Mr. Landesman Goes to Washington
Presumably, nonprofit theater is subsidized to protect it from the exigencies of the marketplace: resident theaters and the artists who work in them must be able to develop their work outside the hit-or-flop, what’s-in-the-box-office-this-week tyranny of the commercial system. –Rocco Landesman, The New York Times, 1988
Last summer and fall, I did a little canvassing for the Obama campaign, only because I wanted civil liberties, health care, clean air, and an end to the Iraq fiasco. If I had known my candidate would nominate Rocco Landesman to head the National Endowment for the Arts, I would have done much more.
Landesman studied dramatic literature and criticism at the Yale School of Drama when Robert Brustein was dean. Students were exposed to brilliant thinkers, exciting artists, and, most important, to the newly formed Yale Repertory Theatre, which gave them a close look at what theater is and should be.
In the 1950′s and ’60s, artists were starting theaters to express visions, each unique. There was Brustein’s Yale Rep, Adrian Hall’s Trinity Rep, Zelda Fichandler’s Arena Stage, to name just three, each wildly different from the others. Theaters were necessarily individual, each helmed by an artist willing to take creative risks to communicate deeply felt perceptions. And risks were encouraged by subsidy that would continue whether a theater mounted a season of hits or flops.
Then America raided the NEA. Funding cuts were sharp, and they got sharper. Corporations seeking tax cuts filled some of the funding gap, but they worked from a business model: they didn’t ask if a theater was expressing an authentic vision. They asked how many tickets it was selling.
The commercial theater had to please mass audiences to sell tickets. The not-for-profit theater had to please mass audiences to sell tickets to please corporate donors and board members.
To stay afloat, many fine theaters began to select plays that had proved popular at other nonprofits or in the commercial theater. Others selected new work with an eye to how easy it might be to attract local audiences, or better yet, to attract Broadway producers who would help finance its development. Some reached for dollars set aside for multicultural efforts. Although some of the work in the not-for-profit theater remains exciting, many artists say they have felt themselves or watched others pull back over the years, of necessity.
Artists, too many of them, have come to share a single dream: survival.
President of the Broadway producing company Jujamcyn since 1987 and its owner since 2005, Landesman is a man of the commercial theater. A commercial producer might be an awful choice if he didn’t have Landesman’s understanding that the purpose of subsidy is to allow artists to take the kind of chances that are too speculative for commercial interests. “We have entered a cultural fog in which nothing seems defined or distinct. We on Broadway look like the nonprofit theaters and they look like us,” he worried on the pages of The New York Times in 2000.
His public comments have not endeared him to some in the not-for-profit theater who may have forgotten why they wanted to do theater in the first place. Nor has it made him popular with some commercial producers who would rather not be challenged when, like Jujamcyn, they sometimes cut production costs by developing a property at a subsidized theater. Perhaps Wall Street Journal opinion writer David Smith considers him a safe choice because those who are expected to confirm his nomination don’t stay awake nights worrying about artistic integrity and how to achieve it. My hunch is Landesman will make waves.
In the theater world, the people who are most likely to embrace the appointment are those who share the ideal of a not-for-profit vision. Robert Orchard, for instance, has been the managing director of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge since it began in 1979 and just announced his retirement; the A.R.T. is a continuation of Brustein’s theater at Yale, which Orchard also managed. On the single occasion the A.R.T. collaborated on a Broadway bound project, the musical Big River, the commercial producers were mostly former Yale Drama students and included Landesman.
Orchard thinks Landesman is a fine choice for the NEA, a choice that will benefit all the arts. “He’s a brilliant man with wide ranging tastes and an ability to see clearly what the issues are and to speak courageously and with passion and conviction,” says Orchard. “I’m holding out great hope for him at the NEA. He’s charming and a straight shooter, and I think he will mix in well.”
Orchard hopes Landesman will be able to initiate a national dialogue on the arts. “What we don’t have is an articulated policy on the arts, which has made them vulnerable to the slings and arrows of various political factions,” he says. A discussion of the arts and what they mean to our culture would “animate and inform our thinking about funding.”
The NEA is still in trouble. Robin Pogrebin reports that funding has increased, but it has not increased to the level the NEA saw in 1992. Landesman has a tough job ahead. But if he still believes what he has written and political considerations don’t prevail, I’m convinced the NEA will fund risk takers again and the arts will flourish in America.
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