The imminent shutdown of the National Endowment for the Arts, promised in President Trump’s 2017-2018 budget, will result in fewer and smaller new plays, bring an end to cultural exchanges with theaters in other countries, sharply curtail a program to bring theater to rural America, and increase competition for the private donations that smaller theaters depend on, DC-area theatermakers told us.
NEA has “supported a lot of our new work here, and without their support our ability to take the risks of new work would be greatly lessened,” says Olney Theatre Center Artistic Director Jason Loewith. “The truth is that the long lead time for most NEA grants means we need to decide to do a show long before we know whether the NEA will fund us. BUT, a negative decision means we reduce the budget for that show – which can be losing a character, reducing the scope and complexity of the design, and so on.”
Loewith, who is also a playwright, has some personal experience with the impact of NEA on the development of new plays. “Adding Machine might have happened,” he said, referring to the musical he co-wrote with Joshua Smith and which had a successful run at Studio in 2009. “but seriously reduced in scope. I think that grant was maybe 20% of our budget.”
Arena Stage’s Executive Director Edgar Dobie concurs with Loewith on the impact of the NEA’s shutdown on new play development, although he is careful to assure that Arena will continue to produce new plays. “The NEA grants in large part support our commitment to new work by allowing us to take on larger projects and also providing rehearsal and pre-production support,” Dobie says. “If we were to lose NEA support, our capacity in that area would be diminished. It would not compromise our overall commitment to new work.”
To GALA Hispanic Theatre Executive Director Rebecca Madrano, NEA’s demise would have a cultural effect. “We are awaiting a grant from NEA for the production of a new adaptation of Don Juan Tenorio by the famous nineteenth century Spanish author Jose Zorilla,” Medrano says. “We commissioned Fernando J. Lopez (who adapted the Helen Hayes-winning Yerma for us in 2015) to create the new script, and we have scheduled to open our 2017-18 season in September with this show. In addition, NEA funds would help us bring two Spanish actors to participate in the production, furthering GALA’s ongoing cultural exchange with Spain. Without these funds, we cannot continue this exchange.”
Shakespeare Theatre Company Director of Foundation and Government Relations Meghann Babo-Shroyer points out that the proposed NEA defunding adds a high level of unpredictability to the company’s budget next year, given that STC has already organized its season. “If we budget money from the NEA or NEA related sources for FY18, and the NEA is eliminated, we will need to find this funding from other, undetermined sources after the season has begun in order to avoid a deficit at the end of the year,” Babo-Shroyer says. “Because Foundation and Government grants often must be solicited in excess of six months prior to their grant award dates, it would be very difficult for us to find these funds from similar sources mid-way through the season. Instead we would have to make additional solicitations to our board and individual donors who are already incredibly generous.”
This is precisely the worry of Nu Sass Artistic Director Aubri O’Connor. Nu Sass, a young, small company, does not normally receive funds from the NEA, but O’Connor worries that her company’s normal funding sources will suddenly be inundated with requests from larger, NEA-dependent theaters. “The first to suffer will be the small groups,” she avers. “We have the smallest reach, the least sway, the softest voice, and the fewest connections.”
Nu Sass has already experienced a dry-up of their funding sources because their donors have been instead contributing to non-profit organizations struggling with the impact of the new administration. “As we’ve already seen this spring, donations to the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, The Southern Poverty Law Center, and others are on the rise – as a necessary direct response to some of Trump’s actions in his first 50 days – donations to other organizations have dropped off. In 2017 alone our group has seen a 25% decline in rate of raising, and a 15% drop in number of donors.
“Those who are going to donate will continue to, but they will be splitting their donations between more groups, and will hit donor fatigue sooner. This has the potential to disproportionately affect the smallest groups,” O’Connor says.
While most local theater companies do not depend on NEA for their administrative operations, Loewith is concerned that the National Players will become considerably less robust without the support of the NEA. “The NEA’s Shakespeare in America program is vital for underserved communities across the country to get access to live theater. Living in a built-up, urban area, we forget how rare it is in rural communities around the country to see anything other than community theater, if that at all,” Loewith says. “We at Olney routinely subsidize schools and community centers both in Maryland and in states far and wide – South Dakota, Arkansas, Kentucky, you name it – which can’t afford our full (and still modest) fee. If the NEA disappeared, we’d not be able to subsidize as many performances, so truly underserved audiences in corners of the country would miss the National Players (which this year is performing Grapes of Wrath, The Giver and Hamlet).”
Two of the area’s largest theaters, Arena Stage and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, have already attempted to marshal support behind an effort to save the NEA. ” NEA funding is a crucial part of our contributed income each year, as it is for many arts organizations of all types and sizes nationwide. Losing the NEA would have a devastating effect on the already fragile ecosystem of the arts and culture sector in the United States,” says Woolly Mammoth Marketing and Communications Manager Bryan Braunlich.
Arena’s Dobie is also disturbed by what the President’s drive to eliminate NEA says about us as a country. “There is a deep philosophical and emotional impact to think we live in a country that doesn’t value the arts. To paraphrase Winston Churchill during WWII when asked why arts funding would not be cut, then what are we fighting for? What of value is there to protect?”
Olney made the same point in a letter it issued to its community.
“But it’s not about the dollars. It’s about what the dollars say: that works like Hamilton and Angels in America and A Chorus Line and Fences – all brought to life by not-for-profit institutions – make such vital contributions to our nation’s greatness that, as our government subsidizes soybeans and stadiums and interstate roads, so must it subsidize our cultural lives. ‘Dynamism in arts and culture creates dynamism in a nation,’ said former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair.”