Cradle of the arts
Chico State’s School of the Arts helps keep Chico’s creative juices flowing
It sounds like someone is hitting a metal street sign with a pipe. It’s not the first sound you’d expect to hear walking into the Performing Arts Center on the Chico State University campus. Somehow, it blends in with the piano fills spilling from the rehearsal rooms upstairs and a far-off sustained note from a mysterious opera singer. All are part of the nearly constant creative preparation that goes on in the building.
This is one of the fun corners of the university, where students in the Theater and Music departments rehearse for performances, most of them to be given eventually in this same building. A sign hanging outside the theater in which the metal racket is echoing outlines a schedule of some of this work: Saturday: “First tech"; Monday: “First dress"; and, finally, Wednesday: “Open.” As scene builders bang the last metal parts into place, the next performance presented by Chico State’s School of the Arts, a five-night run of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, is gearing up to open its doors to the Chico public. It’s just one event out of dozens that happen every semester.
“Chico is an arts town.” We’re always saying that, always pointing out all the live theater, the art galleries, ballet, poetry and a constant supply of original bands. For being so far removed from the big-city influences of Sacramento or the Bay Area, we do pretty well. Of course, if you were to remove Chico State from the picture …
Though it’s such an obvious relationship—the university brings influences, cultural and otherwise, to the community through its curriculum, faculty and student population—Chico’s arts identity is nonetheless often defined as separate from the university. But take away the constant arts programming and influx of new artists, and not only would the community theaters and public galleries not be able to fill the seats and the walls, few of these homegrown pillars of the local arts community would have opened in the first place.
And of all arts activities the university generates, it’s the School of the Arts program—or the organized performance component of the College of Humanities and Fine Arts—that provides the main pipeline of art that influences us and the artists that entertain us.
The North State Symphony, five different choral ensembles, a black-box theater, full-scale musicals, jazz bands, the Wind Ensemble, the Brass Ensemble, chamber music, summer stock theater, opera, dance theater and art galleries—through the School of the Arts, the Theater, Music and Art departments provide a constant supply of student- and faculty-produced art, and about 23,000 people purchase tickets to these events each year. It’s safe to say that every year the School of the Arts provides so much programming that arts lovers miss more quality performances than they catch.
“We don’t want to be an ivory tower on a hill and separate from our community.”
As dean of the College of Humanities and Fine Arts, Sarah Blackstone is the person charged with seeing that the School of the Arts’ mission is carried out. Growing up in Laramie, Wyo., as “an artist child with no outlet,” Blackstone turned to the local university for influence, and she’s acutely aware of the role a university can play in bringing the arts to a small community.
“I think we’re a very important component to that,” she explains. “Our students go out into the arts community, and they crew, and they’re in the Blue Room show, and they’re helping hang the gallery show at 1078 [Gallery], and our students provide a set of interns and beginning workers to the arts.”
From an academic standpoint, the School of the Arts exists to give students in the Music, Theater, Dance Theater and Art programs the necessary practical-experience component to their degrees.
“For an arts student, say a theater student or a vocal performer, never to have performed before a live audience, or to have performed only before a live audience of their colleagues or faculty, that’s not a very good education,” Blackstone explains.
The education is a total one, too. From box office to backstage, the program functions just as any professional production company would. Not only are students getting time on the boards and under the lights, but they’re also doing the set designing, sound work, exhibit installation, promotion and choreography.
There are Chico State grads who’ve developed their craft in these School of the Arts productions and gone on to arts careers—the most famous being Amanda Detmer, who’s become a successful movie (Saving Silverman, Big Fat Liar) and television (A.U.S.A.) actress—but many more success stories are on the business and production side of things, especially with the students involved in the Music Department’s highly regarded, and highly impacted, recording arts program.
The current jewel of the School of the Arts is the popular North State Symphony, the successor to the Chico Symphony Orchestra. Now stocked with students and faculty musicians alongside professionals from Redding to the Bay Area, the symphony brings an uncommon level of sophisticated programming to the area.
“The North State Symphony is kind of a special piece of all this,” says Blackstone, “It’s one of the few orchestras in America that’s running in the black.”
Performing a dozen concerts per school year—four different programs with three performances each—the symphony sells out all of its shows, performing in Redding and Red Bluff in addition to Chico each time out.
Profit isn’t the point here, of course ("If we make money, it goes right back into the program,” Blackstone points out). The school is going to invest in keeping a variety of performance outlets for its arts programs going regardless of box office returns. This means that students and professors are able to explore and experiment and keep content and ideas fresh.
A good example of this is the current Theater Department production of Something Wicked This Way Comes (please see sidebar). Theater Professor Joel P. Rogers wrote the adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s fantasy novel, getting permission to perform his adaptation but not to sell it. Despite the extreme efforts being made first to do the adaptation and then to create the elaborate costumes and intricate sculptural metal structures (the actual extent of the preparations is being kept a secret), the play will run its five-night course and then be gone forever.
“We have an advantage [community venues] don’t have. We have the buildings. We have the equipment, and we have the regular influx of talent," Blackstone says. No matter what fluctuations might occur in Chico’s community arts organizations, the town will always have this reliable base of creative arts in its midst. And, as Blackstone points out, "Everybody else can prosper with that base."