Michael Fields

Director California State Summer School for the Arts (CSSSA)
Headshot of a man.

Photo courtesy of CSSSA

Music Credit: “Foreric: piano study” written and performed by Todd Barton from the EP Metascapes.

Michael Fields: CSSSA is one of the most free and liberating environments you will ever be in. You have the chance here to deeply explore who you are as an artist and who you may become and those chances don't come often.

Jo Reed: That is Michael Fields director of CSSSA—California State Summer School for the Arts—speaking to students in 2016—the 30th anniversary of the school and this is Art Works the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.

California State Summer School for the Arts, or CSSSA, is a cutting-edge resident program in the arts for highly talented and highly motivated high school students. It’s an intensive four week program in seven artistic disciplines. Mentored by working artists, CSSSA students have the opportunity to hone their craft and to understand their own potential as a creative talent. CSSSA recruits broadly—from all parts of the state—and acceptance to the program is through a needs-blind admission process, with CSSSA providing scholarships for low-income students. CSSSA has seen its alum flourishing either behind the scenes like Adrian Molina, writer and director of the Academy Award-winning film Coco, or in front of the camera like actor Zac Efron. There’s a lot more to say about the work done at CSSSA but I’m going to leave that to director Michael Fields. Michael Fields, a founder of the theater company Delle Arte, has been at CSSSA almost from the beginning, first as a teacher, then a guest artist, chair of the theater department and since 2010, as CSSSA’s director.

Michael Fields: California State Summer School for the Arts, or we call it CSSSA takes place on the Cal Arts campus in Valencia just north of Los Angeles, and we have about 525 students from all over California, and we can take up to 20 from outside of California, and many of those actually come from international places out around the world.

Jo Reed: So you’re really focused on this youth of California. That's your audience.

Michael Fields: That’s our audience and it’s also our funding since the state of California provides right now about 1.4 million in general funds to have the State Summer School for the Arts. It’s one of the last still standing in the United States, and it’s kind of a credit to the state of California—being a Californian I’ve got to say that—that they support the arts in this way, especially arts education in this way. And, then, we’re a public/private partnership, so we have a nonprofit foundation, the CSSSA Foundation, which raises funds so that if somebody auditions and gets into the program, then finances are not an issue. We will give them full scholarships to be able to attend. And the foundation also provides guest artist support. We have some exceptional guest artists, really well known people who come in to work with us each summer.

Jo Reed: So when did CSSSA begin?

Michael Fields: Thirty-two years ago in the late 1980s. There was nothing going on in the state of California which provided something like this, and a couple of legislators who were very interested in making Summer School for the Arts happen. I think they had also gone to New York and seen that New York had a very strong one at that time, so they decided that they would try to create one via legislation here in California, which they did. It took them a couple of years and with the help of some really exceptional people in Los Angeles who helped motivate and push that forward.

Jo Reed: If I did my research correctly—


Jo Reed: —I was surprised also that part of what motivated the state of California to do this was that they were losing revenue from movies being made in California because talent was going elsewhere.

Michael Fields: Right. Talent was going elsewhere and we weren’t bringing along the next generation of people, Californians, truly, who were going to take the next steps in this, and I can give you a classic example. There’s seven disciplines at CSSSA: Music, dance, theater, visual arts, creative writing, film, and animation. So animation is incredibly popular at CSSSA because of Cal Arts has a strong animation program. We’re well known for it. So the film “Coco,” which just won the Academy Award for best animated film, the producing director, art director on that, Adrian Molina, is a CSSSA grad. So that’s exactly I think when they founded CSSSA the kind of vision that they had, is that people would come through this program, they certainly they go on and they get training, and then they become the next leaders, visionaries, well-known artists in not just this industry. I sometimes hate to use the word industry, but it is.

Jo Reed: Yeah.

Michael Fields: In this world of creating work, and that exists really across all seven disciplines. We’ve had some really notable people emerge. Another example, we have a student who now runs the arts and education program at the Mark Taper Forum, which is a very large theater here in L.A., and I used to run the theater program at CSSSA before I became the director of it, and I remember her audition and she lived in a town of 12 all the way up in the mountains, in the Siskiyou Mountains of California. We took her not just because of her kind of gumption and drive, but because you could see the possibility there, and now she’s moved into a leadership position, you know, in arts education in the state of California and beyond. CSSSA becomes kind of a catalytic experience for a lot of these students, that they know it’s possible, that they know a life in this work can happen for them. So that was the initial vision of people and it has really in many ways really strongly come to fruition, I think.

Jo Reed: I would also think for students, aside from learning that it really is possible to make a life in the arts, which for a lot of people it’s not even on their chalkboard as a possibility.

Michael Fields: Right, <laughs> right.

Jo Reed: But then they also get to find a community of likeminded people who are their age.

Michael Fields: Exactly. We say they find their tribe, you know. If you’re that person in your high school who is completely drawn to the arts and you feel a bit geeky, you’re going to come to CSSSA and you’re going to find a lot of people who you will share a lot of stuff with. And because they come from all over California, I mean from geographic, cultural, economic diversity, you’re also going to meet people who don’t share a lot of your background but do share your passion and interest in the arts itself.

Jo Reed: You said there are seven fields that they can choose from, and I’m assuming--

Michael Fields: Right.

Jo Reed: —for the performing arts they would send in an audition tape?

Michael Fields: Yeah.

Jo Reed: Is that typically how it works?

Michael Fields: Yes, so you can apply in all seven, if you want, but you can only go to CSSSA in one, and now the applications, of course, as technology advances are online, so for example in theatre you will create a four-minute piece where you say why you want to go, and then you do a monologue from a scripted play, and that work you present to us is the primary determinant of acceptance. This year we got approximately 1500 applications for 500 spots, so it is competitive on that realm. But probably the most popular program, again, is animation. We had probably over 300 applications in animation for maybe 60 spots, so it depends a little bit on which discipline you apply to.

Jo Reed: Who makes the determination about who gets in? Do theater people tend to look at the theater students, et cetera, et cetera, or is it more fluid?

Michael Fields: No, it is by discipline. So, for example, the theater is by the theater chair of CSSSA and a faculty person or two. They will be the ones who will watch. They’ll come to Sacramento where our office is and they’ll watch, how many, 200 or 300 videos to be able to make that determination, and it’s the same in each of the departments. Creative writing, the whole faculty reads everything and then decides from that point. So the chairs become important because they’re the people who really work with those students over those four weeks.

Jo Reed: Let’s say I’m there in theater but I’m also interested in music or creative writing, but I got accepted for theater. Can I do workshops in other disciplines?

Michael Fields: If they’re fit with the schedule, yes. And we also do an interdisciplinary. The middle two weeks we bring in an artist who specifically does interdisciplinary work mixing up all the departments. We pick a theme each year. Last year it was resilience. I’m not sure what it’ll be yet this year, so that there’s a thematic prompt, and then musicians, writers, sculptors, everybody can be involved in that and they work together in that prompt across disciplines. Last year we had probably about 48 evening events, performances, workshops, and many of those are open to any department so that there’s a way for the students to kind of cross-pollinate and see work in other disciplines while they’re there, but it’s pretty intensive. For example, again, if you’re in theater you start at nine with tai chi and you end at nine after some event that night, so it’s a pretty intensive program in that way.

Jo Reed: And it’s a four-week-- I was about to say sleepaway like it’s camp, but of course it’s not.

Michael Fields: <laughs>

Jo Reed: It’s a four-week residential program.

Michael Fields: Right.

Jo Reed: And I would think given the age of the students, this could also really be like a wading into college a bit.

Michael Fields: Exactly, exactly right. I would say for at least half it’s their first time away from home on this kind of basis, because it is like college. You have an R.A. who lives on the floor with you. You have roommates. You have to navigate that aspect of it. One of the nice things about Cal Arts is it’s a very secure campus. We can have security in a gated kind of situation for those four weeks. We have 24-hour healthcare. There are counselors onsite, just because we also want to make that passage or this getting used to that life something that’s more easeful than terrifying to a lot of these students. But it is, it’s a great immersion before college and it really gives you a taste of what that’s like.

Jo Reed: I understand that courses and workshops really would change from discipline to discipline but can you give me kind of a broad idea of what a typical day might be like for a student at CSSSA?

Michael Fields: Sure. For example, in music you would have a class where everybody gets together--it could be a theory class, a composition class—and then they break out into instrumentalists and vocalists. They get private lessons. And then there’s ensembles like jazz ensemble, and then there’s songwriting. There’s a lot of different kinds of classes that flow through the day. In theatre, you know, there’s movement classes in the morning. The theatre students, there’s about 90 of them, are divided into 6 groups, and they would move through a, like I say, tai chi, physical comedy, movement class in the morning and then into voice, into improv, contact improv. Then in the afternoons you go into acting studios. They have acting four days a week, and then after that they have electives like “Shakespeare,” like musical theater, like solo performance. And then in the evenings the theater students on Monday nights have something called “Bits and Pieces” where work from the classes is brought before all of the students and all of the faculty and worked on in a Monday night session.

Jo Reed: Do the students have any downtime?

Michael Fields: Yes. There are fun things, too. The weekends we take them to-- usually to-- if we can find a good theater piece-- this year we’re seeing “The Humans,” which is a great play. I think it won the Pulitzer Prize. It’s an amazing piece of work. It’s coming to the Ahmanson Theatre, so we’re going to take them to that. We take them to Disneyland. It’s close enough. And it’s kind of a blowout second week fun thing to do. And then we take them to The Getty, which is just an amazing place.

Jo Reed: And the Getty is a visual arts museum in L.A.

Michael Fields: Yes. For many of them, again, who are not L.A. based, they’ve never seen anything like that before. You know, we show movies on the lawn at night. There’s time for them to just be themselves and hang out together as well.

Jo Reed: The faculty must be pretty big, because I’m thinking about music, for example. I know there are students there who are interested in classical music and other ones who are interested in jazz, for example. That’s a lot of reach.

Michael Fields: It’s interesting because during the year, we’re a tiny state agency, which is kind of cool. We have four people full time during the year, and that covers doing all of the arranging, putting all of the stuff together. In the summer we have over 100 people on faculty and staff who come in. And you’re right, in music in particular we try to arrange it so that if you’re a harpist--we’ve had them--they get private lessons. We have to find somebody in the area who’s skilled at that who can come in and do private lessons, so that they come away with a different experience than just playing in an ensemble. But they get challenged. Many of the people we bring in, some of the faculty people certainly would be a great faculty at any professional training program. People come back to teach because they love it and because there’s a sense that you’re having a true impact, you know. These students really are motivated to be in that work and experience this and see what an intensive program is like, so we have very strong full-time faculty.

Jo Reed: And you also have guest artists who come in?

Michael Fields: Yep, for example, we have a Danish knighted sculptor coming in. He and his wife are both really pretty internationally renowned sculptors. She just designed a series and made a series of lifeboats for the “Seven Ages of Women” [sic] that opened the cultural city of Europe last year in Aarhus, Denmark. They’re both Danish. They came last year and they’re coming again. He works with like three-ton blocks of granites in his work. Not at CSSSA, by the way.


Michael Fields: We can't afford that one. But his work is in the Royal Palace in Denmark. And then you have other guest artists who come. We try to bring in people who work in very different ways. We brought in two artists from Zimbabwe, people from Soviet Georgia and Puerto Rico who are doing a piece about basically immigration-- you know, the visual artist who comes from Boyle Heights here in L.A. who kind of came out of-- transcended, I would say, a certain life or probably death in the drug scene into becoming a muralist here in L.A., to show that kind of journey that’s possible-- and then you get people like Jason Alexander, who was on Seinfeld, that’s right. You get artists who come in because we’re close to L.A. who can really-- we had Leonard Nimoy. Boy, that was a draw for the students. <laughs> And he was in the Yiddish Theatre in New York. That’s where he came through. So they can talk about that and also stand up and do something in front of students that is pretty powerful for the students to see.

Jo Reed: What are some of the big challenges as director of the program that you face?

Michael Fields: I think there’s a couple. One is, we live in a state where there’s three million-some-odd teenagers, and I think how we best let them know that this possibility exists. I think we do a good job in terms of outreach in social media and all the rest of that, but it’s really helping those students understand that this exists and that it is possible for them to come, that’s a challenge. I just read that there’s only 35 percent of the students in high schools in California right now have access to arts education.

Jo Reed: Thirty-five percent in California.

Michael Fields: Thirty-five percent, yeah. And you’d think, again, we’re in California <laughs>--

Jo Reed: Exactly.

Michael Fields: --where the entertainment industry is based. It’s that. CSSSA has a particular challenge because we take students who are at a certain level. You can't have just picked up the guitar and come to the music program at CSSSA. It really asks that you have some skill or some experience or some perspective before you come. So if you don’t have anything in your school that makes that particularly hard.

Jo Reed: What's your strategy then for reaching out to a broad spectrum of kids?

Michael Fields: And we’ve targeted areas like the Central Valley in California, which has a population that also just doesn’t have access to arts education, so we reach out to those students, we help them get to that level to come to CSSSA, because if you come and you’re not ready in a certain sense, it’s dispiriting for the student in particular--

Jo Reed: Oh, completely, I could imagine.

Michael Fields: That challenge of being able to reach out and find those students is one. The other challenge, and it’s an interesting one, is students’ resiliency to be challenged at this point in time. And I’m saying this from the artistic perspective only and this will happen if you go to a conservatory where somebody says, “No, it’s good but that’s not what we’re—let’s try something else.” Sometimes that kind of simple challenge within students can be difficult right now. So part of what we’re trying to do at CSSSA now is kind of train the muscles of resiliency. We’re also looking at how we do that. We don’t have all the answers obviously, but it’s a discussion amongst all of us who work there right now.

Jo Reed: Other than a necessary skill set in a particular discipline, what do you want students to bring away with them when they leave CSSSA?

Michael Fields: Well, as we kind of began this conversation, I think we want them to know that this work is possible. It’s possible, and that the work matters in the world right now, that being an artist is not something you do on the side. Well, it can be and that’s fine, too. But it is something that matters in our national, international cultural human lives. It’s part of who we are, and having people who do it, do it well, think about the world when they do it I think matters a ton, and I think that we want to give the students that sense of both possibility and understanding in that. I think that’s foremost for us. Two is a sense of how you work, how you do the work, simply. Three, there’s some very pragmatic things. Like somebody comes in and says, “Listen, if you’re going to move to L.A. and be an actor, here’s some things you should really consider and think about,” so that there’s a way of looking at how I enter into this as a field of work. We try to tell them that you define success, not somebody else, so that there’s a way of not having to conform to what the expected path is or the expected art form. You need to find your personal voice, your voice to develop that and to trust it. And I would say the last thing—that’s a great question. I could talk about this—

Jo Reed: <laughs>

Michael Fields: —for a while. The last question is it gives them a sense of how to live in a community. It’s respect for other people. Like we’re at Cal Arts. There’s a great bunch of people who make food, who clean up, who deal with that side of the thing, is that that can't be invisible, that that has to be part of the community that you live in and how we work with each other, because I would say even the most individuated art form is collaborative. You’ve got to work with somebody. And how I collaborate and the tools for collaboration, how I communicate and the tools for communication exist at all levels of CSSSA, and it’s something we really do put thought and consideration into when we design the program so that it’s a whole experience. It’s not like a deli where you can have a little piece of that and a little piece of this. It’s a whole experience that we’re trying to design for them. And I think that’s what they come away with. It’s a catalyst. It moves them forward or it moves them to say, you know, I thought this was what I was really interested in and now I’m not so sure. That’s a great choice, too. That’s a great choice, too.

Jo Reed: Yeah, of course, perfectly legitimate.

Michael Fields: Yeah.

Jo Reed: So what have you learned—

Michael Fields: <laughs>

Jo Reed: —from your time at CSSSA?

Michael Fields: I love this age group. I really do. I think it’s an incredible time of life. And sometimes we can or I can underestimate the power of this experience and how much it matters to these students, so I’ve learned how to listen, I would say, a lot more by being in CSSSA and I still teach. I teach one class a day in the theater program just because it’s good to get on the floor with them and to know them in a different way. I always learn more than I teach. I’m always surprised by what people come forward with and what they do. That I think is pretty pervasive in the faculty at CSSSA as a whole, is they take the students seriously and they take their work seriously, their point of view seriously, and some of them are just absolutely brilliant and will continue to be, as I said, be the leaders in the next generations in this country in not just the arts. We had one theater student who became—he got into Harvard of all places and then became a diplomat and is now an associate ambassador somewhere in Eastern Europe. A CSSSA theater training will help you a ton with that.

Jo Reed: Well, Michael, thank you. I really appreciate you giving me your time.

Michael Fields: Sure, absolutely, absolutely. And thank you for bringing this all forward and into more public arenas. I think that’s great.

Jo Reed: Terrific. Thank you so much.

Michael Fields: Thank you, now.

Jo Reed: That is Michael Fields, director of CSSSA— California State Summer School for the Arts —you can find out more about the program at CSSSA.CA.Gov. You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. You can subscribe to Art Works where ever you get your podcasts—so please do and leave us a rating on Apple—it truly helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

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A conversation with Michael Fields, director of California State Summer School for the Arts (CSSSA). For 32 years, CSSSA has been training the next generation of artists. Each summer, CSSSA gives approximately 500 motivated and talented California high school students in the visual, literary, performing and media arts an intensive learning experience. Conducted by distinguished arts professionals, the four-week residential program is designed to hone the students’ artistic skills and to help give each student a sense of their potential as creative artists. Michael Fields discusses the thinking that went into the program’s creation, its rigorous course of study, and the talented students who rise to the challenges.