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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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to admit the same uneasiness at "start-up funding" being considered the new patronage. There is the time, the long labor-intensive work, that is necessary for art that isn't just the next Ryden ripoff or American fad featuring something barely-legal and crafted by the super-awesome fan-bases in the world. "anti-intellectual bias is even more viscous and virulent in America than anti-theatrical bias is these days." What is popular is not always good. And this really scares me. I am scared of art being the child prostitute of popular culture. Art has been a place where cultural criticism and countercultural performance has found expression. Art serves to express culture, but it has to do more than just historicize the trendy colors of the season. Art has to be able to do more than market itself for survival. What power is there when it is tethered, dollar by dollar, to electronic pan-handling. So it's not "sponsored by GAP", but if art is sponsored by how many friends you have on Facebook or the masses that have replaced Pink Floyd with Katy Perry, I think it will become of little more value than hip wallpaper at a coffe shop.

6:28 PM  

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