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.