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If You Can Make It There

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Dozens of wonderful movies have been made about making it in New York City. Heroes and heroines flock to the big city seeking understanding and/or excitement. Often they hail from small towns with nothing more than a suitcase and a dream. They emerge from buses and trains into a bustling mysterious brightly lit metropolis. They pound the pavement for a room and a job, knocking on countless slamming doors (a la Gene Kelly; Gotta Dance! Gotta Dance!) They find a room, perhaps even an efficiency or worldly roommate. They get a job and make it all work. They won’t quit ’til they’re a star!

Movies about the big adventure that is NYC aren’t really made anymore. NYC appears quite frequently in film but less as a place to conquer, and more as a posh playground. They still come from small towns and less glittery cities. But the heroes and heroines of today are more likely to find shelter in a 2,000 square foot loft than a room in a boarding house. Young women don’t share an “interview dress” but news of sample sales. And it’s been a few decades since a call girl found it entertaining to window shop at Tiffany. The scrappiness is gone. The roughing it and hard knock pursuit of a brand new start of it is a thing of the past; and for good reason.

You’d be hard pressed to find a legitimate boarding house in NYC. There are efficiency apartments still holding on, but they’re most decidedly not for out-of-towners. If there are buildings which house nothing but theatrical agents, even Gene Kelly wouldn’t be allowed past security. It’s a different city than it was 80, 70, or even 20 years ago. It is a town less about cab drivers answering back in language far from pure, than it is about gentility. Searching for grittiness can become a scavenger hunt. There is a gloss to the city that doesn’t sleep. Our heroines of yesteryear would not know what to make of bicycle paths, pedestrian malls, man-made beaches and midtown pop-up swimming pools (that are nothing more than oversized dumpsters). For the out-of-towner arriving to make their fame and fortune, these sights might be comforting and not the least surprising. Their perceptions of NYC, gleaned from television & film will be confirmed; it is a luxury cruise ship! The food is copious, the entertainment splashy and every need is easily fulfilled.

Of course there is still a grittiness to be found in the city, and there are still wonderfully diverse foods and entertainment. But it gets harder and harder to live an urban life beyond the homogenization. With each passing year the city becomes more a place for tourists and less for residents. People come from all over the world to see the prescribed sights. The intensity of the city and its lights might be exotic but the ads, retail and amenities are very familiar. A person could come to NYC; complete their tourist attraction checklist while eating, drinking and sleeping in very familiar places. But what of that young man or woman arriving with three bucks, two bags, one me? How do they find their way in a town priced at tourist levels, no longer as welcoming to the young yearning to be free? What does it mean to a city, and a world capital to no longer be the incubator of extraordinary young talent? The world will always welcome bankers and engineers, but what of artists?

NYC will never (willingly) go back to its hardscrabble ways. The tourism dollars are simply too good to turn down. But it is possible to recapture the opportunities and promise of the big city. Dotted throughout the island are examples of how. There is (at least) one subsidized residence for actors. There are small-business incubators supported by the city. There is even health insurance for freelancers. Gathering these meager resources and augmenting them to support artists and innovators would be a great legacy for a mayor. City sponsored art projects, theatres, and music would open the door for those Ruby Keelers and Gene Kellys and who knows whom else. The only way to ensure true diversity is to actively support success. It’s really up to you New York, New York.

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Posted by on August 4, 2013 in Cultural Critique

 

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Testing K-12

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Could it be? Yes it could. School testing seems to have turned a critical corner in New York. Testing is going beyond the No.2 pencil darkened bubbles. Teacher evaluation is now expanding to domains not suited to multiple choice or True/False standardized tests. Evaluations will now include actual classroom observations and assessment of meaningful classroom work (ex. research papers.) While no one is suggesting shredding those bubble sheets once and for all, this is progress.

This expanded evaluation including areas such as Kindergarten, art, gym and remedial curriculum forces us to ask valuable questions regarding intent and outcomes. Keeping the budget in mind (which one must always do in real life) we now ask ourselves what gym is really all about. Do we feel that an integral part of a child’s K-12 education should be mastering the rules of team sports? Should gym be focused instead on combating inactive lifestyle and obesity? Is gym the euphemism for all things physical and be the source of nutrition, health and puberty education? We can only form meaningful evaluation when we decide why it is we’re doing what we’re doing. The same is true for art in schools. If we decide that the arts (in all forms) supports and expands all areas of K-12 education than art evaluation must be integrated into all evaluations. If art class means making projects than the mastery of those projects should be evaluated.

These examples (gym and art) might initiate conversation about teaching skills versus innate talent. And that is good. For what is any achievement (academic or otherwise) than an amalgamation of innate talent and learned skill? A talent with language, math, abstraction, memorization or analytical thinking is at the core of certain classroom achievements. Having a visual/spatial, physical or musical gift is at the core of (what’s often considered) extra-curricular classes. Which begs the question why? If we believe in (Howard Gardner’s) Multiple Intelligences* (which by the spate of bumper stickers out there, we do) than why shouldn’t all areas of intelligence be equally nurtured and valued? If we believe that the role of public K-12 education is to prepare our children for their place in the world, our focus should be less about specific subjects and more about learning.

There are countries that are leaps and bounds ahead of the U.S. in science, technology and math education and that makes some people nervous. The truth is that there will always be learners who are drawn to science and math and technology can be taught (as anyone who has ever transitioned from a walkman to an iPod can attest.) The role of public education is not to compete with other countries’ strengths but to cultivate the strengths of its own students. Curriculum should not be reactionary and teaching approaches should be designed for the benefit of the learner. Creating critical thinkers, cultivating a love of learning, and providing a well-rounded education will ready graduates for their place in the world.

*Visual-Spatial, Bodily-Kinesthetic, Musical, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, Linguistic, Mathematical

 
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Posted by on June 3, 2013 in Childhood, Education

 

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The Cost Of Creativity

The playwright Sarah Ruhl (In The Next Room) has written an essay about her choice to stage a review-less production. Ms. Ruhl will direct her work Melancholy Play as part of the 13P. It is a very limited run without previews or press invitations. This aligns with 13P’s mission of producing plays versus developing plays. The goal presumably is to get a play in front of an audience without interference. Ms. Ruhl elegantly defends this artistic process in her essay. And there would be no argument with any of her assertions if it wasn’t for the fact that the audience is being asked to purchase tickets. (I would also add that using the press to promote a play in which the press is not invited could be construed as a bit designing.)

Ms. Ruhl is using 13P to its best advantage and getting experimental with her own play. The addition of live music is adding costs, complications and creativity to one of her older works. Supposedly that is why she asserts; “It didn’t feel fair to me to burden the production team with the pressure of reviews when we were already embarking on something so insanely ambitious given our resources.” There are just a few too many flaws in that assertion to ignore:

  • Working in a vacuum is rarely a good idea; art needs air.
  • Directing one’s own work is a slippery little endeavor and unchecked can often become what is commonly known as a ‘private behavior’
  • Criticism is not the enemy
  • Reviews are for the benefit of an audience

Ms. Ruhl goes on to say that “…the press desires more bravery from artists and yet, in its very call for bravery, ends up eliciting timidity because of asrtists’ fear of public opinion.” This may very well be true for many artists (poets and visual artists come to mind.) But anyone who writes for the stage, directs for the stage or gets up on a stage is doing so for an audience (aka public opinion.) Plays don’t hang on gallery walls and actors don’t live on shelves. They come alive in front of an audience. Unlike a gallery or bookstore, there hasn’t been curation for 13P. In fact the very mission of 13P is to avoid the critiquing process that often stalls a play before it can get to production. Discouraging reviews, which in essence are post-production curation, and charging patrons is the equivalent of charging people to walk through studios of random artists. An audience wants to be moved, they want to see something anew, they want to feel as if they are part of the experience not just paying for someone’s hobby.

In the end a review wouldn’t have impacted an 11 performance run of a play in any discernible way. I dare say it is not the production that is being protected here but the reputation of the creative team. Nobody likes being told that what’s important to them is not important to someone else. But real art cannot grow if artists are concerned with being liked. I agree with Ms. Ruhl that there needs to be room to try new things with limited risk. If we are to have any chance of avoiding a world in which the majority of staged productions are the result of a book-to-film-to-stage deal we need to make space for creativity. But surely we are creative enough to do so without asking strangers to blindly support the development of new work. We have workshops, showcases, readings and friends for this reason.

 
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Posted by on July 26, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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