Cambridge theater is top NEA grant-getter. American Rep's diversity was the winning factor

The American Repertory Theater (ART) here is emerging as this year's heavyweight champion in a fiercely competitive field -- federal grants for ensemble theater. Frank Hodsell, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, stopped by the ART recently to announce that this highly regarded company would receive $253,000 in matching funds, beginning next year -- the first installment of a $843,000 total the ART expects to get over the next five years as the sole recipient in the latest round of the NEA's Ongoing Ensemble Grant.

Earlier this month the ART also won a $750,000 ``challenge grant'' from the NEA. This makes the ART America's most successful current NEA grant-getter among theater groups. Add to this a whopping $953,000 award received last June from the Arts Stabilization Fund -- a private group -- and the ART now stands to receive a total of about $2.5 million.

But there are a few strings attached. The words ``challenge'' and ``matching'' mean the ART must do a lot of extra fund raising on its own -- an additional $3 million over the five-year period. And the total $843,000 ensemble grant doesn't come automatically. It was awarded on the basis of a detailed five-year plan submitted to the NEA. Ed Martenson, the NEA's theater program director, said the ART must prove to the agency each year that it is living up to the plan before getting the money.

Mr. Hodsell told me that the ART's getting two major awards in rapid succession was definitely not preplanned but was decided on by totally separate procedures within the NEA. The ART won the challenge grant in competition not only with other theaters, but with other media.

For the recent ensemble grant, on the other hand, it contended only with other regional theaters. The ensemble grant was ``without question the most competitive category in the entire endowment,'' Hodsell said in making the announcement here.

Regional theaters in general are beginning to make a national comeback, and the awards are coming at a particularly auspicious time for the ART: It's celebrating its 20th birthday this season (coinciding with the NEA's own 20th).

Excellence had everything to do with the ART's fund-raising success, according to most observers -- and to Hodsell. In announcing the ensemble grant, he referred to the ART's ``extraordinary diversity that was a part of the 1984-85 season and that is again being repeated in the 1985-86 season . . . all happening with a full house.'' And in accepting the money, ART head Robert Brustein applauded the NEA's stress on excellence as their sole criterion -- a policy he felt was not alw ays followed under the previous administration. ``It really has been our protector,'' he said of the agency under its current management.

This season the ART will offer Thomas Middleton's ``The Changeling''; the world premi`ere of ``The Juniper Tree,'' an opera composed by Philip Glass and Robert Moran; ``The Balcony,'' by Jean Genet; ``Alcestis,'' by Euripedes; and either the English-language premi`ere of ``The Ambassador,'' by Slawomir Mrozek, or Andrzej Wajda's adaptation of Dostoyevsky's novel ``Crime and Punishment.''

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