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Jack Megan: All about the art

April 23rd, 2013 No comments

Jack Megan, director of the Office of the Arts. PHOTO: Jacob Belcher/OFA

There are hundreds of faces behind Harvard’s annual ARTS FIRST festival, but one of the most influential, dynamic and caring is that of Jack Megan, director of the Office for the Arts. During a dozen years at the OFA, he has been uniquely situated to see the ARTS FIRST festival grow and develop into what it is today. Last week, I stopped by the OFA to chat with him about his role in the festival, what it means to him and what he’s looking forward to this year. Megan’s passion for student art-making, as well as his excitement for this year’s program, came through clearly during the conversation. As Megan pointed out: ARTS FIRST content changes each year, but its sense of community and joy always remains strong.

I asked Megan, an artist in his own right, to comment on the ARTS FIRST involvement with the opening of the new Plaza near the Science Center.

“The Plaza is a big focus this year,” he said. “The idea of the Plaza is this great communal space — a social space. The Plaza is not a space that you cross through but a place that you arrive at and participate in some kind of activity.” To emphasize this, Megan described some of the events taking place on the plaza this year, including Matt Damon film screenings and a dance/dinner Party on the Plaza, bringing together music, dancing and a BBQ in the outdoor space on Friday night. The Nostalgics, Harvard’s Motown and soul band, is playing that night in one of the group’s final performances.

“We’re thrilled they’re going to play the plaza,” said Megan. “It’s the first big, all-out party on the Plaza.”

The Plaza will also feature the annual DanceFest, to be held outdoors this year. “What excites me is that the dance community at Harvard is so representative of how diverse and interesting this community is,” said Megan. “You see the variety in our community in the Bhangra or the Pan-African Dance and Music Ensemble and many other dance styles. I’m looking forward to that.”

The Plaza will also host the performance fair kick-off event featuring the River Charles Ensemble, conducted by Ec 10 professor Greg Mankiw with special guests John Lithgow ’67 and the Hasty Pudding Theatricals. “Mankiw has been incredibly fun about this and really willing to engage,” said Megan. “The project involves a lot of students and others at and beyond Harvard.”

When it comes down to it, though, what I really wanted to hear from Jack Megan was how he felt about the festival in a holistic way. What does ARTS FIRST mean to him?

“The beginning of spring,” he said. “The whole notion of rebirth and beauty. The arts, to me, are an expression of all that. So the fact that these two things coincide, this art festival and the start of spring, is like rebirth to me. The other piece that excites me is that these are students who will be leaders, public policy makers, business leaders, folks who will influence the cultural policy and arts resources in their communities.” That these students are deeply involved in art-making during college, to Megan, is “incredibly important,” because these students can “shape the world.”

On Saturday, the day of the performance fair, Megan will be dashing from venue to venue so that he can see 16 performances in four hours. This kind of action is entirely representative of Megan’s dedication to Harvard arts, student performers and the arts in general — throughout the year. With his team at OFA, he has been planning the festival for months, but when the weekend begins, he said, “all of that planning stuff goes away and you just remember why you’re doing it. And it’s an enormous pleasure.”

5 gems at ARTS FIRST 2013

April 17th, 2013 No comments

Every year, Harvard’s ARTS FIRST Festival brings together hundreds of Harvard community artists and performers for a weekend jam-packed with free, fun events. Those of us who have been to the festival before know that some organizations, like the Holden Choruses and Harvard Radcliffe Orchestra, return to perform each year. Many events, though, appear in only one festival. I’ve compiled a list of the five “hidden gem” performances that I’m most excited to see this year. They may be unique to this festival, so make sure to catch them in 2013 before they’re gone.

1. Films on the Plaza – To celebrate this year’s Arts Medalist, Matt Damon, ARTS FIRST will be screening two of his films on the new Science Center Plaza. On Thursday night (4/25), watch the classic Good Will Hunting. On Saturday (4/27), it’ll be The Bourne Identity. The screenings start at 10:30 p.m., which makes them the perfect post-performance, post-study activity. Harvard will provide blankets for lounging, popcorn and ice cream. You bring yourself and your friends.

2. Paint for a Cause – The Harvard Undergraduate Global Health Forum is creating a mural for a children’s hospital run by Partners in Health in an area such as Rwanda or Haiti. Come to the Science Center Plaza on Saturday (4/27) between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. to paint part of the mural. Since you can participate on your schedule, you can do some good between performances in the ARTS FIRST performance fair. All materials will be provided, and for this part of the festival, you are the artist.

3. The Dinner Party ShowThe Immediate Gratification Players, one of Harvard’s improv comedy groups, will build a comedic play in real time from audience suggestions. The best part? The audience gets in on the action. Dinner is woven into the play, as a meal is served to those attending. Make sure to check it out at the Student Organization Center at Hilles in the Penthouse – I hear there’ll be Bertucci’s. Takes place 6:30 p.m. on Saturday (4/27).

4. Waiting – The Emerging Choreographers initiative of the Office For the Arts Dance Program has put together an intimate dance piece that explores student experiences of mental health. Harvard has seen a surge in student response to mental health issues in 2013, and various groups have called for greater understanding regarding mental health on campus. The performance is immersive, taking place in small rooms in Grays Hall Basement. Each of the four performances accommodates only 20 viewers, so reserve your ticket ahead of time and join the discussion. More information is available at

5. Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture – The Lowell House Last-Minute Orchestra will lead a “pick up” performance of this famed piece of music in Lowell House Courtyard at 3 p.m. Sunday (4/28). Each year, student musicians gather in the beautiful Lowell Courtyard to play a fun rendition of the beloved piece of music. It’s all there: faux cannon fire, real bells and beautiful scenery.

There you have it. Five events to get started and hundreds of others to explore. Download the full ARTS FIRST Festival Guide on the Office for the Arts website. Or curate your own personalized schedule for the weekend by downloading the ARTS FIRST festival app at iTunes (iOS 6+) and Google Play Store, and start exploring.

Old-style: “Wonderful Town” at Harvard

April 3rd, 2013 No comments

In Wonderful Town, two small-town sisters with big dreams move to New York City. Suddenly, the young women are two fish in a much larger pond, dealing with all the challenges of trying to succeed in a new, intimidating environment. Composed by Leonard Bernstein ’39 in the early 1950s, the show is well known for its Golden Age characteristics and premiered in 1953 to critical acclaim. Susanna Wolk ’14, director of the Harvard Radcliffe Dramatic Club production, has worked to connect the emotions of the 1930s protagonists to the emotions of today’s student body.

“To me, the challenges of moving to a large, scary city, having big dreams, and trying to succeed to the highest degree, all while navigating complicated webs of friends, family and romantic relations could not be more applicable to life as a Harvard student – this is what so many of us will inevitably end up doing after graduation,” she said.

Though the musical takes place in the 1930s, the themes of the show are intensely relevant to youth today, especially Harvard Class of 2017, which was admitted this week. Like the protagonists of Wonderful Town, these incoming students will learn to stand on their own feet over the course of their first year in a new, exciting environment. To emphasize the emotional similarities between the protagonists and the audience members, Wolk has “supersized” much about the show.

Wolk focused her directing not on the time period of the musical, but rather on the common themes of growing up and living city life. The show includes seven dance numbers, each about five minutes long. A cast of zany characters and a large, 16-piece orchestra echoes the vitality of Manhattan in sound and energy, driving these dance numbers. The sets are also large and multi-part, changing shape throughout the show. Read more…

The signature sound of Sweet Honey

February 20th, 2013 No comments

Sweet Honey in the Rock, recipient of the 2013 Luise Vosgerchian Teaching Award at Harvard. PHOTOS: Jacob Belcher/OFA

Of course there’s hope / It’s over there in that well / There’s an endless supply / Bend over the rim, you’ll see.

These were some of the words sung by the Radcliffe Choral Society last weekend in Sanders Theatre during the Harvard Women’s Choral Festival. The festival, held once every four years, brings together women’s choruses from around the globe for a celebration of female choral music. This year, the festival featured a performance by Sweet Honey in the Rock, the African American a cappella group that has been growing in international renown since its founding in 1973.

The group is also the recipient of Harvard’s 2013 Luise Vosgerchian Teaching Award, named after the late music professor at Harvard and administered by the Office for the Arts. The award recognizes artists and artist groups for selfless commitment, artistic conscience, constant renewal of approach to subject matter, ability to motivate in a positive and creative way, sincere interest in the development of the whole person and the ability to present musical knowledge in a way that is applicable to other disciplines.

“Professor Vosgerchian’s teaching and, to a very large extent, her life spoke to the transforming power of music and its capacity to express our fundamental joys, sorrow, hopes and passions,” said Jack Megan, OFA director. “Sweet Honey’s music transforms our thinking, addressing critical issues of education, domestic violence, the proliferation of guns, discrimination and economic empowerment of those who have less. Their performances demand not only our emotional engagement but critical thinking around Read more…

Renée Fleming: Support the song, the breath and each other

February 3rd, 2013 No comments

Renee Fleming at Sanders Theatre. PHOTOS: JACOB BELCHER/OFA

How do you get Harvard students out of bed early on a Saturday morning? Host a master class with opera star Renée Fleming. The Office for the ArtsLearning From Performers program teamed up with Dunster House Opera and Celebrity Series of Boston to present a master class on Feb. 2 at Sanders Theatre during Fleming’s local visit for her Boston performance at Symphony Hall on Feb. 3. Accompanied by George Fu ’13 on piano and observed by a packed house of students and community members, five students performed arias and recitatives for Fleming who offered praise, tips and encouragement. The theme of the morning was support, both technically and metaphorically, as Fleming encouraged the students to focus on their breathing and help each other improve.

Fleming owns the stage not only with her own powerful voice but with a unique blend of charisma, warmth and humor that only adds to her already dizzying list of accomplishments. Cracking jokes while she gave advice, Fleming put both the performers and audience instantly at ease. Levi Roth ’14, the morning’s first vocalist, sang an aria from Massenet’s Cinderella, the Dunster House Opera production running Feb. 8-16. After he sang, Fleming encouraged Roth to remember the role of acting during performance. Often, she said, vocalists focus so much on singing they forget to bring enthusiastic acting to the performance. Working as a team, the two tweaked his approach to add more presence. Indeed, Fleming made sure to continue working with each student until she saw progress — no matter how small or large.

Fleming’s advice, always presented with warmth and humor, was enhanced by her incredible knowledge of operatic history. She contextualized each performance with history, and also asked performers — Roth, Allison Ray ’14, Liv Redpath ’14, Camille Crossot ’16 and Elizabeth Leimkuhler ’15 — to explain how their songs fit into the operas from which Read more…

Christine Ebersole: The power of who you are

January 26th, 2013 No comments

What can legendary performers on stage and screen give to aspiring young performers who hope someday to be professional artists? That was the question floating in the air Friday, Jan. 25 at Agassiz House where Christine Ebersole, a performer of stage, TV, concert halls and more, worked with three students to offer advice on their musical theater performances. Ebersole is in town for a Celebrity Series of Boston performance Saturday at Sanders Theatre and taught her Master Class at Harvard as part of the Office for the Arts Learning From Performers program.

Mark Mauriello ’15, David Sheynberg ’16, and Lily Glimcher ’14 were accompanied by Madeline Smith ’14 and performed songs by such classic composers as Cy Coleman and Stephen Sondheim. After each solo, Ebersole offered advice and praise.

Theater artist Christine Ebersole told students: "All we can do is remain true to ourselves and to the art form." PHOTO: JACOB BELCHER/OFA

After listening to Glimcher deliver a passionate rendition of Lying There from Edges, Ebersole commented that “desperate doesn’t always mean loud,” and encouraged the performers to consider songs from multiple perspectives while forming a character. Glimcher, eager to experiment with this advice, sang the end of Lying There again, this time with a quiet vulnerability. When she finished, Ebersole had tears in her own eyes and spotted them in the eyes of others. Ebersole believes actors “erroneously think that [they] have to show that emotion,” when really they must tell a story and let the audience show the emotion.

During a question and answer session, the audience — made up of students and community members — focused on the tension between the performing traditions of yesterday’s generation and today’s. Ebersole attempted to bridge that gap by emphasizing similarities. Acknowledging that traditions in performance will change, she says that there will always be authenticity in live theater. Some audience members complained about the artificial sound and high-volume experience created through modern amplification, but Ebersole focused on the positive effects amplification systems have had on acting. Without worrying about volume, actors are free to focus on performance, improving theater quality. Students in the audience brought the questions back to performance: How can they pursue lives as artists? How does Ebersole develop characters? How did she become an artist?

In the end, Ebersole left the audience with a dose of her own tremendous hopefulness about the future of theater. “As long as there are humans on earth, there will be live theater,” she said. She encouraged performers and the audience alike to “recognize [their] own gifts” and act on them. “The power of who you are and what you bring to it — that’s what gets transmitted,” she said.

Kristin Chenoweth: “Go for it.”

December 8th, 2012 No comments

“If you can see yourself doing anything else and being happy, then you should do [that].  But if you can’t see yourself doing anything else and being happy, then go for it.”

This was the advice actor, singer and dancer Kristin Chenoweth offered to students yesterday in Farkas Hall as part of the Office for the Arts Learning from Performers series and co-sponsored by OFA, Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations and Faculty of Arts And Sciences Diversity Relations. (She also stopped by the Office of the University Marshall — and less officially at the Coop.)

Kristin Chenoweth singing "'Til There Was You" at Farkas Hall; student moderator Eric Padilla '14 is in the background. PHOTO: JACOB BELCHER/OFA

Her revealing interview, moderated by students Eric Padilla ’14 and Cary Williams ’16, covered a wide range of topics including her love of fast food (she’s a McDonald’s girl) and go-to audition songs (On the Other Side of the Tracks by Cy Coleman). Chenowith was witty and clever, charming the audience with tales from her childhood and moments of early artistic inspiration. A performer who has achieved success in film, Broadway, opera, classical concerts and TV, Chenoweth was more than happy to share perspectives with students hungry for advice. She even shared a song.

Chenoweth’s overarching message yesterday afternoon was one of self-love and respect. In her Oklahoma town growing up, she was unique. One of the only children with an interest in performing, she stood out for her rare interests, as well as her petite frame and, as she said, a voice that “sounds like [she] breathes helium every morning.” Rather than let these traits defeat her, she made them strengths.

“I choose to embrace the thing that makes me different,” she said. “All the obstacles that you face — switch it.  Make it the thing that works for you.”

She also stressed that one can’t always plan one’s future. She said that sometimes your path will stray from what you envisioned, but become much better than what you could have planned.  To make difficult decisions, Chenoweth listens to that “little voice” inside of her and follows her heart, even when that means taking a risk. Some risky decisions, like deciding to take the role of Sally in You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, have been incredibly successful, while others have fallen flat. Still, even when Chenoweth has faced challenges in her career, she has learned from them. She stressed in her talk that rejection is part of being an artist, regardless of how much success one has had in the past.

“It doesn’t matter where you are on the food chain,” she said. And added that when you face rejection, you should “let yourself be sad, get yourself a [Wendy’s] Frosty, and then move the f— on.”

At the end of the day, she says, she is an actor first. In her view, one must always give oneself over to the character to achieve success. “I am an actor,” she said. “I am 44-years old, and I want to be the best artist I can be.”

She has stolen audience’s hearts in Wicked, You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, Glee, Pushing Daisies, and so much more. She stole the Harvard community’s heart yesterday. An artist for life, she’s likely to steal the hearts of audiences for a very long time.

Chenoweth with Harvard students. PHOTO: Jacob Belcher/OFA

“What’s done is done”: “Macbeth” ends the semester’s Shakespeare sequence

December 6th, 2012 No comments

Half of the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club productions held in the Loeb Experimental Theater this semester were written by Shakespeare. In such a Bard-packed season, each student director has faced the challenge of distinguishing his or her show and making it engaging to the student body and other audience members. Becca Feinberg ’14 directs the last of these productions, a modern take on the classic tragedy Macbeth.

Contextualizing Macbeth within the semester’s Shakespeare lineup, Feinberg says, “Every play has told a very distinct story and has engaged with different issues in a way that makes Shakespeare feel relevant to modern audiences.”

For her Macbeth, Feinberg trimmed down and modernized the story, setting it in New York City and focusing the plot on the mental deterioration of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. In this adaptation, the play becomes focused on the ways in which the ambitions of the characters destroy their lives.

“At Harvard, ambition is venerated, and we are all conditioned to achieve greatness,” says Feinberg. “While I don’t think that these lessons are bad or immoral, I do think it is imperative that, occasionally, we as a community question our values and our morality.”

This semester, Titus Andronicus, The Taming of the Shrew and now Macbeth have all been prisms through which to examine such questions about the way we live our lives today.

Macbeth runs Dec. 6-8 at the Ex.

Holden Choruses deck the halls with holiday music

November 30th, 2012 No comments

As the weather turns colder in Harvard Square, holiday lights appear in store windows and Christmas music plays in the undergraduate dining halls.  Some of this Christmas music will be filling First Church in Cambridge 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 30 and 3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 1 as Harvard Holden Choirs groups — Radcliffe Choral Society and Harvard Glee Club — perform their annual Christmas Concert.

A tradition stretching back 100 years, the concert holds a unique place in the Holden repertoire and a warm place in the hearts of Cambridge citizens. This concert is the most community-oriented of the Holden concerts, drawing audiences from campus, Cambridge and the greater Boston area.

Amy Lifland ’13, president of the RCS, says the Christmas Concert is her favorite of the year.

“It’s a concert that a lot of people in the Cambridge and Boston communities come to,” she said. “Families come because it puts our music in a very approachable context for people with varying levels of exposure to classic music.”

When I attended the concert last year, I was surprised and delighted by the diversity of repertoire performed at the concert: Christmas hymns, classic carols, traditional choral a cappella. And yet the concert is shorter than most other Holden concerts. The audience is even encouraged to sing along with some carols. It makes for an important connection between audiences and singers.

“We get to perform some repertoire that wouldn’t be appropriate at other times in the year,” said Lifland. “It’s a bonding experience to go off-campus together and sing beautiful music with each other and with our audience.”

RCS and Glee Club each sing individual pieces as well as combined hymns for the annual Christmas Concert. The event brings together the Harvard and off-campus communities to sing sacred and secular music — and to ring in the holiday season. To add your voice (and get tickets), click here.

Theater or nightclub? “Cabaret” hits the Loeb Ex

November 8th, 2012 No comments

The cast of "Cabaret" strikes a pose during the musical's opening number.

“What good is sitting alone in your room? Come hear the music play. Life is a cabaret, old chum. Come to the cabaret.”

These lyrics beckon characters and audience members alike to the Kit Kat Klub, a fictional nightclub in Berlin just before World War II, the historical event that serves as the backdrop for the classic Broadway musical Cabaret. For the next two weekends, the Loeb Ex will be transformed into this raucous nightclub in 1930s Germany, a place of love and loss, and the site of the terrifying rise of the Third Reich to power.

A winner of numerous awards since its opening in 1966, this musical has had many revivals, including in 2010 at the American Repertory Theater’s Club Oberon. The director of this fall’s student production, Katherine Price ’14, saw the revival at Oberon two years ago and drew on that production when designing the current HRDC show.

“Many productions of Cabaret end up focusing solely on this dark view,” Price says. “I feel like the show is more powerful when we enter the world of Berlin feeling safe, Read more…