John Frohnmayer’s musical SPIN shows what can happen when personalities clash — over art.
Put a controversial performance artist, a conservative U.S. Senator, the chair of the National Endowment of the Arts and a preacher named JoeBob into a room together to discuss art and politics, and the resulting personality clashes are sure to generate comedy. That’s what John Frohnmayer had in mind when he wrote SPIN, a musical that depicts the early ‘90s “culture wars” that pitted artists seeking complete freedom of expression against those who demanded stricter rules for federally funded art.
Frohnmayer, an affiliate professor in OSU’s College of Liberal Arts, knows all about the subject matter. SPIN is loosely based on his years as the chair of the NEA and his 1993 book that chronicles that turbulent experience, “Leaving Town Alive: Confessions of an Arts Warrior.”
SPIN made its first run at Oregon State University on May 8, and its debut was the product of collaborations throughout OSU and beyond. Director Marion Rossi Jr. has helmed more than 30 OSU productions as an associate professor of speech communication. Music instructor Sila Cevikce Shaman wrote SPIN’s compositions, and David Ogden Stiers, best known as Major Winchester on the television series M*A*S*H*, joins a cast of student and community actors.
“To see a director like Marion Rossi, a veteran performer like David Ogden Stiers and some wonderful student actors bring SPIN to life and give it their interpretation is incredibly exciting,” says Frohnmayer.
Rossi, who began workshopping the musical with his students in theater classes more than a year ago, says he’s loved witnessing SPIN develop. “It’s a great experience for the students — working on an original production, seeing how it grows, evolves and changes over time,” he says.
For University Honors College senior Maarika Teose, who plays the outrageous and provocative performance artist Polly, that experience has been even more enhanced by Frohnmayer’s continuing input and presence at rehearsal. “This is the first play I’ve done that hasn’t been performed before, so having the playwright there is fantastic. If we have any questions about the script, or if something isn’t working, he can guide us or make changes,” she says.
Teose says that Stiers, who joined the cast about a week after they began rehearsing winter term, is also a resource. “He’s fun. It’s really nice to have someone there who has a lot of real-world acting experience. He can give some really deep advice,” says Teose, who has been involved in OSU theater for the past five years.
Stiers wanted to join SPIN’s cast because he feels strongly in freedom of expression. Likewise, Rossi hopes audiences leave SPIN with a deeper understanding of art’s importance in their lives.
Although Frohnmayer’s primary motivation for writing SPIN was to entertain his audience, he still believes the issues of free speech and politics that electrified the early ‘90s are relevant today and that people — no matter how extreme their viewpoints — ultimately need to communicate with each other. “We need to learn to deal with differences in the context of a community,” he says. “If a community is going to succeed, then we all have to succeed together. Free speech is an enabler, but we have to listen as well.”