Category Archives: creativity

Pens up! End of Play is about to begin…

by France-Luce Benson

One of the many things I’ve desperately missed in this time of isolated lockdown is the beautiful ritual of sharing space with fellow writers to do what we love most – write. Some of my favorite spots were the Writer’s Guild Association Library, Café Intelligentsia, and the warm homes of my lovely writer friends. If you’ve ever sat in silence with other artists to collectively create, you know what a powerful experience it can be. Not only does it increase focus and productivity, but there is something spiritual that happens when artists come together. I believe that creative energy, like laughter, like kindness, is contagious. When I sit with fellow artists committed to doing the work, their dedication and passion boost my own, and likewise. I am reminded what a gift I’ve been given, to be among a community of artists who encourage, challenge, and support one another.

I am thrilled to announce that the Fountain Theatre has joined the Dramatists Guild’s Southern California region as an End of Play™ partner.

The Dramatists Guild of America is the national, professional membership trade association of theatre writers including playwrights, composers, lyricists, and librettists. The Guild was established for the purpose of aiding dramatists in protecting both the artistic and economic integrity of their work, and has grown into both and advocacy organization for professional dramatists, as well as an artistic sanctuary. Some of the services and initiatives provided include legal aide in contract negotiations, emergency grants for artists experiencing financial hardship, and ongoing reading series for new work development.

A member since 2008, I have been fortunate enough to benefit from all of the above-mentioned programs. Additionally, I was honored to have been awarded a Dramatists Guild Fellowship from 2015-2016. Each year four playwrights and four musical theatre teams are selected for the Fellowship in which emerging dramatists receive professional mentorship and artistic support. Since then, I have served as a teaching artist in the DG’s Traveling Masters program, in which playwrights facilitate workshops across the United States. All of this to say, I know first hand how devoted the Dramatists Guild is to providing playwrights, composers, and lyricists with resources so vital to our work.

End of Play™ is an annual Dramatists Guild initiative to cultivate new plays. For the entire month of April, playwrights, composers, and lyricists will commit to completing a new play, song, score, screenplay, or revised draft of an existing work. In an effort to help us achieve our goals, the Dramatists Guild and partnering organizations will host a series of silent virtual writing sessions each day. You need not be a Dramatists Guild member to participate. All are welcome, and participants may register for as many sessions as they wish.

The Fountain Theatre will host three of these writing sessions: Saturday April 3, 10, and 17, from 9-10:30amPDT. Each of the Fountain’s sessions will end with optional community building where participants will be invited to say hello, share a bit about their process, and get to know each other.

To culminate End of Play™ 2021, the Fountain Theatre will host a presentation of selected excerpts written over the course of the month. Stay tuned for information about the readings.

To register for our writing sessions, please visit https://www.dramatistsguild.com/end-of-play

Pens up April 1. Pens down April 30. We hope to see you in between.

France-Luce Benson is an accomplished playwright and the Community Engagement Coordinator for the Fountain Theatre.

Conversations with Black Artists, Part III

by Terri Roberts

In this final segment of our Conversations with Black Artists series, we talk with director Shirley Jo Finney, and actors Gilbert Glenn Brown and Theo Perkins. We are grateful to all of the wonderful performers and creatives who have been so generous with their time and shared their thoughts about issues around race and their relationships with the Fountain Theatre. We hope you have enjoyed getting to know them a little better, as well.

Shirley Jo Finney

Director: From the Mississippi Delta, Central Avenue, Yellowman, The Ballad of Emmett Till, Heart Song, In the Red and Brown Water, The Brothers Size, Citizen: An American Lyric

1. When/how did you first come to the Fountain Theatre?

My first directing job at the Fountain was in1997, with From the Mississippi Delta by Endesha Ida Mae Holland.

2. How has your experience been working here?

I find the Fountain Theater supports their artists.

3. What Fountain shows that you’ve worked on hold particular meaning for you, and why?

All of them. Each of the shows are socially relevant and have impacted my artistic awareness as well as my expansion as a human being. It is the creative journey with the actors that hold the most meaning for me and not a particular show.

4. Last summer’s civil unrest brought an increased focus on racism, both in general and within the theatre world. We also saw the emergence of the BIPOC movement. How have these issues impacted you and your work in the theatre? 

Not so much.

For me, the emergence of BIPOC is a continuation of the Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s and 70’s. That movement changed laws and stopped a war. The cultural and black arts movement of that time laid the foundation for the raised fist we are experiencing now. I am a child of that time and my foundation as a creative was shaped by that time. It is the work I am called to do. Each generation is defined by their time. 

5. Why is Black History Month important

It brings a microscopic lens of awareness to a culture that historically has been erased. There would not be a need for a month if it were an intricate part our education system.

6. What’s next for you? Any upcoming projects?

I hope many more active and healthy years!

I have adapted creatively during “the time of Covid.” It has opened up a whole new world of Zoom lectures discussing my journey and body of work as a director. I also am relishing the world of Zoom productions using the “mashing” of stage and digital to create story.

Gilbert Glenn Brown

Actor: Direct From Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys, In the Red and Brown Water, The Brothers Size, The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek

1. When/how did you first come to the Fountain Theatre?

My very first audition and show with Fountain Theatre was early on when I first arrived to Los Angeles from NY and that was Scottsboro Boys.

2. How has your experience been working here?

My experience at the Fountain in one word… community. Truly the closest experience I’ve had in LA to a NY theatre experience. I feel that a sense of community in theatre is necessary. I enjoy being part of it, and the Fountain is able to foster that to an incredible degree,

The commitment to presenting productions that not only entertain, but transform, educate, and energize is so key. It breaks down walls, opens eyes and allows dialogue. The Fountain does that extremely well. I consider the Fountain my LA theatre home.

3. What Fountain shows that you’ve worked on hold particular meaning for you, and why?

I have to say that every single show I’ve had the honor of being a part of at the Fountain has been transformational for me. Every opportunity I’ve had to step onto that stage and look out into that small, yet giant, space, has changed me and allowed me to grow as an artist and as a human being. As an artist, that’s what you want – because if it moves you in that way, it will no doubt move the audience as well.

I have had the opportunity, at the Fountain, to be directed by some of the best: the incredible Shirley Jo Finney, the wonderful Simon Levy and the late, legendary Ben Bradley.

4. Last summer’s civil unrest brought an increased focus on racism, both in general and within the theatre world. We also saw the emergence of the BIPOC movement. How have these issues impacted you and your work in the theatre? 

Honestly, it has reinforced my conviction to continue doing exceptional, meaningful work as an artist. The projects I gravitate toward speak to the conditions of the world and ask the important questions, then set the stage for dialogue to occur.

There is a space for entertainment, for laughter, for fun – all that and more are a part of life and living. They exist even in classic tragedies, as they do in everyday issues and everyday life – but the responsibility of looking at all sides, of presenting the pleasure and the pain, falls on the artist. The unrest has always been there. The causes for that unrest have always been there. It’s just that now, due to social media/technology, that unrest is being broadcast and streamed 24/7 in real time and in living color. That doesn’t make it any easier, but it does make it more apparent.

Look at George Floyd, or the Capitol riots! Watching those events happen, live, presents the opportunity to either step up and be an active participant, or just sit back and watch. And that is something the Fountain stands on: Yes, of course, sit back. Please watch what’s happening. Go ahead and be uncomfortable by what you see on stage. Let it sink in, and let it transform you in some way. Let that experience provoke discussion, challenge your way of thinking or the way you see the world. That is the amazing opportunity that theatre presents.

5. Why is Black History Month important?

Black History? Well, I’ve been educated and enlightened to see that it’s not just “Black” History or just a month. It’s really World History. It’s really American History. The truth is that much that exists now wouldn’t exist at all without Black input, and, for that matter, without the input of many other cultures, races, religions, etc. America is an amalgamation of all that’s been added to the mix. There really shouldn’t be a limit to the reality of the impact that any culture has had on life in America. If we were to really embrace that truth, that inclusivity, what would, or could, America be?

6. What’s next for you? Any upcoming projects?

Right now I’m working on the CW/DC show Stargirl. I will be seen as Martin Luther King Jr. opposite Jennifer Hudson in the Aretha Franklin biopic Respect, due out this August. And I’m always creating, writing and being part of projects that address what I see is missing from the world.

Theo Perkins

Actor: In the Red and Brown Water, The Brothers Size, Raise Your Voice – Vote!

1. When/how did you first come to the Fountain Theatre?

Shortly after graduating from UCLA, I received an audition for In the Red and Brown Water. This was my first introduction to the Fountain Theatre.

2. How has your experience been working here?

Transformative. The intimacy of the space really expanded my approach to performance in amazing ways. I’m proud to say the Fountain Theatre is my theater home.

3. What Fountain shows that you’ve worked on hold particular meaning for you, and why?

This is tough one. Each production is close to me to this day. I’d say, In the Red and Brown Water. Not only did it introduce me to Tarell McCraney’s work, but I also gained a tribe of amazing humans, all of whom I still talk to today.

4. Last summer’s civil unrest brought an increased focus on racism, both in general and within the theatre world. We also saw the emergence of the BIPOC movement. How have these issues impacted you and your work in the theatre?  

Well, I believe it served as a reminder of how important it is to have diverse voices in our theaters. Not only in terms of playwrights, but in all departments. The events of this summer shined a light on the years of inequity within our community. And it has pushed us all to do and to be better.

5. Why is Black History Month important?

It’s an intentional acknowledgment of the undeniable contributions African-Americans have made in this country. It’s a reminder that our history should be honored. And studied. And used to inspire younger generations.

6. What’s next for you? Any upcoming projects?

During the quarantine, I wrote and produced a film project that will come out this Spring. Look out for it! Also excited to re-launch Elizabeth Youth Theatre Ensemble’s social justice program, Walking the Beat, both in New Jersey and in Los Angeles at the Fountain Theatre. Both productions will actually be virtual.

Sunday Brunch is about to be served!

By Jona Yadidi

During these challenging times, it is more important than ever to connect. In this new series of blog articles, Community Chats, we will talk with different community partners about issues of community and gathering together in a virtual world.

To start, the Fountain’s own Community Engagement Director, France-Luce Benson, talks about the theatre’s upcoming community events as well as the launch of our brand new virtual get-together series, Sunday Brunch. The first Sunday Brunch is being served this Sunday at 11am. Join us! Zoom ID: 853 1210 5903. Passcode: Brunch

1. What is Sunday Brunch?

Sunday Brunch is a new initiative we’re starting this Sunday, February 28th, from 11am-12pm. Like Saturday Matinees, it will be a time for all of us to gather, catch up, connect, and inspire one another. But unlike Saturday Matinees, there won’t be any guest performers. For Sunday Brunch, YOU are the special guest. It’s all about you.

2. Who can participate?

Anyone. Anyone who’s ever seen a show at the Fountain. Anyone who’s ever been in a show at the Fountain, or directed, designed, or ushered. Subscribers, donors, supporters, community partners, neighbors, friends and family. All are welcome.

3. What kind of activities should our community members be expecting?

Great conversation, fun ice-breakers and games, and time to share.

4. Sharing? What can they share?

A song, a joke, a poem, a passage from your favorite book, an excerpt of your own writing, a recipe, a personal story, a piece of art – even gossip! Anything that sparks joy. It’s about spreading love and inspiration.

5. How often will these brunches happen?

The last Sunday of every month, beginning this Sunday, February 28th, from 11am-12pm.

6. Are there any more community events that we should keep our eyes out for?

We are taking our new Arts Education program, Fountain Voices, to Clarence A. Dickison school, beginning March 8th. The nine-week program will culminate in a performance of the students’ original work. Be on the look out for info about the performance in May.

In April, the Fountain Theatre will partner with The Dramatists Guild for their annual End of Play initiative, where hundreds of playwrights across the country commit to completing a new play in the month of April. We’ll be hosting a virtual silent writing retreat.

The Space In Between …

France-Luce Benson

Playwright France-Luce Benson is the Community Engagement Coordinator at the Fountain Theatre, and host of the online gathering, “Saturday Matinees.”

by France-Luce Benson

A few days ago, a friend and I were discussing the concept of Liminal space, moments in life where you experience the pain and discomfort of being on the threshold of change. We are all feeling it right now; in our communities, in our cities, as a country, and in the world. As we navigate this liminal space collectively, some of us, myself included, are also feeling our way through the challenges of personal transition. Uncomfortable, yes. But ripe with the promise of inspiration, enlightenment, and growth.

After three and a half months quarantining in Florida with my Mom, I’m relieved to be back in L.A. I hesitate to say back home, because I’ve been in a kind of holding space. I moved out of my old apartment, and have been house sitting in Arcadia while waiting to move into my new West Hollywood apartment. Not to mention, nothing in Los Angeles is as I left it. Most everything remains shut down – from beaches to bars, movie theatres, museums, and worst of all for us, theatres. Closed. Indefinitely. Meanwhile, uprisings, small and large, fill the space in between. Artistic directors, producers, playwrights, actors and directors are having difficult conversations about the future of theatre. No one really has the answers. But I believe whatever the future is, already exists in this space in between.

I’ve spent much of these last few weeks listening to the neighbors’ children play in imaginary worlds, absorbing every last bit of their summer, unburdened by financial pressures, political anxieties, and this unrelenting fear Covid-19. While I envy the freedom of innocence and ignorance, the urgency that accompanies our collective awakening is oddly comforting. I am reminded that as artists, our voices are powerful and as a black, female artist – my voice is necessary. Now more than ever.

During my hiatus from Saturday Matinees, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this power, and the many ways I have felt powerless in a country, and industry, tainted by white supremacy. I have been asked by many of my colleagues, on the front lines of demanding radical change in the theatre, to recollect and testify about the many ways I have been oppressed in the theatre. The University professors who were unable or unwilling to expose me to artists representative of my identity, the artistic directors who implied that the cultural specificity of my work lessened its value, the directors and producers who failed to honor my vision simply out of laziness and ego. I thought about how powerless I felt at the time. But in this liminal space, I am reminded of how powerful my voice actually is, and how choosing to tell stories that challenge stereotypes and amplify marginalized voices is a powerful act of rebellion. And I’ve been thinking about the ways I might wield this power, peacefully, creatively, urgently. One of those ways is as curator, co-producer, and host of “Saturday Matinees” with The Fountain Theatre.

Saturday Matinees began with a simple premise: A virtual community gathering with live performances. It was an opportunity to break the isolation of quarantine, and to satisfy our hunger for creative expression and live entertainment. It was such a joy getting to know The Fountain audience, and allowing myself to be seen and heard through my own work, and on an intimate level that was completely unexpected. But the greatest gift, by far, was introducing theatrical artists I love and admire to our Fountain family. Once the uprisings began, it occurred to me how powerful this platform could be.

So when Saturday Matinees returns on August 22, I intend to joyfully honor the many voices representative of this powerful liminal space. I hope you will join me in my celebration of resistance, equality, global and social justice, and positive change. Our first guest on August 22 will be Dennis A. Allen II, writer, actor, director, activist. Allen will share from his work and discuss what the current uprisings means to black artists who have been vocal about these issues for decades.

Many of us have desperately attempted to ease the discomfort of this liminal space with catch phrases like “reset” or “pivoting”. But the hard truth is that liminality is defined by the ambiguity, disorientation, and uncertainty one experiences in the middle stage of a rite of passage. However, when the rite of passage is complete, we emerge with greater clarity and strength. In the words of George Bernard Shaw, “Progress is impossible without change.”

 

France-Luce Benson is the Community Engagement Coordinator at the Fountain Theatre, and the host of the online gathering, Saturday Matinees.

Zen and the Art of Theatre

tea ceremonyby Stephen Sachs

In Japanese tea ceremonies, the term Ichi-go ichi-e describes the concept of treasuring the unrepeatable nature of a moment. Translated as “for this time only” or “one opportunity, one encounter,”  the phrase reminds us to cherish any gathering that we may take part in, citing the fact that any moment in life cannot be repeated; even when the same group of people get together in the same place again, a particular gathering will never be replicated, and thus each moment is always a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Treasure every encounter, for it will never recur again.

Such is also the ephemeral nature of theatre. 

Each performance is alive, in that instant, never to be repeated.  Like a tea ceremony and life itself, theatre is experienced in ‘each moment, only once’ and the value of each stage performance is that it happens only once in a lifetime. There is no other opportunity. Only this time.

The duality of the “one moment” reality of theatre is that it comes after endless repetition. Actors labor through weeks of rehearsal, reworking scenes dozens of times, with countless hours drilling the same lines over and over. In rehearsal, the director’s mantra is “Do it again. ” Basketball great Larry Bird said that in high school he would shoot 500 free throws every morning before his first class. Actors, like athletes, rehearse the same scene repeatedly so the mechanics of the lines and the blocking become second nature. They no longer have to think about what they’re saying and doing, so they can be “in the moment.” Repetition brings freedom. Release.  As Prince once sang, “There’s joy in repetition, there’s joy in repetition.”

In film-making, it is the norm to perform a task dozens of times before you get it right. Some movie directors are notorious for shooting multiple takes. Stanley Kubrick was famous for it. He reportedly made Tom Cruise walk through a door 90 times while filming Eyes Wide Shut, and had Shelley Duvall repeat a scene 127 times for The Shining. On the set of David Fincher’s Gone Girl, each scene averaged approximately 50 takes. One scene in the first Spider Man movie with Tobey McGuire took 156 takes to get right.

In the theatre, however, there is no such thing as “getting it right.” Not ever.  That film concept is foreign to theatre people because the essential essence of live performance is that it is never right, never the same, never perfect. Even in the long run of a play or musical over hundreds, even thousands of performances. Not only is each performance unique, so is each scene, each line within each scene, each moment within each line. A word, a phrase will never be uttered that same way again. A light cue, a swell of sound, the flurry of dazzling costumes, affects each audience member differently night to night. Each moment is unrepeatable and special in its own right.

The routine of theatre — the drilling of lines, the daily rehearsals, the nightly performances — are essential to its devotional life.  Devotional life is deepened by repetition. A true practice is a repeated activity with no expectation of result. It’s the doing of it that matters. We do it over and over again, but it’s really not so much because we think we are going to get it perfect, or even exactly right. We do it for experiencing truth in the moment. A daily meditation practice, for example. If your purpose for meditating is “to become enlightened,” you will never achieve it. If that is your destination, you’ll be lost. There is no destination. There is only the present moment.  It’s only when seeing the present moment that enlightenment may come.  The origin for the word “routine” comes from route, or “way, path, course.” Therefore, routine, practice, rehearsal is a journey. 

For my twenty-nine years at the Fountain Theatre, the “one opportunity, one encounter” concept of ichigo ichie is proven true over and over again with our audiences. After seeing a play in our theatre, our patrons spill out onto Fountain Avenue changed, not the same people they were going in. An alchemy happens. In that moment. That can not be repeated. For tomorrow night’s audience, it will be something else. 

I have learned to embrace the truth of “one moment” as a way to understand and celebrate the impermanence of life and the art form I practice. My other art-love is jazz, and a line from a famous jazz ballad from 1949 called “Again” lays bare the same message. There is nothing Zen about the lyrics or their origins, of course, but the words remind me that life, love and theatre are all ecstasies of the moment, each instant unique and unrepeatable.  

Again, this couldn’t happen again
This is that once in a lifetime
This is the thrill divine

What’s more, this never happened before …
We’ll have this moment forever
But never, never again.

Stephen Sachs is the Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre.

Take a pill or see a play?

doctor writing prescriptionby Stephen Sachs

Need a cure for what ails you? Next time you see your doctor, the prescription he or she scribbles may surprise you: see a play.

Research is now proving that gathering with other people to see a play, listen to music or watch a dance concert not only heals the soul. It mends the body, as well.

Doctors generally prescribe pills to make people feel better. Yet the medical benefits of engaging with the arts are well-recorded. A first-of-its-kind study last year found that the social engagement of art is an effective way to improve the health and well-being of patients with such long-term conditions as asthma, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, epilepsy, and osteoporosis—which often exacerbate symptoms of depression and/or anxiety.

Going to the theatre and being part of an audience, joining other human beings in a shared live experience, has medical benefits. Countless studies have found that social isolation takes a heavy toll on our well-being over time. One of the advantages of joining other theater-goers to see a play is that it reduces feelings of loneliness. Our daily lives in front of computer screens can be isolating. Attending live theatre boosts a sense of belonging and face-to-face human connectedness.

In January this year, the U.K. appointed Tracey Crouch to serve as its first “minister of loneliness” to explore how to combat the “sad reality of modern life”. According to a report last year from the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, more than 9 million people in Britain—around 14% of the population—often or always feel lonely. The numbers are even higher in the United States. Cigna’s recent survey revealed 46% of Americans — nearly half the population.– report sometimes or always feeling alone.

“We should value the arts because they’re essential to our health and wellbeing,” says British Health Secretary Matt Hancock. “Access to the arts improves people’s mental and physical health. It makes us happier and healthier.”

The larger question we must ask ourselves is: What sort of society do we want? One that generates physical and emotional illness and then thrives on pharmaceuticals to put it right? Or a society that embraces a more holistic approach to public health through social responsibility and artistic engagement? Given the toxic state of our politics and the poisonous nature of our society and environment today, it is remarkable that we manage to keep going as we are. But for how long? The dilemma was raised by Samuel Beckett, once again, at the theatre, “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

Witnessing a powerful play can illuminate what it means to be a human being and connect us to a larger and higher vision of ourselves. In his powerful account of his own holocaust experience, psychiatrist Viktor Frankl concludes that the ‘search for meaning is the primary motivation in life’. He describes lack of meaning as an ‘existential vacuum’, often manifesting as boredom, and invaded by numerous neurotic and addictive problems. He quotes Nietzsche:

‘He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.’

This echoes, of course, the eternal question posed by Hamlet: “To be, or not to be …”  This is how theatre triggers self-treatment. A theater-goer witnessing Hamlet’s struggle on stage is himself, from the audience, thrown into questioning the purpose of his or her own life. A great play, seen in the most public of settings, generates intimate self-examination and, at the same time, connects us to our fellow beings. Theatre is a journey inward and outward.

The arts play a critical role in the better health of our nation.  Not only spiritually and aesthetically — but physically, medically.  The arts, like health care, not only make life better — they make it livable. Congress seems to agree. Despite Trump’s call to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, Congress passed a 2019 budget increase of more than $2 million to the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Even with this modest 2019 budget increase in arts funding, the United States is writing a doctor’s prescription to itself. Politicians must learn to protect the NEA as fervently as they defend the Second Amendment.

More than guns, Americans have the right to bear arts.

Stephen Sachs in the Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre.

A White House without art

Gloomy-White-House-678x381By Dave Eggers

This White House has been, and is likely to remain, home to the first presidency in American history that is almost completely devoid of culture. In the 17 months that Donald Trump has been in office, he has hosted only a few artists of any kind. One was the gun fetishist Ted Nugent. Another was Kid Rock. They went together (and with Sarah Palin). Neither performed.

Since his inauguration in January 2017, there have been no official concerts at the White House (the Reagans had one every few weeks). No poetry readings (the Obamas regularly celebrated young poets). The Carters began a televised series, “In Performance at the White House,” which last aired in 2016, where artists as varied as Mikhail Baryshnikov and Patricia McBride performed in the East Room. The Clintons continued the series with Aretha Franklin and B. B. King, Alison Krauss and Linda Ronstadt.

But aside from occasional performances by “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band, the White House is now virtually free of music. Never have we had a president not just indifferent to the arts, but actively oppositional to artists. Mr. Trump disparaged the play “Hamilton” and a few weeks later attacked Meryl Streep. He has said he does not have time to read books (“I read passages, I read areas, I read chapters”). Outside of recommending books by his acolytes, Mr. Trump has tweeted about only one work of literature since the beginning of his presidency: Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury.” It was not an endorsement.

Every great civilization has fostered great art, while authoritarian regimes customarily see artists as either nuisances, enemies of the state or tools for the creation of propaganda. The Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev asserted that “the highest duty of the Soviet writer, artist and composer, of every creative worker” is to “fight for the triumph of the ideas of Marxism-Leninism.”

When John Kennedy took office, his policies reacted against both the Soviet Union’s approach to the arts and that of Joseph McCarthy, who had worked hard to create in the United States an atmosphere where artists were required to be allegiant and where dissent was called treason. Pivoting hard, Kennedy’s White House made support of the avant-garde a priority. The artists Franz Kline and Mark Rothko came to the inauguration, and at a state dinner for France’s minister of cultural affairs, André Malraux, the guests included Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Robert Lowell, Geraldine Page and George Balanchine. Kennedy gave the Spanish cellist Pablo Casals, who had exiled himself to France and then Puerto Rico to protest Franco’s fascism, a forum in the East Room. Casals had performed in the White House once before, at the young age of 27. Now 84, and a man without a country, he played a mournful version of “The Song of the Birds.”

Casals-at-the-White-House

Pablo Casals at the Kennedy White House.

It’s crucial to note that the White House’s support of the arts has never been partisan. No matter their political differences, presidents and artists have been able to find common ground in the celebration of American art and in the artists’ respect for the office of the presidency. This mutual respect, even if measured, made for the occasional odd photo-op. George H. W. Bush met Michael Jackson, who wore faux-military garb, including two medals he seemed to have given himself. Richard Nixon heartily shook the hand of Elvis Presley, whose jacket hung over his shoulders like a cape.

George W. Bush widened the partisan rift, but culturally, Mr. Bush — the future figurative painter — was open-minded and active. He met Bono in the Oval Office. He hosted a wide range of musicians, from Itzhak Perlman to Destiny’s Child. He was an avid reader — he maintained a long-running contest with Karl Rove to see who could read more books in a year. Laura Bush has long been a crucial figure in the book world, having co-founded the Texas Book Festival and the National Book Festival in Washington, now one of the country’s largest literary gatherings.

But perhaps no Republican could match the presidency of Ronald Reagan, whose guest list was a relentless celebration of the diversity of American culture. He and Nancy Reagan hosted Lionel Hampton. Then the Statler Brothers. Then Ella Fitzgerald. Then Benny Goodman. Then a night with Beverly Sills, Rudolf Serkin and Ida Levin. That was all in the fall of 1981. The Reagans did much to highlight uniquely American forms, especially jazz. One night in 1982, the White House hosted Dizzy Gillespie, Chick Corea and Stan Getz. When Reagan visited Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow in 1988, he brought along the Dave Brubeck Quartet.

But that kind of thing is inconceivable now. Admittedly, at a time when Mr. Trump’s policies have forcibly separated children from their asylum-seeking parents — taking the most vulnerable children from the most vulnerable adults — the White House’s attitude toward the arts seems relatively unimportant. But with art comes empathy. It allows us to look through someone else’s eyes and know their strivings and struggles. It expands the moral imagination and makes it impossible to accept the dehumanization of others. When we are without art, we are a diminished people — myopic, unlearned and cruel.

This post originally appeared in the NY Times. Dave Eggers is the author, most recently, of “The Monk of Mokha” and co-founder of The International Congress of Youth Voices

VIDEO: A behind-the-scenes peek in the rehearsal room of ‘Arrival & Departure’

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10 reasons to support the arts in 2018

Shelleys cropped

Katie McConaughy and Susan Wilder in ‘Freddy’, 2017. 

by Randy Cohen

The arts are fundamental to our humanity. They ennoble and inspire us—fostering creativity, goodness, and beauty. The arts bring us joy, help us express our values, and build bridges between cultures. The arts also are a fundamental component of healthy communities, strengthening them socially, educationally, and economically—benefits that persist even in difficult social and economic times.

  1. Arts improve individual well-being. 63 percent of the population believe the arts “lift me up beyond everyday experiences,” 64 percent feel the arts give them “pure pleasure to experience and participate in,” and 73 percent say the arts are a “positive experience in a troubled world.”
  2. Arts unify communities. 67 percent of Americans believe “the arts unify our communities regardless of age, race, and ethnicity” and 62 percent agree that the arts “help me understand other cultures better”—a perspective observed across all demographic and economic categories.
  3. Arts improve academic performance. Students engaged in arts learning have higher GPAs and standardized test scores, and lower drop-out rates. The Department of Education reports that access to arts education for students of color is significantly lower than for their white peers, and has declined for three decades. Yet, research shows that low socio-economic-status students have even greater increases in academic performance, college-going rates, college grades, and holding jobs with a future. 88 percent of Americans believe that arts are part of a well-rounded K-12 education.
  4. Arts strengthen the economy. The arts and culture sector is a $730 billion industry, which represents 4.2 percent of the nation’s GDP—a larger share of the economy than transportation, tourism, and agriculture (U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis). The nonprofit arts industry alone generates $135 billion in economic activity annually (spending by organizations and their audiences), which supports 4.1 million jobs and generates $22.3 billion in government revenue.
  5. Arts are good for local businesses. Attendees at nonprofit arts events spend $24.60 per person, per event, beyond the cost of admission on items such as meals, parking, and babysitters—valuable revenue for local commerce and the community. Attendees who live outside the county in which the arts event takes place spend twice as much as their local counterparts ($39.96 vs. $17.42).
  6. Arts drive tourism. Arts travelers are ideal tourists, staying longer and spending more to seek out authentic cultural experiences. Arts destinations grow the economy by attracting foreign visitor spending. The U.S. Department of Commerce reports that, between 2003-2015, the percentage of international travelers including “art gallery and museum visits” on their trip grew from 17 to 29 percent, and the share attending “concerts, plays, and musicals” increased from 13 to 16 percent.
  7. Arts are an export industry. The arts and culture industries had a $30 billion international trade surplus in 2014, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. U.S. exports of arts goods (e.g., movies, paintings, jewelry) exceeded $60 billion.
  8. Arts spark creativity and innovation. Creativity is among the top 5 applied skills sought by business leaders—with 72 percent saying creativity is of high importance when hiring. The Conference Board’s Ready to Innovate report concludes, “The arts—music, creative writing, drawing, dance—provide skills sought by employers of the 3rd millennium.” Research on creativity shows that Nobel laureates in the sciences are 17 times more likely to be actively engaged in the arts than other scientists.
  9. Arts improve healthcare. Nearly one-half of the nation’s healthcare institutions provide arts programming for patients, families, and even staff. 78 percent deliver these programs because of their healing benefits to patients—shorter hospital stays, better pain management, and less medication.
  10. Arts and healing in the military. The arts are part of the military continuum—promoting readiness during pre-deployment as well as aiding in the successful reintegration and adjustment of Veterans and military families into community life. Service members and Veterans rank art therapies in the top 4 (out of 40) interventions and treatments.

Happy New Year!

Randy Cohen is Vice President of Research and Policy at Americans for the Arts, the nation’s advocacy organization for the arts.

New study proves that our hearts beat together at the theatre

Runaway-Home_6 (1)Neuroscientists have now proven what theatre folk have felt for years. The heart beats of audience members actually synchronize and beat together in unison when watching a live performance of a play or musical. 

The research was conducted by the University College London Division of Psychological and Language Sciences.  The team studied the heart rates and skin responses of  twelve participants as they watched a live performance of Dreamgirls at the Savoy Theatre on the West End. 

The scientists found that as well as individuals’ emotional responses, the audience members’ hearts were also responding in unison, with their pulses speeding up and slowing down at the same rate,  regardless of if they knew each other or not.

Dr Joe Devlin, who led the study, said: “Usually, a group of individuals will each have their own heart rates and rhythms, with little relationship to each other. But romantic couples or highly effective teammates will actually synchronize their hearts so that they beat in time with each other, which in itself is astounding.”

According to Encore Tickets, 59% of people say they have felt emotionally affected by a live performance, and 46% say they enjoy the theatre experience because of the atmosphere that comes with being in the audience. 

FT audience

Fountain Theatre

Dr Devlin said, “Experiencing the live theatre performance was extraordinary enough to overcome group differences and produce a common physiological experience in the audience members.”

The study went on to find that couples and friends continue to have synchronized heart beats during the intermission.  Dr Devlin explained: “Our hypothesis is that it’s at this point, the intermission, that the audience members are engaged with each other, discussing the show within their social groups. During this social interaction with each other, we can see that their in-group arousal synchronizes with each other but not with the audience members as a whole.”

Past studies have shown that in environments that cause bodies to synchronize in this way, people are more likely to bond and like each other. 

“This clearly demonstrates, ” says Devlin, “that the physiological synchronicity observed during the performance was strong enough to overcome social group differences and engage the audience as a whole.”

In other words, this unified beating of hearts when experiencing live theatre can help break social differences and bring people together. 

Can there be a higher calling? We don’t think so. We believe theater’s fundamental and most sacred purpose is to bring a diverse variety of individuals to a common place where they share a meaningful human experience together, as one. This new study proves it, physiologically. Our hearts actually beat together. 

This beautiful information comes as we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving. It reaffirms, for all of us at the Fountain Theatre and to you, how much we are thankful for.