Good news for young people in our community, who dream of a job at the top of the arts world: You can get there from here. I have proof.
If you follow the arts coverage of the national news media, you've noticed that two of the plays being currently produced and performed on Broadway began as productions at Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage.
''Next to Normal'' won many awards in its off-Broadway run in 2008, featuring Brian D'Arcy-James, who is now playing the title character in ''Shrek.'' It will be opening soon on Broadway, at the Booth Theatre, with previews scheduled to start Mar. 27.
''33 Variations'' is a study of how people can become obsessed with one idea, which can force literally anything else out of their lives. In this case, the composer Ludwig van Beethoven, took one simple melody and found 33 different ways for it to sing out its message.
The play opened March 9 at Broadway's Eugene O'Neill Theatre, starring Jane Fonda and Colin Hanks, son of Oscar-winner Tom Hanks.
If you read further, you can find that both productions shared a common producer at Arena Stage. His name is David Dower, and he graduated from Maple Grove High School in 1976. He got there from here.
I had a wide-ranging phone conversation with the producer, recently, catching him just as he was leaving for New York City, to observe how his productions were making the leap from big city residential company to the dog-eat-dog world of the professional stage. I'd like to share his comments with you, along with his suggestions for young people who would like to follow in his footsteps.
David Dower is the Associate Artistic Director at Arena Stage, the largest theater in this country which is entirely dedicated to American voices in the theater.
Among his duties there has been to design and direct the American Voices New Play Institute, a research and development lab for the advancement of the new play development sector of the American theater. Just last summer, that role brought him to Chautauqua Institution, to observe the Chautauqua Theater Company's New Play Workshop on the new play ''Variations on a Theme,'' by Anna Ziegler. He gave the Chautauqua program high marks.
The American Voices Institute houses playwrights' residencies, producers' fellowships, audience development initiatives, and regular field-wide convenings designed to improve the health and productivity of the new play infrastructure nationwide.
Before being lured to our nation's capital, Dower was a founder and artistic director of The Z Space Studio, an innovative theater development center in San Francisco, where he started with an all-volunteer company and built it into a thriving, award-winning organization with an annual budget of $1.3 million.
He left our area with the intention to go into politics. On graduating from high school, he spent a year at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, then studied at American University, in Washington, D.C., where he received a BA degree Cum Laude in political science, in 1980. In 1979 and 1980, he served as a policy researcher at the National Endowment for the Arts.
From there, he went on the New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, where he obtained a graduate degree in acting.
Deciding that San Francisco had an audience for the arts and a lot of space and opportunity for new companies, he moved to the city by the bay, and supported himself as a bartender, while co-founding The Z Space Studio. While he was at it, he was named ''San Francisco's Best Bartender,'' by Focus Magazine.
Could he tell us exactly what it is that a producer does, in the company of a play?
''I run the Artistic Development Team, which is in charge of casting, scouting, developing, managing, and creating the production of new plays. I'm in charge of developing the artistic strategy for a production, and leading the process of choosing which plays we will produce,'' he said.
''It's as if someone took all the fun parts and put them into one job. I audition actors. I travel the country to see plays and meet with artists. I work with playwrights while they are writing their plays. I attend rehearsals for all our shows. I monitor trends in new play development around the country for the NEA's New Play program, which Arena Stage hosts. I read plays - for a living. I'm a lucky guy.''
In other words, while he's helping his company's former productions to open in New York City, and searching for new plays and new actors for future productions, he's overseeing the productions of ''A Delicate Balance'' and ''Crowns'' which are now on the Arena Stage for audiences.
Theater during Recession
While I had an expert on the phone, I asked about the effects of the current economic downturn on the art of the theater.
Dower responded that Arena Stage is fortunate to be in Washington, D.C., and so is relatively immune to the current situation. ''Government is our industry, and we're not likely to have fewer members of congress or lower salaries,'' he said.
''Arena Stage has just completed a $150 million building project, which was begun and financed when things were much better, so we're lucky that we don't have to try to borrow money or do anything major in the line of facilities,''
While it's true that ticket buyers are now being more selective and more often choosing the less expensive seats, and donations aren't as generous as they've been in the past, but for the moment, at least, he thinks Arena Stage will survive the economy.
David Dower is the son of David and Sandra Dower, of Bemus Point. His father ''has retired several times'' from Valeo, although various things have lured him back, according to his son.
Mrs. Dower is an Episcopalian priest, and is affiliated with St. Luke's Episcopal Church in downtown Jamestown. The Dowers have a daughter and another son.
''My parents have a motor home, and they seem to be happiest when they're out experiencing the world in it,'' he told me. ''They don't just drive to Florida, though. They took it to South America, not long ago, and they're making plans to see Alaska.''
He said he has been thinking of his high school years recently, because he attended a performance of the revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical ''South Pacific,'' at Lincoln Center, recently. ''That was the first play I ever performed in,'' he said of his role as the French planter Emile deBecque. ''I might have never considered a life in the theater, if it hadn't been for Lorin Hunt and his program at Maple Grove.''
Dower said he frequently encounters one of his former classmates, Kristine Thorsell Holmes, whenever his work takes him to Boston, where she has a prominent position in public television.
So, how does a hard worker and an eager learner ''get there from here?'' Dower offered some advice, from a place of experience.
''I think the most important thing is that people should work at any kind of job, only as long as they enjoy it and feel that they're accomplishing something. I know a number of people who hunker down and stick with something too long, and it wears them down,'' he said.
''Second, if you want to do something, don't wait around for someone else's permission. If you believe you have what it takes to be the best Hamlet who ever played the role, don't sit around and wait to find a group which is preparing to perform Hamlet, then audition and hope they'll give you permission to play it,'' he said.
'' Many times in life, I've had to make my own opportunities: start my own company, hire myself to do something. They certainly haven't always worked out, but I never failed to do something because I was waiting for someone else to allow me to do it.''
Anything else? ''Absolutely! Get training, for whatever it is you want to do, and the best training you can possibly get,'' he said. ''It's a big world out there. You simply may not have encountered yet, what you need or what you will be best at doing. If you're being trained, you're being exposed to new ideas, and new ways of doing things, and the mechanics of how to do them.
Talking with Dower brought back a memory which has troubled me, off and on, for more than 30 years.
One activity which he pursued in high school was the school's debate team. I was his coach.
He competed successfully in debate and in a number of speech competitions, including dramatic interpretation of literature, and oratory. His most successful area was student congress, which was a logical field for someone who wanted to be in politics, at the time.
A speaking tournament required at least a dozen schools to operate effectively, Since only Jamestown, Southwestern Central and Maple Grove had speech teams, in those days, competition required quite a lot of travel. But, some tournaments attracted a great many more than the basic dozen. Each year, Central Catholic High School, in Pittsburgh, hosted a tournament so influential and well-run that hundreds of teams came from California, from Hawaii and from Puerto Rico, along with schools all over the U.S. and Canada.
Competition was fierce.
The entry fees from so many schools might have inspired the host team to pay all their own travelling expenses for the rest of the school year, but, instead, they had a rare and wonderful idea. Most tournaments gave trophies - shiny plastic statuettes - to the top three speakers in every category. Central Catholic gave works of art.
Their coach said that he found that many high school students in our country had never seen an original work of art. Winning students were given small, original works of art to keep, and each winner's school was also given a larger work of art. Teams were encouraged to donate the artworks to their schools, and have them permanently displayed, as a memorial to the winning student and an inspiration to his fellow students.
Dower won a trophy at Central Catholic, in student congress. It was a carved statue of a Native American Warrior. The team proudly donated it to the school, and the librarian made a special , prominent place for the statue. The team ordered an inscribed name plate, where for as long as the school stood, students could admire the artistry of the sculptor, and remember David Dower and his outstanding success as a public speaker.
And then, somebody stole it. We left for summer vacation with the statue on prominent display in the school's library, and returned in September to find the space empty. I hope the person who took it got some satisfaction out of the inspiration and beauty which were denied to students for decades to come.
It's a small thing, but cruel and unfair situations always haunt me.
As for David Dower, he had to get off the phone. He was leaving for a conference at a Broadway theater, with Jane Fonda. He got there from here.