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Sunday, April 21, 2013

Theater of the Absurd

Breaking Eggs Dept.: When the curtain fell on Patricia Snyder’s tenure as director of the NY State Theatre Institute in 2010, it was a sad end to what essentially was the second act of a story of a fight for children’s education. The first act ended in 1989, after a cabal put in place by then-governor Mario Cuomo unseated the theater company. As befits anything set in motion by state government, it’s a complicated story, and I was the first to break news of the controversy in the article below, from December 1987. I’ll return at the end of it with a postscript.


ACCORDING TO A POPULAR STORY, Nelson Rockefeller was seated at lunch with an architect, discussing the lecture hall he wanted built on his new South Mall in Albany. “I want it to look different,” he said, and, placing a grapefruit on top of a creamer, decided, “I want it to look like this.”

Even before construction began, a cloud’s-eye view of the architect’s design showed an oval in the midst of the Mall, and when the grapefruit (slightly flattened) did go up it already had been nicknamed the Egg. You see it most clearly when approaching Albany from the east, the towers of the mall rising as you near the Hudson.

This high visibility may be at the root of a controversy threatening to remove the Empire State Institute for the Performing Arts (ESIPA) from the Egg’s two theaters, which it now operates. So confusing is the hodgepodge of legislation and agreements that keeps the theaters in business that a cleverly planted wedge may begin to bust open the Egg at a meeting of a board of directors scheduled (after two postponements) for Dec. 18. It’s been whispered that ESIPA soon will be kicked out of the Egg, and, while nobody wants to take credit for the rumor, there are enough facts to suggest that a major change is imminent.

But it would be a sly change, over almost before we knew it, thriving on the confusion inherent in an administrative setup where two distinct entities sort of merged into a third. To understand what’s about to happen, you have to understand what already went on.

Late in 1973, the state Temporary Commission on Cultural Resources discovered “a dichotomy between two vast systems of education – our cultural institutions and our schools. Neither system communicates with the other very much. Our artists, scientists and historic societies all exist in our communities separate ... from the formal educational institutions – our schools.”

In response, an act creating the Empire State Youth Theater Institute was signed into law by Governor Malcolm Wilson the following year after unanimous approval by the State Senate and Assembly. ESYTI was born as an arm of the State University system. Its mission: To serve students at all educational levels with a variety of theatrical performances as well as with comprehensive behind-the-scenes looks at play production, and to enhance the standard curriculum with insights brought over from the performing arts.

The first season of production (1977-78) took place in tiny Meeting Room 6 at the then-unfinished Empire State Plaza, but got off to an ambitious start with Gertrude Stein’s First Reader and The Wizard of Oz among the offerings. At the end of the second season – early in 1979 – the company moved into the new Egg. The first production there was Peter Pan.

What followed was a mess of mighty monikers. In 1979, the Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza Performing Arts Center Corporation was formed, also known as the Governor Nelson A. (etc.), yielding the acronym GNARESPPACC, hereafter referred to as the Corporation. Its mission: to manage the Egg, and to participate in “promotion, sponsorship, development and production of programs in the performing arts and other civic, cultural, and public events for the benefit of the people of the state of New York.”

A nine-member board was established to oversee the Corporation, with ex-officio non-voting status extended to the director of the Youth Theater and to the chancellor of the state of New York.

BUT CORPORATION-SPONSORED PRODUCTIONS got off to a poor start. Late in 1980 – even as ESYTI was presenting successful productions of Pinocchio and Witness for the Prosecution – a program of music, dance and theater featuring such talent as the Tokyo String Quartet, the Dance Theatre of Harlem and Carmen McRae failed to come close to recouping even artists’ fees, let alone production costs. By the time the Corporation abandoned its season in 1982, it had failed to meet artists’ fees on all but four of 59 events.

That was the year when a letter of agreement was drawn between ESYTI and the Corporation creating the Empire State Institute for the Performing Arts. This letter planted the seeds that would sprout into the current conflict, but the innocent intent was to solve the problems of two entities sharing a single, not very accommodating space.

ESIPA was set up with a staff of SUNY employees and an advisory council drawn from SUNY divisions across the state, but policy-making was the province of the Corporation board. According to the terms of the letter, the director of ESIPA would annually “submit ... a plan of performance programs and educational activities including funding for implementing the plan” to the Corporation board for approval.

To that end, the original board set up committees of programming and finance to keep in closer touch with those areas than the four annual meetings would allow; much of this changed with a change of chairman.

The spoils system is a way of life on “the second floor” (as the offices of the governor’s staff are termed). Robert Morgado, original chairman of the GNARESPPACC board, was a Carey person. When his term expired two years ago, the Corporation needed a Cuomo-ite. Enter W. Barnabas McHenry.

FRENCH AUTHOR HONORE DE BALZAC described his M. Grandet as a circumspect man: “... His movements were almost noiseless; he seemed to carry out his principles of economy in everything; to make no useless sound, to be chary of spending even physical energy.” Place Grandet in the well-tailored suit of a Philadelphia Brahmin and you have McHenry, a corporate attorney who etched a smooth educational path through Princeton and Columbia, ultimately landing the plum job of general counsel to The Reader’s Digest Association for 22 years.

McHenry took his place at this new helm at the end of 1985, declaring that he wanted “to help in any way I can to see that there is more of the performing arts in the Egg.” But his first meeting with the board, in December of that year, saw the quiet beginning of a conflict that may roll to an unhappy conclusion next week. McHenry recommended that the Corporation’s auditors, the firm of Peat Marwick & Mitchell, “prepare a special report based on the questions raised in [a State Division of Budget] draft study report.” According to minutes of that meeting, the draft study dealt with “direction and function of the organization.”

The eventual recommendation, “that change is essential,” becomes a conclusion against which a costly study was affixed. It’s significant that ESIPA was never perceived as a troubled entity until McHenry stepped in.

And, despite his proclaimed loyalty to Albany, he has an office on one of the floors kept by the state Office of General Services in the World Trade Center in Manhattan. The door reads “Empire State Plaza Arts Commission” (McHenry is chairman) and “Empire State Plaza Performing Arts Center Corporation.” It’s a peculiar distance to keep, but probably a mark of prestige to be kept in so swank a setting by two distant, publicly funded boards.

Before his appointment to the Corporation, McHenry was involved in at least two well-publicized controversies, one artistic, the other financial. He resigned in 1983 as president of the board of directors of the Lincoln Center Theatre Company, the company that had kept the Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre dark for five of the previous six years and had failed to win any acclaim, as evidenced by poorly received productions of Macbeth and Woody Allen’s The Floating Light Bulb. In 1983, The New York Times editorially rebuked the board’s drama group for having “no visible artistic policies.”

In 1979, Albert Cole, a former general manager of Reader’s Digest, was lunching with his former boss, DeWitt Wallace. He asked the old, somewhat feeble man whom he had named executor of his will. Wallace couldn’t remember.

“Cole obtained permission to review Wallace’s will,” wrote Roy Rowan in a 1984 Fortune magazine article. “He was amazed to discover that William Barnabas McHenry, the Digest’s chief counsel, who had drawn up the document, was named as the sole executor.” Cole acted quickly to add the names of two other men close to the firm, but a few years later, after the deaths of both DeWitt and his wife, Lila, those others were ousted from the company to the shock of everyone around them. When the dust had settled, McHenry was revealed as sole executor of Lila’s will. “This is disquieting to some Digesters,” Rowan continued, “who claim McHenry is a power-seeker.”

MCHENRY GAVE A BRIEF PRESENTATION at a Nov. 18 meeting of the Albany Roundtable, a regular lunchtime event promoting the city’s culture and politics. On behalf of the Plaza Arts Commission, McHenry gave the world’s fastest slide show, galloping through features of the South Mall gallery. On behalf of the Egg, he made the observation that the problem at the Egg can be seen in ornithological terms, as the product of a cowbird’s intrusion.

A cowbird, you see (and McHenry, on the board of the Cornell ornithology lab, would know), lays its egg in a nest built by another, chasing the original inhabitant away. But, in a strange metaphorical metamorphosis, we were told that the offspring of this cowbird “was a beautiful peacock. And we have to find a way to protect that peacock.” Even as a way is sought to attract other birds to the Egg. This is the dangerous path the Corporation traveled in the pre-ESIPA days, when it learned that a 900-seat theater can’t pay for big-name attractions. And small-name attractions (not to mention many big-namers) don’t easily draw a local audience, as Proctor’s Theatre in Schenectady has demonstrated. If the Corporation makes extra funds available, the cry can again go up that it is unfairly using taxpayer money to compete with privately funded arts organizations. And no such process can occur without displacing the activities of ESYTI in some manner.

A private meeting took place in September, to which representatives from several area artistic organizations were invited – with the exception of ESIPA’s producing director, Patricia Snyder – the avowed purpose of which was to solicit opinions on how the Egg’s facilities might better benefit the community. On this matter, McHenry remains characteristically chary: “It’s really up to the board to set policy,” he told the Times Union’s Martin Moynihan, “and they haven’t.”

If the ESIPA letter of agreement is but a temporary thing, as some board members have suggested, the answer to the conflict raised by the Peat Marwick study should be no more than new legislation formalizing that letter of agreement. But to have the governance McHenry seems to desire would require a break from SUNY, a move that could impair ESIPA’s educational mission – and that’s the part that gets most overlooked in this drama.

IT’S EASY TO CONSIDER the Egg’s schedule and worry about the holes if what you’re looking for is a season of luminaries. But, as is true with any egg, you have to crack it to get at the goodies. The theaters and workshops, lecture halls and hallways are a hive of activity the public rarely sees. The ESIPA mission is to a large part a commitment to education, and every show that is brought in or produced at the Egg includes a wealth of instructional activity.

We typically see only the end result, the for-adults performances. Activity goes on all the time. For the recent play Crucifer of Blood, set construction began Sept. 21. Rehearsals commenced Oct. 11, the day after the previous show, Carnival, closed and concurrent with rehearsals for Myrln.

Tech and dress rehearsals began the first day of November, and the show went up with a 10 AM student preview Nov. 6. The following weekend, the public saw performances, but the kids were back at 10 AM throughout the next week, coming from the Academy of the Holy Names, Rondout Valley, the Rensselaer Middle School, the Ilion Central School and others. The tenth-anniversary production of Peter Pan has a waiting list of nearly 10,000 students from 65 area schools – and those are the ones who even bothered to sign up on the list. You will be hard put to find any student seats for any production for the rest of the season.

The public posture of Governor Cuomo is ironic. Throughout his speechifying about “the family of New York,” returning “values into education,” he has never acknowledged ESIPA’s achievements, which included a trip to Moscow that anticipated his own such trip.

In a Frank Capra movie it was a pretty safe bet that the kids would win, even with the daunting likes of Edward Arnold and Claude Rains to oppose them. The question at the next Corporation board meeting isn’t a matter of clarifying an issue of governance specially muddied for the purpose, but rather of renewing a commitment that, for the past five years, has been cultivating the audiences that failed to fill the Corporation’s Egg in the first place.

Coveting the Egg has been a game of local politics since this tribute to stress-tested concrete was first erected. Is the Corporation’s new chairman but another politically minded person making a grab for the grapefruit?

Metroland Magazine, 3 December 1987


Postscript: Although my article prompted many others critical of McHenry’s shenanigans – even getting me quoted in a New York Times piece by Harold C. Schonberg three weeks later – the theater company was tossed from the Egg and ESIPA was formally dissolved. Of the several anecdotal explanations, my favorite was the unverifiable rumor that Matilda Cuomo, the governor’s wife, had grown weary of traveling to Manhattan for cultural events, and wanted this pesky theater company removed so she could enjoy such events nearer to the Mansion.

Former Reader’s Digest managing editor Peter Canning told a fascinating story of DeWitt and Lila Wallace in his book American Dreamers, which portrayed McHenry as a greedy opportunist who would stop at nothing to keep his paws on the Wallace’s money. In other words, it offered no surprises.

The theater company eventually found a new home at Troy’s Russell Sage College and a new, state-sponsored identity as the NY State Theatre Institute. In 1998, I auditioned for the company as an actor and was hired to appear in their first performance of “A Wonderful Life,” a musical version of the beloved Frank Capra film.

The State Inspector General’s investigation that led to NYSTI’s 2010 collapse revealed financial improprieties which I was in no position to witness, although there seemed to be, alongside whatever was proven, enough allegations shot down to suggest that NYSTI’s opponents were hurling everything they could come up with.

But I saw too clearly that the family spirit of the company – which included family both blood- and marriage-related as well as such honorary extended members as I – would be anathema to the State Government mentality, which requires the strictures of rules and committees, the antithesis of creative pursuits. Trouble is, there’s a type of bureaucrat who imagines himself an artist because he believes he, too, could have written that play or painted that painting if only the annoying business of making a living hadn’t intervened.

Like Nelson Rockefeller, who was a Museum of Modern Art trustee for nearly half a century. His championship of such art lost credibility in 1933 when he caved to political forces and allowed the destruction of a Diego Rivera mural he’d commissioned because Rivera included the face of Lenin among the work’s many visages.

Arts education is the first thing that’s cut from the schools when the budgets get squeezed in such tourniquets as George W. Bush’s disastrous “No Child Left Behind” boondoggle. Yet it’s arts education through which we define ourselves as a culture. The legacy of ESIPA and NYSTI is the effect is has had – and, in greatly reduced form, continues to have – on the thousands of schoolkids around the world who’ve been witness to its performances. To the frustration of the bureaucratic mind, that effect can never be measured. Test scores can’t show it, any more than test scores can show the effects of any kind of education.

And bureaucrats still think they can run the shows. Even now, New York's Office of General Services is trying to take over programming at the Egg, a move based on badly interpreted numbers and no experience with arts programming.

Snyder was lambasted for hiring family members. In the end, her demise may have been nothing more than the imperative of a more imperial family (self-styled, at least). It was one Cuomo who kicked off the proceedings described in my article; his scion, moving from attorney general to governor, administered the coup de grâce.

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