Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Dracula Calling

This week on Lincoln Avenue, I’m talking with Pat Fagan about the history and the future of the Youngstown Playhouse. I think of the Playhouse, together with the Butler and the Youngstown Symphony, as one of the “foundation stones” of the local arts and culture scene. It’s been around for more than eight decades, and despite some recent struggles, its leaders and volunteers are still committed and excited about its work.

You can hear that excitement when Pat talks about her own experiences there. We often talk about the arts in terms of the entertainment and enrichment they bring to audiences. When we think about the value of helping to make art, we too often focus on children, as in discussions of the importance of arts education. But Pat reminds us that participating in the arts – acting in a play, helping to build sets, singing in a choir, taking photographs – improves adults’ quality of life, too. It isn’t just a matter of high-minded things like expanding one’s cultural perspectives. It’s just plain fun.

I moved to Youngstown 20 years ago, and I’ve always been amazed at the quantity and quality of arts programs in our area. We have at least half a dozen community theaters in the Mahoning Valley, plus multiple museums, and a vivid array of music, visual arts, and creative writing offerings. All of that can be a great asset, helping to draw newcomers to the area and develop strong community networks for those who are already here.

But there’s a challenge, too. As the Valley’s population shrinks, our unemployment rate rises, and the economy struggles, the competition for both audiences and funding gets tighter. From what Pat tells me, we seem to have plenty of talent and interest to keep all of these projects going. What we may not have is the money they need to thrive.

For now, though, the Playhouse is starting a new season. Auditions are going on this week for Dracula, and there’s more to come. Perhaps a production of Dracula is a kind of statement: local theater as the forever undead?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

In Solidarity with the Poor

Many commentators have suggested parallels between the current economic crisis and the Depression of the 1930s. While the economic situation is different in many ways, for all the challenges of this crisis, there are (as I have written elsewhere) some potentially productive parallels. Along with a wave of creative work reflecting the economic and social struggles of the working class, the 1930s generated a number of private and public programs to support those who were most vulnerable. The Catholic Worker Movement was one of these.

The Movement began as a newspaper, created by journalist Dorothy Day, but it soon developed Catholic Worker Houses that provided direct relief and spiritual support for those who were struggling to survive.

Seventyfive years later, the Catholic Worker Movement continues its work with the poor, and now it’s coming to Youngstown. On this week’s Lincoln Avenue – the first of a new season – I’m talking with Sister Ann McMenamin, from the Sisters of the Humility of Mary. Together with colleagues from the Ursuline Sisters and other groups in the community, she is helping to organize a two-day retreat to explore the idea of establishing a Catholic Worker House in our community.

The retreat will be held at the Villa Maria Center, starting at 9 am on Friday, September 4. The program will include presentations by Martha Hennessy, Dorothy Day’s granddaughter and an activism in her own right, organizers from existing Catholic Worker houses, a play about the life of Dorothy Day, and conversations about how a local group can adopt this model here. While the lead organizers are Catholic, the program is open to anyone who is interested, and anyone can become involved in the project. For more information or to register for the retreat, call the Villa Maria Center, 724-964-8920.