Friday, December 19, 2014

HSU: The Forbidden Stage

"Humboldt Unbound"
Commentaries and reviews of productions by HSU Theatre are conspicuously few on this site. There is a reason. As I’ve written too many times here already, I began my theatre column for the North Coast Journal at pretty much the same time as I began writing publicity for HSU Theatre. Both employers accepted the same condition, which I proposed: that I would not review HSU productions in my Journal column. My agreement with the Journal had an additional component: that the Journal would still cover HSU productions as they did everyone else’s.

 In a better or even what used to be a normal world, I wouldn’t need to write for both employers. One of them would supply a full time job. But this is the North Coast, now. Even together, these two supposedly part time jobs didn’t add up to anything close to a living wage. Situations like this aren’t uncommon here, which is why in some ways this might be the state capital of conflict of interest, if Sacramento and Los Angeles didn’t exist. And they do it bigger there.

 This initial condition was in response to the operating definition of conflict of interest, which is probably not well understood. It doesn’t have much to do with reviewing people you know, including close relatives. You’re better off disclosing the close relationships, but if I had to note everybody I knew or worked with in another capacity, the reviews eventually would have gotten extremely long.

"The School for Scandal" at HSU
And that’s not only because this is a small place, and a small theatre community. All theatre communities, even in New York, are pretty small. But it isn't about that (though maybe it should be.) No, it has to do with who pays you.

 Even then it can be a sometime thing—national political pundits and reporters that work for several competing print, media and online purveyors, while maintaining friendships and business relationships with people they cover, being an obvious case in point, with a whole lot more money involved.

 So I couldn’t review HSU shows in the Journal because HSU had paid me to publicize their existence. And the absence of a financial conflict is presumably why the Journal now publishes reviews of HSU shows by an HSU theatre student. (Because the money goes the other way I suppose.) Or for that matter, of shows in any local theatre by someone who has acted and directed for that theatre, and hopes to in the future.  But at least HSU shows are now reviewed there.
Venus at HSU

 I recognized however that this ban protected me as well as my employers.  The problems arose when the Journal failed to keep their end of the bargain. In my nearly 9 years as columnist, the Journal reviewed exactly one HSU show. If I didn’t get a few paragraphs of preview into a column, there would be nothing. But HSU shows were as much a part of the theatre ecology here as anyone’s.

 Since I wasn’t bound by anything but my conscience in what I wrote for this site, I had my say here about some of the productions, both good and bad. In terms of background, I wrote a lot for the blog site I started for the Theatre, Film & Dance department (HSU Stage & Screen) that I would have written here. So check the index over there (sorry, the “labels”) and see if there are particular plays and playwrights you’d like to read about.  Many do.  The site (like this one) gets visitors from all over the world.

 A retrospective about a decade of North Coast theatre would not be complete without noting such HSU productions as Hater and Humboldt Unbound (both directed by Michael Fields), The School for Scandal (directed by Clint Rebik), Translations (directed by Bernadette Cheyne, with Bob Wells), Brigadoon,  Helen, M. Butterfly ( directed by Michael Thomas), Fat Pig, Shakuntala, Some Assembly Required, The Winter’s Tale, Cloud 9, The Marriage of Bette and Boo, Venus, An Evening with Rumi and Relative Captivity (Full disclosure! Written by my partner, Margaret Thomas Kelso) and several I’ve mentioned in earlier retrospective pieces, like Mother Courage, The Homecoming and Salmon Is Everything.

"Helen" at HSU
Many of these shows would not be produced by other North Coast theatres, so in addition to the educational goals they address, they offer audiences a variety, and at their best, either something daringly contemporary or an illuminating classic.  Some were very good, some were partly good, many were interesting, a few were really bad.  Like everybody else.

 Unfortunately, the fortunes of HSU theatre have fallen in recent years. Budget cutbacks threatened the very existence of the department a few years ago, but it still struggles against death by a thousand cuts. The loss of all graduate programs and the shrinking of the theatre faculty with the resulting weaknesses in vital areas have deeply wounded it.

 This diminution is already felt on other local stages. As I’ve argued before, HSU is a generator of talent and a source of support that helps make the relative plenitude of North Coast theatre possible. With the much smaller CR theatre program gone completely, it’s the last post-high school source of education and talent. (As an international school in a specialized area, Dell’Arte School is a special case-- most of its students don’t participate elsewhere and don’t hang around.)
"Shakuntala" at HSU

 The future is far from settled, but there is a vector getting stronger, a high school to community theatre express, often doing the same plays from one to the other (mostly the same musicals.)

 I’ll end this with a column from my first year that’s about the then-vibrant HSU 10 Minute Play Festival. I note the “full disclosure” elements in it, but it is a case in which the personal and the larger picture come together. I came here with Margaret when she was hired to run the dramatic writing program at HSU. It was robust in 1996, and a big part of HSU’s theatrical identity, especially with its national new plays contest.

 Over the years, as the department and the university faced one crisis after another, the writing program started to fade. The new plays contest was weakened. There was a staged reading of The Fire-Bringer in 2008, a different kind of "theatre of place." The last full production of a winning play was Jagun Fly in 2009 which I noted as a North Coast rarity then—a play by a black playwright about black people with an all-black cast.  But after that it lacked the resources to continue.

A program for new writing in the university itself was the 10 Minute Play Festival in the spring. It was a very popular show with audiences, especially student audiences, as well as with participants—many wrote and otherwise worked on the Festival more than once, and I noted in 2010 that one student, who did both undergrad and graduate work at HSU, participated in five of these annual festivals. (Here is the link to the posts I did at HSU Stage on the last 5 Festivals, and another to a blog about a few earlier ones.)
"Jagun Fly" at HSU

 But the festival was the result of a year-long graduate course process, and without graduate students, it wasn’t tenable. Margaret started the Festival, beginning in classrooms, then as a free event until it became a big draw on the regular schedule.  She coordinated all but the last two.

It ended with the 14th Festival in 2012. Few people noticed, which is the way that worlds end here—not with a bang but a whimper. Or the next text message.

 At their best, the festivals showcased energy and new perspectives.  Sometimes there was a gem or two, and sometimes that odd phenomenon of a year in which most of them were sort of amazing.  I still remember one play on one of the good years-- back when they were in the basement black box of Gist Hall-- about life, the future, and Star Wars: The New Hope. It was funny, theatrical, heartfelt and expressed a different perspective from a new generation. Those were 10 minutes worth waiting for.

 Even though the festival was restricted to HSU students, it was the last public forum or mechanism for new plays here, even ten minutes long. (I don’t count the 24 hour play contests, which are fun but mostly a game, a gimmick.) Now there are none.

From Page to Stage: The Ten Minute Year
 April 2006

Margaret Thomas Kelso
As the academic year ends, students at area high schools, Dell'Arte, CR and Humboldt State are presenting the fruits of their learning in theatre, music and dance on public stages. Perhaps the most complete exercise in creating new theatre will be the culmination of a year-long process, when the eighth annual Festival of Ten Minute Plays at HSU begins this weekend.

 I am now honor-bound to say that Margaret Thomas Kelso, the originator and coordinator of this event, and the head of the HSU Dramatic Writing Program, is also my partner. But that's just scratching the surface of journalistic disclosure. We actually met at a theatre conference held in conjunction with the Carnegie Mellon Showcase of New Plays. We both had ten-minute plays produced as members of a playwrights group in Pittsburgh, and Margaret directed a short play I wrote, with two wonderful CMU student actors (including Maduka Steady, who's since had a New York theatre career and a prominent role in the feature film Lorenzo's Oil).

2006 Ten Minute Playwrights
Here's how the process works at HSU: Students in advanced and beginning playwriting courses in the fall term write ten-minute plays, talk about them, and rewrite them several times.

 Around Thanksgiving, faculty members select scripts for the festival (nine this year) and those students continue working on them in the spring term. In the middle of the semester, directors are matched with scripts and actors audition, and writers keep working on scripts through rehearsals.

There is some staging and lighting for performance, but only what's essential to express the material. This playwright-centered process was pioneered at the Eugene O'Neill Center in Connecticut. One of the great experiences of my life was observing how it worked for several weeks one summer, and becoming part of that temporary yet recurrent and close-knit community. Spending hours talking and hanging out with August Wilson, one of the greatest of American playwrights, and Lloyd Richards, a legendary director and the Zen Master of the O'Neill Center, as well as meeting young playwrights who have since become important figures in theatre, television and film, only begins to suggest the privilege of that experience.

 But I definitely learned the value and integrity of a process that's centered on the playwright and the play, but with contributions from everyone. Because plays are not meant to stay on the page. It takes many people with different skills to make the leap: the director, searching for a shape and structure, designers who need to know how it should look and actors who have to be those words and actions.

 At its best, the questions confronting the playwright lead to moments like this: August Wilson had a character, a white Chicago cop, say something the actor playing him didn't think a Chicago cop would say. "What would he say?" August asked him. "Something like, `Look buddy, if you want it in a nutshell... '" Check the printed text of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, and that line is there.

At HSU, the festival playwrights go through a similar process. "They have the opportunity to see their plays in three dimensions. They see their characters actually embodied," Kelso said. But the emphasis at all times is on the script: How it works to make the magic. "This is the heart of the process, and why it is so important. These are the essential skills that are needed to keep theatre alive. We need theatre that is still growing and reflecting our lives."

The final step is performance and the response of audiences, who get to participate in the creation of something new, and see what's on the minds of students this year. And if they don't like the one they're watching, they can wait ten minutes for another.

 There's usually a mix of comedy and drama, realism and fantasy, as there appears to be this spring. Even the styles can say something different each year: the festival a few years back featured some dull dramas but exhilarating comedies -- that class had a real feel for comedy in performance as well as writing.

The ten minute play is a fairly new and still evolving form, which at its best "captures a peak moment," Kelso said. "It's usually the moment of change in a story."

"Free" 2007
She uses this form for teaching purposes because all the reexamining and rewriting would be too unwieldy with plays of greater length. "But it's an excellent way for students to really work through the process," Kelso said. "A lot of universities don't teach these skills."

One of this year's writers showed me several drafts of his play, and it's fascinating to see how much can be improved in such a short form. Writers also don't get this kind of respect for their work very often, which is why even established playwrights loved the O'Neill. Margaret is proud of this program at HSU, and so am I.


Anonymous said...

To be fair, you were lucky to have both gigs. In a better or normal world, a journalistic organization would never allow the secondary employment of one of its writers as a public relations professional at one of the organizations he'd normally be covering.

The compromise that you'd never write about HSU productions also means you'd never write anything critical about HSU productions, and therein lies the damaged journalistic integrity of the Journal. That they would pay a fill-in reviewer to cover HSU productions was a disservice to the readership.

BK said...

Yes, and in a better or normal world I wouldn't be responding to a comment by Anonymous. I appreciate your points up to your last, which I don't understand. It is normal practice for media to have more than one reviewer, and possible conflicts are often handled by assignment of reviewer. I don't see how a different reviewer for HSU shows could possibly could be a disservice to readers. As it happened, the one review by someone else the Journal did publish during my time was very critical of the HSU show. As I have been a time or two on this blog.