Saturday, December 31, 2016

Stephen Carver carries on his family's legacy at the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre

Here is a cover story I wrote on Stephen Carver, the new executive director of the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre. The story appears in  the January 2017 issue of Encore magazine.

The Kalamazoo Civic Theatre looks the same as it did almost 90 years ago and has the same purpose and quality of product too. And now it has a familiar name at the helm. Again. 

Stephen Carver took on the role of executive director last spring, following in the footsteps of his father, James C. Carver, who ran the theater for 38 years, and his grandparents Norman and Louise Carver, who were among the founders of the Civic Players.

Carver took over the job from Kristen Chesak, who is now the executive director of the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo. 

The 55-year-old Carver has trod this stage before. He grew up on the “back bench” of the historic theater and learned the “family business” from his father, until he decided to be an actor in his own right. 

After Carver earned a degree in fine arts and theater from Denison University, in Granville, Ohio, in 1983, he went to Hollywood. Among his many credits are appearances on television and in movies, including as a borg in seven episodes of Star Trek: Next Generation, as a policeman in Liar Liar with Jim Carrey, and roles in The Golden Girls, Diagnosis Murder and Ellen

Carver has also directed 30 plays, worked in radio and television production and co-founded with actor and comedian Steve Carell the Skyline Theatre Company in Chicago. Carver also served as the company’s artistic director. For the past 12 years, Carver led the Longmont Theatre Company, in Longmont, Colorado.
“It’s a life, not a career,” says Carver. “That’s show business.”

'A better choice'

So why would he choose community theater in a small southwestern Michigan town far away from the Hollywood limelight?

Quite frankly, Carver says, he found Hollywood to be an endless routine of auditioning for a role, playing it and moving on to the next gig. Community theater requires more of an ongoing commitment, he says. It involves five weeks of rehearsal and creative work before a show opens, three to four weeks of running the show and a continuous commitment to actors, volunteers, donors and patrons throughout the year, he says.

“For me, community theater was a better choice,” Carver says. “My contribution to the Civic is focused on creating a sense of community within our organization and its outreach to Kalamazoo.”

As the Civic’s executive director, Carver oversees 36 staff members and 1,085 volunteers, a total that is equivalent to 80 full-time employees. These volunteers include not only actors but ushers, ticket takers, costumers, painters and electrical workers as well as backstage crews that run sound or lights or manage props for each show.

The Civic also runs an Academy of Theatre Arts, which provides theater classes and workshops for all ages. Its Civic Youth Theatre trains youngsters from age 9 to high school seniors in all aspects of theater production.

What is most remarkable about the Civic, says Carver, is that actors, crew and professional staff all regard it as a home where they feel a real sense of belonging. 

“It’s a place where the community learns the craft of live theater, but it also provides them with an opportunity to build self-esteem and interpersonal skills,” says Carver.

The Civic certainly feels like home to Carver. He notes that things around the theater haven’t changed much since he was a boy. The marble floors are still there, as is the furniture, which will soon receive an upholstering update. The stage is still Broadway-style, with a complete fly system and numerous trapdoors. The murals in the green room are the same. So are the dressing rooms, but the lights are now LEDs.

 Retaining tradition

“The Civic has done a wonderful job keeping the look and feel of the original building,” says Carver. “As technology changes, the Civic has gone the extra mile to disguise the modernization. Even though we are a state-of-the art theater, it still feels like the auditorium of the early 1930s.”

In the theater’s basement is a kitchen stocked with china and silverware purchased from the Gilmore Brothers Department Store back when Carver’s grandparents managed the theater. The original stove is still there, but Carver plans to replace it so that home-cooked meals on real plates can be prepared for cast and crew during productions, just as they were long ago by volunteer cooks — and co-founder Howard Chenery himself.

“That just makes it special,” says Carver. “It’s part of treating everyone like family, which is a longtime tradition at the Civic.”
The theater was started in 1929, and its first home was the auditorium of the former Lincoln Junior High School (now Lincoln International Studies School). In 1929, Dr. W.E. Upjohn bought the house on the theater’s current site and helped build the Civic with Howard Chenery, who was the drama coach at Kalamazoo Central High School. 

Right from the start, the Civic involved a community effort. Among the theater’s founders, in addition to Upjohn, Chenery, and Norman and Louise Carver, were Dorothy U. Dalton; Arthur Kohl and Frances Hall Kohl, who were former members of the Wright Players Stock Company; and Dr. Allan Hoben, then-president of Kalamazoo College. Their contributions helped to set the stage for many years of high artistic quality and performance at the Civic, which made it a major cultural institution in Southwest Michigan, and it is still one of the premier community theaters in America, Stephen Carver says. 

Norman Carver was hired to oversee the building. He later became the Civic’s first business manager. And so intent was Upjohn’s resolve that the “happy use of leisure time, to adult education, to cultural life, and to the widest civic use” be the mission of the Civic, that he secured the life of the building in perpetuity by creating an endowment. 

“The legacy of the theater is very, very important to me,” says Stephen Carver. “My generation is probably the last of those who knew the founders directly, and it’s important for us to tell the story of the Civic.”

Among those stories is that Upjohn’s ulterior motive behind founding the theater was that he wanted his daughter, Dorothy U. Dalton, to return home from New York City, where she was a stage actress.

“I don’t know if it’s true or not,” says Carver, “but it makes for a nice story and a legacy that has lasted almost 90 years.”
Carver relates another story about a Carver family Thanksgiving dinner, when Irving S. Gilmore, one of the theater’s generous benefactors, brought oysters. 

“What this story symbolizes is that the early founders were very connected to each other like a family,” says Carver. “They had holiday dinners together, socialized, took theater trips, and vacationed together. They also continued to serve the Civic throughout the rest of their lives.”

Why now?

However, many people may still ask the question: Why Stephen Carver and why now, after he’s been away for 35 years?

Former Civic Theatre board president Rob Kerschbaum provides the official answer: “Every part of Steve’s resumé spoke to the complex and unique demands of producing quality community theater. He combines management experience with fundraising and technical skills that will bring out the best in our staff and volunteers. But what made the decision so easy to hire him was his passion for the true spirit of community theater.”

Carver’s own response is more personal: “For me, the business of community theater is a family business,” says Carver. “It’s what we talked about since I was 6 years old. It was here that I appeared on stage and learned how to direct and act as well as to do staging, lighting, set design and recruit volunteer pools. This was my education.”

Growing up, Carver attended every Civic performance and then, on the ride home with his father, would engage in a critical analysis of the show by talking about what he liked and didn’t like. But the “back bencher” also mowed the theater’s lawn, buffed its marble floors, painted its windows, changed its marquee and did some of its maintenance work.

Carver’s father also taught him the importance of being personable at the theater, whether during a curtain speech at the beginning of a show or standing in the lobby talking to patrons as they arrived and left and during intermission. This is what it takes to run a successful community theater, he says, to literally be present to the community.

“We do a lot to make our house your theater home,” says Carver. 
“We want patrons to feel like they belong here. And if you’re a member, we work to make sure that you get a high-quality product on stage.”

Carver says the theater’s professional staff members greet patrons, donors, volunteers and visitors with enthusiasm, whether it is during office hours or before or after a performance. 

“They’ve bought into the theory, too, that the Civic is all about being together as a family, as a community,” says Carver. “And paid staff realize they are here for our many volunteers in order to provide a level of service to them so that they, too, can see the Civic as ‘home.’”

For Carver, returning to the Civic is a way to give back to a profession and a place that have given him so much.

“Theater was good for me personally,” he says. “I gained confidence, self-esteem and learned how to present myself, which came in handy when I had to pitch myself in Hollywood.

"What better way to spend my career than by paying forward all the education in the arts I received at the Civic?”

Saturday, December 17, 2016

John Glenn -- American Hero -- RIP


This was his official photo as an astronaut. He made his historic flight on February 20, 1962 on Friendship 7 -- three revolutions around the Earth.

He was a U.S. Marine fighter pilot during World War II where he went on 149 missions and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He also flew in Korea. He made it as a Mercury 7 astronaut, the first group to go to space. In 1974, he became a U.S. Senator from Ohio at the suggestion of President John F. Kennedy, and was elected to four terms. In 1998, at age 77, he flew on the Discovery Space Shuttle.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Dear Mrs. Clinton...

I had looked forward to writing you a letter of congratulations after you moved into the White House as the first woman President of the United States. I had hoped to see you in person some day and shake your hand and be just as exhilarated as I was when I shook Geraldine Ferraro’s, our first woman vice presidential candidate. As far as I’m concerned, you’re right up there with Eleanor Roosevelt, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the countless women who stepped out of their traditional roles as women in order to make a difference to our nation and our world.

I want to thank you for your work as First Lady, Senator and Secretary of State where you were intelligent, well-prepared, understood the purpose of public service and possessed the courage to sustain the terrible and strange negativity that was spewed out against you. You never backed down or cowered from your opponents. I know of few women or men who could have done that—on the national stage no less!

I also want to thank you for being gracious in defeat and conceding this election in the true spirit of our democracy after such a contentious and disappointing battle, especially after winning the popular vote.

I believe you would have been a good president America could be proud of, and I’m truly sorry more people chose not to see that in you. The misogyny that occurred during the campaign is so typical of what happens to women who dare to lead.

Some—both men and women—just can’t take the thought of a woman leader. It unsettles them. They believe something is wrong and out-of-whack, so they cook up hysterical excuses to slap you down. Any woman who has tried to assert or advance herself knows this to be true. Any woman who has an ounce of ambition has experienced what it is like to be called out and trounced. And yet, you found the strength to overcome these obstacles and persevere.

I believe you are a woman with a depth of soul and purpose. These are especially admirable qualities to have in politics, which is easily the most exciting, albeit dirtiest game around. Unfortunately, sexism took hold of the nation just as racism, homophobia and ethnic and religious discrimination are rearing their ugly heads again all over our country now. This is very disturbing, but maybe some good will come out of it. Maybe Americans will be moved to unite and fight against these injustices. Maybe more women will pursue political, institutional and community leadership. Maybe, we will become a stronger nation because women and men decided to work together to address the real issues of our time, namely, environmental degradation, economic inequality, tolerance for differences, student debt, poverty, violence and war, issues that were somehow overlooked during this campaign.

I am sorry about the election. You deserved to win. You would have been a positive, open and progressive force on our nation and our world, but we blew it. My gosh, almost 50 percent of Americans didn’t even bother to vote!

I hope you find peace in these next few months and over the years. And I hope you are comforted by the fact that although you didn’t win the presidency, you are like Susan B. Anthony who didn’t see the vote for women but cleared a path for other capable women in the future.

God bless you, Mrs. Clinton, thanks for your service--and I still hope to shake your hand someday.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

A Light for Aleppo

Click here for WMMT news story announcing the CSJ prayer service for Aleppo

Click here for WMMT news story on the prayer service

The Sisters of St. Joseph held a special prayer service for the people of Aleppo, Syria, who are victims of the terrible war and destruction there. This service is part of a worldwide solidarity movement for peace to let the people, aid workers, charities and victims of war in Aleppo know that they are not forgotten.

6 p.m. 
front steps of Nazareth Center 
3427 Gull Road 

Luminaries made by the sisters lit up the front steps of the building as people join together in prayer.

For those who could not attend the service, the sisters asked that they light a candle for the people of Aleppo and place it in the front windows of their homes.

A Light for Aleppo movement began in Scotland. 

A Prayer for the People of Syria

Almighty eternal God, source of all compassion,
the promise of your mercy and saving help fills our hearts with hope.

Hear the cries of the people of Syria, especially the children;
bring healing to those suffering from the violence,
and comfort to those mourning the dead.

Empower and encourage Syria's neighbors in their care and welcome for 

Convert the hearts of those who have taken u arms,
and strengthen the resolve of those committed to peace.

O God of hope and Father of mercy,
your Holy Spirit inspires us to look beyond ourselves and our own needs.

Inspire leaders to choose peace over violence and to seek reconciliation
with enemies.

Inspire the Church around the world with compassion for the people of Syria,
and fill us with hope for a future of peace built on justice for all.

We ask this through Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace and Light of the World,
who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Day After the Trump Victory

 Donald Trump’s victory left a lot of us numb and speechless. His rise to the presidency was inconceivable and yet throughout the 18-month campaign, he defied all odds and made it to the top.

At first I couldn’t figure out what to do with this news, but I was certain I didn’t want to be angry for the next four years. That attitude, in fact, elected Trump and I didn’t want to feed it. Instead, I decided to handle this disaster in a spiritual way. So I spent the day in prayer and consultation with octogenarian nuns who have seen it all and later attended an inter-faith prayer service at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Kalamazoo. Throughout the day I seemed to encounter people who helped me formulate a plan of action for dealing with this unforeseen and potentially destructive next four years. I pass it on to you as a sincere offering of hope and action.

·      Regard this time as a special time in our country that calls us to act with love, compassion, peace and joy to all the people we encounter instead of acting rashly out of hatred, violence or disgust.

·      Focus on the local community and make it a good place to live for everyone. Take care of others by empathetic listening.

·      Support and protect people who are from minority groups, different faiths, the LGBT community, pregnant women, women vulnerable to rape and sexual harassment, international visitors, immigrants, refugees, study abroad students and anyone who may be a target for bullying, ridicule or violence.

·      Cry if you must. Be sad if you are sad. But pick yourself up again and be with people. Don’t dwell on negative feelings. Instead, hold another’s pain, fear, anger and disappointment in your hand for a while so they can re-orient themselves to take the necessary time they need to find a level of comfort and solitude that will enable them to deal with their difficulties.

·      Pray for those who voted for Trump because they felt disenfranchised and angry. They were hurting but we failed to hear them. They felt alone, betrayed and scared about their future, but we failed to go to them. Sometimes, we even mocked them. Remember that they are our fellow Americans, and some of them are from our families. We need to be there with them and with each other much like we did after the 9/11 attacks.

·      Watch less TV news and avoid too much social media. Rely less on polls and pundits—both conservative and liberal. Read more serious magazines and newspapers and watch more thoughtful media that analyze the issues and provide the facts. Then, look at the people around you and see where they are, hear what they say. Look into your own heart and use your own eyes and ears to understand what is going on. Spend more time in solitude because it grounds you, calms you, helps you see more clearly and be more receptive to the needs of others. This is an experiment in “otherness” rather then “me-ness.”

A Trump victory was definitely not what I wanted, but now that it is here, let’s regard it an opportunity for us to change ourselves, especially in the absence of genuine leadership from government—which will now include "outsider" Trump. As Detroit philosopher and activist Grace Lee Boggs said: “We are the leaders we have been waiting for.” Let's move ourselves in that direction. A Trump victory is an opportunity for us to make our communities good, safe and vital places to live. It is an opportunity for creativity. It is an opportunity to make a difference in our own lives and in the lives of others if we can commit ourselves to love, gentleness, peace and joy.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Possibilities Before Us with a Hillary Clinton Win

Two days to go before the election. Nothing else has exploded in our faces—yet. There are cases of voter suppression, courtesy of the GOP, but no new information on Hillary’s e-mails or Trump’s sexual predation. The real fear looming over us is the aftermath of either a Trump win or the backlash of a Hillary presidency.

I think Hillary has played fair, although she’s never backed down from a fight. Donald is a bully, a name caller and an outright nasty, inappropriate person. My hope is that we don’t have to hear from him again, but I doubt that will happen. His thin skin will not allow him to lose graciously or quietly, and he’ll probably grumble that “the election was rigged” until the day he dies—just as he kept the birther argument alive for five years and wouldn’t quit. He is such a little man and the only thing keeping him afloat is his money and his hatred for people not like him. That he should appeal to so many people shows the downward slide in the conscience of our country and its values. What an embarrassment he would be as the leader of the most powerful country in the world!

I hope Hillary wins. The polls seem to be in her favor. Despite all the negativity toward her and the scandals surrounding her, I think she will make a great president. But that can only happen if she has some coattails in the Senate and comes close to winning 30 House seats. The FBI will be after her. Die-hard Trump supporters will be after her. Frankly, I don’t know how she finds the strength to go on. It’s not just about her ambition—and she has plenty of it. There is a biggness about her, a biggness of soul that runs through her veins and allows her to take the hits and keep on going. I couldn’t do that even at the county politics level and here she is taking it at the national level not to mention the international level with Putin’s alleged shenanigans. What strength and courage she has! That’s the kind of president I want. That’s the kind of leadership we need.

Hillary is certainly a role model for all women and girls. And, now, she is about to become president of the United States, our first woman president. She’s controversial, yes, but I think that’s mostly because she is a woman. Surprisingly, that fact didn’t really stick during the campaign. It was present through Trump’s Access Hollywood tape and his nasty comments about women, but it wasn’t directly addressed. It was as though he didn’t even acknowledge Hillary was a woman. Instead, he focused on Hillary’s e-mails, which were not clearly a crime at the time, and the Clinton Foundation, which has done a lot of good for a lot of people.

The poisonous environment we have endured over the past two years of this election cycle is likely to intensify after Hillary is elected and takes office. Misogyny will undoubtedly take on newer, more overt levels throughout the country and then it will be obvious that sexism was the central issue of this campaign. But maybe some good will come out of it. Maybe women will unite and fight sexist discrimination they still encounter and that Hillary will encounter. And if we do, maybe we will become stronger—together. Maybe we will create an undercurrent that quietly and surreptitiously changes the world, but no one notices for a while. Hillary’s presidency will not be about liberals and conservatives fighting it out to the death, but about men and women working together to shape a new world that is able to meet the real challenges ahead of us, namely, environmental degradation, tolerance for differences, student debt, poverty, war. This is the possibility before us if Hillary wins.

God bless our country. We are approaching the chance of radically changing who we are and how we will influence the world—and we will all be participants in our democracy, not spectators of reality TV.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns

Elections today are won by “nudges of turnout” with two points here and six points there that decide close races, especially in our polarized political environment.

To get these nudges, political scientists and professional campaign operatives generate and analyze thousands of bits of voter data, which is available through public record and market research. As a result, a whole new area of political science research has emerged that combines computer technology with behavioral science in order to determine who voters are and how they can be persuaded to vote.

Sasha Issenberg, author of he Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns, spoke to students and faculty recently at the annual William Weber Lecture in Government and Society on how this sophisticated, data-driven system works.

The three-time author and political journalist for Bloomberg and formerly Slate and Boston Globe became aware of this new kind of campaigning during the 2008 presidential election when he covered John McCain’s campaign in Michigan.

Data-driven campaigns actually began in the 1960s with punch card computers creating databases on voters. In the 1970s, data was organized into precincts and included names of voters, their gender, age, race/ethnicity and political party affiliation. In the 1990s, campaigns copied consumer marketers’ tactics in identifying and persuading voters.

“Campaigns never interact with people individually,” said Issenberg, “but they are able to see the electorate all at once.”

Political scientists had been explaining voter behavior as a rational activity of citizenship. They also focused on measuring the effectiveness of television, radio, direct mail and phone banks.

In 1998, two Yale political scientists, Alan Gerber and Don Green, began conducting experiments that measured and analyzed voter motivations. They found that people act in the social context of their peers and can be persuaded to do something if they are thanked rather than if they are asked.

“You will probably get letters in the mail this fall thanking you for voting in 2012 and alerting you to the election on November 8,” said Issenberg.

Trump has defied the type data-driven campaign and instead plays to the mass media and Twitter.

“Trump’s campaign is not targeted,” said Issenberg. “He’s using his personality and persuasion through the logic of network television where it gets people to pay attention and hopefully come back to watch.”

The William Weber Lecture in Government and Society was founded by Bill Weber, a 1939 graduate of Kalamazoo College who until his death in 2011, traveled from California back to K College to attend these lectures.