Letter to President Hanson

President Hanson,

My name is Jeremiah Liend and I am one of the organizers of the protest against the arts cuts. I have been a Theater major and French minor at BSU for the last 13 years, so it should come as no surprise that I am upset over the proposed cuts. I am writing to you with hope, as you said at the student forum that you would be willing to work with groups to come up with solutions. Before I get to these solutions I would like to give you a little history of the theater program, as I have known it for the last decade.

I am a very poor student, but I am a fairly talented performer. As such I have been involved with BSU theater since my first semester in 1998. I was given the supreme honor of playing the title role in The Mikado, as directed by then department head Bob Scriba. I worked with a fabulously talented cast and I would like to talk about them as examples of how the theater department works. Jeff Sampson, for instance, went on to direct locally before moving west to Portland. Tyler Olson, who played Koko, recently produced a show at the MN Fringe festival with his company Raw Red Meat. Molly Zupon, who played Katisha, continues to teach violin lessons to youth in the Twin Cities.

Over the next several years I would share the stage with some of the most talented performers Bemidji has known. In 2003 I returned to Bemidji from working in NYC and was once again blessed with the title role in The Foreigner, directed by my proffessor, friend, and mentor Kay Robinson. The cast has gone on to great success in theater. Samantha Veldhouse has worked with The Brave New Workshop for years now and has performed in numerous shows. Robert Thomas is managing a company out of The Theater Garage. Andrew Browers will be gracing the stage in The Guthrie this season. Jesse Whiting continues to write and perform locally while working as a substitute teacher. These are only a few examples of how the BSU Theater Department has graduated students who continue to excel. There is the claim that cuts were brokered against the success of a program, but this is obviously either a lie or entrenched in ignorance of actual success.

Joe Lafrinere, a classmate and chorus member in The Mikado, recently died. Joe and I didn’t always get along, but I write this letter for him as much as anyone, because cutting the theater department doesn’t only affect those who live, but those who have passed. Bemidji State has always had theater. Since the very beginning, when it was a teachers college, the curriculum has always included theater. There is a history, a culture, and a legacy to consider. When a student stands on the stage in Bangsberg they share it with the spirits of those who have come before them. They share in the legacy. It is why we keep a ghost light on that stage. That they should not rest in darkness.

I have named the protest Monday after one of BSU’s great presidents, Harry F. Bangsberg. I don’t know what most people have to do to get a building named after them, but Bangsberg had to die on a mountain in Vietnam. It is something that has always impressed me, and when I look at his portrait in the lobby of the hall named for him I remember the lengths to which some have gone to educate. The prices that some have paid to make the world a better place. I am mindful of these sacrifices and I hope that what I create and what I perform reflects that memory.
I am discouraged and angered by all of the cuts at BSU for a number of reasons. I would also like to mention that I am aware of the difficult position you have been put in. The prior president spent his time and energy investing in a facility that benefits only one department and while he did so the infrastructure of the school fell around him, and you were called in to reassemble the pieces. I understand that difficult decisions must be made, and that not every faculty or program can be saved. My anger is directed not only at you, but at the administration as a whole. Those who have allowed the culture and legacy of our university to come in peril due to their inaction.
My anger is not limited as a student, but as a resident of Bemidji, my hometown. Though I am three years or so away from a degree, Bemidji will always be my home. The benefits that the fine arts bring to the community are immeasurable. We are a town of only 12,000, but we have a professional theater, at least three art galleries I am aware of, a history center, and all manner of culture that has survived and thrived in the light of BSU. The proposed cuts seek to diminish this light. To betray the culture that hundreds of artists have fought to preserve for so very many years.

I wish I had a solution for every department on the block, but I am ignorant of a great many things. What I do know is theater. You claim that these cuts represent a restructuring, but this is a fallacy. When you restructure something you don’t eliminate it. If a church is too cold for the congregation you don’t level the building and start over. You find where the leaks are and fix it. What you claim to be restructuring is merely destruction, and I resent the lie inherent to your term. Likewise recalibration is a term used in engineering, but I see no effort on your part to repair anything.

The theater department can be repaired. Theaters across the world, and here at home, have survived since the times of Homer. They do so while locked in contest against the most titular and fantastic amusements devised by the most brilliant and creative minds because theater evolves with our age. I would request an opportunity to work with you, your department, and representatives of the theater department to investigate and retool the budget to make it sustainable. Currently students do not pay to see theater performances while hockey games are $5. The community pays nearly $30 a seat, every year, to sell out audiences to see the Madrigal Dinners. Even a $1 student price could go a long way towards closing the gap, in particular if performances were to run for more than a weekend.

There are grant opportunities available through both Region 2 Arts Council and its parent The McKnight Foundation. Students from regional high schools could be bused in for performances at a reduced cost. Local theater organizations could work with the department to produce their performances for a reasonable cost. These are but a few solutions to the problem of funding, and I am sure that there are many more that can be forwarded by staff and the community. Actual restructuring can occur to the benefit of the students and community as opposed to cuts which benefit no one.

My most recent performance at BSU was that of Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha. In it I encourage those in the direst of situations by explaining that the power of the imagination and creativity destroys the boundaries that keep us captive. I explain that the world does not belong to the hypocrites and bureaucrats, but to those who dare to dream. I dedicated my performance to my Grandmother Beulah, who had passed only a month previous. She joins the spirits of Bangsberg whose support and love have nurtured the arts since the beginning. Please help me in keeping the dream alive in the heart of Bemidji State University. Thank you.




Teej said…
Thank you for posting this, Jeremiah. I sincerely hope that you have sent this to President Hanson. It talks about the needs for open discussion and solutions, as well as the impact this decision has had on the students as well as the community. Thank you very much.
Our Story said…
I whole-heartedly agree with everything you have said. I would also like to point out that the proposed plan would eliminate the Massage Therapy major from the Tech school...this also seems crazy as that is one of the fastest growing fields right now. I mention it as yet another example of the poor judgement used in coming up with this "plan".
Jane Carlstrom said…
Ah Jeremiah, your passion for your discipline come through so clearly.

And btw, you are not the only student who perhaps feels like a round peg in a square hole when assuming the "student" position in a traditional university. I doubt that you are a poor student, you might respond and bloom faster within a different structure. But, ah, we who walk and think a little differently, still may need the accreditation, the degree; want the knowledge, and the development of technical strength that can be achieved through engaging in a formal course of study.

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