Blogs > The Arts Whisperer

Offering a fresh way of helping you keep up with art and entertainment happenings around the Capital District.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Revolution Hall closing?

Word has it that come June (which is days away) Revolution Hall will be closing its doors and no longer will present live music. If that's true, it is a terrible loss to downtown Troy. Revolution Hall is not only a great place to experience live music, it has become an important venue in the music industry, attracting acts that would normally pass by the area without even stopping for a craft beer.

Just as important, the spot has become a valuable community resource hosting after-parties for Troy Night Out and benefits for the Arts Center. And will that thriving block on River Street have a major gap in the middle! People coming to Revolution Hall frequently eat or sip at other establishments before or after the concert. Its loss will hurt everyone.

It's not clear if this a another regrouping or a closure. Without a doubt,it has a to be related to profitability and the difficulty of making money on crowds of under 600 people.

I hope, if true, the closing is only for the summer and comes fall we'll have a thriving Revolution Hall with a great line-up of musical guests.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

beloved institutions

This past weekend I was proud to be part of the local arts community as two local institutions gathered generous support and affection from the public-at-large.

In Saratoga Springs, Caffe Lena, the longest continuous running coffee house in the country, celebrated its 50th anniversary. The outpouring of support was gratifying to see. Lena's is a small venue that seats less than 90 people. But almost 700 people turned out for their Arlo Guthrie concert at Skidmore College. Their Friday night fundraiser with a capacity of 75 people (charged $75 each) was sold out. The Saturday free music street festival was crowded all day.

The charm of Caffe Lena is not only its history. Its mission is equally important and it's commitment to keep alive the folk genre of music is admirable. You can't make a lot of money in a venue that small, but Caffe Lena has never been about making money. It has always been about providing the public with the best musical artists available and providing those artist with the best audience possible. Nice to see their work is recognized.

Meanwhile in Albany's Washington Park a large group of people were partying to support another important area venue. Tess' Lark Tavern had a terrible fire several weeks ago and from the moment the news broke supporters have been fundraising to get Tess' reopened. This Saturday was the largest and most public of many such events.

Caffe Lena is more than a coffee house and Tess' Lark Street Taven is more than a tavern. They are gathering place for people to who want to believe in an environment that is welcoming and supportive. In a world driven by commerce, both venues that seat less than 90 people are more beloved than places like the TU Center or even SPAC.

Both venues have developed that mystical thing described as either soul, spirit or karma. They are each transcendent spaces and important to the region.

I've been wondering what other places might generate the same love and affections to their supporters as do Caffe Lena and Tess' Lark Tavern? Any ideas?

Friday, May 14, 2010

so much theater - so little time

It's fast approaching Memorial Day which means things are going to be moving outdoors. So this might be the weekend to stay inside and watch a good play. Certainly there are plenty available.

Cohoes Music Hall just opened the musical "Singin' in the Rain," a staged version of the 1952 film that starred Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Connor. It also made famous Kelly's memorable dance in a rain shower.

The good news is thanks to the magic of theater and Matt Fick's technical skills it does rain on the Cohoes stage and makes for a great dance number. It's only one of the happy moments in the Cohoes production. A new choreographer (to the Hall) Christopher George Patterson uses his young talent to create several great tap dance numbers. This is light-hearted fun that will offer a good time

Another musical "Parade" is offered by Spotlight Players at Columbia High School in East Greenbush and continues through Sunday. It's the deal of the weekend as admission is free. Even if there was a charge, I would recommend the show. Don't go expecting fluff as this is a very serious musical.

It tells the story of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager in Georgia who in 1913 was accused of raping and killing a 13 year old girl who worked in the factor. After a fixed trial, it became so obvious that Frank was railroaded because of his religion, the governor commuted his sentence. A mob stormed the jail and hung Frank.

Parade tells about this sad chapter in American history, but also pays attention to the love story between Leo and his wife. It's a mature tale of two people falling deeper in love after their marriage. The music is eclectic, the performances are excellent and the staging helps to make sense of a very complicated story. It's free and should be seen. It's a great show to bring teenagers

Albany Civic Theatre is offering Thornton Wilder's classic play "Our Town." It's hard to believe that this staple of American theatre was once considered strange and cutting edge. I believe it is one of the 10 best American plays and touches on everything a person would want to know about life and relationships.

Circle Theater in West Sand Lake is presenting another classic - "The Hound of the Baskervilles." This classic Sherlock Holmes mystery is guaranteed to be a lot of fun. It's at Sand Lake Center for the Arts this weekend and next.

Schenectady Civic Players is in the final weekend of their run of the Kaufman and Hart comedy "You Can't Take It With You." It's a wild comedy about an eccentric but loving family who accepts the fiancee of one of their members - even though she's normal and rich.

Up north at Hubbard Hall in Cambridge there is the "Incorruptible," "a dark comedy about the dark ages." It has a great premise that involves monks selling the bones of average people as relics of saints in the hope of getting the pilgrim tourist trade. We all know how funny the Middle Ages were.

So much to do and so little time.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

artists and urban renewal

It's that time of year when almost everyone I know is planning a bus trip to NYC. When I go it is usually on bus trip geared for those interested in theater. The bus arrives in NYC before 11 am and in order for us to get in two shows, they don't leave NYC until 11:30 p.m. It makes for a long day.

I went on a trip Saturday, but because it was high school student oriented it left NY at 6:30 p.m. Since we only could see one show, we decided to leave the Times Square area and travel to Williamsburg, Brooklyn and do something in the area of the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

I advise everyone to do something similar. If not Brooklyn, try downtown and experience an Off-Broadway production. It's usually cheaper and always a little more exciting.

I plan to soon write in more detail on the show I attended, Sarah Ruhl's "Passion Play." It officially opens tonight and I expect the reviews to make this the hottest ticket in town. It was one of the most memorable theater experiences I've ever had.

But first, I'd like to comment on the area surrounding BAM. What was once one of the worst slums in New York and a dangerous place to walk even in daylight, is now one of the coolest neighborhoods in the City. There are small theaters, boutiques, neat restaurants and art galleries. It is what SoHo was 30 years ago and what Hoboken was 15 years ago.

I do not understand why urban planners and city administrators do not yet understand the economic impact of artists. The list of cities rehabilitated by low-earning artists who move into a run down community is legendary. Because of their openness, sense of style and good taste artists improve almost every aspect of a community. Of course, when the area becomes desirable, the rents go up and the artists have to rescue another ungrateful city.

Instead of bars, civic leaders should think more about encouraging performance and visual artists to find roots in a community. Look around and see what Troy Night Out has done for the community. Go to the area around the Troy Music Hall on a performance night and compare it to a non-performance night. The sound you hear on a show night is a cash register opening.

Art and entertainment is not only an economic generator, it is a community builder. I maintain cities do not do enough to help the "starving artist" live in their downtowns. It's urban renewal at its finest. Find a starving artist a home and you soon be hanging out in a cool coffee shop.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Governor Paterson is being relentless with NYSTI. Yesterday he sent a letter to the board asking for everyone to resign, threatening to fire those who don't quit. I don't understand the threats. Why not just fire the lot and be done with it?

The expectation is that if the board goes it will be replaced by members of the Governor's inner-circle. Guess what their first action will be? To fire Patricia Snyder. Probably the second thing will be to replace interim director David Bunce.

Once Snyder is gone someone has to decide what to do with the organization. The proposed budget cuts brought an outpouring of support for the youth theater and it seems to me if the powers-that-be wanted the organization to die it would happen by neglect and withholding of funds. All this drama seems to be more about personalities than it is about destroying a theater company.

It sounds crazy, but having Paterson's close associates operating NYSTI might not be as bad as it sounds. Think what you may about the work NYSTI puts on stage, the fact is NYSTI is a solid, well-run professional organization - despite what the IG says about Patricia Snyder's excesses.

Look past most of those claims and you'll find an institution that knows how to communicate with educators, prepare teaching guides and do all the things that makes going to a NYSTI production an excellent learning experience.

Certainly there are production expenses that could be trimmed. I've long felt NYSTI has one of the most luxurious rehearsal periods in the industry and some sets are elaborate for elaborates sake. However, the production budgets are reasonable for what they get onstage. I believe a few actors might benefit by a retirement package, but the core of the group is capable of doing good work. The actors who are hired on a show-to-show basis are usually strong performers who are not paid a ton of money.

I hope that when the state types experience NYSTI on a day-to-day working basis they will realize it is an organization worth saving. I would also hope they would understand that the name is New York State Theatre Institute and not Capital District Institute. Bring the NYSTI shows to cities around the state. Someone said to me the other say that the company has probably spent more time on stages in Sweden than it has in Buffalo.

I just hope it isn't too late to save an organization that is healthy at its core. When you lose an arts organization it stays lost. In these times change is better than loss. However, at this point it is all speculative. The only thing you can be sure of is change won't come until there is change at the top.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

proctors 2010- 2011

Let's at least temporarily leave the bunker called NYSTI and look at some other entertainment happenings. Yesterday, Proctors Theatre announced its 2010- 2011 Broadway season.

As a commercial season it should be a fantastic success. It consists of "Young Frankenstein" (Oct. 19-24), "White Christmas" (Nov. 23-28), "Fiddler on the Roof" (Jan. 4-9), "The Lion King" (Feb. 22-March 2o) and "Hair" (May 3-8).

Clearly the four-week run of "The Lion King" is the foundation for the season. Not only will it draw more than 80,000 people to the show itself and contribute to the economy of downtown Schenectady, it will help sell subscriptions to the entire season. A lot of people who subscribed to buy tickets for "Wicked" last season will renew this year. Many others who want to be able to purchase extra single tickets in order to bring little kids will subscribe for the first time. One of the beauties of family shows is the average ticket sale is for four or more people.

It doesn't hurt that the rest of the season is mostly attractive. Though "Young Frankenstein" wasn't a smash hit on Broadway, it is a pretty good show with a familiar title. "Fiddler on the Roof" is a classic and falls into the family musical category.

I'm not sure how "Hair" will draw but it should attract a younger than average audience, thus giving the season some balance. I was in NYC a couple of weeks ago and passed by the theater at which "Hair" was playing just as the performance ended. My companion urged me to peek inside the theater to see how many people ended the show dancing on stage. It was amazing to see the filled stage with audience members who didn't want to leave the theater. "Hair" could be the sleeper hit of the season.

And then there is "White Christmas." It's a bad show with a sappy script and a weak score. It exists simply to exploit the film that starred Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. "White Christmas" is playing at the start of the holiday season - so it might do all right.

As I said, commercially it is a solid season. However, I can't help but wonder where are the plays with a little more substance. Just as we never got to see the tour of "August, Osage County," we probably won't see things like "God of Carnage." Thoughtful dramas just aren't commercial enough to sell in this market - which is fodder for a future blog.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

nysti needs a divorce not a trial separation

On Friday, David Bunce was appointed interim director at the New York State Theatre Institute after Patricia Snyder took a temporary leave of absence from the youth theater. Bunce has been with the company for 26 years, mostly as an actor. He recently directed his first play for NYSTI and is the company's fight choreographer.

On the plus side - Bunce is a talented guy and a person who knows the culture at NYSTI. He's smart, personable and will present a fresh new face to represent the organization. And, he can step in without having to reinvent the wheel. Bunce loves film at least as much as he loves theater, which tells me he's a story-teller. NYSTI's function is to tell stories.

If Patricia Snyder had been suddenly taken ill and forced to be away for 3-6 months, Bunch would be an ideal choice as interim director. Indeed, if he were to become permanent head of NYSTI, he has the potential to be a good leader for the organization.

The problem is - as I've stated before - the situation is not about finding the perfect interim replacement. The governor wants Snyder out of NYSTI permanently. By taking a temporary leave she is running the risk of snubbing the governor. That snub will offer him no recourse but to close NYSTI to achieve his goal. By appointing Bunce, it looks as if she's picked a surrogate not a replacement. It's a bad message to be sending at this time. The better choice would have been someone from outside the organization.

Snyder's temporary resignation came after the release of a damning IG report accusing her of mismanagement and misuse of the company's funds. Governor David Paterson asked the board to fire her and hinted that if the board didn't fire her he would remove the board. He's already appointed one new board member and has the ability to appoint more. If he gets enough of his people on the board they will fire Snyder. If not, he will withhold funding and NYSTI goes out of business.

The suspicion is Governor Paterson doesn't want NYSTI to go out of business. But he doesn't want NYSTI to survive with Snyder at its head. And her actions indicate she will return when things calm down. The problem is with her appearing to be standing in the wings, things aren't going to calm down.

It's all very unfair. Patricia Snyder did some marvelous things for the community through NYSTI. She deserves to be able to answer the IG report and redeem her name. That said, the Institute is better off if she defends herself without appearing as if she is still running things from behind the scenes.

It's time for a divorce, not a trial separation