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Drama Queen is Live

Please visit my new blog, Drama Queen, at ArtsJournal.com. You (hopefully) won’t regret it.

Are You More Creative than an Eighth Grader?

I received an e-mail today from Morgan Saxby, an account executive at a pr company that, I’m guessing, represents the NAEP. He corrected a comment I made in my “Put Art Back on the Charts” post that asserted, 

Arts education ought to be appreciated in its own right, and not just for its potential to raise a school’s NAEP results.

Actually, the NAEP, in Mr. Saxby’s words,

does not find results for individual schools.  NAEP finds national results, state results (for math, reading, writing, and science), and on a trial basis, district-level results for a handful of urban areas. 

So, sorry for the misstatement, but that’s not really the interesting part, anyway. He goes on to say that the NAEP is preparing a report on the arts that will be released next year. The last time this was done was in 1997, and only eighth graders were assessed. It’s a pretty fascinating bit of reading, and raises any number of questions about what exactly is or isn’t quantifiable. It’s also kind of horrifying to read that 74% of these students received no theater instruction. (What are those middle school drama types supposed to do during their free time if they can’t rehearse for a class play? Just keep getting beat up?) I still remember my eighth grade musical experience:  Perfectly Frank, a tribute to the music of Frank Loesser, which introduced me to Guys and Dolls, The Most Happy Fella, and most important, Lots and Lots of Applause. A belated thank you, Mr. Goltz.

I’m wondering if the 2008 test will be performed across the board, in only certain schools, if raising its scores will become a mandatory part of No Child Left Behind (of course, if there’s a Dem in the White House come November, hopefully NCLB won’t really be an issue) or if the results are just for our own edification.

Of course, I’d love to have answers for you today, but I’m on a tight deadline this week with a big feature due to my editor (look for it in Sunday’s Image section of the Philadelphia Inquirer). So I’ll speak with Mr. Saxby and get back to you with some more details ASAP. In the meantime, poke around the report, and hey, while you’re at it, try out some of the sample questions. I’d love to know how creative professionals or arts afficionados perform when put to the test. Literally.

 

Bigger Drama

Philly Drama Queen is moving on to a larger castle soon, and you’re all invited. This blog is being picked up by ArtsJournal.com, a sort of clearinghouse for arts journalism with its own in-house and affiliated outside blogs. The site has lots of exciting plans for the future, and is picking up where traditional news outlets have failed the arts–and those who cover them. 

I wanted to blog for the Inquirer, I really did (and to be fair, they are allowing me to occasionally contribute to ArtsWatch, Peter Dobrin’s blog). But consider this: they asked me in February for a bio and photo so they could post it on the website. Like a fool, I ran around telling everyone they could soon subscribe to my RSS feed, they could just go to my page if they wanted to read my reviews, that if they wanted to access any of my other work, I’d be able to link it to that page. Now, winter has turned to spring and though the nest of mourning doves outside my office window has sprouted hatchlings who have gone on to become birds in their own right, I still don’t have a page on the Inky’s website. 

Some of you may recall the Suburban Love Songs piece I did last month and wondered what I was thinking. I was thinking that it would be a fully complimentary multimedia feature, where its virtual online spirit is inextricably linked to its corporeal print body. Alas, not only was the video placed on a separate page from the online feature, it was not at all what I’d imagined. The videoographer was none too happy about the assignment, complaining that shooting news was no problem but this, editing something, was a pain. Initially, I offered to film it myself–but since my experience is, shall we say limited, a pro was sent in who was told nothing about the project and cut off the end of the performance (though the stuff that made it to video was quite nice). On several feature pieces I’ve offered to include boxes with relevant links that could be printed or posted on the Inky site. Often, they don’t appear, or if they do, the links are broken.

It’s a sad state of affairs and one that will send my venerable and much-loved Pulitzer winning newspaper careening into the iceberg, rather than navigating safely around it (Since I spend a lot of time in Leadville, Co, hometown of the Unsinkable Molly Brown, please indulge me this metaphor). Anyway, I’m forced to be a Molly Brown in this enterprise, taking the oars in my own hands and demanding an explanation for what has transpired.

titanic sinking

I’ll keep fighting for the survival of Philly arts coverage via my Inquirer writing, but ArtsJournal allows me to take this blog and focus on national issues critical to drama queens like myself and to add on all the add-ons my black critic’s heart desires. I hope you’ll come visit me in my gorgeous new digs. Keep checking back in this space for the official move date.

The Word of the Day is: Postracialism

I’d like to give big props to the Philadelphia Inquirer and my editor, Becky Klock, for including two full-length theater features (one of them mine) and a theater review in today’s Magazine section of the paper. It’s not often we get so much space, but when it happens, it’s a glorious thing.

That said, I’d also like to take up a discussion of Howard Shapiro’s article on “color-blind casting,” since this is the third time this season the Arden Theatre’s production of Sleeping Beauty and its casting of Nako Adodoadji–an African American actress–in the title role, has been a matter of editorial observation (and apologies to Ms. Adodoadji in advance for using her as an unwitting example throughout this post). Also, please don’t take this as a knock on Mr. Shapiro’s article either, as I obviously found it compelling enough to devote a whole morning to its analysis.

A little history: I was sent to review the show and loved everything about the production… Everything, that is, except the level of Ms. Adodoadji’s performance, charming though she was.

[Costume designer] St. Clair’s sole miscalculation is Briar Rose’s (Nako Adodoadji) act one outfit, which is too bright and too modern–particularly unfortunate, as it directs attention to the fact that Adodoadji is the weakest of the actors. Luckily, the others are strong enough that her inexperience scarcely matters, and the Arden can deliver all the magic promised in this classic fairy tale. 

Arden\'s Sleeping Beauty

Anyway, that’s all I said about her. Nothing about her race, or the Arden’s choice to cast her with white parents in a traditionally white role (though why that’s so, I can’t say, it’s not like it’s Snow White or something–stay with me here, I’ve got a point). 

The following week, Inquirer columnist Annette John-Hall, herself an African American woman, took up Adodoadji’s cause in a column devoted to the joy children of color feel when they see this particular Sleeping Beauty onstage. (Hey, she’s a columnist, not a critic, it’s her prerogative.) She also mentioned that she saw the actress’ picture in the paper, which meant she’d read the review, which led me to believe that she just might have been annoyed by it. At the time, I remember thinking, “Did I miss the boat here? Should I have at least called attention to this aspect of the production in my review?”

But I didn’t, and here’s why: I took both of my kids to see the show and neither of them seemed to notice. This was children’s theater, and “non-traditional casting” sure didn’t seem to be an issue for its direct audience–just for its parents. I even remember tentatively asking my kids if they liked the actress playing Sleeping Beauty, because, as their mom, I dread writing reviews of shows they attend with me and hope maybe they’ll say something critical, though they never do and always love everything they see (I’ve been told my job is “kind of mean”). They liked her, thought she was pretty, an important quality for a princess, but never mentioned how unusual or notable it was that the princess in question was African American. Maybe it’s because they’re so used to having friends of other races, or having friends with interracial parentage, or adopted friends who are different races from their moms and dads, or integrated Barbie collections, for goodness sakes. For whatever reason, it hadn’t even occurred to them that something momentous was occurring in their midst. However, John-Hall notes the difference for the children of color in the audience,

When teacher Ana Ozuna Donofrio asked her fifth graders from Independence Charter if they were surprised that Sleeping Beauty was black, everyone raised a hand.

“Because Sleeping Beauty is white in the storybook,” said a 10-year-old with the fairy-tale name Ariel.

Sure, they were surprised. As little Ariel pointed out, it was because they’d seen her image before in a book. Perhaps they’d be just as surprised to see a blonde Dorothy in place of Judy Garland. It’s not that I’m diminishing the importance of seeing oneself reflected regally onstage. (Though I have yet to hear of Jewish princesses showing up anywhere besides the punchlines of sex jokes, and I managed to get past it. Sort of.) Just that maybe constantly reminding kids that something like casting a black princess is unusual does more harm than good. I’m too young to have watched anyone perform in blackface, but do I know all about it? Sure. Do I find it repulsive? Of course. Do I need to be reminded about it every time I see Othello? Hell no.

Jolson in blackface

I find myself returning to this issue during the run-up to the presidential race as well. I remind my kids that they are experiencing a historical moment in American history: a white man, white woman and biracial man all running for president, all at the same time, all with equal chances of being elected. But really, if I didn’t mention it, I don’t think they’d have noticed anything unusual, and I often wonder whether calling attention to the historic nature of this election doesn’t just create the problem all over again. Sure, this all sounds very Stephen Colbert (“I don’t see race”) but honestly, things just might be changing enough that, I don’t know, maybe kids–or at least kids living in integrated neighborhoods and schools–see race, but don’t care. Maybe the ideal of postracialism is actually not just an ideal anymore.

I find it kind of depressing that “nontraditional casting” merits an entire feature in 2008. Of course, something like Broadway’s all-black Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a different story. Its casting choice is a statement in itself and merits attention on that fact alone. But just calling out race mixing because it happens onstage? Aren’t we past that yet? Aren’t we?

Facebooking for the Future

So I’ve joined Facebook, and have been marveling at the array of theater-related quizzes. To those non-Facebooking readers, the quizzes are designed to spread among Facebook members by having you ask your friends to take them. Your results are displayed on your Facebook page and everyone learns you are more like Galinda from Wicked than Roxie from Chicago, which was not at all what you intended. 

Anyway, in case you’re wondering, I’m like Sunday in the Park with George on the “Which Sondheim Musical Are You?” quiz, I’m an “all-Around Theater Kid” on the “What Type of Theater Kid Are You?” quiz, and in the “Which High School Musical Character Are You? quiz, I’m Ryan, which, if I’m being honest with myself, I probably already knew. 

Ryan pic

I interviewed Whit MacLaughlin of New Paradise Labs the other day and he was emphatic about the effect Facebooking has had on publicizing their new production, Prom, and it seems like pretty much every theater company in town is trying to collect fans and have member pages list their event. I love to see theater hitting the 21st century in this way, as it shows the vibrancy of our aged discipline and defies the greying stereotype.

Perhaps I’ll develop a “Which Inquirer Critic Are You?” app. where you can find out if you’re a Toby, a Howie, or a Wendy (I’d love to post a link here, but sadly, the Inquirer still hasn’t managed to put up a page for me). 

Sample Question: You’re at the Fringe Festival reviewing a new interactive performance piece and one of the actors calls you onstage to participate.

Do you

 

  1. Tell them to go to hell. After all, you’re not there for their entertainment, it’s the other way around.
  2. Smile and politely decline. After all, it’s their show.
  3. Go on up and attempt to upstage the performers. After all, you’re not gonna let a little thing like professionalism get in the way of your need for attention. 

I’ll let you figure out the results.

 

Feel free to chime in with your own quiz questions. Who knows, maybe they’ll turn up on Facebook.

Mopping Up

So it’s all over for us. As the eyes of the nation turn west- and south-ward, Philly can ditch the political drama and go back to plain old murder and mayhem, right? Not quite. The Theater Alliance of Greater Philadelphia‘s listserv was burning up in the weeks leading up to the primary, and now, in some sort of exquisite water torture for liberals, the vicious debate will be laid out onstage for all to see Saturday, May 3, 8 p.m. at Second Stage at the Adrienne.

A few things astonished me about this heated back-and-forth.

  • First: there are conservatives among drama professionals, like, real red ones. Though I can’t quite figure out what could possibly be in it for them other than an inherited bias, they are vehement and as convinced of McCain’s relevance to their lives as any hedge fund trader or military engineer. 
  • Second: People actually “went there” on Clinton, making pantsuit jokes and the like. Theater people. And I don’t think these posters were even the gay ones, who could get away with it. 
  • Third: No one really wanted to go there on Obama, which, I guess, is at least one positive sign. Maybe we can credit Rev. Wright for serving as the receptacle for this contest’s racial enmity and diverting it from the candidate himself. This effect even seems to have spilled over into the real world. Remember in New Hampshire when those dudes yelled, “Iron my shirts!” at Hillary? We never saw a corollary pair of douchebags running around in blackface at an Obama rally (I’m sure they were somewhere, of course, just not out in public). So thanks, Rev. Wright, at least for that.
  • Fourth: The listserv’s, er, discussion had remarkably little to do with the candidates’ relationship to the arts, which was, to me, distressing. There was even a brief flare-up about abortion, but nothing, NOTHING about the issue that most directly affects everyone on TAGP’s e-mail list. Business-owning republicans won’t shut up about taxes; shouldn’t arts professionals be slightly concerned about their candidates’ approaches to arts and education? Hello? Anyone?
  • Fifth: Show folk will find an excuse to argue about almost anything. 

I’d love to see the Second Stage event used as a means to discuss the issues surrounding our careers and the candidates’ potential effect on them, or perhaps to galvanize the theater community into advocating that the arts and arts education take, if not center stage, then at least a supporting role during this political season–something I’m hoping every listserv member can agree upon. Though rehashing the old political divides will no doubt provide the same entertainment value once offered by the Romans to their people in the form of bears and slaves, moving forward with a November game plan has far more to do with creating an actual theater alliance.

Gladiator v. tiger

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Alive and on ABC

Gibson/Stephanopoulos

One thing I did not get to discuss on Ellis Henican’s show yesterday was the way Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos were Rosencrantz-and-Guildensterned during the Philly debate. Sent on a fool’s errand, they concerned themselves with trivialities and minutiae (lapel pins), inflated with self-importance (regarding time, Gibson announced, “I’ll be lenient, but not permissive”), blind to the fact that they were mere cogs in a political machine. They’ve since been chewed up by that machine and spit back out. Yesterday the AP released a feature on the pair’s misguided role in the debate, as did seemingly every other news outlet. And mirroring the careers of R&G, they’ve gone from minor players in a larger story to the subjects of their own little drama. Congratulations fellas, you’ve been sacrificed for a greater purpose.

 

R&G coverR&G Hamlet