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BWW Interview: Gail Schickele of SOLO ARTS HEAL at MarshStream Helps Us Explore Serious Issues with Humor and Heart

Schickele hosts a weekly series that brings some much-needed levity and understanding to topics of health and healing

BWW Interview: Gail Schickele of SOLO ARTS HEAL at MarshStream Helps Us Explore Serious Issues with Humor and Heart
Gail Schickele, Host of Solo Arts Heal
(photo by Melissa Mullin)

As we all continue to navigate our way through these unprecedented times, The Marsh is meeting this moment with its weekly Solo Arts Heal series, which uses lightness and humor to explore some of the challenging issues we're all grappling with. The series comes from artists' inspiring true stories that celebrate overcoming adversity; surviving emotional, mental, and physical challenges; and becoming health advocates. The vulnerability of the participating artists leads listeners through their personal journeys of trauma and healing. Producer, writer and longtime champion of the Arts and Sciences Gail Schickele is host of the informative and entertaining series, available to stream every Wednesday at 7:30pm (PST) on MarshStream. Each week, Schickele is joined by a new guest for performance excerpts, talkbacks, and Q&A. Visit themarsh.org/soloartsheal/ for additional info.

I recently caught up with Schickele to learn how the series came about and find out more about her own fascinating career working in various contexts with numerous well-known artists. She is great fun to talk to, with a wealth of historical detail and an arts promoter's natural inclination to give shout-outs to the many folks she's worked with and admired. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

How did the idea for the Solo Arts Heal series come about?

Well, I was producing a number of shows that have to do with health and healing, and I'm always looking to help young artists or just artists that maybe I could be of some guidance to. I thought by bringing a group of them together at APAP [the Association of Performing Arts Presenters], perhaps we could best determine who their audience is, where they might best be booked and how they can best help communities and reach out to them. About a dozen of us met at APAP and talked about how can we get to university medical centers, for instance, where they have both budgets and a need for this information in a way that could be not as dry as some of the information they receive in normal settings. [laughs] We began meeting weekly and talking about how to move forward, and Covid hit. And then Stephanie Weisman [Founder/Artistic Director of The Marsh], being part of this group, invited us to tell our stories on the MarshStream and we agreed as a group to call it "Solo Arts Heal." So that's how it all began.

How do you go about deciding whether or not something fits within your purview? Are there any boundaries to the series?

I look for shows that focus on health and healing. We began very specifically looking at shows that had to do with physical, mental and emotional challenges. These cover a range of things from anxiety to Alzheimer's, cancer, caregiving, hospice, heart health, OCD, foster care, sexual and domestic violence. In fact, we began the series with sexual and domestic violence because even though we felt it was daring to begin there, it was also important because with COVID-19, and this is worldwide, sexual and domestic violence has increased greatly, in some places a hundred percent. This is an issue that we needed to address, and the wonderful thing about addressing these very serious issues with performance is we can make it accessible to everyone and often very funny. It shows laughter is the best medicine. It's been wonderful to be able to have this creative outlet where people can do their performance and then we engage in talkback with them about their experience, about the show, and often with guest experts who step in with questions that we take from the audience.

I have also worked for a long time in environmental and social justice issues, it's very close to my heart. Once a month, the shows address issues of climate change, clean air and water, the state of our oceans, food security, plastics [etc.]. We haven't covered all of these topics yet, but we have a lot of things that we can look at when we're looking at climate. And we look to address other issues, like Black Lives Matter, because all of these address our health and healing, as individuals and in the world.

Is there anything surprising that you've learned from hosting the series?

What really surprised me was learning how communities everywhere are in need of this information and it's not just specific medical centers or places where there are hospitals and that kind of thing. Our audience really is worldwide. In fact, we do get people that listen regularly from Australia and I've had two artists that were interested in performing even though it was live for them at 3:30 in the morning in the UK. I'm just thrilled there's that much interest and understanding about how important this is from people around the world.

We have kind of an advisory group that I early on had gotten together. One of these people is Fred Johnson, who is with the Straz Center for Performing Arts in Tampa, Florida, and works with Susan Magsamen at the Johns Hopkins University Medical Center. Fred is artist-in-residence at the Straz Center and he appeared on an early show with us. She [Susan] started the International Arts + Mind Lab at Johns Hopkins. Her body of work lies at the intersection of brain sciences and the arts and how our unique response to aesthetic experiences can amplify human potential. It's groundbreaking, I think, the work that she does and the work that she's been doing also with Fred and the Straz Center. Fred is also himself very much a healer.

I'm always wanting to help artists be creative and be able to sell and share their work with communities. I'm just very encouraged that we can make a difference in helping people with challenges in their lives, cause we're all having them right now. We seem to have a pretty steady audience of people that are learning and understanding and engaging with us, and I hope it will grow.

You've also had quite a long and fascinating career prior to Solo Arts Heal. I believe your very first job was working in your uncle's theaters in Buffalo, New York. Is that correct?

Yes, that's right. The very first job I had was at the candy counter at the Circle Art Theater, my uncle Fred's theater that brought foreign films to Buffalo. He ended up having two theaters, a bookstore and an art gallery, all connected. He was a filmmaker and his son, Fred Keller Jr., became a filmmaker out of LA now. Fred Sr. brought television to Buffalo originally. He worked for WBEN and decided he didn't want to be in television and opened a theater, and extended it to be an art gallery, and he had amazing art, including original Giacomettis. When he worked in Paris, I had the opportunity to live with them there, he and my aunt. He worked at the ORTF [Office de Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française], screening films for American television, but he would also go to art galleries and buy art and send it back to be sold at his theaters in Buffalo. I so enjoyed going with him to do that.

When I was 21, I moved to Denver and worked at the Heritage Square Opera House, which was a dinner theater, and its sister theater which was a showboat on the Mississippi at St. Louis, a national historic landmark called the Goldenrod Showboat, built in 1909. At the time of my working there, which was 1980-82, I believe it was one of two authentic showboats left on the Mississippi. And the Goldenrod also was notorious because it was the largest showboat ever built, 1400 seats [originally]. The Menke brothers built and ran it, and Charlie Menke was a real curmudgeon. He wouldn't let Edna Ferber on, called her a freeloader. [laughs] So she ended up going on the Cotton Blossom and writing Showboat. I always love telling people that.

You also worked with a really impressive roster of iconic comedians like Robin Williams and Jerry Seinfeld.

I worked with the Comedy Works Denver. I was business partners with the owners there and ran the talent agency for all the comics. We had at that time Roseanne Barr -

Who was local to Denver, right?

She was, and in fact her husband Bill Pentland was a post office worker and also would do standup once in a while. We had what many would say was the best roster between New York and LA, such an incredible roster of comics that we didn't do your typical open-middle-headliner lineup. We would have a roster of the locals, as you might have seen at the Comedy Store or the Improv in LA, and we would hire a headliner.

I was the marketing director of the Comedy Works before I became head of the talent agency with my business partner Kathi DeFrancis, who was an amazing singer/songwriter (she passed a couple years ago). We would hire the headliners and do all the publicity for them. Kevin Pollak, whom I just recently saw in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and he was wonderful, I remember working with. And Robin Williams came and did a fundraiser for us for another comic who had an accident, Don Becker, who was a brilliant comic. Jerry Seinfeld - I remember taking him all through the mountains and going to Silver Plume and some of the little towns up there. Robin was very big already, had become quite famous, but this was Jerry before the [TV] show, you know? [laughs] And so many other great comics. We were lucky because we worked hard and we laughed hard, I must say.

With a vaccine finally on the horizon, I think we're all looking forward to putting Covid behind us at some point in the coming year. Where do you see as the future for Solo Arts Heal post-Covid?

I don't know if I want to say this, but in an odd way Covid has given us a captive audience, and we have been so happy to be able to rise to the occasion of need during this time. What I've learned through this is that these shows are good for audiences and communities everywhere. I think the pandemic is helping people realize life is fragile and we're all in this together. How can we help each other heal? How can we help each other move forward? I have a good feeling that we'll be able to extend the show and the interest for the show because of that very reason. And also looking at other issues, such as environmental and social justice, they're all connected to our healing and to the importance of our finding a solidarity as humans on this earth and working together to heal ourselves and heal our mother earth.

I'm really happy to kind the audience as much as we can and reach out to youth as well as adults with the shows that we're doing. Kevin Spencer is coming up on the 23rd of this month, and is a world renowned, first-class magician who has won many awards. He himself had a major, medical emergency and so at the pinnacle of his career, he stepped away from stage and into classrooms and hospitals. He works with autistic children and teaches them magic. He's become a real leading voice in the industry in regard to arts integration for special populations.

I do hope that we'll be on stages again next year and that people will become really aware of how great these shows are for their communities because they're creative, beautiful shows by wonderful artists. I'm just really proud to be able to work with them and learn from them and represent them in this arena of Solo Arts Heal. I am very grateful to the MarshStream - [General Manager] Brian Williamson and [Development Associate] Kristin Scheel, all of the people there have been really marvelous. And Stephanie herself has been a tremendous support and inspiration for us with this show.

I also suspect that while Solo Arts Heal is meeting this current moment, the need for it won't likely go away because it is something you can experience in your own home. Given the sensitive nature of certain topics you cover, some people may find it a little more comfortable to be in the privacy of their own home rather than in a group setting surrounded by a lot of other people.

I think that's a really good point. Because it is important that people can do this from the privacy of their homes, and often we'll have seniors tuning in. And maybe this is something we'll look into in the future, but as people are able to perform onstage again, and videos are made of the shows, to make those available. I'm hoping the MarshStream is here to stay.


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