by Ashley Kerns, Florida State University School of Theatre
Gaylen Phillips first hit the boards of a stage growing up in Jacksonville, Florida. “I did my first play when I was ten years old, and I haven’t stopped since,” says Phillips, as she prepared for her role as Jeannette Burmeister in the Florida State University School of Theatre’s performance of The Full Monty.
Phillips’ theatre career brought her to Florida State more than twenty years ago when she received her PhD from the School of Theatre. “I didn’t do any performing when I was getting my doctorate because I didn’t have time. Working on my PhD was the hardest thing I have ever done.” Through the years, however, Phillips has hit the FSU stage periodically to take in the energy of the student-driven environment. “I have performed several times at FSU, including Pippin and The Fifth of July. This is tremendous training for these kids. It is a special program with really high standards, which I think is evident when people from the community support it so much. They know that you’re going to get a good production.”
Phillips’ involvement in the world of the arts extends far beyond her roles on stage. She serves as the Associate Director of Arts Resources and Services for the Division of Cultural Affairs at the Florida Department of State, where she fosters the arts in Florida through grant, information, and education programs. “I never imagined that I’d end up in a government arts job but it is exciting. Over the years I’ve come to see the necessity of government funding for the arts. At the state level one of our main goals is to provide equal access to the arts. From whenever you’re born to whenever you die, we’re all over the place. The arts are involved in so much that we do that we don’t even think about it,” Phillips says with a smile. Her work at the Department of State has helped lead to arts exposure for millions of people through the years, specifically to students in grades k-12. Since opening in 1979, the State Touring Program (Florida Arts on Tour), which Phillips heads, has served over 4 million people.
When asked about the greatest challenge facing the arts today, Phillips cleverly notes that the economy isn’t necessarily the only roadblock, but that people feeling like the arts aren’t accessible to them is something that needs to be addressed. “Of course financing is a big thing but that is so obvious. It is interesting to get people to stop and think about how the arts impact their daily lives. I think if they did that they would not feel excluded. People say to me ‘well I don’t have anything to do with the arts’ and I say to them, “do you sing in your church choir? Do you knit afghans, do you do embroidery? Do you drive a car? Someone had to design that car. There are all sorts of things that impact us. It’s broad, it is everywhere and I think that message is a hard one to convey. It’s not just about going to the theatre, although you really need to and you should, it is about everything.”
That enthusiasm for the presence of art everywhere is what brings Phillips back to FSU to share her joy with students. “These kids are just so wonderful and wild, I love listening to them. When I have the opportunity to come back to FSU and perform, it is just a dream. Everybody knows and does what they are supposed to do. It is the closest to a professional theatre and it is an amazing opportunity for these kids. Everybody is held to a high standard – these kids know it and it is a marvelous training ground for them. I wish them all luck.” Phillips says that part of what FSU (and all arts exposure) provides is the opportunity to become part of the larger world, “We cannot create kids that are so narrowly educated that then they become narrowly engaged in society as they grow up. You need to be a whole person; you need to be happy and healthy, you need to be able to contribute to society.” Nobody lives that philosophy as enthusiastically as Phillips. If all the world’s a stage then the many parts that she plays come together seamlessly, shining a very bright spotlight on all that the arts can do.
Gaylen Phillip’s concern about narrowly engaged citizens is spot on. If times get worse, we’ll need the arts even more. Especially the healing power of music and the power of theater to deliver ideas. It’s easy to forgot how much this stuff is worth. Louis Kahn channeled my own feelings when he said “nobody needed Beethoven’s fifth symphony until he created it. Now we can’t live without it.” If times get better, we’ll still need the arts – as the brash and explosive Harlan Ellison put it in another context – “to be humbled and to be renewed”.