Sunday, February 26, 2012

Are You Not Entertained?

from William Franke, Director of Development & Communications
While I realize that quoting the catchphrase from an Oscar-winning film from 11 years ago may not seem the most timely of ideas, I couldn't help but think of Maximus bellowing to the crowds at the Colosseum after reading the latest post at An Uncommon Mind. Subtitled An Autodidact's Guide to Public Education, it is the blog of Joanne O'Brien, who is a high school teacher as well as a longtime friend of Theatre East*.
In her post from last Sunday, Joanne addresses the challenges of Engagement vs. Entertainment in education, asking "How did we come to confuse engagement with entertainment, and to insist that teachers perform like marionettes, bouncing around the classroom, mouthing scripts prepared by others?" She goes on to argue that truly engaging educational instruction "challenges the student to seek out the answers to questions of 'how' and 'why' in addition to the 'what' and 'who' of a topic. This search goes hand-in-hand with challenging activities, and rewards students for delving deeply into subject matter."
As I read this, it occurred to me that what Joanne strives for in the classroom is what Theatre East strives for in the theater. In the classroom, the "why" makes learning so much more interesting than the simple rote memorization of names, dates & places. And of course in the theater it is enjoyable to see complex characters in interesting situations and it's rewarding to be able to parse out the "why"—the motivation— behind each character's words & actions. But that would stop at being merely entertaining. At Theatre East, as we lay out in our core beliefs, we believe that theatre enables a greater connection to the world and to each other & that it is a catalyst for critical thinking.
seek to advance the dialogue of the shared human experience through works that utilize simple storytelling,providing our community with a platform to deepen its understanding of themselves, each other and the world we that provoke you to see the "what" up on stage, think about how the "who" is you, and challenge you to debate what your "how" & "why" would be under those circumstances. And not to have the solution laid out up on stage, but rather allow it to be  something you discover & unlock inside of you.

I feel we've done a pretty good job wrestling with some meaty issues in our past couple of seasons with EYE OF GOD (what are the limits of faith, especially where they intersect with a woman's right to choose?) and THE SOLDIER DREAMS (who has the right to make end-of-life decisions for a loved one? and how can we connect with them before it's too late?) and I look forward to the discussions that will follow NORMALCY in August-September. What will those post-show conversations be like? Well, you'll have to come to the show and see for yourself!
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*(and wife to Theatre East's Resident Composer & Sound Designer, Scott O'Brien.)

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Planted Seeds

Jim's aunt, grandfather, visiting relative (actually from NYC!), and uncle (L to R)
We're excited to have our first guest post! This one comes from Theatre East community member & supporter Jim Farfaglia:

Seeing plays in New York City is a big deal for an upstater like me, so back in December 2007, while in town visiting a college buddy, I was looking forward to a good show. The tickets to a play at the Beckett Theatre were a gift from a friend of a friend, who offered just a brief preview as he placed them in my hand: “I’ve heard good things about this one. I was ready for the larger world theatre can offer our certain lives. I was ready to see things fresh. But what I wasn’t ready for, standing and applauding that performance of Harvest, was what broke ground in my opening heart as that curtain closed.

I was raised in a rural area near the Great Lake Ontario, where winter blizzards and rain-filled springs create rich muck farms. Two of my uncles’ families made their lives on those farms, and my earliest memories are filled with all the drama homespun lives can produce. The characters of Harvest wrestled with that kind of life, and watching their passages through the play was a tender reminder that only a few of my uncles’ generation were still with us and, when we buried them, we would also be burying the farming life. The emotion I felt for both the Harvest performance and my ancestry stirred with my applause—and the seed to somehow honor my family was planted.

A few years had to pass before I could nurture that seed to fruition. I took every opportunity to talk with my relatives—the older the better—asking them to share what they remembered from those farming days. We nosed around the root cellars of our memories, compared notes over dinners made from Grandma’s recipes, held photos of our loved ones like prized produce.

During the first half of 2011, I wrote feverishly, something within me urging: Now is the time. By September the book was complete and Country Boy, a collection of poems about the people, places and thinkings of my youth, was bound. How fortunate I was to be able to place a copy of it in my father’s hands six weeks before he passed away, and how my memories curled up with his in our last talks.

It’s not often that we can see so clearly the line between a life-changing event and its humble beginning.  Today, when I attend a book signing and read from Country Boy, I always start by telling the audience about a little theatre company tucked away, like the sweetest farm garden, in a corner of New York City. And I tell them about a play that brought me to my feet, that brought my pen to paper. Thanks Jud. Thanks Christa. Thanks cast and crew. May you always hold close the truth that Harvest did not die with its last performance. In fact, it thrives.
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you can find Country Boy on Amazon.
you can find a schedule of Jim's readings at the CNY [Central New York] Arts Center here.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Human Connection

from Christa Kimlicko Jones, Associate Artistic Director, Director of Programming:
“The world is as a looking-glass and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face. Frown at it and it in turn will look sourly upon you; laugh at it and with it, and it is a jolly, kind companion."
I teach voice and speech at Stella Adler Studio.  I am an actress.  One might say I love communication. I love diving into stories and telling them well—and then discussing the stories after.  I love sitting over coffee and exchanging ideas.  I love helping a student realize that they might be understood a bit better if they would open their mouth more and breathe.  I love random conversations with strangers on the subway (sometimes complaining about the MTA, sometimes not).  I even love non-verbal conversations: realizing that you and a stranger are smiling about the same child in the stroller;  You make eye contact, and you smile at them too—sharing the moment.  I love meeting new people and hearing their stories.  “Where are you from? What brought you here?”  I love striking up conversations with taxi drivers, discovering that this person was a doctor in his country before he came here.  I love asking people about their children or pets—there is a very special light that comes on when they speak about them.  It’s a different light when you ask them about their parents.  Watch for this, it’s fascinating.  I love, love, love talking with people about dreams.  I love brainstorming the possible rungs on the ladder for reaching those dreams.

Yep, I’m that person.  I mean, I’m not annoying about it—I just think that people are fascinating!  I wish that history class had been more about the people and not so much about dates.  Anyway, I guess I’m in the right business. I get to literally step in others’ shoes and dive into their stories.

But in this constant curiosity about humanity, what I find most fascinating is the very common thread of the basic need for human connection.  We need it.  We need it to push ourselves forward.  We need it to see the mirror.  We need it for validation.  We need it to feed each other.  We have a responsibility to feed each other.  And I’m pretty sure that requires compassion.

I am so proud that Theatre East provides many outlets for possibilities for human connection; possibilities for discussion of big ideas as well as big dreams.  Whether at the monthly mixers, readings, talk backs, main-stage productions, family series—we believe in human connection, with compassion, so that we just might all help lift this world up a little bit higher.

So join us February 20th for the next Theatre East Third Monday Mixer/Neighborhood Reading Series installment: StephenMassicotte’s THE BOY’S OWN JEDI HANDBOOK.  Come hang out, hear a fun & clever play about the life lessons a boy learned from Star Wars. (If you are a fan, were a fan, or knew anyone who was, you will love this play!) Let’s laugh about ourselves and learn from each other, shall we?

See you there!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Advocacy and Inspiration

from Todd Eric Hawkins, Managing Director 

“Before we sang, we spoke. Before we danced, we walked. Before we wrote, we told stories. Before we told stories, we lived.

Those songs, dances, writings allow us to speak to one another across generations. They gave us an understanding of our commonality long before the DNA told us we are all part of one glorious procession.

At any point on the timeline of human history, there are tales to be told, of love and loss, glory and shame, profundity, and even profound stupidity– tales that deserve retelling, embellishing, and, if need be, inventing from whole cloth. This is our story. This is our song. If well sung, it tells us WHO we are and where we belong.” 

These words come from the opening lines of Wynton Marsalis’s lecture “The Ballad of American Arts,” delivered on March 30th, 2009 at the 22nd Annual Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy. Speaking to a sold-out audience gathered in the Concert Hall of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Mr. Marsalis’s lecture focused on the importance of arts and culture to the American identity. It was the most powerful speech on the arts in America that I have ever witnessed.  (View the entire speech here).

The lecture, held each year on the eve of Arts Advocacy Day in Washington DC, is named after the second Chairperson of the National Endowment for the Arts, Nancy Hanks. During her eight-year tenure (1969–1977), Ms. Hanks was able to grow the budget for the NEA from $8 million to $114 million—an unbelievable feat considering she was able to do so at time when members of Congress disputed any funding of the NEA at all.

Ms. Hanks believed strongly in the value of the Arts, dedicating her professional life to ensuring that the arts were a vital part of the American dialogue. It is fitting that the lecture is targeted to an audience of arts advocates from across the country the night before they meet with their elected officials to reinforce the value of the arts in their districts back home.

Arts Advocacy Day is the only annual event that brings together a broad cross section of America’s cultural and civic organizations, along with hundreds of grassroots advocates from across the country. Each year the event is instrumental in the advancement of key legislative initiatives, maintaining levels of funding for the federal cultural agencies, and influencing tax, international, and educational policies. (learn more about Arts Advocacy Day 2012 here)

We must ensure that every American has the same opportunities that we at Theatre East had growing up. Not to turn everyone into an artist, but to give everyone an understanding of what the arts make possible, and to capture the imaginations of those who will find it their calling.
Before we produced, we learned.

Each of us can share stories of teachers who saw something in us that no one else saw, or community theatres that gave us our chance to play and explore. People who encouraged us to major in drama, and continue to hone our crafts in graduate school.  Without that support system, how would any of us have had the courage to move away from home to put it all on the line in New York City?

Today we must remember that we were afforded those opportunities because someone before us fought to make the arts part of the American dialogue.  This year as I represent Theatre East in DC, I would like to take with me your stories of how the arts have impacted your life.  What about the arts has changed you? How would it have been different without the arts and why is it important to you? Please share your stories in the comments below, or email me directly at

There is power in numbers, and together we will ask that the arts and arts education be a national priority.