Monday, December 12, 2011

Professional: An Overused Adjective?

There are over twenty theaters in the greater Buffalo region and a dozen or more outside the city limits.

For the average theater goer, every weekend they have a choice of attending a theater specializing in juke-box musicals, a theater that focuses on issues surrounding the homosexual community, a theater that presents works to young minds, or among the theatrical diversity, a pro-union theater that doesn't hire equity. 

Plenty of options with something for everyone in this city. 

Yet, with all these choices, a patron could easily become disorientated, confused and in search of some clarity to which theater they should attend. To the rescue comes forth a catchy word issued by Buffalo theater groups to help these poor, lost souls find their way to the right company. 

What is this buzz-word foghorn? 

In a recent interview with Buffalo Spree Online, a director for a local theater company had to say this about a production of Tracy Letts, "He's a very important playwright in American Theater," stating the obvious, "(our production) may be the first professional production of his work in Buffalo." 

Can anyone spot the catch-phrase? 

Try this, "A Professional Theatre at D'Youville College," or this, "A non-for-profit professional musical theatre dedicated to quality musical theatre." Not yet?  Try "Western New York's only professional regional theatre." 

Indeed, the word professional is wielded around like some great tool that separates those theater companies from the lesser-thans, and leads folks through the haze of diversity to their doorstep. By using this bold word, they loudly proclaim, "We pay our actors and therefore our productions are good", and, by golly, the people believe this to be true. 


What is a professional theater? 

Although there are no clear rules outlined in a theater manual, three classifications of professional theater have been defined. The first is amateur theater in which the actor does not get paid, the second is semi-professional theater in which the actor does get paid but not to union scale, and the third is professional theater in which all involve get union pay-scale or are of Actors Equity Association (AEA) and Local Stagehand #33. 

The last Buffalo theater that hired mainly union and belonged to the League of Resident Theatres (LORT) closed its door when Studio Arena filed for bankruptcy in March 2008. 

Based on the definition above, evidence points out that Buffalo theaters are semi-professional and, regardless if they pay an actor $1,000 or $10 a show or hire one AEA member and pay the rest a lower scale, the lack of an union pay-scale (including payment for rehearsal time) places them at this classification. 

Then is this use of professional misleading? 

There is the argument that the use of professional indicates a commitment to bringing a sense of quality performances to the stage because those who are on stage have the drive and passion to be actors. The pay justifies their dedication to the craft. In turn, the production benefits from this professional commitment. 

Others use the argument that when a actor professes his or her belief in what they are doing, this defines them in the true sense of the word. In turn, this is what makes them a professional.

AEA and Local 33 says a professional is someone who gets union scale. 

The definition of professional is broken down into several explanations. Two definitions that stand out list professional as being "following an occupation as paid job: engaged in an occupation as a paid job rather than a hobby," or to be "very competent: showing a high degree of skill or competence." 

A third definition can indicate what most theaters mean by being professional, "Businesslike: conforming to the standards of skill, competence, or character normally expected of a properly qualified and experienced person in a work environment-'professional attitude'." 

Ultimately, whatever label is used really doesn't matter. What's in a name? Five years ago not one company spelled theater with an "er" and now there are at least three that do so. 

Does the spelling effect what is presented on stage? Absolutely not. 

What matters is the leading of people through this saturated haze of theater diversity by labeling the work presented on stage as professional. This label creates a way of separating one theater from another by having patrons assume that because the work is define as such, this is the type of performances audience should attend; regardless of what work is presented on stage. 

By using a misleading label to define some sort of pedigree, theaters that use the word professional deceitfully place themselves in a higher position over their peers, and create a comparison grade for audience and media members. This affects box-office sales, theater reviews and the reputation of lesser-known and community-based theater companies. 

Whether or not the quality of works presented could maintain a professional "grade" (as according to the definition), the label should be removed unless companies decide to go completely union and join LORT. 

Of course this is expensive and in this economy placing the professional theater label is a cheaper move.

Despite whatever label is used, what matters is what is presented on stage. If a theater is presenting solid works with solid acting, they can call themselves whatever they want. If an actor feels he/she is doing the best work and is wholly committed to the role and dedicated to the process, then they can call themselves whatever they want. If the tech crew is providing a solid backbone to every production, then they... okay, you get the point. 

Start paying them AEA or Local 33 scale on every production throughout the season, then everyone can claim to be working in a professional theater. 

Matthew LaChiusa is the Executive/Artistic Director for the semi-professional American Rep Theater of WNY, Inc. "Western New York's only professional regional theatre"comes from the now defunct, and Buffalo's only LORT house, Studio Arena.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Bills Make Me Wanna Shout "F**K YOU"

Ranking somewhere between The Chicago Bears' ridculous 1985 "Super Bowl Shuffle" and the San Diego "Super Chargers" fight song, the Buffalo Bills' adaptation of the popular 1960's tune "You Make Me Wanna Shout" maintains moderate irritation akin to a small yapping dog. 

This regional fight song has been buried over the past few NFL seasons as the Bills wallowed in mediocrity, and, frankly, fans had more to "shout" over the area's NHL team, the Buffalo Sabres, and that team's successes. Woefully to most WNY sports fans, football season ended and hockey season began in October. 

Not in 2011. 

Roaring out to one of the best starts in almost ten years, The Buffalo Bills have dusted off the vinyl, cranked up the cassette-deck and have begun, once again, to make fans "wanna shout" with this fight-song blaring over the PA. 

The Buffalo Bills are now being considered contenders.

The early season success is also a great for the fans. Western New Yorkers somehow base civic pride on the regions sports teams' success, and with enough of this civic pride, will begin to view all other non-sports regional events with an approving nod.

Seriously, would the recent Buffalo Architecture Convention been a success if the Bills were 0-6. 

Despite all this feel-good giddiness by Western New Yorkers, one man is not happy with the present situation. He's an old-timer, not prone to compromise, but has seen Hall-of-Fame results because of this unwillingness to follow-the-leader. 

This man's name even appears on the stadium in which the Buffalo Bills renewed the concept of winning football games. 

Ralph C Wilson, longtime owner of the Bills, is not happy with this stadium bearing his name. 

Rumors and speculations that Mr. Wilson plans to take the Bills elsewhere have been swirling around for several years. He holds this looming reoccurring threat like a Sword of Damocles as Erie County does everything to make Ralph C Wilson a happy man. 

Mr. Wilson signs an 5-year, $72 million, agreement with Toronto's Rogers Center for one game per season and so taking away a home-game. "Not a problem", says Erie County, "as long as you keep the Bills here, Mr. Wilson, take those local dollars across the border." 

Mr. Wilson refuses to grant naming-rights to the stadium. "No big deal," says Erie County, "we'll make up that 7 to 10 million by giving you another tax-break." 

Mr. Wilson says negotiating a lease tying the team to WNY depends on upgrades to the stadium, Erie County illustrious czar Chris Collins says, "Sure and the unscientific estimate of 40 to 100 million dollars to upgrade will be passed along to WNY and New York State taxpayers." 

Mr. Wilson says the Bills will hire an outside architectural firm to research the upgrades, Erie County simply bends over and quietly grunts. 

So why the regal treatment?

The Buffalo Bills generate roughly 20 million in tax-dollars per year for New York State. There are mixed estimates with the amount of revenue a single Bills game (home or away) pours into the local and regional economies. Between grocery store, bar parties and parking lots cash transactions, the amount is hard to track.  One fact is for sure, the Bills, on gameday, generate profit for Erie County and regional businesses. 

Enough reason to bow-down to King Wilson?

Although tax figures do show the yearly venue generated to be 20 million, the 1997 lease cost New York State $120 to sign the Bills to stay in Erie County (with $63 million in stadium upgrades). The lease expires in 2013 which amounts to 7.5 million/year over the 16-year lease. 

The Bills play 16 games (more if they make the playoffs) in a 12 month season. Although the money generate throughout the one game/week over 4-5 months is positive, there is not a constant flow of income pertaining to the Bills over the remaining 8 months. 

And yet King Wilson still gets the royal treatment.

As Erie County and New York State enter into lease negotiations with Ralph C. Wilson, one hurdle to open talks will be the stadium upgrades. The second one is the real possibility that Wilson will ask for more than the paltry $120 million paid in 1997. 

WNY is steaming forward to the Erie County Executive election, so is Collins simply playing the campaign-talk card? Does he really feel, despite his anti-taxing Republican stance, that taxpayers should shoulder the cost of upgrading Ralph C. Wilson Stadium? 

Sure, in his mind, its the cost of doing business. 

The same mentality Collins shows towards Cultural Groups when he determines some are economically viable than others.

After all, it's the price of doing (and creating) business. 

But when does this tremendous amount of money given to one business based on the principle of economic viability end? This same business that leases a building open only seven days a year while on the 8th day it pimps-out their product to a glossy city that thinks its trendy to have a NFL (not a regional) team.   This same business that the CEO refuses to generate income by charging another business to put it's company name on the building, yet keeps his own name on it. 

Regardless if one belongs to a Cultural Group or a fan of the Bills, this amount of top-heavy tax-dollar poured into one business has to be concerning, and should require the simple question being raised to whether or not the region can (or should) support a high-priced commodity. 

Think about how that tax-free money could go towards improving school systems, roads, developing cultural tourism and assisting small business to succeed. 

The honorable movement of Occupying Wall Street has tremendous merit despite whether folks think the effort is revolutionary or foolish. For the movement calls attention to this type of National unbalance we currently (and locally) see with Ralph C. Wilson, his tax-break galore business, and those in a lesser income tax-bracket who struggle to find work. 

Maybe the time is right for WNY taxpayers to start occupying One Bills Drive. 

That, or redefine what exactly the Bills "make you wanna shout" for. 

Matthew LaChiusa is the Executive/Artistic Director of the American Repertory Theater of WNY, Inc. Matthew is a big sports fan of football, hockey and college basketball, and believes corporate America is killing the competitive spirit of these sports. 

Friday, September 23, 2011

Roger Brucker on FLOYD COLLINS

Roger Brucker

On September 17th, author of TRAPPED! The Floyd Collins Story, Roger Brucker took to the American Rep Theater of WNY stage to chat about Floyd Collins, the Great Save Cave and the stories behind this great Americana tale.

Before the performance, Mr Brucker engaged patrons in the history behind Floyd Collins and the characters involved then briefly answered questions. Being elusive in order to not be a spoiler, Mr. Brucker reserved some of his answers until after the Floyd Collins performance.

Roger Brucker's cave history began at an early age when, according to his website "he hid in closets behind hanging clothes so that nobody could find him...and built his own caves out of card tables, chairs and blankets."

Throughout the 50's & 60's, Roger Brucker began to explore the vast connective tunnels of the Crystal Caves located near the famed Kentuckian Mammoth Cave systems. His mission was to find a link to both underground systems. Successful in his attempts, Brucker, with Richard Watson,  authored The Longest Cave in 1976, depicting his efforts in finding connections between the Flint and the Mammoth Cave systems.

Inspired by the caving efforts of regional folk-hero, Floyd Collins, Brucker then set off to explore the Sand Cave system; the same area surrounding the tragic events surrounding Collins. His efforts would be the basis behind the book Trapped! The Story of Floyd Collins.

Upon exploring the unstable conditions of the cave, Brucker recalls in his website biography, "It was one of the most frightening experiences of my life." His efforts in the Sand Cave, including reaching the spot where Floyd Collins became stuck, yielded his and Robert J Murray's accurate depiction of the 1925 events surrounding this Americana story.

So much accuracy, that several years later Adam Guettel and Tina Landau used the book as a "Bible" in obtaining information to write the musical Floyd Collins.

American Repertory Theater of WNY was proud to host Mr. Brucker for the evening and both patrons and cast members found his related and relayed stories of Floyd Collins, the Sand Cave and the many characters surrounding this story to be informative, insightful and entertaining.

"This is as close as I'll come to the real Floyd Collins,"said a patron. "Its like having a living history book to fill in the blanks."

Afterwards, Roger Brucker graciously said that the production by ART of WNY was one of the top-two Floyd Collins productions of the twenty he has seen. "The only performances in the same league as this was the College Conservatory in Cincinnati." He told patrons.

A sprite man in his 80's, Roger Brucker stayed well past the show's end answering questions and sharing his thoughts on the material. At one point, shying away from singing the original Ballad of Floyd Collins instead deferring to the talent on stage for that purpose. "I'm a caver, not a singer." He joked.

American Repertory Theater of WNY was proud to bring in this accomplished author and truly appreciates the once-in-lifetime experience of meeting a "living history book". ART would also like to thank Mr. Brucker's publicist Fred Anderson for making the arrangements and seeing this absolutely entertaining evening through.

This is what collaboration is all about.

Roger Brucker (seated) with cast of ART's FLOYD COLLINS
 Matthew LaChiusa is the Artistic Director of the American Rep Theater of WNY. He is extremely grateful to have the opportunity to meet Mr. Brucker and share in the history of this great Americana Story. Brucker sent an email a day later expressing his thoughts on the production say "Its a sleeper show and those who go will see one of the best performances they will ever encounter...Its a show to thrill the soul."

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Mark Poloncarz: A Sheep in Wolf's Clothing?

Recently, I received a posting from Facebook about an event that sponsors financial support for Erie County Comptroller, Mark Poloncarz, bid for County Executive against, and loathed by Arts Groups, incumbent Chris Collins. 

Entitled Friends of the Arts for Mark Poloncarz Fundraiser, this event is schedule at the Cabaret Restaurant featuring "Food Live Music", a cash bar at a cash bar and, most importantly, "meet the candidate" for $25.

For those in the Arts Community who would like to see a photon torpedo sent into Darth Collins' Death Star backside, the event sounds like a positive step in bringing down the Evil Empire. 

With that said, I am going to sound like a Debbie-Downer, Poloncarz party-farter. 

Who is Mark Poloncarz and what can he do for Western New York's Arts Community?

From his website, County Comptroller Poloncarz has been effective in being a "taxpayer's watchdog" and has "called out wasteful spending and irresponsible actions" in attempts to hold government accountable. Additionally, under his watch Erie County credit rating has "increased 4  the current rating of A2" indicating his background in private-section business has been effective in the overseeing of County budgets. 

As he launches his campaign to oust Collins, Poloncarz paints a lovely picture of imagining a better Erie County in his video ads (as seen above) by electing an County Executive who "actually cares" about the taxpayers and will place the people first by "always remembering who his bosses are." 

I can see why anti-Collins folks are giddy about this candidate. 

His rhetoric is strong as he understands that Libraries and the Arts are important in creating a better community, "The Arts are one of the basic underlying principles of a strong economy", he states in his website section Preserving Our Artistic and Educational Assets.

With the local economic impact of the Arts briefly stated, Poloncarz shifts emphasis on the importance of libraries during "difficult economic times" by informing us that "Libraries improve our quality of life and act as an essential educational resource." He enforces his belief that a reduction in "economic and educational resources" will lead to less access to these "essential services."

"A library acts as a lifeline. When people cannot afford books, CD's and DVD's, they turn to libraries." He concludes. 

Somewhere in Erie County one can hear a hearty cheer from SLAWNY being raised. 

So what about Mark Poloncarz's thoughts on how to better Erie County Arts groups?

We already know about the economic viability of the Arts but he states nothing about HOW he intends to fund (or WHO gets the funding for that matter) the Arts. 

Collins also understands the economic viability of the Arts but choses to fund what he believes to be relevant to the County's economic engine. What is going to separate Poloncarz from Collins' platform? A lesser of two Evils? 

How he plans to fund the Arts is an important response and transcends political affiliations, the mentality of "anyone but Collins" and the desperate belief that rhetoric, and not detailed plans, fix problems.

Recently I sent a list of questions designed to have Poloncarz detail his plans to fund the Arts and keep them viable. Two weeks later and I have not received any answer or indication that these questions reached the candidate. 

If one is feeling lucky, contact Poloncarz through his website by clicking Voice Your Opinion and ask for clarity into how (who and why) he intends to fund Erie County Arts. 

Ultimately, these question should be answered clearly and directly (without donated $25 for an opportunity to "meet" Poloncarz) before the Arts Community throws its powerful endorsement behind him and any other candidate that asks us to "imagine" a better community. 

I am not saying Poloncarz is just another politician with a feel-good message as much as stating, simply,  that public funding is dwindling away and those in Arts Community have a tremendous stake in who creates policy. We cannot afford to throw away our endorsement on a politician who has a positive soundbite designed to electrify a disenfranchised voter block. 

Buyer beware!

Matthew LaChiusa is the Executive/Artistic Director for the American Rep Theater of WNY, Inc and is a huge Ramones fan. He also believes that Mark Poloncarz is more "user friendly" than his opponent and has the potential to be a good County Executive. 

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Old School: Cronus Style

Beginning with Buffalo State's Senior showcase in February, several student showcases and auditions have yielded a new crop of talent ripe for the opportunity to present their craft on stage.

Seeing the audition process of these young folks is rewarding and injects a sense of anticipation for the next season. I also find it refreshing for the simple reasons of renewal and rejuvenation. And there is a true sense of hunger and a willingness to present their best to have a chance being on stage.

This effort reflects the true spirit of what it means to be a professional without a mercenary attitude commonly found with their "established" peers.

Yet despite all their efforts and talents, these young faces seldom find themselves on WNY stages unless the theater company has a need to cast younger actors, the theater has to put on a play every month to pay rent or the theater makes a concerted effort to hire inexperienced actors.

And not all of this is bad for those companies who hire these unknown and unproven actors that can't seem to break it into the Buffalo theater scene. Labeled as "Community Theater", groups including John Pirrone's Red Carpet Theater Productions and Doug Kern's Rocking Horse Productions are producing good pieces of theater using untested actors.

Otherwise, young aspiring actors finds themselves with little opportunities in a region saturated by theaters.

Why is this?

The answer can be best that professional Buffalo theaters utilize what is familiar without taking risks. With established actors, a director knows exactly what they are getting. Need a one-dimensional angry Hitler-type actor, just bring in so-and-so. Need a frumpy big-mouth, just bring in so-and-so. It's a simple call-back to read, match-up and the role is theirs, or the role is precast well in advance.

Is the deeper issue a matter of the slow gradual acceptance of what is considered new or unfamiliar among the established Buffalo theater community. If this is truly the case, then no wonder younger actors leave this area to seek work elsewhere after a season or two of small walk-on, resume building roles.

Some fortunate young actors with a great look and talent do find themselves in lead or substantial supporting roles with established theaters. Unfortunately, after a season or two doing the same role at the same theater, these actors relocate in NYC or elsewhere only to be seen a year later doing the same role at the same theater. The direct result of these young actors never being challenged to create or find a role that is different from the previous stint and being told to do what they did in their last role.

And what about the aspiring young directors and playwrights?

Unless they produce a work at the Buffalo Infringement Festival the opportunity for these young creative minds to get work with established theaters rarely happens.

"Buffalo is always overruned by confused youngsters", said local playwright Justin Karcher in a recent online conversation. "Buffalo has the potential to be a generational and cultural hotspot, much like Seattle in the early 90's, but what is holding the city back?"

The factors mentioned above as well as the acceptance of change at a reasonable pace, or a matter of those who sit in established positions eliminate new ideals because they threaten the very foundations in which they sit. Or as Karcher puts it "A geriatric feudalism" that keeps fresh, innovative ways of creativity outside the castle walls because these ideals expose an outdated monolithic artistic system.

This is what is "holding the city back."

In order to survive in the 21st Century, the Buffalo Theater community should start embracing of the unfamiliar and unproven instead of swallowing the threat like the Greek titan Cronus did with his children. Recent collaborations are indicating that companies are beginning to understand new and fresh ideas, while utilizing unproven talents, can introduce a new market to the Dramatic Arts and create grant opportunities with these unions.

Broader attempts at collaboration would mean that those in position of power and the BOD's of established theaters would have to relinquish some artistic control to a group of youthful unknowns and unproven actors, directors and playwrights.

That would mean taking a risk and, unfortunately, in this economy and age of financial uncertainty, the "sure-thing" is the best and safe bet.

But despite this unwillingness to embrace new ideas from it's elders, the younger generation is not giving up without a fight. "Buffalo is a lot like Cronus; it eats it young so they don't take over." The playwright Karcher concluded in our conversation. "My voice will find itself and, in turn, attract an audience."

Karcher's voice is one of many young voices straining to be heard in this city. Despite all the challenges facing them, the younger voice is one of this community's greatest assets. As a creative community, we cannot lose this voice and should do all that within our abilities to produce and advocate it.

Otherwise, ask Zeus what happened to Cronus.

Matthew LaChiusa is the Executive/Artistic Director for the American Repertory Theater of WNY. As for practicing what one preaches, ART of WNY's mission is to support a new generation of American playwrights and utilize the region's creative assets including unproven and unknown talent.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Dabkowski Gets 1 1/2 Stars

Sometimes a person's heart and/or intentions are in the right place, but then, unfortunately through action, they try to offer opinion that ultimately creates damage than actually helping out a cause.

We've all been there.

This can be applied to the recent Sunday article featured in the Buffalo News Spotlight page written by local theater critic, Colin Dabkowski, mysteriously entitled "Theaters should pool resources to stay afloat."

It pains me to write a blog response to this article for two reasons.

Firstly, Mr. Dabkowski does a great job with his columns focusing on issues facing WNY Artists and Cultural Groups. Knowing that the only daily newspaper in Buffalo reserves space to follow the local arts is comforting as well as the weekly input of Mr. Dabkowski's articles reflects to the general public an outsider's opinion on a particular subject facing the Arts. This, in turn, offers a fresher (or newer) view on a subject as opposed to hearing the same old Cultural Group representative repeating the same old Cultural Group mantra.

The second reason is the inevitable damning of American Repertory Theater of WNY to a future of 1 1/2 star ratings if Mr. Dabkowski decides to start sending himself to review productions. Perhaps it may be a good time to look into taking out ads in The Buffalo News to soften the blow?

But to be frank, Mr. Dabkowski's article is perhaps one of the most irresponsible and misconceived journalistic pieces authored by this theater critic. If his work was to undergo the same scrutiny his newspaper places on theatrical productions, Mr. Dabkowski would get a 1 1/2 star rating.

Let's begin with Mr. Dabkowski's title that suggests the pooling of theater's resources could be a way of "staying afloat."

As indicated in his article, it is no stroke of brilliance to understand that local theaters should collaborate in order to save costs. Everyone from Herr County Executive Collins to an 60-year-old patron has suggested this mode of operation as a way of saving money. But what Dabkowski fully fails to recognize is that local theater companies shy-away from collaborating because, as recently said to me by a local theater's artistic director one evening at Founding Fathers, "You know that's impossible because everyone is doing their own thing."

The main reason Buffalo has "a sprawling theater scene" comes directly from the fact that individuals, not being able to practice their dramatic arts, became frustrated with a closed-in theater scene and set-out on their own. If one looks at the past 25-year history of Buffalo theater, there are several examples of this due to the clique-infested, artistically myopic-driven, entrenched feudal system of Buffalo theater.

As splinter groups emerged, the idea of collaboration became less and less appealing. This fostered the practice of these "newer" theatrical companies, who became increasingly established, to become insular, like their predecessors, and force a newer generation to seek establishment of their own companies because of the same reasons.

And so on.

Dabkowski fails to recognize this historical point and simply choses to lay claim that a majority of Buffalo theaters open shows that are half-baked and encourages the theater going patron to attend closing night because of the inability of the less-resourceful theater's production to "cohere before the curtain goes up."

The relevancy of this suggestion (besides driving patrons to closing weekend and creating box-office nightmares) and why theaters should pool resources because of this result is unclear. Perhaps Dabkowski could be sending some sort of plea to those theater companies who have rent-free space to grant rent-free (or a minimum fee of $10/night) rehearsal space with those "have nots" so they can come up with some sort of well-done grilled piece of Filet O' Steakspeare on opening night.

Akin to a pepper rub, Dabkowski throws around the term "resource" like some tire-gauge of what is good and mediocre theater. Further indicating that because of resources those who "have" can produce a 5 or 6 show season of fully baked theatrical presentations on opening night. Those with less "resources" who attempt to produce the same amount are doomed to mediocre Hades.

I agree with Dabkowski in that sometimes its a matter of quality as opposed to quantity.

The truth of the matter is that those more established theaters with "resources", because of arrangements or deals years ago, pay little to no rent unseen by most of Buffalo's contemporary theaters. In turn, these companies can conduct four to five weeks of rehearsals before the "curtain rises". That money saved on rent (and in some cases utilities) then can go towards talent and tech crews that expedites the rehearsal process.

With all this going, a company with "resources" should damn well have their shit together by opening.

In these economic times, the deals made to theater companies twenty years ago will not exist again. Any theater company attempting to start up in Buffalo will most likely have to rent or take out a lease on space they will have to modify into a performance room. When Dabkowski mentions that some theaters are "happy to put out six or seven (or more) under-baked productions a year" indicates he does not recognize the fact some companies are forced to pay rent or close up.

Now I can hear those Economic Darwinians from the back-row, but this survival game is the same one being played by Collins as it pertains to Cultural Groups who need public money to keep existing.

What's the difference?

Should these types of companies collaborate? Absolutely, and, in essences, reflect what Dabkowski is trying to express. The problem with this comes down to the simple economic fact that in order to pay rent and utilities, these companies would have to ask for numbers that could crush any startup theater companies' budget.

So the choice becomes whether a rent-paying theater should sub-lease to another company with faith that rent and utilities will be paid, actors and staff will be somewhat compensated and whatever resources are not depleted by this joint venture.

Or simply keep producing on their own piece and avoid this uncertainty.

It may be safe to assume that twenty-five years ago when folks were performing in living rooms, school auditoriums, cramped modified spaces, or on the Nietzsche's backstage, the question of being underbaked on opening night was not being raised. Instead the positive statement of "I'm doing my dramatic art and I love it" was being made.

And most likely, patrons and those enamored with the now defunct Studio Arena were making claims that these small, splinter theater groups were mediocre, underrehearsed, had poor production values and were overproducing.

With that, Mr. Dabkowski should be relieved and happy to see these small underfunded groups never listened to the criticism or he wouldn't have a reference point to deem what is good and mediocre theater.

Matthew LaChiusa is the Artistic/Executive Director for American Rep Theater of WNY. His own work, "Axeman's Jazz" and two other ART productions (Greater Tuna & Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia) have received 2 1/2 star reviews from Colin Dabkowski. And for the actors, EVERY night is opening night...

Friday, April 1, 2011

America the Dumbified

Besides the now increasingly harrowing weather reports, a recent national report in the past month has caught my attention.

Newsweek gave the US Citizenship test to 1,000 Americans to test their knowledge of their country's past and present history. The result yielded a staggering 38% failure among those who were tested.

To understand the difficulty level of this test, I both took the Newsweek condensed version and the multiple-choice, full version US Citizen test. With the Newsweek's abbreviated non-multiple choice test, I answered 12-20 questions correctly (60%), and with the multiple-choice format of the US Citizen test was able to correctly answer 86 out of 96 questions (90%).

Click the links to take the tests and see what I mean.

Both questionnaires were relatively easy with a majority of answers located in part of my brain not visited since 8th grade history. Several questions I answered wrong because of either getting lost in a number game or a quick rush to hit the check box without taking a second to reconsider the choice. And truthfully, without further excuse, some questions I didn't know or simply fail to recall.

But what about my fellow Americans?

According to the Newsweek report, 44% percent surveyed did not know the Bill of Rights while 73% of Americans did not know why we fought the Cold War. And among the percentages of failure, the most shocking was that 6% surveyed didn't know what day we celebrate American independence.

Is this forgetful thinking? Or being too hasty in recording an answer? Or is it because of the overwhelming dependency on having information at easy access that Americans are losing track of how to remember simple facts and figures?

Or care?

History is a tremendous asset of knowledge. American philosopher George Santayana's classic quote "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it" best summarizes the importance of knowing the past. If society is failing to recognize historic events that shaped the country, what is it doing to remember the history that shaped cultural aspects of the country? That answer can be found without punching into the iPad or Droid.

Not too much to nothing at all.

Alarmingly, American children are receiving little to no art or music instruction. According to a 2005 Arts Advocacy report, 40% of American elementary schools do not have an Arts teacher. Additionally, a 2008 Center on Education Policy report noted a 35% decline in "time devoted to music and art instruction since 2002" in part due to the emphasis on standardized testing and districts limiting or, "there are indications that 41 districts or 12% of the nation, do not offer arts instruction at all."

As a result, these children become adults with little to no understanding of music or art. Combine this with the disconcern with knowing important country history and this makes for a dumb American.

Fundementally, a dumb American weakens Democracy's effectiveness. For an educated society will learn from past mistakes and refrain from the latter part of Sanayana's quote. The uneducated one will only seek to fill what is perceived relevant through subterfuge which leads to division, intolerance and unacceptance.

If American society can be redirected towards revelant historical knowledge, then the focus can also be shifted to understanding the relevancy of arts and cultural in the community. This enlightenment would replace the talking-head mantra of "because its a way of life" with a base understanding of the historical accomplishments of the Arts.

The late, great American techno-fi writer, Michael Crichton repeated this about history, "If you didn't know history, you didn't know anything. You were a leaf that didn't know it was part of the tree."

If Americans keep chosing to bury themsleves in the techno-isolation of social networks, the latest gadgets and video game indulgence, then history will be forgotten along with all those cultural aspects that make us civil.

And with that gone, history will be primed to be repeated.

Matthew LaChiusa is the Artistic Director for the American Repertory Theater of WNY, and is a huge American Civil War history geek.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


Better late than never.

Through a posting on regional arts advocacy group's, Empower Arts Buffalo, social network page, a representative from the Theater Alliance of Buffalo provided a link to the Greater Buffalo Cultural Alliance's detailing the rationale behind recommending cash-strapped cultural groups that should receive a portion of the recent $430,000 The Fund for the Arts donation .Although the FFA press-release associating the donation and the GBCA is dated February 28th, the information was finally made available to the general public as of March 16th.

This rationale behind how GBCA qualified potential recipients is relatively precise and generally lays out the mathematical equation into how a cultural group was to receive this one-time donation. Making clear GBCA executed this process fairly, the release says "Every organization on GBCA's list received a Erie County contract...whether it was a reduced amount or received zero payment." Stressing to those seeking clarity, "All organizations thus defined were included regardless of whether or not they were members of GBCA."

And so the process of whom was included is defined.

The GBCA press-release details the mathematical equation of how the money was allotted based on a 20% reduction "across the board" of what may be considered money Erie County was supposed to have provided via contract to selected cultural groups. This was to fall in line with the proposed $600,000 originally slated for the donation. This ultimate figure was determined by how much a cultural group stood to lose with Erie County funding and we are left to understand this amount was presented by those who were appealing for a piece of the donation. 

Additionally, the GBCA determined the allocated amounts based on "organizations actually received funding in 2010," the GBCA "used that actual (lesser) figure."Other mathematical methods of determination included the GBCA, in cases where the cultural group's amount was zeroed out, "we used the Legislature's approved (not vetoed) amount." 

GBCA also considered when the "Legislature's approved amount was way of whack," the steering commitee "went back to 2009 actual funding or for new applicants used 50% of the Legislature's approved amount."

And so the mathematical equation of who was getting what was determined.

Although the press-release issued by The Fund for the Arts (FFA) was on February 28th, I have to congratulate the GBCA for finally rising to the occasion and presenting something of transparency with this matter. And good for the GBCA for stressing that the decision of who was to receive funding wasn't based on membership but by who was under contract with Erie County for 2010 funding.

Of course, the question of who was in charge of assembling the list of those who were under contract is begging to be asked. 

Did the GBCA request from Erie County a list of cultural groups who were targeted for cuts and in turn present a survey or some other source of notification of this process?

That is unclear, and the GBCA does not list the groups who received funding from the FFA. The website provided by FFA detailing the list of recipients is not in service as well. As for the mathematical equation, who was in charge of this? Did the GBCA hire a public accountant and was this notarized? Or did a handful of GBCA steering committee members determine the allocation for 32 cultural groups?

One item that does remain clear is the curious final note of GBCA's press-release indicating the Artvoice Give for Greatness campaign "is using another process entirely." Emphasizing that "other organizations not previously funded by Erie County or recommended for funding by ECRAB or Legislature" will be included in the funding process.

One may be incline to see this statement as a indication those who were in charge of making the decision of which groups got money recognized that some groups, regardless if the groups were under GBCA membership or Erie County contract, would be purposely left out of the loop. This recognition faintly reflects a sentiment that those left out would have to fend for themselves or find other sources of funding faintly resembling Chris Collin's directives.

Despite this cynicism, the GBCA's efforts to at least piece together their idea of a rationale explanation is a good thing for the overall cultural group community because it gives some much needed creditability to all involved.

Once credibility is established then perhaps there can be greater recognition and, ultimately, restoration of funding for ALL members of the Artistic Community.