The two contending main characters in In the Intersection — the non-profit theatre and the commercial theatre — want different things, as in any play; the conflict lies in how they try to get these things from each other. The non-profit theatre wants resources to fund and produce more ambitious, expensive projects; the commercial theatre wants the talent and work that the non-profit theatre develops for their own stages. Obviously these are not mutually exclusive in some ways, but these two different wants define the conflict. And, this being Mamet’s America, they both want money.
Theatre, as Shaw knew, always wants money; it is always starving. The history of subsidy to American theatre is far more unusual than that of European theatres, which have a centuries-long tradition of government subsidy to and patronage of the theatre. The first major infusion of federal dollars into the art came with the establishment of the Federal Theatre Project by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1935. During the four years of its existence, Hallie Flanagan’s stewardship of the FTP led to the funding of hundreds of theatrical endeavors, but more importantly, thousands of artists — not because these artists were somehow special and deserving of government money as an entitlement or because they were serving some vague community-based mission, but because they, like so many other Americans, were starving and unemployed too. Its closure in 1939 came with the closure of other New Deal programs that were perceived as socialist in conception. In any event, the war economy was already gearing up, and it was this war economy that would provide the basis for the post-war economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s.
When the federal government stepped out of the business of funding non-profit theatres, the foundation sector stepped in. In In the Intersection, Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis describes the vision of the Ford Foundation’s W. McNeil “Mac” Lowry, who started the funding of resident theatres through the foundation in the 1950s: “We’re going to attempt to steer as many rewards as possible to those theaters which are clearly manifesting in their work nonprofit values. … I mean, it’s what Mac Lowry did! Mac Lowry got up on a soapbox and said there are certain things that should happen in this country and the Ford Foundation’s going to put its money behind it. We need to find as many people who have some resources, who have some belief in something other than the marketplace, to band together and try to figure out how we’re going to enforce that. … ”
It should be noted that the Ford Foundation (and other foundations and charitable organizations of the time) intended to provide seed money to these theatres, not to fund them throughout their existence, however long that may be. Ultimately the Foundation hoped that these theatres would somehow become self-sustaining, through a combination of public and private sources — but not through the federal government, which had no formal agency to funnel government money to the arts until Lyndon Johnson signed the legislation creating the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965.
Non-profit theatres suffered a substantial ideological and financial blow with the NEA Four controversy of the early 1990s, but the real one-two combination came ten years later. Both the 2001 World Trade Center attack and the global financial meltdown of 2007-2008 had dire consequences for the non-profit sector. (Indeed, one of the first plays to respond to 9/11, Anne Nelson’s The Guys, was written and produced to resuscitate the Flea Theatre in downtown Manhattan.) Suddenly the priorities of government, foundation and private giving and support shifted from arts and cultural organizations to those with more readily identifiable social-service aims. It’s safe to say that, from the standpoint of 2012, the landscape of giving to the arts has never fully recovered.
Suddenly the Existential crisis that gripped the United States in the post-war era came to bear on theatre itself. Without any God — without any sure foundation for belief or the significance of humanity itself — and with the new capacity for sudden global suicide at our own nuclear hands, just what was the theatre, what was drama, supposed to do? Why was it here? Apart from the money-making capacity of theatrical presentations, why — as an institution, if not as artists — present plays at all? What was the deeper purpose of artistic endeavor? The problem became even more acute because the ideology of socialism had self-destructed in the aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union as any kind of meaningful social force. We were all capitalists now — “the buzz saw of capitalism” (according to Oskar Eustis) and “hyper-capitalism” (“which is not going away,” according to Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone) appear to be with us forever, if one looks at the situation from an odd rearview-mirror kind of determinism.
In other words, what was theatre’s “value proposition,” as the report had it? It is this question that drives the current crisis of non-profit theatre funding, and a question that produced perhaps the most handwringing at the Arena Stage conference.
More on that tomorrow.