Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Real Culture Warriors of America

Job descriptions change as technology redefines the work process and social justice helps to shape "a more perfect union." Fifty years ago it was standard practice to post employment listings in newspapers under the categories "Jobs-Men" and "Jobs-Women." Because I had emerged from school with one marketable skill (as a speed typist), I always had to look for opportunities in the "Jobs-Women" section. Temp agencies didn't care half so much about a person's gender as they did about whether someone was available on short notice. Although I had no problem landing supposedly long-term assignments, I often found myself finishing the anticipated workload long before the projected deadline and, as a result, needing to find myself a new gig.

Although indicative of a valuable skill set, listings for "Male Secretary," "Speed Typist," and "Data Entry" were pretty much at the bottom of the job market. Long before computer keyboards replaced typewriters, my typing skills led me to work in a variety of professions ranging from accounting to court reporting, from banking to air cargo documentation. Shortly after moving to San Francisco, I was introduced to medical transcription, which helped to underwrite my career as a writer.

As computer technology has continued to improve, some of the most revered job descriptions have faded into obscurity or been redefined and re-imagined. One which seems to have disappeared from the cultural landscape is impresario. Defined as "a person who organizes or manages public entertainments, especially operas, ballets, or concerts," some of the 20th century's greatest impresarios were Sergei Diaghilev, Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., Sol Hurok, Billy Rose, and Lincoln Kirstein. While the theatre world looked to producers like David Merrick, Harold Prince, Joseph Papp, and Cameron Mackintosh, new forms of music led to the rise of entrepreneurs like Bill Graham, Brian Epstein, Quincy Jones, and Berry Gordy, Jr.

Impresario Sol Hurok

What these men shared was a curiosity about art, a passion for creative artists (as well as the revenue they could generate), and a willingness to take artistic risks. As the regional arts scene developed, more and more nonprofit arts organizations began to thrive. Theatre, ballet, symphony, opera companies, and museums laid down roots in large to mid-size urban areas while many parts of the entertainment industry became increasingly subject to corporate control.

The late Zelda Fichandler (one of the co-founders of the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.)  described the role of an artistic director as a go-between who shuttled intellectually and emotionally between the world at large and the world of the stage. The Bay area's cultural scene is currently undergoing a fascinating game of musical chairs as some of its cultural institutions welcome new blood into leadership positions.
Playwright, director, and impresario Stuart Bousel

Jacob Bernstein's recent article in The New York Times entitled The Disrupters: Making New York’s Cultural Boards More Diverse may have shocked some readers, but it's no secret that the boards of many nonprofit cultural institutions have often been led by white men. In a move that has surprised and delighted many in the Bay Area theatre community, Jon Tracy (a gifted playwright, director, actor, and teacher) was recently named as the new Artistic Director of TheatreFIRST.

Jon Tracy, TheatreFIRST's new artistic director

A multi-talented artist with a fertile imagination (and a special interest in creating new work) who has been the driving force behind Groundswell: The International Theatre Intensive, Tracy has restructured and reoriented the 20-year-old company toward fulfilling a critical need of the Bay area's artistic community. In an attempt to bring the company more in line with the Bay area's multiculturalism -- and incorporate more than just sweat equity into the concept of diversity -- part of his artistic vision is to ensure that women comprise at least half of TheatreFIRST's board of directors and the people that the company hires and that people of color represent two-thirds of that population. The organization's new mission statement reads as follows:
"TheatreFIRST, in residence at Berkeley’s Live Oak Theater, creates a social hub where, through the art of storytelling, all voices get heard. Dedicated to telling the world’s stories through multiple, simultaneous viewpoints, TheatreFIRST has redeveloped its lens so that a more actual world will be reflected and a more actual world will attend. Inspired by the above tenet, TheatreFIRST looks to foster new, necessary stories by new and established artists through collaborative residencies; the work produced ultimately becoming their next main stage season. TheatreFIRST’s productions are supported by an outreach program that gives the community entry points in to their stories as well as next-step programming that build on our work’s themes."
The 2016 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival included two documentaries about impresarios whose artistic vision changed the culture of their neighorhood and their nation. Each followed his passions as they led him down unexpected paths, touching people's hearts and changing the ways in which they thought about their lives. Each shared his love of humanity and social justice with his friends, artistic colleagues, and audiences. Each was blessed with a lifetime of artistic fulfillment.

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In his recent Op-Ed piece in The New York Times entitled How Artists Change The World, David Brooks described how Frederick Douglass became the most photographed American of the 1800s and changed the way the public viewed African Americans.
"He sat for 160 separate photographs (George Custer sat for 155 and Abraham Lincoln for 126). Douglass posed for his portraits very carefully and in ways that evolved over the years. In almost all the photographs, Douglass is formally dressed, in black coat, vest, stiff formal collar and bow tie. He is a dignified and highly cultured member of respectable society. He took contemporary stereotypes of African Americans -- that they are inferior, unlettered, comic and dependent -- and turned them upside down."
Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)

If Douglass (who wrote four lectures on photography) did a masterful job of bending a new type of media to his will during the 19th century, Norman Lear deserves acclaim for his pioneering work in television and politics during the 20th century. Throughout the 1950s he wrote jokes for radio and television shows starring such popular entertainers as Martha Raye, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and George Gobel. During the 1960s (in addition to writing jokes for The Andy Williams Show), he wrote the screenplays for 1963's Come Blow Your Horn and 1967's Divorce American Style.

Beginning in 1968, Lear functioned as both writer and producer for such films as The Night They Raided Minsky's and Cold Turkey. However, the 1970s was the decade in which he came into his element as the driving force behind such popular, socially relevant, and ground-breaking television comedies as All In The Family, Maude, Good Times, The Jeffersons, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.

Producer, writer, and patriot Norman Lear

Alarmed by the growing influence of the Religious Right, Lear redirected his energies toward social justice in the 1980s. In 1981 he launched People For The American Way (PFAW) and has since been a strong advocate for secularism in American culture. In 2000, the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California was renamed The Norman Lear Center in his honor. Lear is also a trustee emeritus of New York's Paley Center for Media (former known as the Museum of Television & Radio and the Museum of Broadcasting). As Lear notes:
“In my 90-plus years I’ve lived a multitude of lives. I’ve had a front-row seat at the birth of television; wrote, produced, created, or developed more than a hundred shows; had nine on the air at the same time; founded the 300,000-member liberal advocacy group People For the American Way; was labeled the '#1 enemy of the American family' by Jerry Falwell; made it onto Richard Nixon’sEnemies List”; was presented with the National Medal of Arts by President Clinton; purchased an original copy of the Declaration of Independence and toured it for 10 years in all 50 states; blew a fortune in a series of bad investments in failing businesses; and reached a point where I was informed we might even have to sell our home.”
Norman Lear

As glamorous as it all sounds on paper, there were lots of tense moments during Lear's television successes. His long-term marriage to his wife, Frances, fell apart in 1985 (she would go on to launch a women's magazine) and, while working on Good Times and The Jeffersons, he ran into unexpected issues involving the cast's sensitivity to racial issues.

In 2014, Lear published his memoir, Even This I Get to Experience while film directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady were working on a documentary entitled Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You. In describing their experience researching Lear's career and working with him in person, they recall that:
“Understanding Lear’s early life was crucial to a more intimate reading of his work as a creator, writer, and producer of television and film. Left largely to his own devices, Lear experienced a boyhood that was a combination of deep loneliness and the exhilarating freedom to explore and observe the world around him through the harsh but liberating lens of reality. He would later bring that unvarnished eye to his own work. At times, Archie Bunker is an obvious stand-in for his own small-minded and bigoted father. Divorce American Style (written by Lear) is partly an absurdist take on his parents’ own failed marriage. Everywhere you look in Lear’s work there are both direct and loose ties to the lessons he learned as a young boy out there on his own, struggling to make sense of societal paradoxes and the frailty (and ridiculousness) of human nature.”
Poster art for Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You
“In making the film we experienced a nonagenarian of bottomless curiosity who regularly reaches out to the rising talents in theater, TV and film to learn more about their own approach to their craft. Emotional but not sentimental, he’s a man looking forward at all times, frequently uttering the phrase 'over, next' when he deems that it’s time to move on. Despite his fame and fortune, he has little time for flattery, but instead possesses a keen interest in his own flawed nature and a penchant for what he calls 'the foolishness of the human condition.' Even at 93, Norman Lear views himself as a mere work in progress. Like any other wide-eyed kid, he remains as surprised as the next guy at the miraculous twists and turns his life has taken on the way to this very moment.”
Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You features plenty of archival footage from his television shows as well as candid insights from actors Rob Reiner, Esther Rolle, Jon Stewart, and George Clooney. Though the film is part biography and part tribute, its main goal is to show how one man's artistic vision and quest for social justice helped to reshape American culture. Here's the trailer.

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Whether it be a painter facing a blank canvas, a writer facing a blank piece of paper, or a sculptor confronted with a block of stone, part of being an artist involves being able to see an opportunity and, by using one's craft and imagination, create something that previously wasn't there. For impresarios, that can sometimes mean seeing an empty space (in real estate or on a calendar) and thinking about how, with some funding and creativity, that space could be put to better use.

As one watches Art & Heart - The World of Isaiah Sheffer, it becomes crystal clear that one man -- and one man alone -- cannot do the job. To accomplish what Isaiah Sheffer did in transforming a decrepit old movie theatre into a major community center for the arts requires good friends, good ideas, and a willingness to put one's heart and soul into sharing the art one loves with others. As directed by Catherine Tambini, this delicious documentary includes testimonials from and archival footage of many people whose lives were changed by their association with Sheffer, ranging from actors like Jane Curtin, Leonard Nimoy, Fritz Weaver, and Malachy McCourt, to Jill Eikenberry, James Naughton, Marian Seldes, and Stephen Lang.

On January 7, 1978, Sheffer and his friend Allan Miller co-produced a 12-hour "Wall to Wall Bach" marathon in which the audience was treated to free performances of music composed by Johann Sebastian Bach. The event's resounding success planted a seed in Sheffer's mind that would lead to purchase of the old Symphony Theatre and conversion of the facility into a thriving community arts center. In the years that followed, there were Wall To Wall marathons devoted to the music of such composers as Ludwig van Beethoven, John Cage, Igor Stravinsky, Stephen Sondheim, Duke Ellington, and Leonard Bernstein.

Over the years, more than 100 actors (ranging from Fionnula Flanagan to Stephen Colbert) participated in Sheffer's annual June 16th reading of James Joyce's Ulysses, which became known as Bloomsday on Broadway. Sheffer famously convinced a young Morgan Freeman to leave his job as Rudolf (the headwater at the Harmonia Gardens) in the all-black cast of Hello, Dolly! and take on a low-paying artistic challenge that changed the course of his acting career.

Bloomsday on Broadway (which led to another set of readings entitled Selected Shorts: A Celebration of the Short Story) was one of many programs that drew actors like Donna Murphy, Melissa Errico, Jerry Stiller, and Tony Roberts to Symphony Space. A prolific writer, performer, and fundraiser, Sheffer was the embodiment of a local impresario whose cultural impact could be felt far and wide.

Sheffer loved the political cabaret evenings at Symphony Space. Those who have never heard his voice will have no trouble appreciating his performance in a June 2009 edition of the Thalia Follies as he delivers a parody of Rodgers & Hammerstein's famous song, "Younger Than Springtime" (from 1949's South Pacific) entitled "Reading Paul Krugman."

With his friend, Bobby Paul, Sheffer wrote the book and lyrics for two musicals: The Rise of David Levinsky (which opened in a Yiddish production at the Folksbiene Theatre in 1976 and an English-language production by the American Jewish Theatre in 1983) and 1977's Columbus Circle. In 1985, he wrote A Broadcast Baby, followed by a 1987 burlesque revue entitled The Sheik of Avenue B. In 1990, Sheffer provided the book and lyrics for a musical adaptation of Yiddle With A Fiddle (a 1936 film that starred Molly Picon). In the following two clips from 2011, he can be seen acting as emcee for The Forward's Inaugural Gala.

When Sheffer died on November 9, 2012 at the age of 76, he was not just mourned. His papers were donated to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and his life was celebrated with plenty of love and the deepest affection by those who had had the good fortune to work with and learn from him. As he once noted: “I have the pleasure in Fairway Market of having someone lean over the onions and say, ‘Loved your Mongolian dance concert!’ ”

In Sheffer's obituary in The New York Times, Douglas Martin wrote:
"Born in The Bronx on Dec. 30, 1935, Mr. Sheffer was encouraged to pursue theater by his uncle, Zvee Scooler, an actor and radio commentator in both English and Yiddish. By the time he was a teenager, Isaiah was appearing in Yiddish plays and radio broadcasts. Mr. Sheffer saw the theatrical arts as a huge adventure, and his bookings over 32 years reflected it; there were operettas, African dance, and political satire. There have been jazz and opera and blues, and more of the marathon concerts that began the whole enterprise, featuring composers like Stravinsky and Sondheim. With his characteristic self-deprecating sense of humor, Mr. Sheffer was never reluctant to mention his biggest producing failure. 'Never have an accordion sextet,' he advised."

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