CORVALLIS, Ore. – A play about the intersection of politics and the arts – written by a playwright who knows quite a bit about the topic – will make its debut in May at Oregon State University.
The musical, “SPIN,” was written by John Frohnmayer, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and its depiction of controversy over federally funded art and artists is no coincidence. Frohnmayer’s tenure as chair of the NEA in the 1990s was marked by a “culture war” between artists and supporters seeking complete freedom of expression and groups and individuals who wanted to set stricter parameters on federally funded art.
Frohnmayer wrote the lyrics for SPIN as well as the script; the music was written by Sila Cevikce Shaman, a well-known Corvallis jazz pianist and composer.
Adding intrigue to the performances is the casting of David Ogden Stiers in one of the key roles. A veteran of stage and screen, Stiers also is known for his portrayal of Major Winchester on the M*A*S*H* television series. He recently portrayed the Rev. Gene Purdy on the television series, “The Dead Zone,” and was the voice of Cogsworth in “Beauty and the Beast” and Dr. Jumba Jookiba in “Lilo and Stitch.”
SPIN will open a six-night run on May 8 at OSU’s Withycombe Hall Theater, located at 30th and Campus Way in Corvallis. Tickets will be available online beginning Monday (April 21) at: http://oregonstate.edu/dept/theatre/BoxOfficeInfo.html
“This play is going to get as much attention as any play Oregon State University has produced in a long time,” said its director, Marion O. Rossi Jr., shortly after speaking to the Washington Post. “It is a pointedly satirical look at the nature of art and its relationship to politics, and is rife with witty dialogue, a variety of song styles, and characters that range from realistic to buffoonish.
“It is a great experience for the students in our cast and crew,” he added, “and it should be tremendous fun for the audience.”
SPIN revisits the political and cultural maelstrom over federal funding for the arts. In the story, arch-conservative politicians led by Sen. Fudder (Stiers) do battle with the NEA chair and staffers over legislation. At the same time, left-wing liberals – known as Polly and the artists – swap views and insults with the religious right (JoeBob and friends).
Covering the story are journalists who report what they call “facts,” but are thinly disguised opinions representing their personal spin.
If it sounds tense, rest assured, Rossi says cheerfully.
“’SPIN’ pokes fun at almost everyone, on the right and left, in government, as well as in media and art,” Rossi said. “There are no sacred cows. The takeaway message is captured beautifully in the final scene – ‘Art can inform us – if it is left alone to work its magic – and if we wait.’”
Frohnmayer said his experience as NEA chairman provided no shortage of material.
“Sex, art and politics – nothing controversial there,” he said. “Congress got more mail about the NEA than the savings and loan scandal while I was there. That is why one lyric says: ‘being offended by rear ends would give us press galore.’”
Stiers said he wanted to take part in the play because he believes strongly in freedom of expression for the arts.
“As an extension of the serious misperceptions about art, the nature of art itself and the profound value of the creative spark, this play with music almost forces a conversation about the wealth and diversity of art and artists in America,” Stiers said. “As Frohnmayer properly points out in the piece – art does not give itself up to instant recognition. We have to work – and what pleasant, thrilling, uplifting work – to grasp and parse the artist’s intent and match it with our own honest appraisal, not rely on someone else’s evaluation.
“And then there is the real treasure,” he added. “Art helps us think and feel more broadly, more clearly…precisely by challenging us and urging us to give up the pat, the prepackaged, the merely ‘pretty.’ The health of the arts community, and of its collaborators – the public – goes to the very heart of ‘promot(ion) of the general welfare.’
“More fundamental, it can scarcely get.”
Frohnmayer, who is an affiliate professor in OSU’s College of Liberal Arts, chose to present SPIN as a musical and there are myriad styles presented in the play – from a rumba (“Stifle All Your Urges”) and a fugue (“I’m Not Whole Unless I’m Being Political”), to splashy production numbers (“Send Us Some Coin Sweet Jesus”) and (“Artificial Art Official”).
“Why a musical?” Frohnmayer pondered. “Almost every in my family is or was a musician. My mother played the piano beautifully, had perfect pitch, taught music. My sister and younger brother are both professional singers and college music professors.
“I have sung all my life and played Billy Bigelow in ‘Carousel,’ Curly in ‘Oklahoma’ and Tommy in ‘Brigadoon’ in high school.”
Playing the role of an embattled NEA chair will be Gale Hazel, a veteran actress and vocalist who has appeared in numerous community and OSU performances. Hazel, a former OSU employee, lives in Corvallis. Tom Walmsley, a faculty member at Linn-Benton Community College, plays a caustic, colluding cohort of Sen. Fudder.
Most of the rest of the cast are OSU students, including Maarika Teose, as controversial artist Polly; Nickoli Strommer, as conservative Rev. JoeBob Pentateuch; Stuart Krug, as NEA staff lawyer Fred; Ryan Holcomb, as art expert Dr. Primus; Abbe Groh, as “neurotheology” expert Isabelle Snug; Steve McClain, as a liberal reporter; and Kimberly Holling, as a conservative reporter.
Sixteen other OSU students comprise an ensemble of right-wing and left-wing adherents, government staffers, artists, politicians and jurors.
Rossi is a veteran director and faculty member with OSU’s theater arts program. He is joined by Sean Mills, music director; George Caldwell, scene and lighting design; Barbara Mason, costume design; and Elizabeth Atchley, pianist. Atchley will join with five other musicians to create a jazz combo for the performances.
Shows are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. May 8-10 and May 15-17. Tickets are priced at $14 for general admission; $10 for seniors, and $7 for students. The performance on Friday, May 16, will be sign language-interpreted.
Tickets will be available at the Withycombe Hall box office beginning May 5 (call 541-737-2784 for information), and online starting April 21 http://oregonstate.edu/dept/theatre/BoxOfficeInfo.html