Board of Trustees: Feb. 2017

Good morning and welcome. How many of you watched Super Bowl 51 on Sunday? Ok, for those of you willing to admit it, how many watched ONLY to see Lady Gaga’s halftime show? For those of you who saw her perform, did you find yourself wondering how many UNCSA grads worked behind the scenes to create all the spectacular lighting, costumes and special effects? I know of at least two key players (or most valuable players)—MFA Stage Automation alums Brian Mandel and Craven Barker, who work for Flying by Foy, the company responsible for Lady Gaga’s flying rig. Brian is an automation technician who prepared the equipment package and Craven Baker is an Assistant Technical Designer who engineered the winch system. Our UNCSA alums also flew Katy Perry as a shooting star in 2015, and I swear one of these days I’m going to make them fly me into a Legislative session in Raleigh.

The work of our alumni, students, faculty and staff has shaped the culture of our state, the South, and the nation since our founding in 1963. But I bet if you asked the average North Carolinian what connection they have to UNCSA, they’d say “none.” And yet 70% of America, and probably an even higher percentage of North Carolinians, tuned in for the Super Bowl. That’s why it’s important for all of us to start making those connections: for some it may be the organist in a local church who helps deepen their faith, or the instructors and performers associated with countless community arts organizations who help our children experience a world of transcendent beauty beyond their screens. But for anyone who watches movies or television, listens to music, has heard of Wicked or Hamilton, attends live performances, or has seen the Super Bowl half time show, the connections extend much further than we could have imagined, without us even knowing it!

Every semester I hear more and more stories that reveal the depth and breadth of our alumni’s impact across the global arts and entertainment industry, and how their creativity and talent are shaping and defining popular culture.

A culture is defined by its stories. We use stories to communicate our traditions, values and beliefs. Our history is recorded in stories, and our future is molded by them. Stories create connections and dissolve barriers. One of the greatest artpreneurs of all time said storytellers “restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again.” He also said: “Of all our inventions for mass communication, pictures still speak the most universally understood language." Can anyone guess who I’m quoting here? America’s first and foremost imagineer, Walt Disney.

And who tells our stories? Artists do. On the page and the stage, on screens of all sizes, in the dance theatre and the concert hall, through sculpture, painting and photography, it is the voice and the vision of artists who remind us who we are, where we came from, and what we might become. They engage, enlighten, and entertain us with their vision, often transcending borders, crossing generations, and enduring for centuries.

In just a little more than 50 years, the artists who have trained at UNCSA have lent their vision and their voices to stories that define and illustrate our culture, chronicle the past, and imagine the future. I’ll share a handful of examples.

Hopefully, you know of our connections to the show that has forever changed the Broadway musical. As Ben Brantley said in The New York Times, Hamilton“ is “making its own resonant history by changing the language of musicals” and that its astounding success is “proof that the American musical is not only surviving but also evolving in ways that should allow it to thrive and transmogrify in years to come.”

Our own Paul Tazewell (1986) was part of the “Hamilton creative team, designing the costumes that won him a Drama Desk, a Lucille Lortel, and ultimately a Tony Award.

Last October, “Hamilton” opened in Chicago, where it is sold out for the foreseeable future and in November it opens in London. In the meantime, the national tour will carry Paul’s beautiful costumes to every corner of the map, from Seattle to San Diego, Boston to Fort Lauderdale. When you get a chance, check out the alumni story about Paul on our Design and Production web page, and read how his time at UNCSA continues to inform his work today.

And did you know we have three additional connections to“Hamilton”? Charles Osborne, a 2012 graduate of the School of Drama, is special assistant to producer Jeffrey Seller, 2013 D&P alumna Bridget Van Dyke is a project manager working for Hudson Scenic on sets for the tour, and Howell Binkley, a Winston-Salem native and frequent UNCSA guest artist, won a Tony for Best Lighting Design of a Musical.

You’ll discover UNCSA connections to Broadway productions in nearly every Playbill. Same goes for the opening and closing credits in dozens of major films: The names of UNCSA grads appear in every category, including some of today’s hottest writers, directors, actors, cinematographers, and technicians.

Few film franchises have impacted popular culture more than “Star Wars, with its iconic characters, ground-breaking visual effects and spectacular soundtracks. Did you know that alumni of the School of Filmmaking have worked on the last two installments of the “Star Wars” series? Will Files (2002) was sound designer for 2015’s “The Force Awakens,” and Kevin Hickman (1999) was first assistant editor for last year’s “Rogue One.” “The Force Awakens is among the highest grossing films of all time, with a box office of more than $2 billion, and “Rogue One” has earned more than $1 billion since its release just two months ago.

The stories told in these movies endure for generations, with cultural and economic impact way beyond the box office once you consider all the licensing deals, retail product lines, on-demand rentals, soundtracks, and so on. Sound and lighting designers, editors and other crew members shape the way we experience these films as much as actors, writers and directors.

If you’ve kept up with our press, you know that UNCSA alumni have connections to six of the nine films nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards. We’ll be on the edges of our seats on Feb. 26 to see if Lucas Hedges wins the award for Best Supporting Actor for his heart-wrenching performance in “Manchester By the Sea.” Lucas is on leave from the School of Drama, making his stage debut in the off-Broadway American premiere of “Yen,” and awaiting his next two feature films, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri,” opposite Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Peter Dinklage, and “Lady Bird,” opposite Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts and our own Stephen McKinley Henderson (Class of 1972). Lucas also is a second-generation Pickle and second-generation Oscar nominee, the son of Drama alum Peter Hedges (Class of 1984), who was nominated as screenwriter of 2003’s “About a Boy.” Peter and his wife, Susan Bruce, are members of our Board of Visitors.

Stephen McKinley Henderson, by the way, appears in not one but two Oscar-nominated pictures: “Manchester By the Sea” and “Fences,” with Denzel Washington.

While all of UNCSA’s Oscar connections deserve special mention, I’d like to highlight one in particular: If you haven’t seen “Loving,” written and directed by 2001 School of Filmmaking graduate Jeff Nichols, go see it! In true Pickle fashion, Jeff hired numerous other alums to work on the film, including 2001 film school cinematography grad Adam Stone. The New Yorker called it “astonishing” and “a landmark film” about the 1967 case that nullified laws banning interracial marriage. Lead Ruth Negga is nominated for Best Actress.

The Academy Awards, like the Tonys and Emmys and Grammys, celebrate the prolific creative breakthroughs in American popular culture, for which our alumni continue to produce award-caliber work. Veteran Drama alumni like Joe Mantello (1984) and Mary-Louise Parker (1986) have earned their place in American theater and television history by amassing numerous awards for extraordinary works. This past September, UNCSA alumnus Jim Lauderdale (1979) was presented with the Wagonmaster Award by none other than the King of Country, George Strait. The Wagonmaster is a prestigious lifetime achievement honor reserved for individuals who are considered the most valuable contributors to the heritage of American roots music. So not only has Jim become one of the most popular, not to mention most venerable, interpreters of this genre but he’s also pushing the genre mainstream. He’s also won two Grammys.

More recent alumni like David Gordon Green (1998) and Danny McBride (1999) are in the process of establishing their legacies; whether it will be “Vice Principals” or “Manglehorn” is still “Up in the Air.” And even younger alumni have started to make their mark on modern culture. Film alumna Vera Herbert of the Class of 2011 is a producer and writer of television’s most celebrated new drama, “This Is Us” on NBC, a heartwarming show that mines themes that are prevalent in our culture: race, body image, and family relationships evolving over decades. Drama alumna Tiffany Little Canfield (2000) is the casting director. Stay tuned for the Emmy nominations in June. I predict that Vera, Tiffany and “This is Us” will be well represented.

As always, UNCSA has been fully represented at this year’s most prestigious festivals and in coveted rankings. Excuse the pun, but the film school has been on a roll this year, and I’d like to share two great successes. I’m thrilled to report that The Wrap, an award-winning news outlet covering the business of entertainment and media, ranked our film school No. 10 on a list of the nation’s top 50 film schools! That news coincides with the film school’s ever-expanding presence at the annual Sundance Film Festival. Held last month, this year’s festival included 15 films that featured alumni work; while 1999 alumnus Jody Hill served as a juror, and 2001 alumna Rebecca Green attended as a Women at Sundance Fellow. To top it off, Dean Ruskin hosted an official Sundance panel discussion with leaders from the virtual reality entertainment industry. We’re quickly building a reputation as a pioneer in this emerging technology, and I’m telling you now: It will radically disrupt, transform and upend not only entertainment as we know it, but education, engineering and medicine. That’s why part of the anonymous $10 million gift I told you about in our last meeting will be used to establish our Institute for Performance Innovation--to get ahead of the game in content development for virtual reality platforms. The institute will be a place where artists can learn to tell stories in new ways, reshaping arts experiences for 21st-century audiences and weaving new threads into our American culture. As surely as artists tell stories that record our past and illustrate our present, they also help us to envision our shared future. Artists distill our dreams and creatively convey them across a variety of platforms. And when the existing platforms aren’t enough, artists create new ones. I want our Institute for Performance Innovation to spark innovation and open up new career pathways for our students that we never could have imagined just a few years ago!

The average North Carolinian, when asked what connection they have to UNCSA, should know these things. “Hamilton,”“Star Wars,” the Super Bowl, Sundance, the Oscars, the Emmys...I may be biased, but as a taxpayer in this state, I love knowing that my investment in public education supports not only game-changing research, state workforce development, and community engagement, but also unleashes talent that spurs economic development as well as touches the hearts, feeds the souls, and fuels the imagination of millions of people across the world.

I mean that quite literally, whether your passion is film, television, music, dance, theater, or, as I just learned this week, opera. Did you know that most if not all of the Stage Automation department at the Metropolitan Opera are alumni of D&P? Talk about crossing borders! Aside from the hundreds of thousands of audience members who flock to the Met all season, each Live in HD broadcast airs on 2,000 screens in 70 countries, on six continents, changing the way that millions experience and relate to opera. Stage automation literally moves the story in such a way that it can be appreciated cinematically, and without boundaries.

And I’m proud to say that we’re bringing the world to campus. Last Tuesday I hosted a group of supporters for a stunning performance of “Florencia en el Amazonas,” an opera by Mexican composer Daniel Catán; and later this month, the Spanish choreographer Goyo Montero presents the US premiere of his spectacular “Benditos Malditos” during our Winter Dance concert. Montero is principal choreographer for Nuremberg Ballet and has served on the jury of the prestigious Prix de Lausanne, where his choreography is part of the repertoire. The experience of working with him will no doubt inspire our young dancers for years to come as they, in turn, create and perform compelling stories through dance.

Through collaborations with artists like Montero, and our internationally diverse faculty including, Misha Tchoupakov, Eduardo Sicangco, Janos Kovacsi, and Dmitri Shteinberg, our emerging artists develop a universal language for telling their stories. We need to hear their stories as much as they yearn to tell them. Award-winning British author Philip Pullman said, “After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”

I began my remarks today with the words of one of the greatest of American storytellers, the cultural icon Walt Disney. I will close with his words as well. “It’s just been sort of a dress rehearsal and we’re just getting started. So if any of you start resting on your laurels, I mean just forget it, because…we are just getting started.”

February 10, 2017