Thursday, July 11, 2013

Unfinished Thoughts

I want to keep this blog alive, I really do. It may not seem like I put much effort into it, but I currently have on my hard drive four unfinished blog posts. They are a garbled, stream-of-consciousness mess, unfinished and indecipherable. Much like life.

Part of the reason I have trouble focusing my thoughts is my inability to be an active part of the theatre community right now. I’ve whined about that in previous posts, I won’t go into all that again. But it does create a disconnect that makes it a little harder to communicate.

Another issue that arises when faced with the hodge-podge of words and phrases on my screen that stubbornly refuse to cohere is the question, “Why?”

Why write this?

What’s the difference?

Who’s listening?

Now, stop right there. This isn’t a plea for ego stroking, but a genuine question every theatre endeavor must address at some point: Who is my audience?

I could say I’m just doing this for myself, but then why publish it on a blog? Why post it to my facebook? Why not just keep a little private theatre diary?  Why?

I could say I’m doing it to advance my web presence, but then why don’t I actively promote the blog outside of my own circle? Why not spam other blogs with links to my blog? Why?

If you strip away the bots in my blog stats, I would say about 10-12 sentient beings read my posts on average. Which, let’s face it, is more sentient beings than I had at my last birthday party. Of those, maybe half let me know they read it – either by commenting, or sending me a message, “Hey, I read it!”. Of the ones that I know read it, about 75% are theatre people, the other two are family. (Thank you, family!)

So if I need to suss out a reason for writing this blog (and I do), then there is my audience. I’m playing to an audience of about 12, six of whom sit way in the back and slip out during curtain call. Two of them stand in the lobby and wait for a moment when they can grab you and tell you it was great before sliding out the door. The last four are the ones who stick around, discussing and dissecting until the lobby goes dark.

We all want to play to a full house, but even a small audience keeps me engaged. The ones who fill out the numbers on my stats, the ones who are only there for support, and the ones who are actively participating, all become a thin lifeline to the second most important part of my life.

So I’ll keep that in mind as I try to get those other posts blog-ready. If you’re curious, the errant posts are titled “Peas and Carrots”, “The Friends and Family Plan”, and . . . well, I can’t find the other two on my hard drive anywhere. Which means I have seriously misfiled them. If they’re as brilliant as I hope they are, they’ll find their way back to me, and perhaps one of those posts will be the one that brings me a full house, and fewer people slipping quietly out the door.

And I will finish a thought one of these . . .

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Graduate Application That Never Was

Once upon a time, I promised some supportive friends that whenever I heard from the graduate school I was applying to, only then would I let them read the script analysis that I had discussed *endlessly* with them before finishing. Since the program was dropped, and in the spirit of keeping this blog from lapsing again, I'll post it here for anyone who was curious what the outcome of all that work was.

Keep in mind, it's a bit of a dry read, as the academics of the assignment required a wedge a lot of information into a very short paper. I would welcome any critique of my analysis, both because I love debate, and because I never know what I might learn from other people's perspectives.

Many, many thanks to the crew who did a table read of the script, and for the lively discussion that followed!

Script Analysis of The Heidi Chronicles by Wendy Wasserstein
Starshine Stanfield

I was drawn to The Heidi Chronicles because of its compelling take on feminism and its complex character arc for the main protagonist, from a woman whose initial interest was in “images of women” (Wasserstein 180), to a woman who, as a professor, is concerned with the women who create the images. The playwright expertly combines both realism and caricatures to highlight the intricacies of that arc.  

The Heidi Chronicles is one woman’s journey through the evolving feminist movement, as she endeavors to create her own life, outside of the expectations of those who surround her. 

The Heidi Chronicles portrays a woman who wants to be the artist of her own life, while those around her are content to be the art.

Theatrical Style
The show can be presented with a combination of realism and surrealism in the staging, each scene staged initially as a still-life painting, using soft lighting effects and/or scrims to give it a painted effect. The audience’s first view of each scene would include actors frozen in place, as if part of the painting, symbolizing each scene as an element of the art Heidi is creating that is her life. The lighting would change to a sharper, more realistic hue as the scene begins. The backdrops and set pieces would have just a touch of surrealism to them, making them as much art as reality.

Time and Location
The play spans a period of approximately 20 years, starting in the mid-60’s when feminism was just beginning it’s “increasingly radical” second wave (Rampton), and ending in the late 80’s, on the cusp of what will become the third wave of feminism. The action bounces around the northeast, although mainly settles in New York City, which Wasserstein as the place “where you could come as a woman and have an independent life.” (PBS).

We meet protagonist Heidi Holland in her prime, a woman with humor, insight, and passion who has found her foothold in a world not designed for women such as herself. The Heidi Chronicles follows Heidi through her formative years, which happen to coincide with the formative years of the second wave feminist movement. 

For Heidi, the path here has been less of a quest than a journey. Her individuality is shown less through action, and more through interaction with the menagerie of characters that surround her, including the three central characters in her life – Susan, Peter, and Scoop. This menagerie is flooded with feminist caricatures. Heidi chooses to be the artist of her life, while the women in her life, even the feminist ones, see themselves as the art, there to show the world something, rather than create something. Susan is the one central female character in Heidi’s universe, a woman who bounces from granola feminism to corporate feminism. As a caricature of this kind of pinball feminism, she points up Heidi’s own indifference to fitting into a role. This contrast highlights Heidi’s own resolution to find the balance between ideals and reality. It also points to how Heidi ended up feeling alone and abandoned by the feminist movement. It’s easy to read this portrayal as a disservice to feminism, but it serves the art of the play, just as an artist uses the surrounding pieces to draw focus to the main part of the painting. It’s the director’s challenge to present this dichotomy in a way that serves the purpose of the stereotypes.

The female characters remain background to Heidi’s understanding because she is not looking to them to comprehend the world she wants to live in. The women are supposed to be journeying with her, so she views their mistakes and stumbles through an exaggerated lens. She is looking to the men to understand her path - she doesn’t want to be like them, she wants to understand the world the way they do:  “What is it mother’s teach their sons that they never bother to tell their daughters?” (Wasserstein 171)

The two other central characters in her life, Scoop and Peter, are presented with more complexity and authenticity. Scoop admires her, and challenges her from the time they meet to be even stronger and more sure of herself, he just acknowledges that she can’t serve his needs. He tells her she will ultimately be unhappy and disappointed – not because her cause is a waste of time, but because “The ones who open doors usually are.” (Wasserstein 202). Heidi’s falling for him is not a sign of her being subjugated by his manliness, but an acknowledgment that Scoop is the sort of man she wants to be equal to. 

Interestingly, Peter, who on the surface takes the role of supportive best friend, is not as supportive as he seems. He arrives to make fun of her protest, and diminishes the contributions women had already made up to that point by asking “Are you going to stand here until more women buy paints and finish a few masterpieces?” (Wasserstein 186), illustrating the point that throughout history, women artists have been ignored.  During the television interview, he has no compunction about talking over her and cutting her off. He betrays his own prejudices by still considering his opinions more important than hers.  Because Heidi doesn’t look to others to advocate for her, she is angry, but not let down by him. In the end, it is Peter who prevents her from moving on with her life by insisting that she stay, because he needs her. 

By the end of the play, Heidi has not only found some measure of equality in achieving her dreams, she has dared to do something that was not only groundbreaking for women in that time, but was something that men had not yet even contemplated attempting for themselves – creating a family on her own, without depending on someone else to create one with her. It is the final brushstroke in creating the unique art that is her life. Heidi’s love of art leads her to live her life with the understanding that subtle expressions sometimes have more of an impact than loud statements. 

Collaboration Pictures

Annotated Bibilography

Barko, Cortney Cronberg. "Rediscovering Female Voice and Authority: The Revival of Female Artists in Wendy Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles." Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies. 29.1 (2008): 121-138. Print.
               The author, a doctoral candidate in English at Northern Illinois University, reviews the art in Wendy Wasserstein’s play The Heidi Chronicles, and their impact on the narrative of the play

PBS, . "Interviews - Wendy Wasserstein." n. page. Web. 14 Feb. 2013. <>.
               A brief piece in which Wendy Wasserstein answers a few questions posed by an unidentified interviewer.

Rampton, Martha. "The Three Waves of Feminism." 41.2 (2008): n. page. Web. 14 Feb. 2013.\
               The author, a history professor at Pacific University Oregon, briefly details the three phases, or “waves” of feminism and how they differ from each other. 

Wasserstein, Heidi. The Heidi Chronicles, Uncommon Women and Others, & Isn't It Romantic. 1st Ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1991. 155-249. Print.
               A collection of three plays by Wendy Wasserstein, including the play discussed in this analysis, The Heidi Chronicles.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The True Success of Arts Education

I know I promised my next post would be about the marvelous new book I’ve discovered, but I ran across this story in my Facebook feed this morning, and it got me so excited I had to write about it:

First, take a moment to go read the article. I’m not going to rehash every word here in my blog post, and I want you to just take a moment and enjoy what has happened here: A failing school, built for the arts but overwhelmed by an uncooperative student body discards the arts in favor of armed security. Instead of solving the problem, the school devolved further into a “career-ending” school for those who dared work there. Our Hero, a plucky, mild-mannered principal (I have no idea, I just made that up), swoops in, the 6th principal in 7 years, and wipes the school of its security forces, using that money to pivot the school back towards its original purpose – hiring art teachers and building an arts program for the students. The result? CHAOS! Death and destruction! Failed lives! Destroyed families!

Oh, wait . . . no, the result, as anyone familiar with children and the arts would expect, was a drop in “violence and disorder”, a rise in test scores, and a student population who suddenly glimpsed an entirely different world in front of them, full of undiscovered possibility. While far from an instant, magical fix – the school still has a ways to go to be competitive academically – it has to feel no less than magical to students like Keyvaughn, who has discovered talents he didn’t know he had and is moving on to “the competitive Boston Arts Academy, the city’s only public high school specializing in visual and performing arts.” I know it felt almost magical to me, to realize my talent and my place in the arts, and I was in college before that happened. (Did you read the story yet? Go do that.)

In all that glory for the arts and excitement for the talents the students discover, leave it to me to find a windmill to tilt at.  And in my quixotic mind, it’s a big one.

The story highlights one success story (of many, I’m sure!), the aforementioned Keyvaughn, whose anecdote ends with this quote: “I can really have a future in this, I don't have to go to a regular high school — I can go to art school.”

Does anyone else see the windmill? If you do just shout it out, just like on Blue’s Clues. I can hear you, I swear. Really. What’s that? A little louder . . . Ok, I’m just going to assume you said, “What about the kids who aren’t going on to a performing arts school? Are they less of a success story?” 

That is what you said, yes? I thought so.

Every time I see one of these “Arts Saves Education!!!” stories, I thrill at the truth getting out – art in education *is* vital, and it *is* life changing, and these stories highlight that. I find that so exciting. And yet I inevitably finish these stories with an adjacent feeling of disappointment. Because to me, arts in education is not only – or even mainly – about the child who discovers she can channel Louis Armstrong on the trumpet (did he play trumpet? He blew into something shiny.). Nor is it the child who realizes he can dance his way into a successful arts career, or the child that suddenly sees visions of Oscars dance in her head. Because in any arts school, those are going to be The Few.

And while it is absolutely worth celebrating the unearthing of buried talents, no less worthy of celebration are those who will come out of those arts programs and go on to become mechanics, business owners, teachers, managers, office workers, parents, and even . . . *shudder* politicians. Yes, I would even dare say that they are more worthy of celebration – not as individuals, but as success stories. Because if we judge the success of art education on its contribution to the pool of Hollywood Elites, we set the institution up for a pretty low success rate. More than that, we discount the life changing impact education in the arts has on its non-elite beneficiaries, on those who will go on to live full and successful lives in a variety of professions vital to the eclectic makeup of our society.

This is a large part of my love for community theatre – the idea that art is for everyone, its impact is universal, and there isn’t a single person who can’t benefit from it, even if they just paint stick figures on canvas, or trip over their own feet in the back of the ensemble, or count on more talented voices than theirs to drown out their off-notes in the chorus.