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Colleges and Schools Try to Do More With Less
NEW YORK TIMES

March 8, 2010

When San Francisco State University’s theater arts department commissioned Mark Jackson to adapt and direct a production of “Romeo and Juliet,” he came up with the unusual idea of creating a version of the tragedy for 14 actors, all cast in the role of Juliet. But because of budget cuts at the university, less money is available for items that affect the look of a production, like sets, lights and costumes. So to save on wardrobe, Mr. Jackson has had to readjust his core creative concept: now he has just eight actors for his new show, “Juliet.”

San Francisco State University is among several Bay Area academic institutions whose resources have been vastly reduced amid California’s fiscal crisis and the recession. A recent rehearsal there was one stop on a survey of artistic endeavors at local schools and universities. Taken as a whole, these works reveal that budget cuts have hardly dampened creative output. Even though the disastrous belt-tightening measures have put tremendous strain on teachers and students, these institutions are continuing to produce remarkable work.

San Francisco State University’s College of Creative Arts is typical of a performing arts institution grappling with reduced finances. Its operating budget has been cut by 15 percent over the last 18 months, and its staff has been thinned because of widespread furloughs, a hiring freeze and the dismissal of most of its temporary teaching staff, said Kurt Daw, dean of the College of Creative Arts.

Even Mr. Jackson, who graduated from San Francisco State in 1993, lost his salaried adjunct professor position in 2008 after a year and half in the job, and is now freelancing as a guest artist — at lower pay.

But you wouldn’t know it based on the quality of his work. Mr. Jackson’s 2008 productions of “Don Juan” (which he adapted from Molière and Pushkin) and Sophie Treadwell’s “Machinal” remain among the highlights of my theatergoing career. They have eclipsed many professional productions I’ve seen, including those directed by Mr. Jackson at spaces like the Aurora Theater and the Ashby Stage.

The way the young cast handled the physically demanding and grotesquely witty sex scenes in “Don Juan” was particularly engaging: one hilarious moment involved the title character dueling with an enemy while enjoying a romantic tryst. And the student actors brought a canny 21st-century sensibility to Ms. Treadwell’s 1920s agitprop drama. The actors sent up the overblown mannerisms of expressionist theater through their physically extreme approach to mundane tasks like washing the dishes. The dehumanizing effect of their actions was at once chilling and comical.

Word has clearly been getting out about the high quality of performances at San Francisco State, where tickets range from free to about $15. So far, in the 2009-10 academic year, the College of Creative Arts has had a 46 percent increase in attendance at its performances over the previous year. Recent productions of “Twelfth Night,” directed by William Peters, and “High Fidelity the Musical,” directed by Stephen Brookins, had capacity audiences.

The Bay Area’s public schools show similar artistic excellence. The San Francisco School of the Arts produced a memorable Christmas concert last December in the face of falling budgets and run-down premises, where classrooms often lack basic supplies.

Parents are helping to keep the high school afloat by donating an average of $300 per year per student, said the principal, Carmelo Sgarlato, who added that some of that money helps to pay for guest artists.

Like many school concerts, the Christmas program was rather long. But the school’s music ensembles gave a polished and spirited performance of a diverse range of work. I was especially moved by the chamber choral ensemble’s spectral approach to plainsong during the opening candlelit processional, and the vocal jazz ensemble’s take on the Sting song “Fragile,” complete with a silken-toned 14-year-old male soloist. The full house responded enthusiastically.

Dynamic performances and creatively inspiring rehearsals are equally evident in Bay Area institutions that don’t specialize in the arts. A recent dance show at Berkeley High School featured a variety of genres, including hip-hop and contemporary ballet. The dancers executed the steps with passion and an engaging sense of ensemble.

The state now provides less money per student, and the school is facing potential cuts in the next academic year that may adversely affect two art courses. But many students have met the arts education shortfall by taking private classes.

The challenging financial climate is certainly forcing educators in the Bay Area to be more resourceful about creating art in schools. What our educational institutions are able to achieve in a time of financial disarray makes me look forward to the dizzy heights of artistic excellence that will be possible in a more prosperous climate.

But I can’t help wishing that the money were around right now to enable artists like Mr. Jackson to channel their entire creative energy into making art. He — and discerning audiences — deserve to see his original vision of 14 Juliets, rather than making do with 8.

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