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George Mason University’s Arts by George! gala has an exciting new tool to make the annual benefit, hosted by the College of Visual and Performing Arts, even more enjoyable and dynamic: a smartphone app created by members of Mason’s Computer Game Design Program.

The app, produced in collaboration with in-kind sponsor e4 Software, a D.C.-area indie mobile game developer, will give Arts by George! guests the opportunity to download the evening’s program, a map, tips and other key gala information.

The kick off for the Center for the Arts’ Great Performances season in Fairfax, the gala, on Saturday, Sept. 29, shines a spotlight on the talents of Mason’s visual and performing arts students.

Billed as “an evening like no other” and one of Northern Virginia’s most anticipated fall events, the gala culminates in the Center for the Arts Concert Hall with a performance by two-time Tony Award winner Sutton Foster, also star of ABC Family’s new hit sitcom, “Bunheads.”

The gala, now in its seventh year, raises money for student scholarships in the areas of visual arts, dance, music, theater, computer game design, film and video studies and arts management. It also supports the center’s Great Performances.

This year’s minimum fundraising goal for Arts by George! of $150,000 has already has been reached, according to Bill Reeder, dean of Mason’s College of Visual and Performing Arts, and Joe Catalano, of Clifton, who is chairing the gala with his wife Carol.

“Everything else is gravy,” said Reeder, emphasizing the importance of support for the arts not only at Mason but globally.

“It is through the arts,” he said, “that we learn what it means to be human, to connect to what we mean by culture.”

App beginning

As exciting as the addition of the new app is to the gala festivities, Chris Totten, who proposed and developed it, promises this is just the beginning.

This year’s app is the 1.0 version, said Totten, 27, who joined the faculty of Mason’s Computer Game Design Program in July after a year-long search for a mobile games developer.

“Given more time, we can add more bells and whistles for next year. … There are a lot of brave things happening … some really cool stuff,” said Totten, assistant professor of mobile game development and art director for e4 Software.

Using computer game design to enhance the Arts by George! experience is a natural fit, as is the program’s placement in Mason’s College of Visual and Performing Arts, said Dr. Scott Martin, 48, director of the program and assistant dean/associate professor of arts management.

The fastest growing academic program at Mason and the only accredited degree program of its kind in Virginia, the emerging field of computer game design is the “true interarts,” said Martin.

“It combines theater, music, dance, motion capture and human kinetics. In the middle of that, technology to make them all collaborate,” he explained.

“A great game also is like a great piece of architecture,” added Totten, who studied to be an architect before switching to a career in digital media.

Both Martin and Totten emphasized that an important new direction of the field is to look beyond entertainment and more proactively at how computer game design may be applied to all kinds of “real life” problem solving.

Totten, who has written and lectured on interdisciplinary approaches to game design, explained, “We see connections between things; we see how we can use game mechanics everywhere.

Spotlight on student artists

Among the arts that gala guests will be able to preview on the new app and then enjoy up close are two performances by Mason’s School of Dance.

Exploring the “anatomy of a dance” and how the minds of choreographers work are the themes of the two short programs “How Do They Do That?: A Behind the Scenes Look at How a Dancer Prepares” and “Studio to Stage: The Creation of a Dance.”

“How Do They Do That” is a duet choreographed by Diane Coburn Bruning, a choreographer for the Washington National Opera who also has been a guest choreographer/teacher at more than 25 universities.

Elizabeth “Buffy” Price, director of Mason’s School of Dance, and Luis Torres, principal dancer and rehearsal director at the Washington Ballet and member of the School of Dance faculty, will introduce the work.

“Studio to Stage: The Creation of a Dance” will be an interactive presentation of two separate works, one choreographed by Susan Shields and the other Christopher d’Amboise.

Shields, a professor in the School of Dance, is presenting a work-in-progress that she is creating for a Julliard commission.

“She will take our dancers to explore her [dance] vocabulary and ideas. She is using our dancers as guinea pigs, and the people at the gala will be part of this,” said Price, noting the performance will be videotaped.

d'Amboise, the School of Dance’s heritage professor, has created a work specifically for a graduating dance major.

“We thought these works would provide nice contrasts,” said Price, 62.

Putting together this program so early in the school year is a formidable task, Price admitted, but the caliber of dancers in the program is so high that she has no doubts about its quality.

A highly competitive and selective modern dance program, each freshman class is limited to 20 dancers, with approximately 80 percent staying in the program and graduating.

“This is intense professional preparation. … We have a philosophy: ‘commit to that 20,’ and by being small, we can accommodate their evolutions as artists,” Price said.

In addition to dance, student showcases at the gala will include visual arts, music, theater, film and video studies, computer game design and arts management throughout the classrooms, studios and performance spaces of Mason’s de Laski Performing Arts Building and Harris Theater.

‘Not just another rubber chicken dinner’

Although Arts by George! is not an easy event to put on at the beginning of the fall term, Reeder said organizers knew from the beginning that they wanted something special, “not just another rubber chicken dinner.” And they more than succeeded.

“It’s art; it’s technology; it’s commerce; it’s cool; it’s young!,” he enthused.

“It’s where we’re heading. Arts in this modern day is all about participation, active as opposed to passive.”

In its history, Arts by George! has raised more than $700,000, noted Catalano, 51, who is a vice-president at the Sandy Spring Bank.

But, he added, “the monetary goal is only one thing if we [also] take care of the goal of educating the community on what this means to the whole of Northern Virginia.”

Reeder persuaded Catalano, a Prince William native, and his wife, a pharmaceutical rep, to take on the chairmanship. It was not too hard a sell.

Like Reeder, a former opera singer, the Catalanos love the arts and are musical, too Catalano plays the bass, his wife and daughter, 20, play the piano and his son, a Centreville High School student, plays the drums.

Paraphrasing a Reeder analogy, Catalano described the gala as a “three-legged stool,” held up by academic, professional and community legs all working together to create the event.

“Why do we have so many business headquarters here [in Northern Virginia]? Quality of life,” he asked and then answered himself.

“And George Mason and the Center for the Arts are an integral part of it. … This is an immensely satisfying cause.”