Melissa Merli's Art Beat: CUTC, WEFT make changes

Melissa Merli's Art Beat: CUTC, WEFT make changes

Two local organizations have made significant staff changes at the top.

At WEFT 90.1-FM Radio, the last day for manager Mick Woolf — long the face of the community station — will be Thursday. It's also the final day for membership services coordinator Marty Booth Hodges.

At the Champaign Urbana Theatre Company, Mike Galloway is no longer manager after having worked in that paid full-time position for four years.

CUTC board president Joe Murphy said the company can't afford a full-time manager and plans to return to its more volunteer-focused model. However, Amy Stoch, who has a doctorate in theater, was hired as interim part-time manager to help develop core missions for the company, which 10 theater buffs founded in 1991.

At WEFT, board chairman Jermaine Raymer said in a Dec. 3 statement that the station's staff and board selected a transition team to help it enter "another era of radio."

"Radio has changed over the past few years in a rapid manner and here is where WEFT is planning to make changes," he said.

I sat down with Woolf, who has lived in C-U since he came here in 1977 to study at the University of Illinois. He told me there's been a confluence of changes, particularly technological, for media in general.

He called them evolutionary and revolutionary and said no one knows how they will shake out. Chief among them is that people can get nearly everything they want, entertainment- and information-wise, on the Internet.

"Add in the Great Recession and giving is down, not only for community radio but also nonprofit entities and endowments," he said.

Yet WEFT, which has largely been run by volunteers, is still here.

Woolf called that amazing.

"My hope is that the community at large would embrace the station as the community treasure I believe it is," he said.

Woolf, who's somewhat of an institution around town, especially now that WEFT air shifter Chef Rasta or Ra, has passed on, said his run at WEFT has been a good one.

"I feel grateful for being at the radio station all these years. I've had so many great experiences there with culture, musicians, free expression. It's a liberated zone, as Rasta used to say."

Woolf, 53, started at WEFT as a volunteer in 1982, four months after the station went on the air. In the late '80s, he became paid volunteer coordinator. In 1994, he became station manager, intending to stay in that position for a couple of weeks. Instead it became 18-1/2 years.

Woolf remains in his part-time job as housing counselor at the Champaign-Urbana Tenant Union; he's worked there since 1993.

He will look for other work as well, he said.

"The board of directors made their decision, though I had hoped for a different outcome," he said.

He invites people to tune in for the last programs he will host on WEFT (at least for the time being) this week: "The Medicine Wheel" from 8 to 10 p.m. Tuesday, and Chef Ra's old show, "Roots, Rock, Reggae," starting at 8 p.m. Thursday.

Woolf, who has a great radio voice and hosted "The Jazz Corner" on WILL-FM from 1989 to '05, plans to remain on the WEFT airwaves "well into the moonlight" Thursday night, maybe until 4 or 5 a.m. Friday. He invites listeners and friends to stop by the station to visit with him that night.

As for CUTC, Murphy said Galloway "did some great work for us, and we were sorry to have to change away from that."

Galloway's family moved here from Michigan when he took the CUTC manager position. He's still in town, Murphy said.

At a recent CUTC meeting, Stoch said she has three goals for CUTC. She listed them in a newsletter emailed after the meeting.

The first is to create a board of trustees to do major fund-raising to free the current board to act more as an artistic and operational board.

Stoch's second goal is to create a committee-run structure that would put company operations back into the hands of company members, thus creating more transparency, she hopes.

At the meeting she introduced committee heads: Matt Fear, education; Lanna Bartko, box office; Jason Cerezo, marketing; Jenny Gleason, Ray Essick and Lisa Cerezo, Singing Valentines; and Jamie Hines, hair/makeup. Other committee heads will be announced later.

Her third goal is to make CUTC a community resource for all things theater, via workshops on subjects such as on-air acting, improvisation, audition and other stage-acting skills.

She also discussed a plan to create a second season of smaller programs that would use the former Arrow building on Cunningham Avenue in Urbana. CUTC moved all of its operations into that building a year or two ago.

"Chief among these would be children's theater, specifically adult actors doing shows for children, an unfilled niche in local theater," reads the newsletter.

Murphy, a lawyer and brother of the late CUTC co-founder and stalwart Kathy Murphy, acknowledged the group has had financial problems, though its shows generally make a profit.

It's behind on paying "money to many people, including people who had provided out-of-pocket funding and professional skills to the shows," according to the newsletter.

"One of our goals is to catch up and get ahead of that," Joe Murphy told me. "I think we have the capacity to do that."

Though CUTC has significant fundraising ahead, it will definitely offer a 2013 season, he said. It will include the popular "Les Miserables," at the Parkland College Theatre.

CUTC will revisit if it will be able to move back to the Virginia Theatre. The rent there had become prohibitive.

"There is some interest in getting shows back at the Virginia," Murphy said. "I would be remiss not to say that Parkland has been a very good venue and very supportive of the program."

"Sing the Truth"

Dianne Reeves, Angelique Kidjo and Lizz Wright might not have sung the truth in concert last weekend at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts — that would depend on your perspective, I guess.

But the three formidable talents certainly sang and entertained the audience in the Tryon Festival Theatre in a powerful, life-affirming way.

One of my friends who was there afterward said the concert, called "Sing the Truth!," was a healing for the community. Others called it fabulous and uplifting. One of my friends was so moved she wept.

The women, accompanied by a crack band of musicians — jazz expert Shelley Masar told me afterward she had heard of all of them and that they have excellent reputations — sang in the legacies of Miriam Makeba, Abbey Lincoln and Odetta.

Kidjo, Reeves and Wright are legacies in their own ways. All three have rich, resonant voices and charismatic personalities.

Three-time Grammy winner Reeves is known primarily as a jazz singer, but she can "bring it" anywhere, Kidjo commented. I think she should have brought it to Barack Obama's inauguration on Monday.

I like Beyonce and think she did a good job pre-recording and then lip-syncing the national anthem, which is a hard song to sing. Reeves, who has a much stronger, fuller voice, would have knocked it out of the National Mall — without having pre-recorded it.

Kidjo, who was born in the West African country of Benin, is one of the foremost singers in the genre we call world music. She was nominated six times for a Grammy in that category, winning in 2008 for best contemporary world music album. Her voice is a nice blend of pop, rock and soul.

She also is a positive person. On stage she mentioned her mother, saying she never "entertained" negativity, depression or illness. That didn't mean those never entered her life, Kidjo said — her mom just didn't entertain them.

I like that attitude.

Wright, the youngest of the three singers who at one point went barefoot on stage, was raised in the gospel tradition in her father's Pentecostal church in Georgia. You can hear that in her voice, but you hear other influences as well.

This concert was an excellent way for Krannert to start the new year and the campuswide celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

More power singing

If you like powerhouse female vocalists, check out Sweet Honey in the Rock at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 9, also at Krannert and also part of the Emancipation Proclamation celebration.

The Grammy-winning Sweet Honey is a legendary a cappella group that sings jazz improv, chants, hip-hop, blues, spirituals, rap, reggae and gospel.

"Inspired by her work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Freedom Singers to use music to spread the principles of the civil rights movement, Bernice Johnson Reagon established the group in 1973 with Mie, Carol Maillard and Louise Robinson," reads the Krannert blurb on the concert.

"Today after more than 20 CDs, a 2009 performance at the White House, segments for 'Sesame Street' and world premieres, the women embody the spirit of the Emancipation Proclamation: to create a world in which all persons shall be free."

News-Gazette staff writer Melissa Merli can be reached at 351-5367 or mmerli@news-gazette.com. Her blog is at http://www.news-gazette.com/blogs/art-and-about.

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