on egg shells when it comes to controversial topics; however, it also makes groups look weak when they are divided. The inability for the school administrators and the drama teacher to come to an agreement between their statements is possibly the biggest rift within this controversy. As you suggested, the principal’s statement is lacking detail, which I think causes many people, including myself to question: What does the administration of Corona del Mar have to hide from their community?

03 March 2009

Political Productions Pave the Way: A New Genre is Inspired by Current Events

With the state of Illinois taking center stage in a significant portion of the political news recently, I chose this week to explore the state’s influence on the theatrical community, both within the state as well as around the world. Chicago is said to be the “most vibrant dramatic capital after New York.” Nevertheless it has seen its fair share of off stage political drama and scandals as well, and the current champions of the spotlight are related to each other in more ways than one. Not only is President Obama linked to former Governor Rod Blagojevich (see left) through the on-going scandal involving the vacant Senate seat, but the two political figures now share a new genre of theatre: the biographical political musical. While other presidents, like Nixon, have already made their way to the Broadway stage, and famous figures are working toward getting their life story in marquee lights, there has yet to be a musical based on political triumph or scandal. However, the two pieces of theatre differ as significantly as the men they are written about. Whether the performance is about the beloved new president bringing change to the people of the United States, or the power hungry ex-governor bringing shame to his state, each story continues to emphasize the views already presented by the media about their situations.

According to an article in the Chicago Sun-Times, the musically comedic musings of the former governor of Illinois titled Rod Blagojevich Superstar! has found itself one of the most well-received, last minute productions to date. Written in less than a month, the main goal is that the play “is connecting with Illinoisans [who are] amused yet appalled” at the governor’s actions. Having completely sold out all of the performances since the grand opening February 10th, Second City is looking to expand the original six-week production to a theatre available for weekend shows elsewhere in the city. The cast, however, believes that some of the success of the play is “people[s] need to laugh at this thing.” Because of the nature of the current event-based show, the improv-trained actors are willing to be extremely flexible with the script. Not only have they added to the play as the Blagojevich saga changes, but many of the characters have also taken cues from former staffers who, despite being parodied in the performance, have still attended and been more than willing to comment on the realistic mannerisms of Blagojevich, portrayed by Joey Bland. In spite of the accurate depiction, the production simply highlights and reinforces the negative views surrounding the scandal of the vacant Senate seat left by Obama in a comical way. While this is innovative for the performing arts, in that the cast is constantly changing and updating the script, the fact that Illinoisan audiences are letting the character get away with so much may attribute to the length of the Blagojevich scandal. Many reviews on the production suggest that this performance was the perfect way to spoof the outrageous musings of the former governor, bringing light to a somewhat somber and pathetic situation. However, I truly believe that, though innovative in its construction, the potential of the production was lost in the comedy. As the cast had the ability to shed new light on the situation, they instead chose to rely on Saturday Night Live! antics to spoof the state politics, as well as classic show tune songs.

On the other end of the spectrum, two musicals have found their way into existence due to the popularity of the new President of the United States, Barack Obama (see right). The first of these was created in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, where Obama is considered a national hero, and premiered just days before the elections in November. In an article from BBC news about the performance, simply titled Obama, The Musical, the sympathies of the people involved in the production are very much out in the open. Even the actor playing the “chief villain” Senator John McCain was quoted saying “Obama is more fun to portray… I hope he will win [the election].” While this play used the life and rise to political fame of the famous figure as an example for people learn about “the virtues or hard work, selflessness, democracy and public service,” it was also widely viewed as an important message to the feuding country. Having dealt with post-election violence sparked by opposing views of various communities on Kenyan leadership, it is clearly one sided in its views, casting major Republican figures as enemies whose sole purpose is to stand in Obama’s way. The use of such classic "vice and virtue" stock characters originated during the medieval cycle plays, and often inspired many Shakespearean plots. Though these types of characters and plots worked for creating many timeless classics we know today, I believe that the empahsis on the ever-changing political sphere will limit reproductions in the future. The second musical in the works, Obama on my Mind, set to being its preview performances today at Islington’s Hen and Chickens theatre in London, uses a variety of types of music to take “a look at the weird and wonderful world behind the scenes of a small Obama campaign office, and the larger than life characters who make the wheels turn” according to press materials on the musical. However, based on the vague and limited press coverage, I agree with Lyn Gardner's review from the Guardian that this production has perhaps "by jumping on the Obama bandwagon, has guaranteed itself more attention than it deserves or is good for it."

Though all three of these productions work toward opening yet another genre of theatre to the public, I cannot help but question the motives behind each of the playwrights. While many beloved stories have inherently evil villains that the audience loves to hate, perhaps dehumanizing certain popular figures to create an antagonist is not the most creative decision for a playwright. Despite the fact that many people believe entertaining story lines cannot exists without opposition to the protagonist, placing all the blame on a few sources seems like an outdated and simplistic method of creating one’s characters. Instead, I believe that these plays may have done an even better job creating realistic characters had they taken a cue from Partick Marber's Closer (While I understand Wikipedia is not a reputable source, this is the best summary available.) Regardless of the lack of "happy ending," the play is full of real characters, who are all flawed in their own ways, but each have a redeaming quality as well. Even as I look into the potential that plays like the ones I have mentioned have created in the theatrical world, I can only hope that the future of the genre does not depend on the divisions created when the fictional world becomes black and white. Sometimes, the stories with a majority of grey area are the most interesting.

23 February 2009

CGI Hollywood Actors: A Threat or A Blessing?

With the ever-changing technological revolution upon us, I wanted to take a look this week at a related topic that has been seen as a concerning shadow looming over actors since early 2002. With the expansion and evolution of the electronics available today, film and the movie industry has jumped on the bandwagon by taking advantage of the evolution of various components of production available to them. One such innovation is that of computer generated images, or CGI. While it began as a way to “simulate large crowd scenes in Gladiator and passengers being tossed around the deck of a sinking ocean liner in Titanic,” as the technology became more sophisticated the question began to become more prevalent in people’s minds: Will CGI replace actors in the movies? Until recently, the answer has been an astounding no from all sides, specifically due to what animators like to call the “Uncanny Valley,” which is said to be the “no man’s land where artificial humans look both realistic and unrealistic at the same time, giving them a creepy vibe.” In discussing the 2007 film Beowulf directed by Robert Zemeckis, the New York Times Bits blog suggests that “the last few yards of the journey toward convincing realism are going to be the really hard part... [because] perhaps we have spent so much time looking at out fellow human beings that we can detect a problem with something as subtle as the physics of a muscle contracting.” However, the most convincing reason for CGI actors not taking over Hollywood is money. As L. Vincent Poupard points out, “in most cases, it would be cheaper to hire a cast for a movie…to hire a well-known star, then to pay hundreds of programmers” for a CGI film. However, as I explored the blogosphere, I found that the question still exists today in various forms. Both VeeJay Burns of MindBlizzard blog and Chloe Veltman of lies like the truth discuss not only the availability of the technology, but also how it may affect our way of entertainment life.

"Virtual Actors replace Humans in Hollywood?"

Questioning the preparedness of the public while providing information on the breakthrough in technology is such an interesting way to look at computer generated images and characters in films. Though it could be the next step for the film industry, I feel like the argument for Hollywood to tackle such a challenge still is weak. Yes, as Robert Scoble pointed out in his blog and various videos, the technology is available (see left). But that doesn’t necessarily means it will be used, particularly in the creation of an entire cast worth of actors. Putting monetary amounts for a project such as a complete CGI cast movie aside, I think that one of the biggest upsets Hollywood studios would face by taking this next step into a world of computer generated actors through motion capture technology is the Screen Actors Guild. As an article from Associated Content on the topic of replacing actors with CGI points out, “the Screen Actors Guild is a union… formed to make sure that pressure could be applied to Hollywood if the people working on a movie were to be treated unfairly.” Even if CGI characters in films do begin to replace actors, there is always a body behind the motion capture, which you fail to mention when citing Lord of the Rings as an example of these special effects.

Another upset that I think may become an issue, which you touched on in your afterthought, is the whether or not people will take films seriously as they begin to delve deeper into CGI characters. Though it was simply used as a promotional gimmick within the world of SecondLife, neither the CSI:NY crossover nor the Zwatboek auditions were taken seriously. With the “uncanny valley” theory looming overhead, do you honestly think that Hollywood and movie buffs are ready for the complete digital transformation of the actor and celebrity as we know them?

"Theatre Killed The Video Star"

I was really excited to find someone writing about The Curious Case of Benjamin Button without mentioning its thirteen Oscar nominations. Instead the focus is on the technical aspects of the movie laid out in the NPR article, specifically the motion capture computer generated Brad Pitt as the title character. I had not heard or read the article until coming across your post, however I had seen the movie and I distinctly remembered wondering how exactly the young-old Ben Button (see right) was created. Though I did not let it distract me from the rest of the movie, upon finding your blog, with a link to the NPR article, I was thrilled to finally know how those first 52 minutes of the film were done.

While most people writing about computer generated characters, including the NPR article which inspired your post, look at the effect they may have on the Hollywood acting community, your article takes a different look. Instead of focusing on those directly impacted by a switch to CGI actors, I enjoyed reading your take on what might happen to live performance and theatre if celebrities moved to the stage. Though you’ve already mentioned that currently they have not helped the box office recently, the idea of the live venue being the only performance arena to see one’s favorite actors does inspire awe. Even after disregarding the fame of an actor, you question the aspirations of the up-and-coming artist. Though it would be nice to see theatre as the desired final destination, do you think that perhaps the goal will evolve into being a model for these CGI creations instead? Regardless of how things turn out, it would be intriguing to see the theatre become as popular as films are if Hollywood were to find a way to permanently pass through the “uncanny valley” with their CGI acting creations.

16 February 2009

One Giant Leap for the Arts: Congress Includes Financing for the NEA in the Recovery Bill

As President Obama signs into effect the $787 billion economic stimulus package today at the Museum of Nature & Science in Denver, Colorado, many American artists are ecstatic with the resulting effects of the bill on the creative community. Since the start of negotiations on the recovery package began in mid-January, many performance advocacy groups, such as Americans for the Arts, have been lobbying Congress to keep the arts in mind as they attempt to help boost the failing economy. Though the national stimulus bill saw much opposition and change as it made its way through the negotiations process, it was passed on Friday including the $50 million package for the National Endowment for the Arts (see image left). With 246 to 183 votes in the House and 60 to 38 votes in the Senate, the bill was finally adopted after a historically peculiar five-hour and 17-minute voting process, due to a Senator’s mother’s funeral. Regardless of the hostility toward the arts inclusion in the bill, much of the American workforce has ties to the creative community.

According to a government study from spring 2008, cited in Scott Lilly's article “Arts Bashing,” around five million Americans jobs are related to the arts in one way or another. However, only two million are actual artists, and only 37 percent of those work full time. This makes almost 700,000 people employed by the arts. These performers make up about half a percent of the American workforce, with the average salary for an actor falling at about $24 thousand a year. Like the rest of the country, the already suffering arts have been affected by the poor economy. Not only have many groups lost support from outside sources such as corporations and foundations, but they have also made cuts of their own. Right here in Los Angeles the Opera had to lay off 17 of their 100 full time employees, while the remainder had to endure a six percent salary decrease. In an article by the International Herald Tribune from January, Robert Lynch, current president of Americans for the Arts, said that the arts community “contribute[s] $167 billion to the economy annually.” According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, this is comparable to the Gross Domestic Product of the Agriculture industry in 2007, which was around $167.9 billion dollars. Regardless, the arts have to make their cuts as well. As president and chief executive of Opera America Marc Scorca points out in the International Herald Tribune article, “these [artists] are taxpayers and rent payers and mortgage payers, just like every other employee.”

Despite pleas for help and recognition, the artists' community is often overlooked as a group that would require financial help at such a high political level. As the stimulus package worked its way through legislative branch, many people questioned the $50 million included for the National Endowment for the Arts. The organization, which has seen a drastic decrease in funding from $176 million in 1992 to $145 million today, is an independent public agency dedicated to supporting excellence in the field while offering access to all Americans, and providing leadership in art education. In spite of all of this, many Representatives, such as Mike Pence (R-IN), were quoted in Lilly's article calling the money “wasteful government spending that has nothing to do with creating jobs,” ignoring the fact that the package is also intended to help preserve existing jobs. Others who opposed the money, such as Representative Jack Kingston (R-GA) boldly stated that America has “real people out of work right now and putting $50 million in the NEA and pretending that's going to save jobs... is disingenuous.” Kingston seems to believe that artists out of work, however, do not affect the economy in the same manner in which a “real person” would have once they lost their job. As the bill was on the floor of Congress Friday (see image right), Representative David R. Obey (D- WI) was quoted by the New York Times' ArtsBeat blog negatively emphasizing the fantasy of being able to ignore the “five million people who work in the arts industry.” He continued his statement by saying the industry has “12.5 percent unemployment” and accusing “that somehow if you work in that field, it isn’t real when you lose your job, your mortgage or your health insurance?” Finally he drives home the point of the inclusion of the money for the NEA by explaining “We’re trying to treat people who work in the arts the same way as anybody else.” The arts stimulus package was not the only one under scrutiny, as Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) pointed out during negotiations. A majority of all of the packages under objection before the passing of the bill were those which included small programs, making up less than one percent of the entire $767 billion.

While the bill passed in the House of Representatives on Wednesday, January 28th, the original Senate version did not include money for the arts, according to ArtsBeat. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives had to cut their monetary estimates by almost $100 billion. According to an article in the New York Times, the final stimulus bill will include about $507 billion for spending programs. This includes about $150 billion for public works, $87 billion toward Medicaid, $6.5 billion toward medical research and $50 million package for the National Endowment for the Arts. The remainder of the $787 billion will go towards tax related expenses, with about 74 percent of the budget being spent in the next 18 months. Even as much as the amount has been cut from the beginning negotiations, this recovery bill will be the largest financial recovery measure by the U.S. Government during a recession since World War II.

In conclusion, this stimulus package and the approval of the $50 million supporting the National Endowment for the Arts emphasizes the hopes that much of the theatrical community had in the new administration. By recognizing that the arts industry is a critical part of American culture, it is finally time for it to be financially supported by the U.S. Government. Having at last found a president who is willing to partner with the creative community, who knows what may happen next. Perhaps Quincy Jones' plea for a Secretary of Arts, similar to that of many European countries, will finally be answered.

09 February 2009

What and Where Is Theatre?: A Search for the Theatrical Aspects of Life

For the mass majority of the population, theatre is seen as a form of entertainment meant for a small, elite population who can afford the higher-than-movie priced tickets. This elite group not only spends between $200-$300 a person for the premium tickets to the hottest shows on Broadway, according to Playbill ticket price searches, but they also dress in some of their fanciest attire. However, this is not the reality that surrounds the theatre. Many die hard thespians find their way to the theatre, regardless of the budget limit they set themselves. Though the view from the mezzanine is not the best, one can experience the same show as the elite is experiencing for under $75. With the more recent cross over of hit Broadway musicals, such as Chicago (see left), into film, the world of the theatrical is becoming more open and accessible to the public. On the other hand, I believe that the theatrical can be found outside of the confines of buildings and is within our lives; even in places we would not expect it. As a new writer in the blogosphere, I truly hope that my blog will become a relevant and knowledgeable source regarding various, and perhaps unexpected, theatrical connections. Because of my desire to share the best information possible with my readers, I have been spending much of my time searching for other blogs and webs sites that are not only relevant the theatrical arts, but also provide some kind of connection to the topic and direction of the blog. Using both the Webby Awards and IMSA Criteria, my linkroll (see right) focuses on various theatrical sources. Whether these sources cover news of what goes on in “Theatre Land”, such as the World News Network, or are blogs discussing new ways to change American theatre, such as Theatre Ideas, or groups that use theatre to make a difference in the lives of people who need it most, such as The Unusual Suspects, I believe that these sources are a great place to start for someone hoping to find connections between the theatrical and the “normal” in one’s life. So as you explore the various sources available to you through my linkroll, I hope that you begin to become curious and explore the theatrical connections in life and the world around you.
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