Monday, April 30, 2012

news from doswell: Ashland Beware! Hanover Artists Appear to be Organizing!

news from doswell: Ashland Beware! Hanover Artists Appear to be Organizing!

This is just too perfect. Thanks Dale for the laugh! My sides are splitting!


Z is for catching some Z's in the A to Z Challenge. I'm tired.

Yay! First Meeting of the Ashland Arts Alliance

Y is for "Yay!" in the A to Z Challenge

There is a new group in the Ashland, Virginia area, the Ashland Arts Alliance. We are just over a week old, and have 43 plus members. We had our first "Meet and Greet" today, and 23 attended. You can find more about the Alliance at this link:

Ashland Arts Alliance

We had one of the board members from our local Main Street Association attend. This is an email I just sent to the board about the meeting:

Hi Folks,

We had our first offcial Meet and Greet for the Ashland Arts Alliance, and had 23 people attend. Not bad for a group that is only just over a week old! As I was aware of, there is some astounding talent and passion right here in the Ashland region. And I think that is an important term. "Ashland region". Just as there is a "greater Richmond" or "Richmond metro" area, there is a greater Ashland area. Many people live in areas outlying Ashland who would much rather come to Ashland than go to Richmond to network and find like minded people. If you are going to draw people to Ashland from far away, I believe you have to start by drawing those who are close. We are they.

There were a lot of great professional connections made, and people got to express their idenity, passions, and visions. I found it to be highly inspiring.

Nancy, thank you so much for coming to the event. You missed my opening introduction, but we recorded it and it will be posted to youtube, my blog, and the meetup site. Some other members may also want to have their introductions posted. Don't worry, nothing you said will be included in any posted video without your permission.

I did want to tell all of you that I was excited with Nancy's insight into the usefullness of the group. As she commented after listening to several introductions, there are talents that can be very useful to the development of downtown Ashland. People with a passion for Architectural preservation, videography, photography, display fabrication, and education. Here is the perfect arena to "stimulate the arts". Find the money to pay these people to be included in such projects as the Ashland Museum. Make them feel that they are a wanted and needed part of the growth of Ashland, and that their economic value is acknowledged and respected. Grow the seed for an arts and cultlure district by actually creating one that is made of people, not just regulations.

As self employed artists, we face the same issues of any other business owners. Finding the money to pay for our studios, equipment, and overhead. Making enough to pay for our mortgates, our healthcare, to send our kids to school and save for some type of retirement. Artists have long been seen as the go-to people to volunteer their talents and time for the needs of others. A win-win solution must be found so that artists can express their passion, and by doing what they love not only make a living wage but also help non-profits raise money and serve as the keystone to the creative economy, which is being promoted as a key element to larger economic health.


"Y" is for Yay!, and April has been Parkinson's Awareness Month

Thursday, April 26, 2012


X is for Xenophobia in the A to Z Challenge

Ok... I'll confess that this A to Z has been kind of a pain in the neck. On one hand, it has forced me to create a lot of posts in a short period of time, which is great for a brand new blog. (I started this blog on March 30th). On the other, I really don't like creating posts for the sake of creating posts. I generally have no problem coming up with topics. But I don't like being forced into boxes. And "X" is definitely a box this morning.

But rather than just coming up with some lame post like I did for "L" (I missed posting on that day, so the next day my post was simply "L is for Late") or "I" (I couldn't think of anything to write, so I wrote "Impasse") or "U" (again... lacking any ideas I wrote "Undecided") I thought I would put at least a smidge of effort into this one.

Xenophobia: "a fear of foreigners or strangers or of that which is foreign or strange."

Well if you folks haven't figured it out yet, I'm a little strange. Most of us are. In fact, I believe that you don't have to scratch very deep below the superficial personae's which most of us present to the rest of the world to find out that everybody is a little strange. Some of us just choose not to care about hiding it.

I revealed one of my quirky past times in my post Role Playing Games. Tuesday I put up a post which I had the audacity to title "A Tap Dancing Vagina" (Well.. it IS about a tap dancing vagina, and there are photos!) Hell... even my wife thinks I'm weird, and we've been married 17 years.

Artists in general are "strange". We are the boogeymen. We are the unknown. We are the puzzling blip on the radar. We are "The Others". :

X is for Xenophobia, and April continues to be Parkinson's Awareness Month.

If you haven't watched the music video Transmit Dopamine yet, please do so. It is actually kind of important:

Winning America's Future Through Creative Schools

"W" is for Winning in the A to Z Challenge

I'm sure many of you will be relieved that this blog has gotten through "V" day and moved on. We've made it to "W" day, and today's post title is drawn from the website, the President's Committee on Arts and the Humanities.

I've been tipped off to a couple of interesting posts because I have a twitter account that is about 18 months old, and I recently started "following" @BarackObama, which is run by the Obama 2012 campaign staff. If you have no earthly idea what I'm talking about, go over to and start poking around. Explaining how twitter works is beyond the scope of this post. Anyway, there was a tweet which led me to an article titled Re-Investing Through Art's Education: Winning America's Future through Creative Schools.

If you've been following this blog for any length of time, you know that arts education is a subject near and dear to me. (No, I don't just write about things in an attempt to make you blush in front of your grandmother). This is the blurb from the PCAH link:

"The President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (PCAH) announces the release of its landmark report Reinvesting in Arts Education: Winning America's Future Through Creative Schools.  The culmination of 18 months of research, meetings with stakeholders, and site visits all over the country, this report represents an in-depth review of the current condition of arts education, including an update of the current research base about arts education outcomes, and an analysis of the challenges and opportunities in the field that have emerged over the past decade. It also includes a set of recommendations to federal, state and local policymakers. A summary of the report is here."

The link in the word "here" is worth clicking. I'll summarize the summary for you though:

"It has been more than a decade since any federal entity comprehensively examined arts education data in the United States. During this time, there have been important developments in arts education research, as well as major shifts in the landscape of American education—including the impact of No Child Left Behind and increasing economic pressure."

Basically, as I've indicated elsewhere, they've discovered two things:

1)NCLB has resulted in fewer arts programs in schools
2) Kids do better when there are art programs in schools

Wow. What a surprise. I've loathed NCLB and the tyranny of standardized testing ever since my own kids, now 22 and 25, where enrolled in school. With each of these studies that are released, I'm just nodding my head. I'm glad they are finally figuring these things out, but it has been at the expense of an entire generation subjected to a failed experiment.

I'll skip over the details of the findings of the study. (After all, this is a summary of a summary, so I can have time to add parentheticals like this one!) Here are the recommendations of the study:

Recommendation 1: Build robust collaborations among different approaches to arts education
Recommendation 2: Develop the field of arts integration.
Recommendation 3: Expand in-school opportunities for teaching artists.
Recommendation 4: Utilize federal and state policies to reinforce the place of arts in K- 12 education.
Recommendation 5: Widen the focus of evidence gathering about arts education.

Swell. It is about time. But what does that mean in practical terms? How do you start?

How about like this:

The President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (PCAH) announced the launch of a new arts education initiative to help turn around low-performing schools. Developed in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Education and the White House Domestic Policy Council, the Turnaround Arts initiative is a new public-private partnership designed to narrow the achievement gap and increase student engagement through the arts. Working in some of the nation’s lowest-performing elementary and middle schools, this program will test the hypothesis that high-quality and integrated arts education boosts academic achievement, motivates student learning and improves school culture in the context of overall school reform, announced the committee’s co-chairs, George Stevens Jr. and Margo Lion.

Turnaround Arts will work in eight “turnaround schools” across the country—public schools in the lowest-achieving five percent of their state that are receiving School Improvement Grants through the U.S. Department of Education. Over the course of two years, Turnaround Arts will bring intensive arts education resources and expertise into these schools and support the school leadership in using the arts as a pillar of their reform strategy. An external evaluation of the program will measure the impact and effectiveness of this approach.

Oh wait... I asked what does that mean in practical terms. How about THIS? Pairing these schools with famous artists. Which famous artists? These:

Chuck Close
Yo-Yo Ma
Sarah Jessica-Parker
Kerry Washington
Forest Whitaker
Damian Woetzel
Alfre Woodard

I have no doubt this program will be a success, and will result in funding and regulation for artists across the country to be able get back into schools without smashing their creativity into the bland box of standardized testing curricula.

W is for Winning, and April is winding down Parkinson's Awareness Month

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A Tap Dancing Vagina

"V" is for Vagina in the A to Z Challenge

Ok.. I'm a day early. But I couldn't think of a U post for today, and this one is worth having top billing for two days on my blog.

I live just outside of the small town of Ashland, Virginia. I lived dead in the heart of Ashland for six years. Ashland has got railroad tracks running straight down the center. Apparently this was one of the few stretches of tracks not destroyed during the Civil War (War Between the States, War of Northern Agression, yadda, yadda, yadda) so when they rebuilt the rail systems, a lot of it was tied into the extisting tracks. Ashland gets a LOT of rail traffic.

Photo by R. W. Dawson

Here's the music video Transmit Dopamine (I keep telling you it is Parkinson's Awareness Month!) which was shot primarily in Ashland:

Ashland bills itself as the "Center of the Universe". This is something Ashlanders... ites... tend to be quite proud of. From a certain perspective, Ashland does feel like it is the center of something. There is a college (RMC) smack in the middle of town, and if you live right there near the tracks you can walk to the post office, the grocery store (Cross Brothers, celebrating it's 100th year!), hear fantastic national acts at Ashland Coffee and Tea, get a nice dinner at the upscale Iron Horse, have your choice of bars to sit at with the Iron Horse, Trackside Grill, or Andy's, have some jewelry custom made, get a morning cup 'o Joe at either AC&T or The Caboose, shop at Train Town Toy and Hobby, one of the best stocked train and hobby stores in the southeast, attend a Friday wine tasting at the Caboose, which has one of the best beer selections I've ever seen, and hang out at the Libarary. All these places are within several hundred feet of each other. The Strawberry Faire and Train Day are huge draws.

The name Center of the Universe was apparently dubbed by a former mayor, Dick Gilis. As it was explained to me, when Dick heard at a lecture by a professor of astronomy at RMC that there was no objective center of  the unverse, Dick said "then Ashland could be the center!". And so it is.

(My own personal take on it is that it is I, me, myself is the center of the universe, and every step I take sends the universe in rotation under my feet. Try it!)

Well, lately there has been a lot of talk about making central Ashland an "arts and culture district".

This is from

"HB1735, initially sponsored by Chief Patron Delegate Shannon Valentine, proposed that all Virginia localities have the authority to create arts and cultural districts without individual authorization from the Virginia General Assembly.

The localities will have the authority to grant tax incentives and provide certain regulatory flexibility in the arts and cultural districts. The tax incentives include, but are not limited to, reduction of permit fees, reduction of user fees, and reduction of any type of gross receipts tax. The regulatory flexibility includes, but is not limited to, special zoning, permit process reform, and exemption from ordinances.

Arts and cultural districts are an increasingly popular economic development tool for local governments across the country. When theatres, performing arts centers, museums, art galleries, and artist studios are encouraged to locate in the same neighborhood, the neighborhood becomes a magnet for the general public."

I think this is pretty fantastic. I'd love to see working artist studios that are open to the public in the center of Ashland. Sort of like you see glass blowers and candle makers in Colonial Williamsburg.
There are a lot of other things I'd like to see. For one thing, a functional performing arts space. (you know... one with wings, fly space, adequate power, a green room)

However, in my book you can't just call something an "arts and culture district" without having an arts and culture district. It is sort of a cart and horse thing. The thought I guess is that if you build it, they will come. Make the area more friendly to artists, and artists will come. But there's the key phrase.

You have to make the area friendly to artists. And that doesn't just mean zoning. It means paying attention to what artists create. And what artists create isn't always comfortable. It isn't always safe.

An arts and culture district is the proverbial genie bottle. Once you uncork it, there is no putting that genie back in. What am I talking about?

How about a tap dancing vagina.

Yep... a tap dancing vagina. See, when I was doing my stint as prop shop manager at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, WV, one of the shows we did was the wonderful, quirky, Eelwax Jesus 3D Pop Music Show. It is set in a near dystopian future, where 3D holographic technology can bring entertainment right into your living room. Folks living in a communal home gather in the central room each night to watch the Eelwax Jesus 3D Pop Music Show. It has musical and variety acts with thought provoking songs such as this:

One of the costumes we had to make for the show was a tap dancing vagina. The talented Michael McKowen spearheaded the project, and there were a number of hands involved in its construction.
Here are some process photos:

One of our talented interns adding finising touches

Hanging up to dry

And here is it in the show, dancing(  in a commercial break from the projected holographic show) along side a gynecologist, singing about... gynecology. (I guess the thought is that if we once had dancing cigarette packs hawking cancer, and we can advertise erectile disfunction drugs on prime time television, why not a tap dancing vagina to promote your local OBGYN in some not too distant future?)

Photo from
Anyway, my point is (I usually do have one, despite my meandering ways. Sue me, I'm a storyteller!) that if you want to have arts and culture, you have to have artists. And artists can be messy. In more ways than one.

"V" is for Vagina in the A to Z Challenge, and April is Parkinson's Awareness Month

Monday, April 23, 2012


"U" is for Undecided in the A to Z Challenge

I couldn't decide on a topic for today.

And April is Parkinson's Awareness Month

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Theater Festivals: America's Sweatshops

"T" is for Theater Festivals in the A to Z Challenge

I have been involved in a number of theater festivals through the years. They tend to be events about which the public is enthused. Most festivals are run by a board of directors. The members of these boards also tend to be enthused.

Also typically enthused are the executive or managing director, as well as local politicians, businesses, and anyone who stands to make a buck or boost their image as a "supporter of the arts".

Data will be released about the benefits to the local economy, and there will be boasts of the celebrities who have been audience members in the past. Authors, poets, politicians... even a U.S. president now and then.

Social events will be held to "thank the donors" (the thought is that you have to make them feel special so that they will continue to donate), and these events are often thinly masked efforts at raising more funds, usually for some grandiose vision of a larger facility, more equipment, or making the event bigger in coming years.

Usually, the people who are doing the grunt work for these social events... setting up tables and chairs, serving punch, maybe even directing traffic... are the very people who have been doing the grunt work to make the shows themselves happen. The technical staff for the theater festival.

See, people come from all over the country to work at these things. They are typically seen as stepping stones to a career in "the arts"; particularly in theater. And so they are willing to work absurdly long hours for absurdly low wages in the hopes of somehow "making it" in the theater world. The problem is, the "theater world" doesn't extend much beyond the experience they are currently having.

Now when I say low wages, I'm talking about a couple of hundred dollars a week, up to maybe six hundred. Interns are the ones who get the couple of hundred bucks, if they get that. Department managers might get the $600. Skilled crew members like carpenters and lighting technicians will get something in between.

In order to earn these wages, very long  hours are worked. Long days of prop or set building, creating costumes, preparing lighting equipment, etc... followed by rehearsals. And of course it is repeated the next day. An 8 hour day is rare. Something between 10 and 14 hours is more usual. This goes on six days a week normally at the beginning, and ramps up to seven days a week towards the end.

Now let's do a little math. Let's say you are in the middle of the scale, making something like $320 a week. "That's not too bad", you might think. "That's 8 dollars an hour". Yet if you were to work seven consecutive 12 hour days at McDonalds (84 hours), you would get paid 40 hours straight time, plus 40 hours at time and a half. It is the equivalent of working 100 hours. So rather than making 8 bucks an hour,  you are making $3.20. It is clear that the lowest paid people should be making in the $600 to $800 a week range, with department managers making double to triple that.

Couple this with the fact that many theater companies have penalties if you don't carry out your full contract to the end of the season. They hold money back, and if you leave early, you don't get the balance. So you might be looking at something more in the $2.00 an hour range.

There is no accounting by upper management of the actual number of hours worked. In fact when I've raised the issue, I've been told "no one wants to know".

Yes... these are the same people smiling and serving punch to the VIP guests who congratulate the board members on putting on such a fabulous productions, bringing in millions of dollars into the local economy.

It kind of reminds me of the Simpson introduction done by Banksy, in response to criticism that the long running show was produced in Chinese sweat shops by child labor:

And the funny thing is that many of these festivals are run by institutions that are supported by the states they are located in, such as state colleges and universities.

I've done some pondering on how this has come to be. How working conditions that would be protested against if they were brought to light in other countries could be so standard practice here.
There are a couple of factors. The industry is one in which people are passionate to a fault about their work. The pride in craftsmanship among theater professionals is out of this world. So even if they weren't required to work such hours, they would anyway, because that is what it takes to do a spectacular job. An everyone in theater wants the productions they work on to be spectacular. Or at least the part of it they touch.

So when someone comes up with the idea of starting something like this, there tends to be a lot of enthusiasm but not enough resource. So the people who ARE involved put everything they have into it. And people are always wishing they had an extra week or day or couple of hours to finish something precisely how they envision it.

I call it the Event Horizion of theater. An event horizon is the area around a black hole in which gravity is so strong, that even light can't escape. Since nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, any object which crosses the event horizon is doomed to be sucked down into the center of the black hole. Escape is impossible.

Anyway, it is understandable how a small local theater could tax the limits of manpower of everyone involved in putting on the production, and everyone involved will put on a good face, get their second wind, and do what it takes to make it happen. Been there. Done that.

So you have a successful season, and you are able to boast of the quality of the shows. Perhaps you got great reviews. Perhaps a local celebrity endorsed your show. Maybe it was an actor or writer. Maybe it was your governor. Pretty soon, people with real money start to donate, grants are awarded, maybe a Senator even pulls some strings to get some "stimulus money" flowing your way.

The problem comes in what is done with that money, and how it is earmarked. Often, the money is used for equipment or a new facility. Often it is used to make the event bigger than it was the year before. Seldom is it used to ensure that everyone working on the event is making at least minimum wage.

The responsibility is spread around thoroughly, trust me. I take my share of the blame in being involved in such endeavors. This is the beginning of my public effort to try to change that.

I believe that any organization that supports such a festival should demand an accounting of man-hours in every department. Any financial donor should stipulate that their money go first and foremost to salary. Not a tent should be rented for the VIP social, not a tablecloth bought, unless the entire crew is being paid fairly.

And then there is the whole "intern" thing. According to the department of labor, six criteria must be met for an internship to be valid:

The following six criteria must be applied when making this determination:
  1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

I'll go through them one by one:

1) Sure, interns learn a great deal on these events. Hell, I still do, and I've been around for 20 years. But yes, they are great learning experiences.

2) Well, the interns get college credit, and they actually learn something. So yes, it benefits them in that regard.

3) Here's an interesting one. "The intern does not displace regular employees." The reality is that the interns ARE the regular employees. Or a bulk of the staff. Without them, there is no way in hell these events could happen.

4) Another interesting one. "The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern". I'd say using the intern as a lynchpin in their multi million dollar production is an "advantage". Of course, the "employers", meaning the management staff, may not FEEL like they are getting an immediate advantage, because they are working their asses off too. But I think any objective view of number 4 would have to fall on the side of "Sorry!"

5) No, the intern is not entitled to a job. There is no job. It is like a carnival... all packed up and put in storage for next year.

6) This is obviously true.

In any case, I do not believe the way interns are used in theater festivals is in any way what the Department of Labor would sign off on. There are clear violations of #'s 3 and 4. I think this makes it clear:

If an employer uses interns as substitutes for regular workers or to augment its existing workforce during specific time periods, these interns should be paid at least the minimum wage and overtime compensation for hours worked over forty in a workweek.  If the employer would have hired additional employees or required existing staff to work additional hours had the interns not performed the work, then the interns will be viewed as employees and entitled compensation under the FLSA.

So there it is. My official "whistleblower" post. One I think is sure to make some of my previous associations displeased. It's about time.

"T" is for Theater Festivals, and April is Parkinson's Awareness Month

Saturday, April 21, 2012

From Parks to Obama

A Tweet tipped me off to this photo of the day at, the White House website.

President Barack sitting on the "Rosa Parks Bus". Wow.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Spotlight: Shepherdstown, WV

"S" is for Shepherdstown in the A to Z Challenge

There are many resources today for online networking besides the ubiquitous Facebook. I mentioned in yesterday's "R is for Role Playing Games" post how I was using to find local gamers, and to start an local arts alliance.

Another interesting resource is Yahoo Groups. If you go to and look in the lower left hand corner, you will see something that says "Groups"

Just above Health and International in the lower left is the "Groups" link

You can join an existing group, or you can create a group for any subject under the sun. Let's say you have a particular thing for Hummel figure collecting. I'm sure there's a group for that. In fact, I just did a search, and I found one called Hummelmania! Anyway... you get the idea. Groups can be national, or they can be local.

I joined a group that specifically focuses on technical theater in the Washington DC area. It is called DC-TheaterTech. There are job postings for stage managers, overhire carpenters, etc...

In 2010 I put up a message that I was available for work. I received an email within a couple of days that the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, WV was in need of a prop shop manager. And that is where I spent six weeks of my Summer.

Shepherdstown is located about 90 minutes west of DC. It is in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia, close to Harpers Ferry and Charlestown. It is a delightful little town, full of old hippies that thought that DC was too conservative.

The main drag is German Street. It is on a long hill, and it reminds me somewhat of Carytown in Richmond, VA. Of course Carytown is a neighborhood, while German Street is basically the entire town.

German Street

One of the lovely things about the bars and restaurants is that they tend to have incredible back patios. These fenced in areas contain lush ancient trees and shrubbery, and are a wonderful place to catch an open mic night or a guest band. On other nights, it is just a great place to get away for a quite drink and a smoke.

The Mecklenburg Inn and the Blue Moon Cafe were two of my favorite hangouts:

Atrium to back patio at the Mecklenburg Inn

The Blue Moon Cafe has a delightful street side terraced patio.

Also not to be missed are tacos and burritos at Maria's Taqueria. Maria's fresh home made pico de gallo is out of this world.

Shepherdstown is home to Shepherd University, a state funded university. Shepherd University hosts the Contemporary American Theater Festival, an annual festival of a handful of new American plays running con-currently. In 2010, we did Breadcrumbs by Jennifer Haley, The Eelwax Jesus 3D Pop Music Show Book and Lyrics by Max Baker, Music by Lee Sellars, Inana by Michael Lowe, Lidless, by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, and White People by J.T. Rogers.

The shows covered Alzheimers Disease and loss if identity, existentialist angst featuring a musical duet of a gynecologist and tap dancing Vagina (I'm saving that for my "V" post!), the first Iraq war from the viewpoint of an Iraqi arts curator, rape as a means of prisoner co-ercement at Gitmo, and racism.

None of these were what you would call "main stream" shows. Yet the crowds that come out to Shepherdstown year after year are remarkable. According to Hagerstown magazine, in 2008 CATF generated 2.1 million dollars in patron spending, and another 1.1 million in corporate and organizational spending.

As a member of the crew, I stayed in the dorms at Shepherd University. My first impression of the white cinderblock walls was that they were not "un-prison-like". But the rooms were comfortable enough. As part of the management staff, I got my own room and there were only two of us in our dorm. Most dorms had 4 per dorm, and 2 per room.

Mornings were a short walk across campus to the prop shop. I had several interns working under me. After a long day of prop procurement, design, and construction, I'd take a stroll down German street, buy a beer, light up my  pipe, and listen to some local music on one of the outdoor patios.

The company took the entire crew for a rafting ride down the Shenandoah river. I was able to visit nearby Harpers Ferry, Charlestown, Hagerstown, and Martinsburg. One of the highlights was meeting the Sanders family and being part of the Fish Tales outdoor marionette show featuring Giant Ass Puppets. Click the links on Martinsburg and Giant Ass Puppets for more!

All in all, it was a great six weeks.

Partnerships between your town and a local college, university, or other organization could result in a symbiotic relationship that benefits both. And social media is a great way to find out about unusual opportunities. Check out Yahoo Groups to see what might interest you.

P.S. If you go to the Lost Dog to get a cup of coffee, don't ask for a lid.

"S" is for Shepherdstown, and April is Parkinson's Awareness Month

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Role Playing Games

"R" is for Role Playing in the A to Z Challenge

Role playing gamges (RPGs) are a virtually lifelong hobby of mine.

OK, I didn't come out of the womb rolling dice, but from early on I developed skills that made RPGs a natural fit for me. My dad (now retired) was an engineer by trade, and in 1975 when I was 11 (yes, eleven years old) I drew my first set of house plans. We were living in Brooklyn, and Mom and Dad went to Charlotte, NC to house hunt. They found a house, Dad had a tape measure with him, and he drew a sketch of the house and took measurements of all the rooms. When they came back, he taught me how to make an architectural floor plan of the house.

We had a complete set of cardboard furniture cuts outs he had made (scale of 1/4" = 1'-0"), and each time they moved, Dad created a 1/4" scale floor plan of the new house so they could decide where all the furniture was going to go. That way, when it was taken off the moving truck, everything went straight to the correct location... no moving things twice!

I was also very much into science fiction and fantasy literature. Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and Tolkien were among my favorites. On top of that, I always seemed to have a natural flair for storytelling and theatrics. Combine all that with above average math and logic skills, and world building and "Dungeon Mastering" seemed to be the perfect fit for me.

I already had a group of high school friends who lived nearby that I gamed with. We played Avalon Hill war games, Risk, Diplomacy, and any game that seemed like it would be fun and wasn't a run-of-the-mill board game. (These days, Settlers of Catan ranks among my favorite board games). In 1979 when we first heard about Dungeons and Dragons in the news, it portrayed a game that was somehow dangerous in a real world sense. THIS is the article that introduced us to D&D:

Seriously... read that first paragraph... "the victim of an elaborate intellectual fantasy game". WTF???

Well screw whatever fears or ignorance the parents or writers of the piece were trying to spread. This article became for us (as I believe with the rest of American teens) an open invitation to find out what the heck this game was all about. It sounded damned interesting. We ordered a copy immediately.

And it was interesting. It was beyond interesting. We simply loved it. We played nearly every day after school, and the first few summers we played all day, every day. And some people grew worried.

Now, if we had been playing Monopoly, or basketball, or football, or anything people could relate to on a daily basis, no one would have given it a second thought. But this was a sort of byzantine set of rules. There was no game board, there were no pieces. There was just paper, dice, pencils and books.
One of the most humorous moments was when our friend Keith's dad walked into the room, shook his head at the piles of books and paper, and good-naturedly groaned "Whatever happened to Parchesi?"

Our parents actually loved the game. They always knew where we were (we rotated playing at each other's houses). It kept us out of their hair and (contrary to some public opinion) safe at the same time.

But there was a huge movement against such games. That first news article created an impression that permeated the American consciousness. There were Jack Chick tracts like this one:

And then there was the atrocious Tom Hanks movie Mazes and Monsters:

And Harry Potter fans thought they had it bad!

In any case, I've been playing for many years, and taught my kids how to play. Somehow, we all survived. I credit my background in RPGs with developing my professional storytelling skills and haunted house design and directing skills.

In 1997, I was looking for a career change after working for several years in the film business. I asked myself (as I often do), "If I could do anything in the world, what would I want to do?"

I thought it would be neat to work for an RPG company. I was already living in Virginia, and I recalled that one of the game companies I had purchased products from was located in Virginia. I looked through some of my old stuff, and found my copy of Arms Law, by Iron Crown Enterprises (I.C.E.)
I called them up, and a couple of months later I had a job as their marketing graphics designer. Here's some of my work:

1998 I.C.E Catalog Cover, Art Direction, Styling, Graphic Design

Art direction and styling of photograph of hand made (by me) prototype
of the re-designed Settlers of Catan Game

Art Direction and Styling of Photograph for Run out the GunsPirate themed RPG

Graphic design for Warlords TCG advertisment

Unfortunately, the 90's were a turbulent time for table top games. Collectible card games (CCGs) along the lines of Magic: The Gathering and ICE's Middle-earth Collectible Card Game (MECCG) were losing popularity to the new wave of video games. In 1998, Sony's Dreamcast paved the way for high end graphic consoles like  Playstation 2, Xbox, and GameCube.

(Does anyone see a pattern here? Puppets replaced by CGI, and dice and paper replaced by game consoles? Some days it feels like I'm fighting a losing uphill battle! Long Live Analog!)

The good news is that the very same electronic games that were the death knell for table top games also made playing RPGs socially acceptable. The economic might of video games is bewildering. As an example, when The Incredibles came out in theaters in 2004, it was one of the blockbusters of the year. It grossed some $70 million in the first three days , and was the fifth highest grossing move that year. The same year, the video game Halo 2 came out. It grossed $125 million in the first 24 hours of its release. Some of the great computer RPGs out there are Morrowind, Fable, and this year's Skyrim.

And to see the level of coolness in which Halo is held, check out this awesome performance of the Halo theme song at a high school talent show!


Back to the tabletop

A couple of years ago, I began re-working my fantasy campaign setting. (This is the make believe world where all your stories take place... like Oz or Middle-earth or Narnia). It is called Shatterworld.
In October, I created my very first blog, and began piece by piece building Shatterworld online. It is far from complete (technically, it can never be completed), but I have enough to have been able to launch my first table top game session in a number of years. Last Saturday we began playing at our local pizza shop. I also have plans to work on a novel set in Shatterworld. Here's a link to a short story I wrote, The Wolf's Ascent.

Here's a log of the first game session, The Amulet of Skuld: Chapter 1

Here's a map of Calabria, the central country where all the action takes place in the Shatterworld setting:

Not to be confused with a place in Italy!

I have joined a group on, the Richmond Roleplaying Games Meetup Group. There, I was able to create a "suggested meetup" in the town of Ashland, which is about 15 minutes from my home. It took a few months, but some other Ashlanders found the Meetup group and my suggested meetup, and we had 6 people besides me show up last Saturday. Sunday's group should be 8 total. is a great place to find people with unusual hobbies an interests. Anyone can create a meetup group. There is a small monthly registration fee for Meetup, but the number of specialized groups out there are amazing. Among the groups I belong to:

A group on rapid prototyping out of Maryland
A film makers group in Richmond
A German language group in Richmond
A Reason and Naturalism Association

And I just started The Ashland Arts Alliance Meetup Group

Groups can meet anywhere. I asked the new pizza shop in town if we could reserve their party room for our games. I've also held games in a local coffee shop.

As usual, I don't get to the real point of my post until the end. And that is, no matter what your interest (arts and culture fall under a VERY broad umbrella), there are ways to use social networking to find others who share your interests. There are also venues for meeting that you might never think of.

Start looking for people who share your interests, and be open minded about where you might be able to meet. If we devil worshipping victims of elaborate intellectual fantasy games can do it, anybody can!

"R" is for Role Playing Games, and April is Parkinson's Awareness Month.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore!"

"Q" is for Quoth in the A to Z Challenge

I've been an Edgar Allen Poe fan for as long as I can remember. I guess it started with the Roger Corman movies starring Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Boris Karloff.

I believe the first story I ever read of Poe's was the Tell Tale Heart, followed by the Cask of Amontillado and The Pit and The Pendulum. I was beside myself with glee when a Simpson's episode came on with none other than James Earl Jones narrating Poe's The Raven. Here's the video in all its glory:

Poe lived in Richmond, Virginia, and attended the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. The Poe Museum in Virginia is reported to be blocks from where he actually lived, and "the old stone house" which is home to the museum is purported to be the oldest dwelling standing in Richmond.

Poe Museum in Richmond VA

Statue of Poe at Poe Museum, Richmond, VA.
Photo from

Dorm room at University of Virginia in Charlottesville which is believed to have been Poe's
Poe statue in Capitol Square, Richmond, VA

Richmond also has a Poe's Pub where you can enjoy some nightlife entertainment.

Poe's mother's grave is located at St. John's Church in Richmond. (It is the same church where Patrick Henry delivered his "Give me liberty, or give me death!" speech)

Grave of Elizabeth Arnold Poe

Even though Poe neither was born nor died in Richmond, efforts have been successful at making the city a destination for those with an interest in Poe's life. It is a lesson any town can take a cue from.

Oops... almost forgot. There is a new Poe movie coming out, The Raven. Warning, it is a little gory:

"Q" is for Quoth the raven, "Nevermore", and April is Parkinson's Awareness Month

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Puppets and Marionettes and More!

"P" is for Puppets in the A to Z Challenge

"Puppetry" has long been an interest of mine. Jim Henson was one of my heroes, and I cried when I heard he had died.

The 80's were a fascinating time in the evolution of "puppetry". I use the term loosely, as muppets, marionettes, and sophisticated radio control costumes all fall under the umbrella of this post.

From 1983 to 1987, Fraggles, Doozers, and Gorgs graced our tv screens. The Gorgs were among the most complex, with radio controlled faces:

Gorg from Fraggle Rock

1991 to 1994 presented us with Dinosaurs, a technological offspring of the Gorgs:

Ralph Kramden pre-incarnated as a dinosaur

In 1995 we were treated to the magic of Babe:

I think the Sheep were the most impressive characters

Unfortunately for the advancement of puppetry arts in cinema, 1993 introduced us to the first CGI dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, heralding the decline of puppetry in cinema.

Paleontologist Dr. Alan  Grant: "I think I'm out of a job"     Me: "Me too!"

Other Honorable "Puppetry" Screen Mentions:

1983's Pumpkinhead

1982's The Dark Crystal

1984's Gremlins

1990's Robocop 2

1990's Total Recall

1982's E.T. The Extra Terrestrial

1980's The Empire Strike's Back

My own projects have ranged from Halloween props to a rooster for a Passion Play:

Sea Dog Cemetery: Bush Gardens Howl-O-Scream 2002.
The fellow on top sits up when a bicycle brake lever is pressed, and turns his head.

Corpse sitting up in coffin in 2003's Grimmwood Manor

His head turns, and mouth opens

I've also done the mechanics for a Ventriloquist Head:

I've written a couple of shows including "Reindeer Pause", featuring a grown up and married Rudolph and Clarice, and I've built puppets for Discovery Place in Charlotte, NC, and I made a full body costume of "The Deficit Monster" that was a cross between Audrey II and a Fangtooth:

Fangtooth Fish
I don't have photos of the actual costume, but he was very toothy!
I was up in Maryland visiting my friends at Goatman Hollow (whom I collectively call "The Goatmen", even though there are some lovely ladies among them), when I found some cool puppets in a local gift shop. I decided to purchase one to augment my Santa act. Meet "Pesci". (Note, I never said I was a ventriloquist):

I did the Shrek and Jimmy Neutron heads for a local Regal Cinemas for a Christmas parade:

Shrek Head

Jimmy Neutron Head
And this was for Carowinds theme park in North Carolina:

Patch the Pumpkin
And when I was managing the prop shop at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, WV, we made a tap dancing Vagina costume. But you'll have to wait for that. That post will appear on "V" day!

I've put up three posts on puppetry already:

I just discovered this amazing video:

Finally, I have to mention the Bear in the Big Blue House, if for no other reason than that he overcame Big Bird's gimp arm. But really, he is much more than that, with a camera in his nose and a viewing screen inside his chest for the performer. The fluidity of this guy kills me.

"P" is for Puppets, and April is Parkinson's Awareness Month

Arts Advocacy Day

Huh... just found out today is Arts Advocacy Day!

Olympics and the Arts

"O" is for Olympics in the A to Z Challenge

I was tipped off to this article on from a tweet by the Lincoln Center Institute @LCInstitue on Twitter.

The title of the article is The London 2012 Olympic Games and the Role of the Arts

Sean Bowie writes:

The hope, organizers say, is to leave a “lasting legacy for the arts in the UK,” and with millions of tourists visiting the city for the festivities, and billions watching around the globe, there may be no better opportunity for that kind of exposure...

Organizers are proclaiming that there are “10 million free opportunities to get involved,” and while the full list of events has yet to be revealed, there are already hundreds of shows and exhibits that have been announced. Perusing the website you can find such events as film festivals, comedy shows, concerts, carnivals, and fashion shows, some of which require tickets, but the majority of the events are free to the public.

One of the most notable events announced thus far is the Damien Hirst exhibition at the world-famous Tate Modern. In the world of film, a festival showing silent movies by home town director Alfred Hitchcock will be presented, alongside a live musical performance of the material...

William Shakespeare will be in the spotlight, as the World Shakespeare Festival, which begins next Monday (April 23rd) and runs through September, will present almost 70 productions of Shakespeare’s plays in thirty different locations across the United Kingdom, including Scotland and Wales.

Organized by the Royal Shakespeare Company, organizers are calling it the “biggest celebration of Shakespeare ever staged,” with thousands of actors from around the world taking part in the project. In addition to the usual theatre presentations of Shakespeare’s work, there will be street performances and even amateur performances as well. The most ambitious part of the festival is the Globe to Globe project, where performers will act out all of Shakespeare’s plays, but each of them will be performed in a different language with different actors used for each performance...

Bowie observes that there are critics who complain that it takes months or years of preparation to produce an event on the scale of the Olympics, but the event lasts only two weeks. He replies:

While the sporting part of the Olympics is only in town for those two weeks, it is the hope of organizers of both the London 2012 festival and the Cultural Olympiad that the impact that the arts community brings to the festivities, through art, dance, music, film, culture and so much more, has a lasting impact even after the games have ended and all the medals have been handed out. It may not be in place as long as a giant football stadium, but the impact on British culture is sure to last for quite some time.

I think local communities can take a cue from this. When local events draw large number of people to town (lets say for NASCAR, football games, national conferences, etc...) it is an opportunity to showcase your art and culture. Piggyback on other events, particularly ones that last for more than a day.

For more, go to

"O" is for the Olympics, and April is Parkinson's Awareness Month

Monday, April 16, 2012

NEA Study on Arts And Achievement in At-Risk Youth

"N" is for the National Endowment of the Arts in the A to Z Challenge

The NEA recently released a study called The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth: Findings from Four Longitudinal Studies.

The study is introduced with observations from NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman:

"Having the arts in young people’s lives is essential; we know that intuitively. Parents sing to their babies, dance with their toddlers, and occupy children with crayons and paper. And there was a time in this country when schools did their parts: bands, choruses, theatricals, and art studios used to fill the days along- side the 3 Rs, gym, social studies, science, and the rest.

But over the past four decades, budget pressures and an increasing focus on just reading and math have crowded the arts out of too many school days. What’s lost? The chance for a child to express himself. The chance for the idiosyncratic child who has not yet succeeded elsewhere to shine. A sense of play, of fun, of discovery."

Among the findings in the study:

1) Socially and economically disadvantaged children and teenagers who have high levels of arts engagement or arts learning show more positive outcomes in a variety of areas than their low-arts-engaged peers.

2) At-risk teenagers or young adults with a history of intensive arts experiences show achievement levels closer to, and in some cases exceeding, the levels shown by the general population studied.

3) Most of the positive relationships between arts involvement and academic outcomes apply only to at-risk populations (low-SES). But positive relationships between arts and civic engagement are noted in high-SES groups as well.

Landesman says:

"James Catterall and his fellow authors have shown that something else is lost, too: potential. Students who have arts-rich experiences in school do better across-the-board academically, and they also become more active and engaged citizens, voting, volunteering, and generally participating at higher rates than their peers...

I believe that the only outcomes we should need to measure for a music class is whether the child had the chance to create, enjoy, and understand music. But as the arts are forced to compete for scarce resources, there is no harm in pointing out once again that an investment in the arts will pay extensive dividends.

Art works. Let’s make sure it works for our country’s students."


"N" is for the National Endowment of the Arts, and April is Parkinson's Awareness Month.