Visual Arts » Technology

That Transformative Moment



Call it a transformative moment.

On April 30, 2011, at the crowded Carmel Center for the Performing Arts, when Marcus Miller stepped back out for his encore, he had an unexpected performer with him. This new guy wasn't one of the headliners - everyone there had come to see Grammy-winner Miller and the other artists brought together by Jazz Roots. The guest's name was Jacob Hook, and he wasn't a professional musician at all.

He was a Carmel High School student.

The day before, the professional artists everyone had come to see performed first at Carmel High School to play for the students and speak with them about jazz and the performing arts. Hook had listened to them - to their music and to their words.

Steven Libman is the co-host of The Voice of the Performing Arts who brings an incredible background in theater, music, and dance to the show.
  • Steven Libman is the co-host of The Voice of the Performing Arts who brings an incredible background in theater, music, and dance to the show.

And when the band finished playing the next night, and Jacob Hook lowered his trumpet from his lips, the crowd erupted in applause. Hook, who's now studying music at Indiana University, would later call it the greatest night of his life. It's the kind of moment people spend their whole lives looking for. And it's the kind of moment Steven Libman and Jeff Swensson have spent their lives trying to make happen.

These days, they're doing it on the radio.

The Voice of the Performing Arts, the radio show Libman and Swensson have collaborated to create in hopes of achieving their goal, launched on the University of Indianapolis' WICR in March. The studio where the show is recorded is not far from where Jacob Hook got to show Marcus Miller his chops. Carmel High School has its own student run station - WHJE 91.3 - and it's in that studio that Libman and Swensson interview guests from as far away as Bermuda and as near-by as Carmel's own orchestra teacher to share their transformative moments with the world.

Libman and Swensson make an unlikely pair of radio hosts. Libman is a lifelong performer who has spent decades running artistic organizations around the country. Swensson is a passionate educator who has spent almost thirty years administering Indianapolis area schools.

"We've been interviewed many times in our careers," says Libman with a wry smile, "but this is our first time hosting."

You couldn't tell to listen to them. The pair has known each other off-air for only a few years, but to hear their conversation on-air, you'd think they'd been lifelong friends. It's a product of their incredible esteem for each other and their subject matter.

"Jeff is the professional educator, and he asks brilliant questions about education," says Libman. "I am passionate about education, but I can't ask the questions he can. But I do have a network of contacts in the performance arts around the world."

"Steven has this vast knowledge of music. I can appreciate it, but I don't know enough to really get in there," says Swensson. "He can ask these incredibly insightful, technical questions."

It's a match made in heaven, and it gives every interview a two-pronged approach that makes the most of a 19 minute interview. Depending on the guest, one or the other might take the lead but the other follows along, probing and looking for what Libman calls "a transformative moment" in a guest's life, that time when he or she fell in love with the performing arts. It's the heart of every interview and it ties into the show's mission: the importance of arts education.

"We've talked to people from all around the country, and a couple of international guests," says Swensson. "Every one of them has, from their youth, something about the performing arts that was enjoyable and intense."

"Our hypothesis was that we would find a great school teacher and probably a parent who created this spark, that interest," says Libman. "And in every case we've been proven right."

Both hosts had their own transformative moments through their high schools:Libman in Rhode Island, where he attended a high school that offered a college-level theater program, and Swensson in Cincinatti, where his father was president of the Witt Galvanizing factory.

Swensson doesn't just connect with the arts on the show, he is passionate about the arts in his role as Dad at home and as Superintendent for Carmel Schools.
  • Swensson doesn't just connect with the arts on the show, he is passionate about the arts in his role as Dad at home and as Superintendent for Carmel Schools.

For Libman, a defining experience was exposure to professional theater due to a unique program launched in New England not long before he attended school.

"Trinity Repertory Company was founded in 1963, when I was very young, and they created a project called Project Discovery. It's one of the oldest arts education organizations in the country," says Libman, who worked with the company after college. "Their goal with Project Discovery was that every kid in southern New England would see a play at Trinity Rep. And from when I entered high school till the summer before I left for college, I saw every production they did. They had people who created study guides, and at Trinity Rep, a major professional company, they never changed the plays - profanity, nudity - because you were seeing great art."

Swensson's experience was decidedly less high-brow. While he'd sung in school choirs - and appreciated his father's taste in music - he hadn't caught the bug. But watching his classmates performing, of all things, South Pacific changed his view on the arts.

"It was the guys especially. I was friends with all of them. And I just thought that they were very brave to go up there like that. And the way the audience was transfixed," says Swensson. "I thought to myself, 'Okay, this is important. This is something of real value.'"

"It probably didn't hurt," admits Swensson,"that they got to kiss pretty girls."

Despite such different starting points, the passions of these two men for the arts matched up perfectly when they both moved to Carmel around the beginning of the decade. Swensson moved to begin his work with the Carmel-Clay School District, and Libman arrived to help set up the then-new Carmel Center for the Performing Arts.

"I wanted to do a show about arts education," says Libman. "I met with Jeff [Swensson], and said I want a partner in this...someone who knows about education and is passionate about the performing arts.'"

They both wanted to use their experiences and the experiences of others whose lives had been changed to help further the cause of arts education. They wanted to demonstrate how much of an impact a music or theater class could have.

"You don't have to become a virtuoso to have somebody at a school level put a well-rounded shape to your knowledge," says Swensson. "That makes the performing arts viable, something that should continue."

As their conversations continued, the two connected with WICR, which was receptive to the idea. The co-hosts put together a pilot program, and after a successful presentation, they were approved for a 13-show season.

Even just two months into the show, their cast of guests is impressive. In part, it's a function of Libman's incredible number of contacts in the performing arts. He ran the Pittsburgh Ballet for 17 years, before moving to the La Jolla Playhouse where he helped to create the hit musical Jersey Boys. His career has taken him to stages around the country. The other key factor is that Indianapolis has quietly been accruing musical organizations. They aren't as well-known as their athletic compatriots that made the Circle City the "amateur sports capital of the world," but they're there.

"You've got Music for All and Drum Corps International," says Swensson, whose enthusiasm for marching band is hard to match even in as band-crazy a state as Indiana. "All of these organizations are moving in and making a difference."

 The President and Chief Executive Officer of Music for All, Eric Martin, has been one of the guests on the Voice of the Performing Arts. Like all of the show's guests, Martin can trace the genesis of his passion to a singular experience. Unlike most, his was after a successful career as a businessman on the East Coast.

"He was on a business trip, and he had some time to kill so he picked up the paper and saw a tiny article about a local band competition. He rented a car, drove out there, and it's amazing," recounts Swensson. "As he tells it, right then and there, he made a decision, right then and there, that he had to get involved."

"It completely changed his professional focus. It didn't happen magically, but in relatively short order he got involved with Bands of America [a Music for All program], and now he's the Executive Director. And he has a plan to get involved with more performing arts and to support schools. I think Music for All has really taken off under his leadership."

"I just think it's incredible. He was just watching some kids out on the field working their butts off," says Swensson, the father of two sons who marched in high school. "And now he's this impresario for bands. Like everyone we've talked to, he's just extremely dedicated."

Another central Indiana cultural treasure is Dance Kaleidoscope, directed by David Hochoy. Hochoy, born in Trinidad, was set on becoming a physician before a decision to take a dance class changed everything.

"He fell in love with the art of dance. He fell in love with the performing arts," says Libman. "He knew that this was the career he was drawn to. And he had the courage to tell his family about this new found passion and love, which was very brave."

"His story is just enlightening," Libman continues. "We're really interested in the stories of how people got to where they are."

You don't have to look far to understand why they're doing the show. School arts programs have been dismantled across the country for decades. The reasons are varied from the tight budgets of the late '70s to the test-centered teaching of No Child Left Behind. In an era when standardized tests have so much sway on the future of both students and their schools, what place is there for something as subjective as art?

"Unfortunately," says Swensson, "many schools have just taken a hatchet to arts programming."

And that, ultimately, is the reason for the show. If every student was touched by the arts at a young age, if everyone had access to music teacher or stage growing up, there wouldn't need to be a show focused on those moments. Or perhaps there would be, but the sense of urgency that Libman and Swensson bring to the show might not be necessary.

Libman and Swensson both agree that Indianapolis is an exceptional place for the arts, with a wide range of organizations promoting them. "I think there is momentum on many different levels," says Swensson, "to keep this kind of thing going."
  • Libman and Swensson both agree that Indianapolis is an exceptional place for the arts, with a wide range of organizations promoting them. "I think there is momentum on many different levels," says Swensson, "to keep this kind of thing going."

"There are tough decisions to be made [in schools], and I think that sometimes that's the role of leadership," says Swensson. "You know when someone says 'we have too many choirs' or 'we need a tiddlywinks squad' or something like that, I think someone needs to be there to remind the board why this really matters."

"I've been running businesses my whole life," says Libman, who now consults with arts organizations through Libman Group, which he founded. "It's not that we can't afford it. [Policy makers] don't have the understanding of how important this is."

"I don't think you can have Culture with a capital 'C', without the performing arts" says Swensson. "I don't know that it can exist without them."

The show is a testament to that importance. Libman and Swensson aren't alone in their passion. Their list of potential guests is burgeoning as performers, philanthropists, and organizers around the country learn of the show. Everyone wants to participate because, as Libman says, "they know how important this is."

"The state of Indiana has seven million people, and there is a rich culture through bands. High school bands are as important basketball," says Libman. "And that is integral to education. The public and private schools are working hard to keep that alive. More people need to know about that."

"There's an emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math," Libman continues. "Those are all wonderful and yes we need them. But my God, if you don't have the arts... this seems to be the only society that doesn't seem to realize that the arts are as essential, and actually incorporate science."

Calling for more arts education in the age of austerity is a tough job with little money to go around. Even for radio shows, as neither Swensson nor Libman get paid for their work. All of the costs of production are covered by a generous sponsorship by the Taft Law Firm, but beyond that there's no cash flow.

"This isn't a money maker," acknowledges Swensson, "it's an idea sharer. We thought if there was some way to share how lives were changed by the performing arts, that was a worthwhile message."

"We're doing this out of love," says Libman. "If I had a dream, it would be that we have, in fact, played a role in getting policy makers to pay closer attention to how the arts matter. We've invested a lot of time and energy into it and we want it to continue."

It's too early to tell what effect the show will have on the conversation about arts education. WICR doesn't get Nielsen ratings to track which shows are picking up a big audience, and Voices of the Performing Arts is in its infancy. For now, they are operating on the faith that when the signal goes out every Saturday at 1pm, there are listeners out there tuned to 88.7 FM, and the hope that those listeners will join their voices with the hosts in speaking for the importance of the performing arts in education. Swensson has learned a lesson from his years as an educator that holds true for everyone concerned.

"Sometimes it's just about being there," he says. "Sometimes it's just showing up to say 'this is important. This matters.'"                


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