Boise State associate theater professor and lighting designer Raquel Davis recently returned from the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s Playwrights Conference, where for 12 summers she has helped emerging and established playwrights visually realize their work.
“We read through eight plays and teased out information to get the playwrights to see their work from a different angle,” she says.
She brings that experience back to her BSU classroom, enriching her students’ experience. It also boosts her reputation nationally and hones her aesthetic for the productions she designs at Boise Contemporary Theater and Idaho Shakespeare Festival.
“The university makes my being here possible,” Davis says. “There’s not enough work to support a freelance lighting designer in Boise. My students get to see more than just the four shows we produce on campus because I bring them to tech rehearsals at BCT. We study my actual worksheets in class as examples. I mean, why make a worksheet for a fictitious show when you have a real one to teach from?”
That’s just one of the ways BSU connects with the community. There are others.
Recent BSU theater grad Sarah Kelso started as an intern at Boise Contemporary Theater. This season she steps into the resident stage manager position. Ryan Peck teaches biology at BSU. He also co-founded and runs Boise Rock School, a nonprofit that teaches hundreds of Treasure Valley kids how to play and experience music. Jason Morales came to Boise State to earn his MBA. He stayed to found the Ming Studios international artist residency that brings artists from around the globe to create work in Boise.
A university in the heart of a city strengthens cultural life and boosts the local economy. Though this kind of localized cultural exchange happens all the time, there is little hard evidence to back it up.
Now, two Boise State professors are aiming to change that.
Amanda Ashley, assistant professor of community and regional planning, and Leslie Durham, professor of theater and associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, are investigating the synergies between public universities and regional creative clusters in the Intermountain West.
“Artists drive creative economic development, and universities are the largest supporters of artists in the country,” Durham says. “So then, how do university administrations best support that development that falls outside of the way they measure performance and success? We’re looking at how universities work as cultural anchors in a community.”
Their research caught the attention of the National Endowment for the Arts, which funded the first phase of the project with $15,000. On her visit to Idaho last week, NEA Chairwoman Jane Chu sat in on a presentation of the project, which will get started in September.
“Developing this type of plan is really a benefit to getting your cultural workforce ready to be a mash-up with careers in non-art sectors,” Chu said. While she was in Idaho, Chu drove home the idea of the arts as economy.
Businesses are trying to integrate the way artists think into their processes. The buzz phrase of the moment is “design thinking,” a process that asks people to think like an artist to solve problems. So this is the perfect time to think about how universities can satisfy that need by strategically funding and supporting the arts, Chu says.
Durham and Ashley take on a broad definition of artist: painters, photographers, actors, writers, sculptors, digital and new media artists, filmmakers, theatrical designers and people in other disciplines that require creative thought.
They will do case studies at BSU, Colorado State University in Fort Collins and the University of Nevada, Reno. All three share the benefits and drawbacks of their geography: They are culturally isolated — “you can’t drive for an hour and get to another cultural center, like you can on the East Coast,” Ashley says — but all three have unique and vibrant arts scenes that connect through a university.
This first wave of the research will consist of interviews with university administrators to gauge what they’re thinking about their arts programs. The second phase, if it gets funded, would look at how artists perceive what universities are doing and how that understanding supports the creative economy in that particular place.
“The arts are an underexploited — in a good sense — lever for improving ecosystems. If we can figure out ways ... to negotiate that territory between the arts and the community, we’d all benefit,” says Tony Roark, Boise State’s dean of Arts and Sciences.