NEA cuts: Curtains for regional theater?
"This won't be the first time that theater people have to empty their own wastebaskets," Sara O'Connor says, as she envisions opening the 28th season of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater Company, in Milwaukee, which she directs. She may be "keeping myself going at one end of a darkened building," because county funds that maintain the Milwaukee Rep's home in the performing arts center may be frozen starting in October in order to pay heavy welfare costs.Skip to next paragraph
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It should be a healthy year for the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. It has 19, 700 subscribers, 86 percent of whom have renewed from last year, and last year all shows played to 98 percent capacity houses. It's presenting two new plays as well as a work by the 15th-century Spanish playwright Calderon to what O'Connor describes as "a terrific audience to play to," and it has toured the upper Midwest and performed "A Streetcar Named Desire" in Japan.
There are theatrical strongholds all over the country. New York is now am center, but not them center, for new work. In Milwaukee; Los Angeles; Louisville , Ky.; and Minneapolis, to name just a few, there are theaters that are all 25 and 30 years old, well managed, well attended, and committed to developing new plays. But now there are fear and trembling in the regions, and dark mutterings of going back to revivals of "Arsenic and Old Lace."
What went wrong? The nonprofit theaters around the United States don't run on box office revenues alone. If they did, ticket prices would be prohibitive. They have been depending on a combination of popular support, government support , and grants from local corporations. Playing to a packed house is fulfilling, but it also means the Milwaukee Rep, like others, has peaked in earned income. With the probable cuts in the National Endowment for the Arts, the balance of combined support begins to wobble. Gaps open up.
Sara O'Connor and other theater directors around the country don't see "corporations rushing in when there's nothing to rush in with." They point to a tax bill that does not encourage philanthropy, and to the nonprofit theaters traditional role as critic of the capitalist society that corporations represent. And, as Peter Zeisler, executive director of the Theater Communications Group, points out, theater may be the most difficult critic to tolerate, because "we're the art form that deals the most in ideas and language." A composer may have anti-establishment views, and a museum director may hate the profit motive, but businessmen can enjoy their music and look at their exhibits without feeling uncomfortable. A playwright expresses himself in words, and many want to make the establishment uncomfortable. "We're dangerous -- or should be," Zeisler says.
The probable National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) cuts may not hurt the Milwaukee Rep's operating budget too much this year, but Sara O'Connor fears scrimping in a different area -- development of new work and communication with New York talent. Now, the Milwaukee Rep is able to give residencies to young playwrights which help the community, like the time Ray Arana, a black playwright, held a series of workshops for black playwrights in Milwaukee. And Arden Fingerhut, a New York lighting designer, is in residence with the Milwaukee Repertory as a "dramaturge" -- someone who practices many theater arts -- for a year. Her help in Milwaukee is augmented when she goes back to New York on business and scouts out new talent for it.
Operating money will be hard to make up, of course, but it is the "gravy," as Gordon Davidson of Los Angeles's Mark Taper Forum calls it -- the programs that encourage communication with other theaters and the communities -- that will go first.
It is that connection between theaters and communities that turned a few "winter stock" theaters scattered around the country into a "movement" that now generates Pulitzer Prize-winning plays such as this year's "Crimes of the Heart, " first produced in Louisville, and "The Great White Hope," which got its start at the Arena Stage in Washington. Aside from the prizes, it provides a place for playwrights to hone their craft, and actors to get training outside of the make'-em-or-break'-em world of Broadway.