Saturday, May 5, 2012

Any North Coast Weekend

This North Coast weekend, stuff continues: Evita at Ferndale Rep, For Better (which I reviewed in the NC Journal this week) at Redwood Curtain.   And there's Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 at Eureka High.

So there's time for a little comment.  Last week I mentioned an article in the Tri-City Weekly on North Coast theatre by Pam Service.  It begins with the assertion "Humboldt County is theatrically rich," and suggests that this success is not due to facilities (that's for sure!) but "the wealth of theatrical talent. There's something about Humboldt that breeds, attracts and retains that talent. Maybe it's the gorgeous natural environment, maybe it's the more leisurely pace of life, maybe it's the atmosphere of intellectual and artistic creativity. But whatever it is, talented actors are here in abundance. And all of us are the richer for it."

While she's right about the talent, the "something about Humboldt that breeds, attracts and retains that talent" isn't completely so mystical or mysterious.  One of the prime somethings is Humboldt State University, and in a somewhat different way, Dell'Arte and its School. 

Look no further than the current Redwood Curtain production.  Nearly everyone involved in it is a student or graduate of the Humboldt State theatre program. In fact, several were involved in the HSU 10 Minute Play Festival that was on stage during For Better's opening weekend.  Director Kristin L. Mack is a recent recipient of an M.A. in Theatre Arts.  She directed for a previous 10 Minute Play Festival.

Of course not every play at every theatre features an entire cast from HSU, plus the director, scenic and costume designer.  But almost every production at every theatre does involve one or more creative participants who is studying theatre at HSU or got one or another degrees there.  There is also cross-fertilization, with directors from other theatres directing a show at HSU (and earning some money doing it) and HSU faculty directing at other theatres.  The importance of HSU extends to high schools and specialized theatre groups.

The HSU role goes beyond the theatre program (for example, both principal founders of Redwood Curtain earn their livings there) but the theatre program has been the most crucial element, certainly in the breeding and even retention of talent.  Young people studying at HSU (perhaps in Music or some unrelated field, but generally in or including Theatre) enliven theatrical productions here, and they are missed when they leave. But some remain, and some who came here by another route got advanced degrees there, or operate and work for community and other theatres while teaching part-time at HSU (and also at College of the Redwoods, which shouldn't be forgotten either.)  

But there is perhaps a sad ending to this story, and certainly a cautionary tale.  But first let me clear away the disclosures.  I myself can review theatre here, not because I am paid a living wage by the North Coast Journal, but because I am paid something a little bit closer to a living wage by HSU to write and disseminate publicity for HSU Theatre, Film & Dance and HSU Music Department shows.  Those are two part-time jobs that sometimes get in the way of each other, but awkwardly putting together jobs like that isn't exactly rare on the North Coast. 

And in such a small community, here's another common complication.  My partner is a tenured faculty member and current chair of Theatre, Film & Dance at HSU.  This certainly may color my feelings on these matters, but you can judge the facts.  There is also the drawback that I can't say all that I know.  So to complete this disclaimer: nothing I say here should be construed as coming from HSU or any of its departments.  And I certainly am not being paid by HSU to say any of this. 

But I can point out a few things relevant to my topic here.  There have been a lot of changes at HSU, and many affecting the theatre program, mostly due to budget pressures from Sacramento. They haven't been expansions. 

  For one thing, Kristin Mack is one of the last M.A.s in theatre arts that HSU will produce for the forseeable future.  Some of the graduate programs have been axed, and some "suspended" with the possibility of parole.  But no new candidates for graduate work are being accepted. 

One of the consequences of the loss of graduate students is the end of the graduate courses in dramatic writing, which were the rationale for the 10 Minute Play Festival.  Without that course, it became clear this year that the Festival couldn't continue.  The Festival had become an incubator for directing and acting talent as well as writing.  But then there is no graduate level directing or acting anymore either.  

All of these changes are now happening and whatever they mean to HSU and its students,  I feel sure their consequences will soon be felt in the rest of North Coast theatre.  

Dell'Arte's influence is also important, both stylistically and in terms of the talent pool.  Graduates of various Dell'Arte programs and participants in Dell'Arte productions can be found throughout North Coast theatre.  But the Dell'Arte School teaches a particular kind of theatre, and its students are international---they don't usually participate in local theatre while they are here, and they typically leave soon after.  Still, Dell'Arte in total is a rich resource, and the formal ties between Dell'Arte and HSU that are just beginning seem a positive for North Coast theatre in general.    

How this economic mess has played out hasn't been good to local theatre in a number of ways.  And adapting to change is a key to flourishing.  But my point here is that the importance of HSU to North Coast theatre can't realistically be overlooked.  Apart from what resentment there might be (or how justified), it's easy to take it for granted.   That might be a mistake.

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