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.

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.

It wasn't the NEA that fomented this movement, but it didn't happen by itself. Regional theater, healthy until the 1930s, was almost killed by the advent of the "talkies." America might still be at the movies if W. McNeil Lowry , NEA, and "it's taken us 20 years to convince the public that theater is not just entertainment," Zeisler says. It remains to be seen whether this conviction will hold without the guidance of a strong NEA. Zeisler and others fear that corporations won't be willing to fund the risky, new, critical works by unknown authors that may be tomorrow's classics.

Leonard Fleischer, senior programs adviser on arts funding at Exxon Corporation, does not agree. Exxon, at least, funds new theatrical ventures. One of them -- "irony of ironies," he remarks with a chortle -- is the opening play in the Washington Arena Stage's fall season, "Major Barbara." Exxon's funding of the Shaw play is ironic, he points out, because it is about the Salvation Army being co-opted by a donation from a munitions firm. He denies that Exxon co-opts arts groups, though he says that any funding agency answers to its own "internal dynamics" when deciding whom to fund, as well as that of the arts group in question.

Charlton Heston, cochairman of the President's Task Force on the Arts and Humanities, said in a telephone interview that for the NEA of the future. "I would assume that the then a vice-president of the Ford Foundation, hadn't taken to the road in 1957 to look at the surviving theaters to find out if there was anything going on.

Three theaters, the Alley Theater in Houston, the Actor's Workshop in San Francisco, and the Arena Stage in Washington, emerged as models, and were given grants. Others followed, profiting from the mistakes as well as the successes of the original three. One of the earliest Ford-funded theaters was the Guthrie in Minneapolis. Peter Zeisler, one of the founders of the Guthrie Theater, remembers that when it opened with "Hamlet," he heard one audience member say to the other, "This is wonderful. I can't wait to see how it turns out."

Audiences, and times, have changed since 1962. By now, the Ford Foundation has pumped $54,582,591 into the theaters, and gone out of the arts funding business except in small individual grants. And the National Endowment for the Arts was created in 1965, with a theater panel that Zeisler, Ms. O'Connor, and Davidson have sat on. The communication the Ford Foundation had fostered continued through the prime focus should be to support and preserve that which is determined to be permanently valuable" in the arts. The problem is deciding what will be permanently valuable at the time it is created. Four of Moliere's plays were turned down by the French court, Zeisler pointed out, and the great Russian director Stanislavsky rejected the work of Chekhov. And as funding for minority arts looks endangered, playwright Michael Weller remarked that the American theater has "always been a great reception hall" for immigrants. Considering that the German immigrants influenced American theater in the 19th century, and that the Irish immigration in the early 20th gave us Eugene O'Neill , he says the Puerto Ricans and Chinese "and other people who are thought strange" probably have a lot to offer. "It's exciting to have in the theater someone observing America from the outsider's point of view," he said.

Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper's Magazine, has gone so far as to say the National Endowment for the Arts was a bad investment, since Americans are better at science than art, anyway. But Tom Fitchhandler, executive director of the Arena Stage Theater in Washington, talks about the basic need the theater answers: "With HBO [Home Box Office] and cable TV coming in, people are going to need a place to go to get out of the house. . . . The communal excitement of a theatrical event has been terribly important throughout history."

Whether that event will be found at the end of a darkened building is less important than whether it will be exciting. With the Ford Foundation not funding anymore, and NEA support and guidance threatened, it is no wonder that debates break out all over about exactly what is exciting and how to pay for it.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.