The American theater is on the verge of collapse.
Here’s just a sampling of recent terrific developments: The Public Theater announced this year that the Under the Radar festival, the most exciting of New York’s experimental incubators, would be postponed indefinitely and then announced that it was laying off 19 percent of its staff. The Humane Festival of New American Plays, an essential launching pad for such great playwrights as Lynn Nottage and Will Eno over the past four decades, has been canceled this year.
This season will see the Williamstown Theater Festival, one of our most important summer festivals to consist of only one fully produced work, along with an anemic offering of staged readings. The Signature Theatre, whose resident playwrights have included Edward Albee, August Wilson, Tony Kushner and Annie Baker, postpones the start of his season and, even then, will produce only three new plays rather than the usual six.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, one of the country’s oldest and most famous regional theaters, recently announced a second round of emergency fundraising to remain operational. The Mirror, an important anchor of Chicago’s theater scene, halts production for the year. The Brooklyn Academy of Music has laid off 13 percent of its staff. BAM’s Next Wave Festival, which has helped catapult generations of progressive artists to prominence, presented 31 shows in 2017. This year, it will present seven.
Theater has always been a risky endeavor. Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Hanging Conversation” asked “Is theater really dead?” back in 1966. The current situation, however, risks building to an unprecedented crisis: the closing of theaters across the country and a constant shrinking of the possibilities of the American stage. For those of us in New York, it might be easy to watch Broadway’s return to pre-Covid audiences and think that it signals something as normal. But Broadway in its current form depends on nonprofit theaters to develop material and support artists. Nonprofit theaters are where many recent successes — including “A Strange Loop” and “Hamilton,” which both won Pulitzer Prizes — began.
So how do we avoid this disaster? As in other areas of recent American life where entire industries have been compromised—banks, the auto industry—this crisis calls for federal intervention.
That’s right: The American nonprofit theater needs a bailout.
Regional and non-profit theaters were in trouble long before 2020 and the force majeure of the pandemic. Most regional and non-profit theaters were built on a subscription model, in which loyal patrons paid for a full season of tickets in advance. Foundation grants, donations and single ticket sales made up the balance of the budgets.
For much of the 20th century, that model worked. It locked in money and audiences, mitigated the risk of new or experimental shows and cultivated a dedicated base of enthusiasts. But this model faded throughout the 21st century. Subscriber numbers are declining, and nothing has emerged to replace that revenue or that audience. Not surprisingly, ticket prices have risen, making new audiences harder to find.
This burning crisis was aggravated by the pandemic, a devastating event that closed theaters, broke the theater habit for the public and caused a catastrophic increase in costs at a moment when they can least be absorbed. A collapse in the nonprofit sector doesn’t just mean fewer theaters and fewer shows across the country; it also means less ambitious work, fewer risks taken and smaller casts. The reverberations will be felt up and down the theater chain, and a new generation of talent will be neglected. As with a bank collapse, in which a few failing institutions can bring down an entire system, the entire ecosystem of American theater is at risk. And American theater is too important to fail.
That is why federal intervention is required. It might seem like a radical suggestion, but in fact, it’s not even new. The Federal Theater Project, which ran from 1935 to 1939, was part of the New Deal effort to finance artistic endeavors. The project sparked an explosion in theater activity and inspired a generation of theater makers – including Arthur Miller, Elia Kazan and Orson Welles – and through its Negro Theater Project provided targeted support for black theater artists across the country.
From the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s, theater artists founded pioneering non-profit companies in Oregon (Oregon Shakespeare Festival); Dallas (Theatre ’47); Houston (Alley Theatre); Washington (Arena Stage); Los Angeles (Mark Taper Forum); Connecticut (Long Wharf); Kentucky (Actors Theater of Louisville); San Francisco (American Conservatory Theatre); and New York (New York Shakespeare Festival, which became the Public).
After theaters began operating, charitable foundations stepped in to help. The Ford Foundation, for one, provided grants to theaters beginning in the 1950s. In 1966 the National Council on the Arts announced that “the development of a larger and more appreciative audience for the theater” should be one of the primary goals of the newly formed National Endowment for the Arts. The combination of public and private sector funding that followed had a miraculous effect. Until 2005there were more than 1,200 nonprofit theaters in the United States, staging 13,000 productions a year and contributing more than $1.4 billion to the U.S. economy, according to the Theater Communications Group.
Now this system — which took decades to nurture, enabled our national theater culture and secured our place on the world stage — is falling apart. Only the federal government can provide the breadth of support needed to stabilize it. One easy and immediate first step would be to pass the Creative Economy Revitalization Act and the Local Arts and Creative Economy Workforce Promotion Act, two bills that continue in Congress through 2021 and 2022. These bills would immediately send millions of dollars to local artists. and art institutions across the country.
But an even more important — and formidable — step would be to greatly increase the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts. It has accomplished amazing things over its nearly 60-year history, helping to seed and support orchestras, theaters, museums and community arts organizations across the country. The NEA brought art outside of traditional venues like playhouses and galleries and into schools and military bases. But it was never adequately funded and since the 1980s has become a ridiculously popular piñata for conservative politicians looking to score easy points.
In the context of the federal budget, the funds needed for a theater bailout are pocket change: For fiscal year 2024, the Biden administration asked $211 million for the NEA, or about 63 cents for each person who lives in the United States. In contrast, Arts Council England plans to distribute approximately $10 for every person in England. The NEA must also be celebrated again as a vital national organ that sustains the cultural life of the country.
After a series of attacks on the foundation led by Republican Senator Jesse Helms and Christian right figures like Jerry Falwell in the 1980s and 90s, Congress changed the NEA’s rules so that it can no longer give grants to individual artists, except in the field. of literature, and cannot finance the general operating expenses of artistic organizations. These rules – the outdated results of the culture war of an earlier generation – must be abolished.
In September 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the National Endowment for the Arts and the Humanities, which created the NEA. The act contained a long declaration of results and purpose outlining the views of Congress as to why the arts were necessary and worthy of support “An advanced civilization must not limit its efforts only to science and technology”, declared the Congress. “Democracy requires wisdom and vision in its citizens. It must therefore foster and support a form of education and access to the arts and the humanities, designed to make people of all backgrounds and wherever located masters of their technology and not its unthinking servants. “
These words ring even more true today. The arts feed the human spirit, reflect the human condition for us and, best of all, allow us moments in which we can transcend the limits of our own viewpoints and see the world anew. The government has long since recognized that the market is not sufficient to support this project. Indeed, sometimes the relentless focus on shareholder value and corporate balance sheet puts the market and American art at odds.
If nonprofit theaters are to survive and fulfill their national purpose, it will take much more than cost cutting, layoffs and emergency fundraising campaigns. Government assistance is both necessary and essential, as is our nation’s renewed recognition that the arts are essential both to the survival of democracy and to the growth of the human spirit.
Isaac Butler is a cultural critic and author of “The Method: How the 20th Century Learned to Act” and author of “The World Only Spins Forward,” an oral history of “Angels in America.”