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Assault on Culture

Look up the word “culture” in Webster’s New World Dictionary and you will find it defined as “the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.” I fear for the loss of our culture. And the fear has increased of late.

I was shocked when I heard of Gov. David Paterson’s draconian proposal to cut the New York State Theatre Institute’s budget to a degree that would effectively kill a national treasure. One becomes accustomed to such salvos launched at arts organizations in financially troubled times, but I wonder how many of New York’s politicians really know what NYSTI is. I also wonder if they are aware of the severe collateral damage that will be inflicted on education in New York state. I am not overstating the case in saying that our culture hangs in very tenuous balance today, and that the threat to NYSTI and similar organizations is but another deadly assault on an endangered culture that is rapidly losing its rich artistic heritage.

As a theater teacher for 34 years in nearby Massachusetts, I have seen the cycles of economic downturns that periodically wipe out arts programs—programs that, incidentally, do not return when the economy recovers. I am also acutely aware of the destruction being wrought on the arts in a society that has gone mad about high-stakes testing and preparing children to take said tests in extra courses that prohibit classes in art, music and theater. During these times, I have always looked across the state border to New York and pointed to NYSTI as a sign that at least one state had gotten it right, that someone was keeping a vital beacon of culture lit.

I discovered NYSTI when I began working as a theater critic for Metroland. At first I thought it was a theater company that produced shows for kids, and frankly, I wasn’t keen to go to my first NYSTI production. Nor, as it turned out, had I even an inkling of what NYSTI really was. I learned quickly. My very first impression was that if this was theater for kids, I was very happy to be a kid again, for NYSTI has always treated its young audiences as first-class citizens deserving of high production values that would be at home on any Broadway stage. Sitting in a theater filled with young people, I experienced their collective sense of awe at being transported into a theatrical universe that many of them would otherwise never encounter. Have you seen Avatar? NYSTI does something very similar, but with live performers in real-time—and with a remarkable educational mission.

Before our travel funds were cut, I took student groups to NYSTI shows, and it was then that I learned that NYSTI was far more than simply a theater whose productions had enormous educational value. NYSTI is, first, an educational institution.

A student trip to NYSTI is rarely limited to simply seeing a show. NYSTI artists make preliminary visits to classrooms to introduce the play. After performances, NYSTI actor-teachers and technician-teachers hold residency classes that cleverly tie the theater experience into any subjects in a school’s curriculum. It’s during these interdisciplinary classes that students make connections and have true “eureka” experiences that are never forgotten.

Long before Broadway and regional theaters began offering study guides to students on field trips, NYSTI was preparing wonderfully creative and inspiring guides that integrated the production at hand into virtually any classes the students were taking, including math and science! I believe NYSTI created the template on which other theaters based their own study guides. It is important to remember that NYSTI was created to educate and that its lessons and study guides were born out of a sincere commitment to do this and not, as is unfortunately too often the case, to merely have an educational component to attract grants. The quality of NYSTI’s educational materials is measurable in direct proportion to the sincerity of its mission. It was founded to educate; other theaters were founded to simply entertain, with education as an afterthought.

Nor does NYSTI’s education program end with school-based performances and classroom lessons. It also offers internships, teacher in-service workshops, teacher nights, weekend and vacation programs, and youth productions wherein students perform for their peers. It offers a staggering number of services to some 60,000 individuals each year, and that doesn’t include the services such as lectures and career-day visits that it provides to public and private schools and colleges. In financially troubled times, NYSTI offers tremendous bang for the taxpayer’s buck.

In the past 35 years, NYSTI has produced seven productions a year (not including youth productions); that’s 245 productions (and study guides). That doesn’t include the audio books and DVDs of such shows as the marvelous original, A Tale of Cinderella (which played on national PBS for three years), that have made their ways into thousands of households throughout our country. Truly, millions of individuals, old and (mostly) young have been positively impacted by this gem of a company that has never had any but the most altruistic of purposes.

I could go on to rave about NYSTI’s highly effective ambassadorship to other countries, and I could rattle off the dozens of accomplishments and awards that the institute has accrued. But two say it all.

While he was the theater critic for The New York Times, Frank Rich wrote that NYSTI “may well prove to be one of the most important theatrical institutions in the state, if not the entire country.” Anyone who knows Rich knows that he is not easily given over to praise.

Rich’s remarks, made in 1980, proved prescient. On Aug. 11, 2009, at a ceremony at Sardi’s in New York City, NYSTI and its visionary founding director were awarded the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Medallions by the Children’s Theatre Foundation of America. It is the highest honor to which any theater that works with children can aspire.

It is inconceivable that this worthy educational institution should face demise. NYSTI can, however, be saved in the very quarters where it was created, the New York State Legislature.

In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Patricia Di Benedetto Snyder and her students on SUNY’s Albany campus were experimenting with the use of theater as a teacher. Concurrently, the New York State Commission on Cultural Resources (a bipartisan commission of legislators and people from the private sector knowledgeable about the arts) was discovering a link between the arts and education. In March 1973, its findings were published by the New York State Legislature, which decided to implement some of the commission’s recommendations by creating the theatre institute in 1974.

Thousands of children, teachers, parents and adults who had their first formative theater experience at NYSTI are praying that the legislature will save one of its worthiest creations. Not only are many hopes hanging in the balance, so too is our culture.

— Ralph Hammann

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