Once upon a time there was a summer theater program at a quaint community college. This theater had the biggest, best equipped stage in the kingdom. The directors had great plans to produce a magical summer musical and bring happiness to the community and revenue to the college. Many new students were drawn to this college theater program and they all began making plans to create the magical musical play. And the summer looked rosy.
But then, of course, the play needed magic beans. Lots of beans. And the keepers of the magic beans, the Bean Counters, who didn't believe in silly musicals, who didn't see any value in summer theater programs, kept a tight grasp on their magic beans and cried, "Get your own beans - workshop it!"
The musical that didn't happen was Xanadu, and the theater was Shasta College's in Redding, but this tale isn't about mythical Xanadu. This story takes place off stage, behind the scenery. It's about the perceived value of one part of the curriculum over another and assigning that value based on the lowest common denominator (the beans), and ignoring less tangible values (the arts).
More often these days, it seems the value of education is viewed through a business lens. And it appears the administrative positions at colleges are more readily filled by those with master's degrees in business than by master educators. Music director Dr. Elizabeth Waterbury has seen highly qualified educators passed over in favor of money managers with business degrees. She says the college business model more closely resembles a savings institution than an institution of higher learning. Others on the faculty sense that the performing arts and fine arts may have a lower perceived value in the eyes of the administration.
When the Bean Counters - sorry, the administrators - said "workshop it," what they meant was, they were withdrawing state funding of the program, removing academic credit from the classes involved, and requiring students to pay $250–$275 each to meet the costs of running such a program. They turn it into a pay-as-you-go workshop as opposed to a college course. When this happens, students don't earn college credits but do shoulder 100 percent of the financial burden. In other words, "You're on your own kids, break a leg." But that's not the way the community college system was intended to work.
Shasta College instructor and play director Dean Munroe is concerned that the cancellation of this summer's theater program will set a precedence for the future. Budgets are tight, yes, but a summer show is usually a money maker for the college. It brings in guest instructors and means extra income for current faculty, which garners faculty retention. The theater facility is well-equipped, there is no shortage of eager students and available faculty. How then do you justify a dark theater? Here are some quotes from the theater page of Shasta College's website: “The department features ... a vigorous Summer Theatre Festival of popular musicals and comedies” and “Community involvement is very welcome.” You don't say. Xanadu was canceled even before auditions were held. And no one seems to know exactly why.
Out of sight is out of mind and when a theater goes dark it is effectively off the radar screen of the community it serves. Every year, Shasta College spends fewer dollars publicizing its theater events. I did a play at the college last March called "Circle Mirror Transformation." Did you hear about it? We got posters for the show the night before we opened. Where there was once a dedicated publicity office in the theater wing, the marketing department for the entire college is now manned by a single person who is entirely overwhelmed. While every high school and middle school features a prominent electronic reader board to announce their events, Shasta College refuses to invest in any kind of marquee or sign for their theater despite faculty requests year after year. Dr. Waterbury points out that the Record Searchlight Recreation Guide, a visitor's guide to Redding's activities and venues, doesn't even mention the Shasta College theater venue. Many Redding residents remain unaware of it.
Several years ago, when the aging theater desperately needed renovation, funds became available through the passage of Measure A in 2002. But the funds were not released for seven years until safety issues became so severe that it forced the beginning of a $1.6-million renovation in June of 2009. It's not that they didn't have any money, they are just really loathe to spend any of it.
High schools enjoy the close parent support system that develops over a 4-year period. Parents get involved with their kids' plays as set builders, costumers and boosters. But when the kids enter college, "the parent game is over," says Munroe. "We don't have that parent/student system where the object is to get as many bodies up on the stage as possible to guarantee an audience of devoted moms, dads, aunts, uncles, and grandparents." In college, the booster club/student activity aspect is left behind and theater becomes a complete course of academic study. Plays are chosen on literary and educational criteria rather than popularity. It's about learning a craft and getting a taste of how it's done in the real world.
Entertainment is still a huge industry, especially in California. Most technicians, stage hands, designers, and performers come to the industry through college training. Stage, television and movie entertainment is an exciting, creative world full of opportunity for skilled professionals. It holds a lot of potential value, both to the economy and the culture. But what do you think? Is theater a frivolous, self-serving activity or does it have a valid place in the larger world? Should institutes of higher learning set policy that favors some subjects over others? Should the creation of art be guided by artists or decreed by accountants?
This tale isn't over, but I hope it will have a happy ending.
An actor, director, and artist, Dean Williams has appeared on Shasta County stages for over 25 years in nearly 100 different roles. He has collaborated with many theater groups and is co-founder of The Root Theatre Company. He has also voiced characters for Sega and Playstation video games, acted for a number of radio, televison and independent film projects, and now also serves as A News Cafe's editor of Stage Manager listings. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A News Cafe, founded in Shasta County by Redding, CA journalist Doni Greenberg, is the place for people craving local Northern California news, commentary, food, arts and entertainment. Views and opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of anewscafe.com.