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Movie Review: The Ivory Tower

24 Jun


As a freelance writer I have often thought to myself “was the cost of my private liberal arts school education worth it?” This often occurs when I am checking my student loan statement, which I am still painfully paying off more than 10 years after I earned my bachelor’s degree.

It is all about perspective. I was the first one in my family to go to college right out of high school, my degree helped me get my first job at a newspaper, and the connections I made benefited me personally and professional. For many, this is not the case. They leave college thousands of dollars in debt, with no job prospects on the horizon.

The new documentary, Ivory Tower, by filmmaker Andrew Rossi examines this new hitch in the American Dream – is the cost of tuition to many of the elite universities too high?

Ironically I am sitting in a Starbucks writing this review, Starbucks announced earlier this month that they have teamed up with Arizona State University to offer free college courses for Starbucks employees. Helping them “finish college.”

According to The Project on Student Debt, the average debt for students who took out loans in graduating class of 2012 is $29,400. In June of 2008 the unemployment rate was 8.2 percent. You can do the math.

Ivory Tower looks directly at the pressure of attending college with the nitty gritty details of how the cost higher education has ballooned. Families are looking at college bills ranging from $20,000 annually to $60,000 annually.  The film provides great examples of where this tuition is going, mostly to new buildings and the salaries of executives (not professors). It also details the predatory practices of private student loans, leaving many graduates unable to pay their ever-growing debt. The film even explores alternatives to traditional college, like the Thiel Fellowship and open sourced online education like Coursera and edx.

Though all the charts and history are interesting, the film doesn’t even address it’s initial question: was it worth it? There were no balanced examples of graduates who had “average” debt and landed a good job or who’s life was improved by taking on the debt.

Sure, we all know by now that colleges are a business and they are in it to make money, but it ends leaving the viewer with more questions than answers. If universities and lenders are just looking to cash in on the ideal of higher education and online classes (a cheaper version) are not an effective learning tool then what should one do? Learn a trade, self-educate, settle for the non-brand name education? Can the government help?

Honestly, I found the whole documentary to be depressing (I do have kids after all and I have no idea how we are paying for college). But the worst part is I found myself second-guessing the degree I worked so hard for and am still paying off. Applying to colleges and selecting one is a family decision, it is also a very personal one. Just because you got in, doesn’t mean you can afford it. It is different for each person. Really, the question should be is college worth it for me?

While the film might shock some people and remove the rose-colored glasses, it is not helpful overall. On the other hand, the website for the film is. There are links to the FAFSA, a tutorial on how to read financial aid award letters, and options for those managing their student loan debt. Now  that is worth something!


Ivy + Bean the Musical Debuts in Berkeley

7 Feb

A year ago Berkeley author Annie Barrows received an email from an old friend that resulted in bring the characters from her best-selling children’s book series Ivy + Bean to life. The email from Nina Meehan, executive director of Bay Area Children’s Theatre, was a simple question: What do you think about making Ivy + Bean into a musical for kids?

Barrows, along with her publisher Chronicle Books, loved the idea and gave BACT the blessing to transform Ivy + Bean in to an original stage production. Meehan immediately reached out to New York playwright and composer Scott Elmegreen, creator of Magic School Bus Live! The Climate Challenge, for help. The result is a new musical that debuts Saturday, Feb. 9 at Berkeley’ Freight and Salvage for a three week run, then travels to San Ramon and Mill Valley.

Megan Putnam and Catherine Gloria in the roles of Ivy and Bean.

Megan Putnam and Catherine Gloria in the roles of Ivy and Bean.

With eight Ivy + Bean books and a ninth on the way, Elmegreen had his hands full when it came to creating a story for an audience of Ivy + Bean fans. Elmegreen focused in on what he calls “musical moments;” instances where the drama was high and would translate great on the stage. Hopefully the young audience members won’t get too upset if something from book four makes it’s way into the storyline.

“We are asking our audience to take some imaginative leaps,” said Meehan. “Just as they do in the process of reading.”

If Barrow’s reaction at a technical rehearsal last week was any taste of what fans of the books will think, the BACT crew and Elmegreen have nothing to worry about.

“This part is similar to how you don’t know how your book is going to be illustrated,” Barrows said before entering the rehearsal. “Look at Ivy! She looks just like Ivy.” Barrows declared after seeing actress Megan Putnam in her red wig and polk-a-dot dress. “It’s like having all my imaginary friends come to life.”

Meehan’s gut feeling that the story of Ivy and Bean of Pancake Court was going to be a great kids’ production has not only been validated by the reaction of Barrows, but by the surrounding community and fans of the books. To cover the costs of creating a new musical BACT created a Kick-starter campaign that has surpassed its $5,000 goal before the deadline. And performance dates are already selling out.

“There is no way I had the expertise on what you bring forward and what you bring back,” said Barrows when asked how the theatrical production differs from her books, adding that Elmegreen and Bay Area Children’s Theatre has done a beautiful job.

Ivy + Bean the Musical will be making its worldwide debut on Saturday, Feb. 9 to a sold out crowd at Freight and Salvage (2020 Addison St., Berkeley) with a special appearance and autograph session with Annie Barrows.

If You Go:

Feb 9–March 3. Freight and Salvage, 2020 Addison St., Berkeley.  $15–$20.

March 9–17. Front Row Theater, 17011 Bollinger Canyon Road, San Ramon. $15–$20.

March 23–April 6. Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. $15–$20.

Prince and Princess of Fun

29 Apr

With everyone crazed about the union of Prince William and Kate Middleton, I thought it might provide a list of places where you and your little one can be kings and queens for the day:

Crown & Crumpet Tea Room:  Tucked in Ghirardelli Square, this formal tea house is a great way to spend the day pretending to be a royal or Fancy Nancy.  Enjoy a pot of tea with mini-scones and cookies.  There is even a little gift shop where you can pick up tea-themed items. 207 Ghirardelli Square, 900 North Point, San Francisco. Reservations (415) 771-4252.

Children’s Fairyland: It doesn’t need to be Halloween to show up dressed up to this play area, full of castles and fairy princesses. While it might not be Westminster Abbey, take a walk through the Chapel of Peace and hold your own “wedding.” 699 Bellevue Ave., Oakland. $8 admission.

Water Polo: While the favorite pastime of most royals is Polo (played on horses), the only polo field in the Bay Area is a great place to go to view a concert not a game featuring sweaty Dukes and Princes. There are plenty of pools in Bay Area that will gladly host a game of water polo. Sit on the sidelines with a nice floppy hat and watch the kids score!

Chess: This game is all about kings and queens. Sit down and teach your children the game, if you want to get real fancy you can move your pieces with your pinkie pointed out. Check out Children’s Wonderland Park in Vallejo’s life-size chess board. $2 entry fee.