Talking Arts and Education with the Laguna Blanca Professor and ‘The Indy’’s Executive Arts Editor Charles Donelan
Reprinted by the Santa Barbara Independent
BY ROGER DURLING
“Before The Indy and Laguna Blanca, I’d never spent more than five years working anywhere,” says Charles Donelan, both a beloved high school English teacher and the well respected executive arts editor at our newspaper. “I’ve been able to stay and build a career.”
There’s a beautiful mixture of excitement, sophistication, curiosity, and wonder about Charles. When I hear him speak about teaching, he reminds me of Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society.
“It’s a fantastic positive thing in my life,” he says. “I’ve been teaching at Laguna Blanca for 15 years of my life. It’s allowed me to explore all these different ideas with minimum supervision.”
Charles, who started teaching at the Hope Ranch-based private school in 2004, recently developed a new Humanities Research Program, in which students are involved in project-based learning designed to create opportunities with artists and others in the community. “It’s organized around what’s happening now,” he explains, “what’s taking place in the visual arts.”
Students apply for the multi-year program in 9th grade. In 10th grade, they attend classes taught by guests, many of whom Charles has met and developed a rapport with while writing and reporting for The Independent. By their junior year, the students move on to creating their projects out in the community.“It’s selective,” explains Charles of the program, which only admits 10 students per grade. “We want students to be motivated.”
In the past, Charles and students have collaborated three times with State Street Ballet and Cecily Stewart in what they call “Library Dances,” which adapt literary classics for the stage. Stewart does the choreography and Charles does the writing. They’re currently working on Twelfth Night. He also gets excited telling me about his unique and ingenious collaboration with aerialist Ninette Paloma: an adaptation of Jane Eyre called “Jane Air,” which was directed by Laguna Blanca's Dana Caldwell.
“If you have to participate in something out of the ordinary, it will stay with you forever,” says Charles about this teaching approach. “And it’s fun. I love collaborating. There’s something to be said about taking risks. You don’t want to be the person who has all the answers. Plus I get to indulge the idea that I’m producing and directing.”
Charles thought he was going to be a college professor. He moved to Santa Barbara to teach in UCSB’s writing program, but he didn’t feel fulfilled. So he also started writing for The Independent, becoming directly involved with covering and promoting our dynamic arts community. When Laguna Blanca offered him a part-time job, he found the perfect, albeit quite busy, balance. “I found myself doing really good work, “ he says. “I became a part of the community by writing for The Indy.”
Charles was born in Providence, Rhode Island, and went to high school in Worcester, Massachusetts. His father was a Justice Department lawyer and his mom had been a teacher. “I was a flake in high school,” he acknowledges. “Things didn’t come together until I was in college.”
After graduation in 1978, he attended Yale University as an English major. This was at the height of “Deconstruction Theory,” and Charles was mentored by Harold Bloom. “Being a literature professor was really glamorous,” he says. He fondly reminisces of taking a class with famous film scholar Annette Insdorf, and Jodie Foster was one of his classmates. “It was an amazing time,” he recalls.
After graduating in 1982, he went to Columbia University to get a post-graduate degree. “I was desperate to get to New York City,” he admits. “It was a stimulating environment, such an exciting time to be there.” He lived on 107th and Broadway and was a preceptor at Columbia, which paid him to teach and also covered his tuition. While teaching logic, rhetoric, and literature, Charles was mentored by Edward Said. “I survived the ‘80s working in nightclubs,” he explains. “Danceteria. I started as a coat check, then I worked the elevator and eventually manned the door with the clipboard.”
In 1992, he finished his Ph.D. and got a one-year teaching appointment at Tufts University, followed by another one-year appointment at Bard College, and many other “etceteras.” One influential experience was teaching at the Collegiate School, which introduced him to the world of independent schools. “It was super valuable,” he says. “I became a believer in that type of education. I loved the tempo.”
Charles also admits thriving under deadlines, which he experiences at The Independent on a weekly basis. “I love the pressure of getting things done on time,” he admits.
As an editor for The Independent, he has a front-row seat to our town’s many happenings. “The ratio of arts to population is off the charts,” he says. “People in Santa Barbara are high-quality. They take things seriously.”
Charles, who lives on the Upper State Street, also cherishes being a college advisor to his students. “I’ve had a lot of experience, “ he says. “I still revel in the academic live.”
The day after our lunch together, I notice Charles having drinks with a group of artistic colleagues. They’re animatedly conversing, and I observe Charles is in his element. He’s enjoying a stimulating intellectual conversation and on his way to cover some cultural event in our city. He seems so happy.
Charles Donelan answers the Proust Questionnaire.
What do you consider your greatest achievement? Personally, I am happy to have been so resilient. Plenty of things that I tried did not work out, yet I still managed to find a way. In relation to other people, I like to think that whether it is someone who took a class with me or someone that I wrote about, I gave them a feeling of being seen and validated. I hope I have offered legitimate and nuanced recognition to those who deserve it.
What is your idea of perfect happiness? A foot of new powder snow and blue skies. Seriously, the feeling of seeing a collaborative project through to success. Or the expression on the face of a student who’s having a heavy learning moment.
Which historical figure do you most identify with? Lord Byron. He was, in many ways, a mess, but he stood for something powerful, which was the idea that freedom of conscience would — and should — become the ultimate human goal.
What do you like most about your job? The opportunity to spend time with people who inspire me, and to connect with them over what matters most.
Who do you most admire? I was really impressed by the presidency of Barack Obama. I know there are policy issues that he may not have handled perfectly, but overall I love his style and his attitude. Plus he’s clearly a good husband and father. And talk about taking on a challenge!
What is your greatest fear? Losing my senses or losing my mind. I went through some difficult times with my parents when they were dealing with Parkinson’s and cancer, and I learned to appreciate that every day you wake up and walk the earth without significant affliction is an extravagant blessing, and as a result, you better treat it that way!
What is your greatest extravagance? Why walking the earth, of course. By which I mean traveling. I love going on big trips. The further the better. I’m heading to Japan in March, and I can’t wait to get back to China.
What is your current state of mind? Guardedly optimistic. The midterm elections helped a lot. I was stunned and depressed in 2016 when Trump was elected. The sense that there were no longer any standards — no rules, just anger and lies — made me deeply afraid. Now, for the moment, I’m looking at the glass as half full. The people have begun to respond.
What is the quality you most like in people? Sensitivity. Not hypersensitivity, as in “could you turn that down?,” but rather just good old-fashioned concern for how other people might be faring under present circumstances. I am a fan of anyone who recognizes that ALL other people actually have feelings.
What is the quality you most dislike in people? Deceit. I have no time for liars and gaslighters. Life is too short to go around spreading falsehoods. It’s the least you can do not to be an intentional source of misinformation. We all have a hard enough time figuring out what to believe without people who think it is clever to deliberately mix us up. If you don’t know, or you don’t want others to know, keep your mouth shut. Stop making things up.
What do you most value in friends? Their capacity for enjoyment. I want to be around people who love life and like to share that feeling.
What is your most marked characteristic? I am pretty much up for whatever. I like lots of different kinds of things, and I look forward to discovering and liking things I don’t know about yet. Anyone heard any good new music? Let’s listen to it and discuss it.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse? I ask my students “does that make sense?” Some of them actually appreciate it, but I am aware that I say it quite frequently. Also, “you will need something to write with, and something to write on.” I say that all the time, and I would love to look around and feel that it was unnecessary.
Which talent would you most like to have? I am grateful to be able to write the things that I do, but if I could spin the kind of fictional webs that writers like Thomas Mann or Leo Tolstoy created, I would be ecstatic. The ability to imagine a world and make it real in language never ceases to enthrall me.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? Three inches taller? Is that one thing? Seriously, I would love to be more direct. Not rude, but unhesitant. Less oblique.
Where would you most like to live? I live there now. Santa Barbara takes the prize, especially if you can find fulfilling work here.
What is your most treasured possession? My reputation, such as it is. For a teacher and/or a writer, nothing is more important.
Who makes you laugh the most? My colleagues at The Independent and at Laguna Blanca. Michelle Drown, Terry Ortega, Ashley Tidey, Staci Richard, Dana Caldwell. The list goes on.
What is your motto? “Turn it up, you’ve got nothing to be ashamed of.”
On what occasion do you lie? When I say that I’m not hungry.