Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The State of the Art(s)

This great article on Angels in America and NEA funding came across my Facebook feed just now. I shared it but it deserves more words. A lot more. As a playwright, an actor, and a theatre scholar, I have a lot of words to say on this topic and most of them are not kind. The question the article asks is whether or not Tony Kushner could find the support, in today's funding and political climate, to write Angeles in America. It is a scary question, because the answer is likely "no."

Last night I went to an awesome donor development event for Dancewave, the Brooklyn-based non-profit that Hanna is on the Board of. I met the founder of Brooklyn Boulders, and there was a principle dancer from ABT there. It was in the board room of ABC headquarters. It was cool. Hanna had invited a German couple she knew, one of whom works for the Goethe Institut. At one point he said what we all there know to be true: in Germany, arts companies don't need todo all this donor development, all this networking and begging, because the state pays for the arts in Germany.

Reading this article on Angels in America, I thought back to that statement. I have been involved in new play development before. It is seldom what people think it is--a person at a computer banging out a few thousand words and then sending it off to a company (though that is how I have written a lot of stuff). Play building is often a collaborative effort that takes a lot of time and effort. It takes a lot of support, both for the company and the playwright, to pull it off, and the bigger the play the more support is needed. Because of its size, its scope, its subject matter, and the process it went through, it is indeed possible that Angels never could be created today.

However, there has also been a lot of buzz recently around the fact that Kickstarter is expected to distribute more funding this year than the National Endowment for the Arts. That is both inspiring and terrifying. It is inspiring because crowdsourcing is an awesome force, and it is terrifying because you know some yokel who wants to kill the NEA along with Big Bird will hold that out-of-context fact up as a reason why the NEA is unnecessary. Such a sentiment would have to ignore a lot of truths. Kickstarter is more for startups than for the arts. What theatre Kickstarter does fund is the small-grid type stuff that the LA Times article mentions--small projects and individual branding that artists today have to go through, the type that keeps them from writing the big, messy, complicated works that take forever, like Angels in America.

Perhaps it could still happen. Perhaps there is an Angel of the old theatrical type out there, a rich patron who will support a company or playwright or both throughout such a grueling process. The University was established, in part, to support scholars in doing research that doesn't pay, and that has been extended to artists. Perhaps some artist in residence could write the next Angels: but university funding is being trashed now too, and anti-intellectual bias is even more viscous and virulent in America than anti-theatrical bias is these days. A lot of ink has been dedicated to how extending the corporate paradigm into the universities is destroying them in the same way it has destroyed many arts organizations, so probably not.

It is sad, and yet there has to be some way that it, or something like it, could happen again. The next Tony Kushner is out there, and we can only pray that he will find a way to write the next Angels in America.

I met Tony Kushner twice. Not only is he the greatest living playwright, but he is one of the kindest men on Earth. The first time I met him I just went up to shake his hand at a rally we were both participating in. He looked at me quizzically, reached up, pulled my rain-streaked glasses off my face, cleaned them, put them back on my face, and smiled.  It was a gesture of pure kindness. I would be fond of him even if he weren't the greatest living playwright. But he is, and it's important to make sure that the next person who comes along has the same opportunities that he did.

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Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Election Day and Sandy

My friend Lucien Canton used to be the director of emergency services for the City of San Francisco under Mayor Willie Brown. Having lived through the Loma Prieta earthquake, I once asked him if he looked forward to the next earth quake, since it was what he spent most of his time preparing for, or if he dreaded it. "Oh, I dread it," he said. "No matter what you do, no matter how well you prepare, if the earthquake hits on your watch everything that goes wrong will be your fault and you will get fired. You can never do enough."

I think of that when I sit here in New York City and look around on this election day. At exactly the right moment for President Obama, the idea of Big Government was put to the test and big government has, so far, stepped up. After hearing for years how the Republicans, including Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, wanted to de-fund FEMA and the Army Core of Engineers, how disaster relief should be left to the states, we have seen a bright-line example of why that is a terrible idea. With devastation from Cape May to Mystic, with hundreds of thousands of people without power, with homes destroyed by wind and rain and fire on a scale never before seen in this part of the country, we have been given a stark contrast between the governing philosophies of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. Mr. Romney and his running mate have preached for years that people should fend for themselves, that if anything only the states should be involved in recovery and the federal government would do best to stay out of it. But this disaster is of such a huge scale, with destruction not only in the tri-state area but in West Virginia, Maryland, D.C. and Pennsylvania as well, that it requires a national response. Only the federal government has the resources to deal with a disaster of this magnitude. Chris Christie knows this. After months of bashing President Obama as a surrogate for Governor Romney, Christie is now heaping praise on the president for the rapid response of the federal government to the crisis.

The President did a number of things that were helpful right at the start. By declaring a "major disaster" he allowed people and municipalities to apply immediately for federal help. He issued directives to ignore red tape and inter-agency jurisdictional squabbles and, so far, it has resulted in aid arriving much faster than it otherwise would have. The military response is unprecedented. He ordered the Air Force to use C-17s to transport line trucks from the West Coast to help with power restoration. The navy has moved in ships to help with rescue. Army and Marines are on the ground assisting in recovery. Homeland Security waived the Jones Act in order to get fuel to the North East more easily. FEMA is moving in housing trailers, arranging for hotel rooms, and finding ways to house thousands who have been displaced.

Still, it is not enough. It never is. It cannot be.

And to conservatives that is blood in the water.

Knowing that the hurricane and the response to it are good for President Obama, FOX news has launched a last-minute smear campaign aimed at FEMA and the federal response to the hurricane. Check out this excellent analysis by Media Matters.  Republicans are scared to death of Sandy, because it shows that their philosophy is bankrupt, but that will not stop them from lying about it. The Republican lie machine is playing politics with the suffering of thousands of my fellow New Yorkers and others here in the North East, because an election it looked like they were winning is suddenly turning against them once again. As Krugman points out, there is no comparison between the FEMA response to Katrina under President Bush and the response to Sandy under Obama. As this article points out, FEMA has been on top of this since days before the storm hit, and their response has been heroic and it has saved lies. But the republicans and their lying mouthpieces over at FOX news will say anything, smear anybody, to help their guy win. They have disrespected everyone in the North East by playing politics with our suffering.

But truth has never mattered to anybody on the right, nor dignity, nor decency.

And today is election day. Go out and vote!