Boo On You, MSU

For the winter commencement at Michigan State University, where I completed my Bachelor of Arts in Journalism, they have selected Michael Moore–which makes sense since he’s from Michigan and has focused on issues affecting Michigan during his career–and George Will, the Washington Post columnist, to speak.

Normally, I might ignore the selection of the second commencement speaker. I avoid Will’s columns because life is too short to regularly read rage-inducing columns, but the school he is speaking at is what is causing me to comment.

MSU is currently under federal investigation for Title IX violations because they have allegedly mishandled sexual assaults on campus.

Will notably said this in a column on sexual assault on campuses:

[Colleges and universities] are learning that when they say campus victimizations are ubiquitous (“micro-aggressions,” often not discernible to the untutored eye, are everywhere), and that when they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate.

Translation: People want to be sexual assault victims because it gives them privilege. Because that privilege is totally why a lot of sexual assault victims don’t report incidents out of fear of retaliation, stigmatization and people flat out not believing them.

A school under federal investigation for mishandling sexual assault cases has a commencement speaker who said that victimhood “confers privileges” and the Obama administration’s efforts to combat sexual assault on college campuses “vows to excavate equities from the ambiguities of the hookup culture, this cocktail of hormones, alcohol and the faux sophistication of today’s prolonged adolescence of especially privileged young adults.”

(Side-Bar: Can we create a bingo card for columns? I feel like something needs to be marked off every time Millennials are called “privileged.”)

Either this is the perfect choice of a speaker because it shows just how MSU truly feels about sexual assault cases or it is the most tone-deaf selection of a commencement speaker in…a really long time.

MSU’s selection of Will as a speaker is for his contributions to journalism and opinion writing, according to a statement given to Media Matters. Which makes sense since, as I said earlier, the other commencement speaker has made notable contributions to film, among those contributions, highlighting problems in Michigan. Since Michigan State has the image of wanting its students to go out and solve the problems affecting Michigan and the rest of the world, Moore makes perfect sense as a speaker.

Similarly, Will is a columnist who is well known and works at a prominent newspaper. But he wrote that column. He made those remarks. It feels like no one looked at George Will’s Wikipedia article before selecting him to be the commencement speaker to find out what could potentially cause a controversy with selecting him.

I understand that MSU is not trying to make a political statement, they are just picking someone notable and giving him an honorary degree. But this is a slap to sexual assault victims who attend and have attended the school. By selecting someone who has trivialized rape to speak at commencement and receive an honorary degree it in turn trivializes the very real and painful experiences of students who have walked those halls in East Lansing.

I commend the Council of Graduate Students for condemning the selection of Will as the speaker and wanting the resources used to giving Will an honorary doctorate to be used for hiring more sexual assault counselors at the MSU Counseling Center. I can speak from experience that in general the MSU Counseling Center was in a state that could not even adequately meet the needs of a school of the size of MSU. I have seen on Facebook that representatives with the Associated Students of Michigan State University are working quickly so they can have a meeting to denounce Will being a commencement speaker, which is also commendable and I hope the efforts succeed.

Unfortunately MSU has no intentions of dropping Will as a commencement speaker. I hope they change their minds. If they do not, I will never donate a penny to the university and will leave its alumni association because going forward with Will tells me how they feel about sexual assault and how they treat a pretty vocal amount of people criticizing their decision for a good reason. It tells me the voice of students, faculty, staff and alumni united around an issue does not matter.

I encourage you to raise your voice and sign a petition Ultraviolet has calling for Will to be dropped as the speaker. Tweet, write on Facebook, spread the word. If you’re an undergraduate student at MSU, email your ASMSU representative(s) and tell them how you feel. If MSU keeps him as the speaker, go to the protest that will be held.

Regardless of what happens, it is shameful MSU selected him in the first place.

Update: ASMSU passed a resolution on Dec. 9 condemning Will as a commencement speaker.

The Disney Princess Project: “Cinderella”

The mice are so annoyingPreviously:
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

All I could remember of watching “Cinderella” when I was little is that I was bored, found the mice annoying and thought that the line “Wait! But I don’t even know your name!” to be absolutely hilarious. At that time, I enjoyed “Ever After” and the TV Movie version of the Rogers and Hammerstein musical more. After all, the 1997 TV movie had Whoopi Goldberg, Jason Alexander, Bernadette Peters, Whitney Houston, Brandy and Victor Garber. If you haven’t seen it, you must because it’s amazing mostly because of the cast assembled. But I am not here to tell you about the 1997 TV movie. I am here to tell you about the 1950 film.

In a way, “Cinderella” seems like the tainted movie. It has suffered from two direct-to-video sequels, Cinderella seems to be the main princess in the Disney Princess franchise–there are 108 items for Cinderella on, although there are 111 for Snow White–and in “Sophia the First: Once Upon a Princess,” Cinderella is the one princess summoned by Sophia to save the day. Cinderella is the alpha-princess of the Disney Princess franchise, which seems a bit odd since she is from the second-oldest film that is included in the franchise. But she gets the most iconic dress–although I find Tiana’s wedding dress to be prettier–and ends up with the guy that could best be described as traditionally handsome. (Although I would take Captain Li Shang and Hercules any day over Prince Charming.)

But unfortunately “Cinderella” is as unmemorable as I remember, but not as boring.

As the story goes, there was once a man who had a daughter named Cinderella (Ilene Woods), whom he loved very much. But the man married a woman, Lady Tremaine (Eleanor Audley), who had two daughters, Anastasia (Lucille Bliss) and Drizella (Rhoda Williams). One day, the man dies, which leads to Lady Tremaine wasting the family fortune. She abuses Cinderella and makes her the family servant and we are informed that the house falls into disrepair. One day, the king (Luis Van Rooten) holds a ball to find a wife for his son and the house Tremaine receives an invitation. Of course, Lady Tremaine and her daughters intent to go, but Cinderella lets them know that she wishes to go to the festival and dance before the prince. Her mice and bird friends make her a dress for the ball, but they stole items from Anastasia and Drizella, who rip the items off of Cinderella, ensuring that she can’t go to the ball. Cinderella cries in the courtyard and a fairy godmother (Verna Felton) appears, giving a coach, horses, and a white-blue ball gown that is “daring.” She goes to the ball, catches the eye of Prince Charming (William Phipps)–yes, he is actually named Prince Charming–and falls in love. But the clock strikes midnight and she flees, leading to a kingdom-wide search for the girl who is missing a glass slipper.

Oh, and there are some annoying mice named Jaq and Gus (Jimmy MacDonald) and a cat named Lucifer (June Foray).

“Cinderella” in some ways resembles “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” such as the use of a storybook as a framing device and the manuscript-like text for the opening credits. There is beautiful animation, mostly with the backgrounds, such as the courtyard when Cinderella is crying or the entire “Oh, Sing Sweet Nightingale” sequence. But the biggest problem with the animation is that it tells instead of shows.

We are told by the narrator that the House Tremaine falls into disrepair, but the house looks beautiful. Perhaps Cinderella’s scrubbing of the floors really does help, but I keep thinking that Cinderella must be a terrific painter and have impeccable wallpaper skills since the house looks immaculate considering it has fallen into disrepair. We are also told that the stepsisters are ugly, but other than giving the audience perpetual stinkface, they don’t seem to be ugly. In fact, I’d say that their dresses for the ball are prettier than Cinderella’s initial one, but that might be because their dresses weren’t made by mice and birds. Yes, the stepsisters are awful, abusive women, but unless the narrator is talking about inner beauty, we are only to believe that they are ugly because the narrator tells us to and because they aren’t Cinderella.

The biggest problem with this movie–other than that the prince is actually named Prince Charming–is that we have Cute Animal Sidekicks that reach levels of annoying that rival Terk in Tarzan and Mater. For starters, the only way to understand Jaq and Gus is to have the subtitles on while watching the movie. Then, they have an incredibly high pitched voice and speak so quickly that one has to wonder if even slowing down their dialogue would still have them speaking too quickly. On top of that, we are treated to extended sequences where Jaq and Gus fight with Lucifer because, guess what, cats hate mice.

Early in the movie we get an approximately ten-minute-long sequence where the mice decide to upset Lucifer. This does nothing for the movie–it provides no physical comedy, no important furthering of the plot–but it still exists.

Of course, Cinderella just wants everyone to get along and is appalled that Lucifer does not get along with the mice and that the dog does not like Lucifer.

There’s also the odd aspect that all the animals except Lucifer and the dog wear clothing. This implies to us that there is such a thing as naked creatures in this film. This means that when we first meet Gus he’s wearing no clothes, which feels like he’s naked. This always disturbed me as a child, but perhaps that is not intended by the filmmakers.

And then there’s the royal family who serves as props. Yes, the king tends to get angry easily and is not nearly as great as Victor Garber as the king in the 1997 TV movie. But we have the prince, who doesn’t even seem to get a proper name. Who names their son Charming? That’s like naming the one trans character in your TV show “Unique.” (No, wait, that’s worse than naming your son Charming.) The prince only has one characteristic and that is that he’s attractive. They only serve to make Cinderella’s dreams come true because her only dream in life is to go to the ball and maybe have all the animals get along.

Which brings us to the reason I watched this movie…

But is Cinderella a Good Role Model for Children?: No.

The film sends a message to children that the way to happiness is by marrying a prince. Cinderella doesn’t intend to go to the ball in order to win a prince, like her stepsisters, but she falls in love with a man at first sight and dances with. Granted, falling in love with a man you barely know is something that pops up often in Disney movies–we’ll see this again in “The Little Mermaid,” “Pocahontas” and “The Princess and the Frog”–so this means that it will irk me immensely in subsequent pieces. At least this can be justified in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “Sleeping Beauty” because both Snow White and Aurora were princesses and it was common in the time periods the films are set for princesses to participate in loveless arranged marriages.

Furthermore, Cinderella is maybe the most one-dimensional protagonist ever created for a Disney film. Except for when her dress is ruined, she only seems to have one mood, something that none of the other princesses I will examine have. In fact, were it not for the ball, she really wouldn’t seem to have any goals in life.

There are two Cinderella films that I mentioned earlier that would be better for giving a role model for children if you want to use this story. First there’s “Ever After,” which presents a bad-ass Cinderella character in Danielle (played by Drew Barrymore) who initially resists falling in love with the prince, but slowly falls in love with him. There’s also the 1997 TV movie which has Cinderella meet the prince early in the film and then appear at the ball. If you want a good role model while also presenting the Cinderella story, I suggest you look there.

On Paying for Theater Reviews

I love Charles Isherwood’s theater reviews.

I don’t always agree with him and there are moments where I do think, “No, Charles. That was not a good move,” but overall, he is my favorite theater critic currently writing in America.

Isherwood, as it turns out, writes for the The New York Times, which allows for ten free articles before you hit the paywall. If you were to read just Isherwood’s reviews, not even Ben Brantley’s reviews, you would quickly hit the paywall, particularly in April when everything seems to opens on Broadway. I have a digital subscription to the Times as well as grab a physical copy on campus sometimes, so I don’t really have to panic about not getting to read every delightfully pithy thought Isherwood pens.

But I don’t have a digital subscription to the Times just for Isherwood’s reviews. For a long time, the Times has been my favorite newspaper in America and as a result I feel like it’s an essential read every morning. Additionally I have a digital subscription to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which is called JS Everywhere. Even though I don’t live in Milwaukee, I feel like the Journal Sentinel is an essential read if you want to know what’s going on in Wisconsin, particularly with politics for the past year. Additionally, I can’t think of a newspaper that has consistently done investigative pieces that are as moving and brilliant as the ones done by the Journal Sentinel. Giving Journal Communications $4.99 a month is a price I don’t mind paying for all of the great content they turn out.

So when the Chicago Tribune announced they would put columnists and theater critics behind a paywall, I understood the reason why.

Admittedly, I am part of the reason why the Tribune probably decided to put its columnists behind a paywall. I got an account with my email address just so I could read columns written by Eric Zorn, Mary Schmich, and Rick Kogan as well as reviews by Phil Vettel, Greg Kot, Michael Phillips and sometimes Chris Jones. I have met Tribune reporters, editors and members of the Editorial Board, and as a result, I reverence and respect for the staff and the publication. I will not stop reading the Tribune until it ceases publication.

When the paid “digitalPLUS” was announced I looked into what it included. According to the Tribune‘s website, paying $14.99 a month includes:

-“Unlimited breaking news stories.”
-“Exclusive reporting, including insider sports coverage of Chicago’s teams and access to premium stories from sources like Forbes, The Economist and Variety.”
-Tribune e-books
-Digital version of the paper.
-Free access to Tribune apps, such as the RedEye for iPad, which is $1.99 a month if you don’t have digitalPLUS.
-“VIP access to Tribune event tickets”

If you think about that, that would be worth $14.99. You’re getting more than just the content in the paper. And, ultimately, $14.99 is less than what you’d pay to pick up the Tribune everyday. And while some people will disagree with me, the Chicago Tribune has some pretty terrific writers.

But the people are upset over the Tribune charging people to read Chris Jones’ reviews! Theater artist Coya Paz did a piece at The Paper Machette (where I did a piece on science back in March) about the paywall and pointing out that she really didn’t read the Tribune when it was free, except for the reviews. (Overall, it’s worth a listen.)

However, Howard Sherman, former executive director of the American Theatre Wing, wrote on his blog:

I urge those who have or would have paywalls to continue to treat the arts as a loss leader and maintain that coverage online for free or almost free, outside of local and national news, business coverage and sports. You’ll keep America’s arts healthy by providing the raw material of national conversation and you’ll make sure that we’re talking about you, too. Because you want to remain part of the conversation too, don’t you?

Hold the phone.

As someone who has written about both the arts in Chicago as well as non-arts things in Chicago, I’ll throw this out: What is going on in Chicago that isn’t related to the arts is infinitely more important to the more than 3 million people in the city than Chris Jones’ opinion on the latest non-Equity tour that is playing a Broadway in Chicago house.

In the past year in Chicago, the amount of people who have been murdered has increased, libraries have been closed for one day out of the week and then reopened, a U.S. representative has mysteriously disappeared before disclosing health problems, a state representative has been accused of corruption, a historic building’s fate has been in limbo, and a teacher’s union strike occurred. And those are just the highlights.

When a crime occurs, people can learn about it from the news. It was from the Tribune, which I read online, that I learned that a local business owner in my old neighborhood had been killed in a shooting not far from where I used to live. Ultimately, keeping the breaking news free, which the Tribune is doing, helps keep Chicago informed and it is the basic duty of a journalist to inform their audience. Sure, when Chris Jones reviews a show, he informs people of if a show is worth seeing. Same thing when Phil Vettel reviews a restaurant or Greg Kot reviews an album. But the value of that information is not nearly as valuable as the information that is disseminated through local coverage.

And while Chris Jones is the most influential critic in Chicago, he is not the only critic. You can still read Sun-Times theater critic Hedy Weiss for free before hitting a limit. (People did not complain about access to her reviews being diminished by a paywall, but I think I know why.) The theater reviews for Time Out Chicago and the Chicago Reader are free to read without any limit that would cause a reader to hit a paywall.

I can see for someone like Coya Paz, who really only read the Tribune for theater coverage, that everything one gets for the price is not really worth it just to read the theater reviews. As for someone like Howard Sherman, I can see that someone who maybe isn’t interested in everything else going on in Chicago that the price is hard to justify just for theater reviews. But to suggest that arts coverage is maybe more important than local coverage or even business coverage takes cajones the size of Texas.

When the Journal Sentinel or Tribune run an investigative story into things that truly endanger the lives of hundreds, thousands of people it is to say, “This is wrong” and initiate change in how things are. A greater case could be made that an investigative story should never be put behind a paywall than arts reviews because investigations can get people to want to change the status quo.

So if you want to read theater reviews on newspapers with paywalls, pay up, let the paper know you disagree with what they’re doing by emailing them, or read someone else. There are plenty of print critics in Chicago that can be read for free to keep the conversation on arts going.

Goodman and Steppenwolf, Or, Crowning a Theatrical King

Yesterday I posted a quote on my Tumblr discussing “What Would Be America’s National Theatre?” and then proceeded to say, “The Goodman Theatre is not better than Steppenwolf. Also, Chinglish was overrated.”

Then I got some positive remarks on Twitter and angry emails from various people. Mostly because I said Chinglish was overrated and referred to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as THE GREATEST PRODUCTION OF OUR TIME.

Here’s an elaboration to my post because that post was on Tumblr and I like to be concise there.

Continue Reading

The Negative Connotations of “Community Theatre,” or, Theatrical Elitism

I was recently reading a Facebook status that a friend of mine in Cedar Falls posted about the low attendance at a production of The Sunshine Boys he just directed. The production was at Cedar Falls Community Theatre and since I haven’t seen The Sunshine Boys and I generally like what my friend directs, I would have been interested in seeing the production. On his status, another friend commented that “community theatre” has a negative connotation and that might be turning people away.

After living in Chicago for six months and talking with people that work in theater in Chicago, I have to agree with that point.

I know a lot of people that sneer at community theater, even though some of those people do what is basically community theater. They don’t get paid for what they do. Instead, in Chicago, these productions are called “non-Equity,” which is a term that refers to any production that isn’t unionized; a number of them do not pay their actors at all. To the people that sneer at community theater they view it as bunch of ho-hum productions of Larry Shue, Ray Cooney, and mediocre musicals. The acting is stilted and the performers are obviously amateurs. (Their ideas, not mine.) Community theaters would never encourage new work or have avant garde designs. The plays will be fun for the uncultured locals, but true fans of the theater would never enjoy them. (Again, their ideas, not mine.)

There is a huge problem in this idea: I have seen plenty of productions in Chicago at both non-Equity and Equity companies that fit this idea. Except that the actors have theater degrees, their designers have theater degrees.

But so do some actors at community theaters in Iowa and many designers that I know at Iowa community theaters.

I have seen plenty of productions in Chicago that have made me wonder why on earth I go to the theater because of the bloated, pretentious, or flatout awful productions out there. The acting can be stilted, the design poorly thought out, and the scripts are so poor that you wonder why they chose it. I’m sure Larry Shue is produced in Chicago and maybe Ray Cooney. Some would feel as though Proof might now be only community theatre worthy, but a theater company in Chicago just did Proof in September.

Listen: I spent twelve years of my life seeing plays in Iowa, four of which were spent reviewing plays. There are plenty of “community theaters” in Iowa that can go toe-to-toe with the biggest theaters in Chicago and possibly produce a better play. I’ve seen plenty of productions in Iowa that were better than the last play I saw at Steppenwolf, which generally does a lot of terrific productions.

Although a majority of community theaters in Iowa might not be representative of the community theaters in the rest of the nation, the problem is that ultimately turning up your nose at community theater is elitism. A theater company could still remove the word “community” from their name, but if they identify as being a community theater in their about section or on their home page on their website, they are still a community theater. I speak from experience after I was mentioning something about Theatre Cedar Rapids when someone in Chicago theater asked me for more about them. While I was speaking, they were looking up TCR’s website on their phone, only to see on the home page the words “community theatre.” The person sneered and told me that I needed to see more theater in Chicago since I felt as though a community theater could be so great. (It should be noted that Chicago is the same city that is hosting a symposium on how Chicago is the “theatre capital of America”)

A community theater can be great. I haven’t seen a single musical in Chicago that came close to Waterloo Community Playhouse’s Into the Woods or Buddy! The Buddy Holly Story, Cedar Falls Community Theatre’s Kiss Me, Kate!, or Theatre Cedar Rapids’ The Producers. While Animal Crackers at the Goodman Theatre was good, I still could look back and say I had seen better productions at community theaters in Iowa. (Note to self: See Porgy and Bess at Court.) I’ve also seen a lot of lousy plays in Chicago, some of which were new works, some of which were not.

But how many people would turn their noses up at a theater company in Chicago because they’re non-Equity and don’t pay their artists? They don’t identify that in their name, so for some people it might be difficult to know what is and what isn’t an Equity production. Maybe if community theaters identified as non-Equity they wouldn’t be ostracized. After all, in Iowa, you have Dreamwell Theatre, which has a similar mission as at least five theaters in Chciago. Waterloo Community Playhouse is along the same lines as at least three theaters, Cedar Falls Community Theatre about four, City Circle Acting Company about six, and the only thing separating Theatre Cedar Rapids from the Goodman, Steppenwolf, Victory Gardens, and Court is that Theatre Cedar Rapids is a community theater. Actually, a union contract is all that separates Theatre Cedar Rapids, Waterloo Community Playhouse/Black Hawk Children’s Theatre, and Cedar Falls Community Theatre from the Equity theaters of Chicago, especially since Theatre Cedar Rapids will be holding a New Play Festival later this year.

And, no, not everyone on the stage in a community theater production is someone with a theater degree. But ultimately they’re hard-working people that want to make a production that people will love, enjoy, and remember.

I fail to see the difference between a community theater and a non-Equity theater that doesn’t pay their actors. If someone would like to make a convincing argument, please do because I can’t come up with any ideas other than the name.

Yes, community theater does have a negative connotation because of stereotypes and that there probably are community theaters in America that aren’t that great. But currently, theaters all over the nation are hurting. It might be that theaters need to work harder to draw in their audience and and connect with new people. But this problem isn’t limited to community theaters; it’s hitting big Equity theaters in this nation. So it seems as though it’s time for theaters, regardless of if they’re community, non-Equity, or Equity, to collaborate with people and the community. After all, collaboration is the heart of theater.