Rocco

In 1993, I wrote a cover story for the late Theater Week magazine: The 100 Most Powerful People On Broadway. They'd never had a Top 100 list before. I was paid $250. A few days later, I got a phone call. It was Rocco Landesman. At the time, he was a big wheel on Broadway. Rocco invited me to lunch. I picked out one of my better oxford shirts from Sears, tried to smooth out the wrinkles without ironing, and met him at Sardis.

Rocco explained to me that my rankings were wrong. He should be ranked higher (I think I'd ranked him at #7 or so).

He gestured to Bernie and Gerry, who I'd ranked as #1, who were eating lunch nearby. They controlled the majority of Broadway theaters, and therefore which shows got a home and which did not. "They're just landlords," he said. "I'm an artist." Meaning they just worked the business side of shows, but Rocco helped to shape them artistically.

I tried to call him Mr. Landesman, but he said "Call me Rocco." Rocco was profane, hilarious, and smart. The kind of smart when you're sitting there thinking "Holy S*** this guy is freaking smart." And the kind of profane where you think "I can't believe someone is saying these words out loud in a public place." Broadway. Horseracing. Novels. Baseball. Gambling. He did most of the talking.

Rocco went on to become the chair of the National Endowment for the Arts. He gave a speech last fall that I found interesting. Two things in particular:

And finally I learned that if the arts are to be taken as seriously as other subjects, the arts need to start behaving like other subjects. Standards and assessment are the mainstays of teaching and learning across all subjects. We need to stop pretending that they do not have anything to do with the arts. Yes, the arts are about idiosyncrasy. They are about inspiration. And they are about breaking the rules.

But before I can break the rules, I have to know what the rules are. There is discrete knowledge and skills that have to be conveyed to students.

Before I could give my convention-defying, break-out performance as the dentist in the Clayton High production of The Diary of Anne Frank, I needed to know what a proscenium was, what "cheating out" meant, what dialogue was. Before Picasso was able to get all cubist, he had to understand perspective.

Standards and assessment -- when done properly -- do not stifle the artistic impulse. They build the foundation from which to launch it.

Hmm. To be an artist, you first must "know the rules." Reminds me of the debate about teacher prep. Those who want to change teacher prep -- how rookies are prepared, mind you, total novices -- are dismissed sometimes as "merely creating technicians," and thereby misunderstanding that "teaching is an art." The thing is, in the arts, novices are frequently prepared precisely "as technicians." First things first.

I do think there's a place in higher ed for "the art of teaching." Just as MBA programs often seek those who've worked for 5 years in business, some MAT programs should focus on those who've taught 5+ years, who have great success in the fundamentals of teaching. However, I'm not sure those would be called "teacher prep" programs.

Rocco went on to say:

Many of you have heard me go on about the most recent research that we commissioned from James Catterall. In reviewing four longitudinal databases maintained by the Departments of Education and Labor, he found that low-socioeconomic students with high arts exposure had higher GPAs, graduation rates, and were more likely to enroll in professionally oriented majors than their overall school peers.

I was knocked out by these findings -- even I know that low-SES kids never outperform the general population. So I asked Ayanna and our research colleagues why every school wouldn't read this work and instantly implement the arts as part of any school reform strategy.

Well, as compelling as the work is, it is looks at correlation. Not causality. In order to take this work to the next level, we need a randomized, controlled "experiment." In other words, we need to find a population of students who are not receiving any arts education; randomly assign half of them to receive a quality arts education; and then compare the differences between the two groups.

We have begun talking about this sort of study with some key colleagues, and I am confident enough that we will be able to do it that our research office has included this study design in their five-year plan.

This seems promising to me. I suspect arts education is like charter schools, early education, and a bunch of other things, in that "quality programs" make a measurable difference, but typical programs often do not. I wonder what outcomes they'll measure.

Back around this same time, I was commissioned to write a report for TDF -- the folks who run that half-price TKTS booth in Times Square -- about theater education programs in New York City. I found some sent kids to see shows; some got kids doing their own shows. Some programs were good, some not. Nothing shocking.

I also concluded that the plausible reason for the theater industry to invest in these programs was not to "build new audiences" for Broadway -- that didn't actually seem very likely or cost-effective, and I ran some numbers to prove the point -- but instead as a civic good, a way to give back.

The very nice old gentleman who'd hired me was terribly disappointed. I felt bad. I'd let him down. He wanted the report to say "If we have more theater education programs, in the long run these kids will grow up to buy a lot of $100 tickets to see shows."

I think Landesman's approach at the NEA is more promising. He stepped down a couple months ago. I wonder if they'll see his vision through.