Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Starving the Artists

Like most alumni of SUNY Albany, I was shocked to hear last week that, effective 2012, Albany will be cutting its theatre major from the curriculum.

Not just theatre, but classics, French, Russian, and Italian will be cut from the school budget.  Students currently majoring will be allowed to finish their degrees, but beyond that there will be no new enrollments accepted.  Almost immediately after the news broke, this petition was started to overturn the school's decision and save the cut language departments.  It is closing in on 10,000 signatures.  If you too feel that the board of SUNY Albany is being unjust and making a decision detrimental to the University, I encourage you to sign it as well.

I have not.  Not yet, anyway.

Of course I believe in the cause of preventing SUNY Albany from cutting classes that make it a more diverse, versatile school.  Albany's Theatre Department is where I earned my degree, and it is an unsettling feeling to think that after my graduation, there was only one more class of incoming Freshmen who will sit like I did in the Performing Arts Center - PAC -  lounge, portrait of Agnes Futterer (who must be turning in her grave) looking down on them.  If I were to go visit after 2012 I would probably find that business or science had moved in to the PAC halls.  Instead of the Theatre Council meeting to discuss the next comedy and improv show, students will probably be discussing nanotechnology, Albany's real focus.  This is not to denigrate the work in science being done at Albany at all.  That's not the point - it's what I know they're giving up in order to make it happen.

No more listening to students talking about Strindberg or Ibsen.  No more comparing notes on shows from the past and how much working on them sucked but we'd totally do it all over again.  No more hanging out by the windows watching people as they enter or leave.  No more crowding around the tiny hall by the elevators after the newest cast list is posted.  No more PAC Rats, the Albany Theatre softball team.  No more student productions, no more backstage drama, no more long hours in the shop, no more anything that I remember from college.  It's like a part of my past is just being erased.

And that is sad, and it is frustrating to me that when schools look for budget cuts the arts and humanities are always the first to go.  Society needs art, it needs theater, in order to define itself; to create context for future generations.  Books, movies, poems, music; all of these do the same, but a play combines all of those art forms and challenges an audience to really think about the things they're seeing and feeling.  A play can be mindless entertainment, or it can confront societal issues, seek answers to larger - and smaller - questions about life, and do so with the kind of subtly and nuance missing from most other forms of social media.  Theatre, and art in general, set us apart from other primates.  "All the world's a stage," said Shakespeare, and I believe that.  When we tear a stage down we lose another part of the world.  I hate it every single time I see an arts program losing funding or shutting down.  Now it's happening at the University I graduated from.

So yes, of course I believe in the cause, I just don't know if I agree with the protest itself.

Contrary to what you might think, petitioning your government is an excellent way to get things done.  Congressmen and women do care about keeping the voters happy, and it's always a feather in the cap of an administrator when they can say they saved a program that would have died without them.  Furthermore, budgets change every year.  Albany is suffering a combined deficit over the last few years of $44 million, which led to these program cuts.  It could very well happen that next year New York State might release more funds into the education budget, and if protests were loud enough, they will probably use it to save the department - at least for a few more years. 

The reason I haven't signed the petition yet is that I just want to believe we can do more.

Signing online petitions, complaining about things over the internet, creating a Facebook page detailing how much you detest a certain act; these all seem to have become more common than actual protest.  Just one click and you can feel good about yourself.  It's very convenient, and then you don't have to do anything else.  That's your contribution, thanks for stopping by.

I don't buy it.  I don't want to feel a false sense of gratification that I helped change something because I clicked a link and wrote my name.  My first reaction was to send a letter to the University President asking how much money would have to be raised, and in what amount of time, to preserve the Theatre Department  (he actually wrote back a short time later, telling me someone in his office would send a financial report my way).  A few people on the Facebook page (I told you) have even gone so far as to say it is the job of our generation to take charge and make sure languages, classics, and theatre are preserved.  I wholeheartedly agree, just as much as I disagree with using this method to go about it.  I want to save the programs being cut, but maybe the answer isn't in petitioning the government.  Maybe it's in raising the money ourselves to donate to the school.  Since the current management has proven that even after tuition hikes, past budget cuts, and staff layoffs, they still can't keep the University from losing money, maybe it's time for members of my generation to take over those positions and prove they can do a better job.

The petition closes on October 18th, and I still don't know if my name is going to be on it.  If I sign it, will I feel like I've done something?  It sure doesn't seem like it's doing anything, but like I said, who knows?  People do pay attention to things like this.  I just don't know if I can get behind signing something that says "I think something should be done" and then not actually doing anything.

I support preserving and promoting theatre.  I support keeping humanities programs alive and vibrant in public schools. I also support working personally to make those things possible.  It's all well and good to trust your government and school board to fix the problem, but when they're the ones who created it in the first place, maybe you should explore other options. 

"All the men and women merely players," is how Shakespeare's quote about the nature of the world ends, and I, for one, want to know I performed my part well.

1 comment:

Jason Heat said...

You could do both - sign the petition AND do more, which it very admirably looks as though you're already doing.

I hate online petitions, facebook status issues, and all that for exactly the sdame reason as you. But in this case, it may help in addition to your other efforts.