Monday, August 16, 2010

Sports and the Arts

Came across an article in The Buffalo News that highlighted the career of a high-school football coach stepping down as the Lancaster Central School District's Athletic Director.

As the district's AD since 1993, Len Jankiewicz has been active in seeing the makeover of Lancaster Central football-only stadium including new lights, bleachers and a press-box as well as bringing a state-of-the-art, 31,500 square-foot community athletic field house.

Additionally under his watch, Jankiewicz has added 28 sports programs including boys hockey, girls lacrosse and other, according to The Buffalo News, "modified sports for girls."

Although I did not see mention in the article, nor could find specific information in the Lancaster Central School District website, was whether or not Jankiewicz has provided sports programs or extra-curricular activities for district students with special needs; however, he did work with the Board of Education and town of Lancaster to purchase land for practice fields and refurbished tennis courts, including new lights, for the typical district students.

The Buffalo News adds to Janiewicz's accomplishments, "While all these accomplishments can be measured, the list is even longer of things that can't be."


I find this hard to swallow when the district athletic program ranks at nearly top of Western New York with an annual budget of $500,000.

Upon investigating how much budget is directed towards the Dramatic Arts, a Lancaster Central School District representative could not provide an exact amount dedicated towards this program stating that the monies are spread throughout programs servicing 6,000 students throughout 8 schools (5 elementary, 2 high and 1 middle school).

The Lancaster School District 2010-11 budget lists $1.25 million directed towards co-curricular/interscholastic activities, but lack of further details listed on the online budget and an unreturned phone-call from the school district office did not provide information into where the Dramatic Arts fit into the budget.

Listed online for Lancaster High and Middle schools under Activities and Clubs/Teams, indicates portions of the budget provide these schools money for extra-curricular clubs focusing on Dramatic and Performing Arts. Both schools have "Stage Crew" clubs that teach students the fundamentals of stage sound and lighting. The middle school has a "Drama Club" and the high school Activities page lists a "Performing Arts".

Of the $1.2 million, minus $500,000, one doesn't have to be a detective to assume these clubs, and the other Lancaster high and middle school's 64 non-athletic activities and clubs, receive less than $500,000 annually. The additional monies are further spread among the other district's elementary and high school programs giving some indication into how diluted the allocations become.

Once again, attempts to isolate the money directed towards non-athletic, extra-curricular activities of the Lancaster School district have yielded unreturned phone calls. I am left to assume these numbers are blurred and therefore difficult to account for.

Now the debate over how a school district should prioritize the budget to reflect a more even distribution of money to non-athletic programs, including Arts programs, has been going on for decades. The question at the core of the debate is whether or not a School district should dedicate more funds to extra-curricular programs that only benefit a small group of individuals with athletic talents.

Proponents of athletics programs state that these programs help students build strong work ethics of teamwork and group support as well as promoting physical fitness. Opponents retort that Arts programs build communication skills and benefit a broader range of students including special needs children.

Indeed, there are numerous articles and studies citing the importance of Arts in school districts and the benefits associated with these programs. New Horizons For Learning lists over fifty articles, studies and links with their website page Arts in Education that detail the benefits of Arts in schools.

Both sides have valid points.

Unfortunately in these difficult economic times, school districts are force to make deep budget cuts to their extra-circular programs. Since we live in a culture that favors Sports over Arts, the latter sees drastic cuts while the former, as with the Lancaster School district, with a $500,000 Athletic budget, a new football stadium, new tennis courts and the addition of 28 sports programs, remains relatively intact.

So yes, Buffalo News, in that "while all these accomplishments can be measured, the list is even longer of things that can't be" includes Arts program budgets that are drastically cut or are eliminated.

Just hope that Len Jankiewicz comes out to more theater in his retirement.

Matthew LaChiusa is the Executive/Artistic Director for the American Repertory Theater of WNY who happens to be a complete football junkie but strongly believes there needs to be more balance between Sports and Arts at the high school level.
Below is a video of fellow Fredonia State alumni Lisa Brigantino and her talented sister, Lori as they promote their album "Wonder Wheel". With them is Susan Haefner (another FSU alumni and mega-theater talent) as they preform "I Gotta Find Me Somethin."

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The 2010 Buffalo Infringement Festival

On August 1st, the Buffalo Infringement Festival concluded and with closing ceremonies celebrated five years of success.

Curious word "success" when applying it to BIF.

In the beginning, success simply meant nobody got hurt, venues didn't burn down and, with small numbers of producers, there was a decent selection of performances. After five years, organizers are measuring their success by promotion generated from major sources of print and TV media, more venues committing space, ads are being placed in the festival guide, increases in attendance and proposal submissions.

Indeed, all those who contributed their time and energy in some capacity to the continuation of the festival have witnessed this event grow from a puny 98 lb. unknown weakling to a highly sought, muscular summer event. The motto of "Art under the Radar" is now becoming an recognizable shout "Art all-over the Radar Map."

Whether or not one was there from the beginning or came aboard last June, those who have put their time, energy and art into this festival can walk away proud with a measure of success.

I recently spoke with Kurt Schneiderman, Executive/Artistic Director for Subversive Theatre and one of the core founding members of BIF. Kurt had to step down from his numerous BIF responsibilities and dedicate his time to administrative duties Subversive Theatre and the duty in his son's diapers.

He too shared his pride seeing this event grow in size, and yet, seemed pleasantly surprised at the rapid ascension of this festival in the eyes of the community.

When the members huddled in the back room of Nietzsche's on a very cold February five-years ago, none of the organizers expected the festival to reach these heights in such a short amount of time. Founding members such as Ron Ehmke, Scott Kurchak, Lynn Lasota, among others, put their energies into this grass-roots festival expecting nothing more than getting the damn thing on its feet without having a nervous breakdown.

And they both capacities.

Fast-forward five years later and in the sweaty Manny Fried Playhouse with both Kurt and I are shaking our heads in disbelief that the BIF has become a successful summer event. And let me clarify that this amazement isn't based in skepticism that those who took it over lacked the skills to run it but that this bohemian, small-scale artistic event with no creditability, has captured the attention of those who ignored it five-years ago and has given a group of anyones and nobodies hopes of bringing whatever creative thing they do to life.

This continual survival of BIF, like a cockroach that survives a nuclear winter, speaks about the creative spirit that lurks in the dark corners and alleyways of Buffalo's cultural sprawl.

Its a voice that says despite the annihilation of funds for artists, despite the age of iPhones and instant gratification, despite a divided nation full of brats and obese people, creativity will not go away. It will simply wait for the opportunity to be presented in a cramped back-room of an bookstore, a parking lot or in someone's apartment.

So keep it going unheard playwrights, performance artists and newcomer actors because this festival was made for you and the other "nobodies" out there with talent and drive.

Five years from now while you hold up an award for excellence, you will remember that BIF gave you the opportunity to show that art under the radar.

Matthew LaChiusa is Executive/Artistic Director for the American Repertory Theater of WNY and was one of the foot-soldiers for the BIF. Of the two plays originally performed/read for past BIF's, Axeman's Jazz, received an ARTIE nomination for 2007 Emanuel Fried New Play and the other, RED CLAY, won the 2009 ARTIE Emanuel Fried Award for New Play.