Special FeaturesHow the National Endowment for the Arts Shaped the Landmark Plays and Musicals You LoveThe NEA played a crucial role in bringing works like The Great Comet, Spring Awakening,A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, and Nine to the stage.
April 26, 2017
After more than 50 years of nurturing and sustaining arts and culture in communities across the U.S., the National Endowment for the Arts faces an uncertain future after the Trump administration announced plans to eliminate the federal agency as part of its 2018 budget proposal.
In the wake of the announcement, the arts community has doubled-down on its efforts to preserve the organization and to raise awareness of the NEA’s impact on American culture.
The NEA has been vital to the development of numerous groundbreaking plays and musicals and has helped foster the work of emerging artists whose diverse points of view have shaped the modern theatrical landscape.
Below, a collection of theatremakers who have been directly impacted by the NEA, share their personal stories with Playbill of how the American arts institution helped bring their work to fruition onstage.
RACHEL CHAVKIN (Director, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812)
“I am the artistic director of a small nonprofit ensemble called the TEAM (TheTEAMPlays.org). The TEAM has received multiple grants from the NEA over the years to develop and tour our work all over the country, including RoosevElvis, a duet for two actresses channeling two icons of American masculinity—Theodore Roosevelt and Elvis Presley—in order to examine who gets to be a hero in American narratives.
· The TEAM received a total of $34,530 in government funding over the 2.5 years of developing and premiering RoosevElvis.
· $10,000 of that was a grant from the NEA, which accounted for 0.0068% of the NEA’s budget in 2014 when it was awarded. That’s less than one one hundredth of a percent.
· RoosevElvis was subsequently ridiculed in GOP senator Tom Coburn’s annual ‘Wastebook’ as an example of wasteful government spending.
· RoosevElvis has generated $197,725 in box office revenue to date.
· We’ve leveraged that $10,000 grant to provide compensation to 20 individual artists and a half dozen production staff, paying out a total of $178,213 over the past five years.
· To date, over 14,000 people have seen the show since it premiered.
NEA funds came to us at the critical moment of producing the premiere of this show, which directly led to the robust national and international touring we’ve enjoyed for the past year-and-a-half. Though it isn’t the biggest part of our budget, government support is a vital part of how we make our work.
Funding for the entire stream of culture and critical thinking in our country, from National Public Radio to the National Endowment for the Humanities to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to the National Endowment for the Arts, is under attack. We are taxpayers, we are job creators, we are community developers. #FightForCulture”
DAMON CHUA (Playwright, The Emperor’s Nightingale) “I was the beneficiary of an NEA grant awarded to D.C.-based Adventure Theatre to create a new adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Nightingale for a young audience.
As a playwright of Asian descent, what truly excited me about the project was that I was able to set the story in China in the eighteenth century, using the narrative to highlight the historic reign of Emperor Qianlong, one of the greatest Chinese rulers during the imperial period.
With the grant, I incorporated authentic 18th-century Chinese music, poetry, and dance into the play, creating a unique blend of the old and new, east and west. I was grateful to write for an all-Asian cast, generating opportunities for Asian performers in the D.C. area. Additionally, the production employed an Asian director, set designer, lighting designer, and costume designer. Most of all, I enjoyed writing for young audiences and their families, many of whom were from underrepresented demographics.
I didn’t know it then, but when the play premiered at the theatre in 2016, it was their first ever Asian play in over 60 years of history. The production was very well received and was nominated for a Helen Hayes Award. The play, titled The Emperor’s Nightingale, was subsequently published by Plays for Young Audiences.”
ROBERT FREEDMAN (Book Writer and Lyricist, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder) “We started with an idea. We had no producer, no director, no theatre to help us. All we had was a dream, and the passion to create a work for the musical theatre that would somehow find an audience. Without the help of the National Endowment for Arts, we and so many other artists would never have seen our dream come true. Through readings and workshops—most notably the Sundance Theatre Lab—we were given the opportunity to develop our work with top-drawer performers in a supportive atmosphere peopled with others who love the theatre.
Further development came with productions at two non-profit regional theatres, which helped us hone our work until it was ready to shine on Broadway. From a shared dream and passion, over a period of nearly ten years, we came out of (seemingly) nowhere and A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder opened on Broadway and won the Tony Award for Best Musical of 2014. It felt like a miracle, and still does.
The NEA makes miracles like that happen every day, and this country’s great cultural contribution to the world, musical theatre, would not survive without it.”
ADAM GUETTEL (Composer and Lyricist, The Light in the Piazza) “For better or worse, I’m a composer who gravitates to unlikely subjects. I mean really unlikely, the kind that for-profit producers won’t touch with a crane. But not-for-profits take risks, bless them. The National Endowment for the Arts has supported almost every not-for-profit theatre I’ve worked for over a 30-year career. I wouldn’t have a career without them.
Now I am working on a show produced and deemed a fair risk by commercial producers only because of my past modest successes the NEA funded. So, the NEA has given me my life in the arts. Without them, I’d be working in a plant store—which was my second choice. You know, bringing things to life, growing them...”
KATORI HALL (Playwright, The Mountaintop) “The Lark Play Development Center receives $25,000 yearly from the NEA. Through its developmental process (ranging from reading roundtables to bare-bones workshops), in the past four years 226 Lark-developed plays have moved on to 374 productions around the world. Lark-developed plays include: Lynn Nottage’s 2017 Pulitzer-Prize winning Sweat now on Broadway, David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish, Dominique Morisseau's Obie Award-winning Skeleton Crew, Kimber Lee's Brownsville Song, and even my Oliver Award-winning The Mountaintop. Emerging and established playwrights alike have utilized the Lark’s programming, making it integral to shaping the landscape of the American theatre.”
MOISÉS KAUFMAN (Playwright and Founder, Tectonic Theater Project) “Tectonic has been developing a new play called Uncommon Sense, by Anushka Paris-Carter and Andy Paris, about people on the autism spectrum. The piece began by doing extensive field research: talking to dozens of people on the autism spectrum, parents, teachers, and specialists in the field. Simultaneously, Andy and Anushka were doing periodic workshops to explore the material they’d gathered. It was a lengthy and expensive process.
The NEA’s support in the early stages of development meant that we could write early drafts of the play and use it to gather interest in the project. And we were also able to attract other funders to the table that made that production possible.
Without the support of the NEA, and their trust in our ability to bring this play to fruition, we could have never undertaken the rigorous process that led to its creation. The piece opened at the Gallagher Bluedorn Center in Iowa where it received wonderful notices, and is scheduled to open in New York later this year.
The NEA’s investment in the early phases of our process was a critical element of our success.”
NAMBI E. KELLEY (Playwright, Native Son) “Marin Theatre Company’s Native Son (February 2017) could not have happened without the NEA. I wasn’t sure of the details, so I did some digging. Keri Kellerman, MTC’s managing director, emailed, ‘The NEA requires that each grant be matched dollar for dollar by other funds to support the projects it funds, and that the grant MTC received helped leverage other support from the community to develop and produce the new nine-member cast version of the play, which is now going on to production at Yale Rep and others.’ Trevor Floyd, company manager added, ‘The $20k from the NEA was really $40k, which is essentially the entire production budget.’
The artistic director, Jasson Minadakis, then shared that they’d had more audiences of color for my show than any other production in the 50-year history of the theatre. He also shared that a black female reverend told the audience after a talkback, ‘I implore everyone here please ATTEND this theatre, SUBSCRIBE to this theatre, DONATE to this theatre so we can continue to gather and see work like this and talk like this.’
She then came up to Jasson and asked about joining the board! If she joins, she would be the sole African-American board member at MTC. The most touching account was Jasson sharing that my show has been the most important show he’s ever programmed. Thank you, Marin. And, thank you NEA.”
GRIFFIN MATTHEWS/MATT GOULD (Writers, Witness Uganda or Invisible Thread)
“NEA graciously granted Witness Uganda $85,000 for our world premiere at American Repertory Theater. Not only was it an incredible contribution, it was also a vote of confidence for two young writers of an original musical. The announcement of the grant helped to place our musical on the map, which gave our producers more incentive to continue to develop the work for a wider audience. New, original musicals are hard to make, and when they center around a black, gay, aid worker, it can be even more challenging to find funding! NEA certainly helped to bridge that gap, and we are forever grateful.”
ROBERT O’HARA (Playwright and Director, Bootycandy)
“I’m about to go into production at Playwrights Horizons on a project that is supported by the NEA: Bella, a musical written and composed by Kirsten Childs. With book, lyrics, and music written by an African-American woman, it is a daring adventure told from the perspective of a young African-American woman in the late 19th century, set in the Old West. Not only are we not used to hearing stories of African-American women in musicals written by African-American women, but we are certainly not used to hearing stories about African-Americans in the 19th century that were not centered on slavery or that are set in the Old West. If you were to survey Old West stories, you’d think that black people didn’t even exist. In addition, I don't think I’ve had a play of my own produced in the last decade that was not somehow supported by the NEA.
Every season there are requests for me to write an artist statement in order to apply for support facilitated by the NEA. I do so gratefully and humbly because I know my work can be challenging and provocative, but I also know that one of the most amazing things about the NEA is that it does not have a moral compass. The support of my work will not be judged on its subject but on its merits. It is an institution that is vital to my work and to the American Theatre. Without it, who would dare to tell the untold tales?”
LISA PETERSON (Associate Director, Berkeley Repertory Theater) “I would not have a national career in the theatre if it were not for the NEA. In 1990, I applied for and received what was, at the time, the most important grant for an emerging theatre director: the two-year Early Career grant, organized with Theatre Communications Group, called the NEA/TCG Grant. Its aim was to provide young directors with a small stipend, allowing us to travel to theatres around the country, and to assist our mentors. I was living and starting to work in NYC at the time, and used my grant to visit a series of theatres on the West Coast, and across the country. I assisted some great directors that I admired: Garland Wright at the Guthrie, Anne Bogart at ART, Bob Falls at the Goodman, Mark Lamos at Hartford Stage. While visiting La Jolla Playhouse on this grant, I met Des McAnuff, and he ended up offering me a job as associate director there. Not only was I able to watch these master directors at work, but I made friendships and associations that developed into work opportunities for the next 25 years.
It was, without a doubt, the NEA funding that allowed me to open up my world, and work in so many American cities, in front of so many American audiences. It broadened my view, and still allows me to think of myself as an artist who works all over the U.S, not just in New York City. I’m still sorry that this NEA/TCG Grant for Directors no longer exists. It was an incredible program, and launched the careers of so many of my contemporaries.
I can also say that NEA funding has been essentially woven through all of my work since then—every new play program, every reading and workshop with a playwright, every Shakespeare play that I direct at a large theatre like Oregon Shakespeare Festival has been supported in some way by the NEA. The NEA is the fabric of our arts community. It’s impossible to imagine our work without it.”
SARAH RUHL (Playwright, How to Transcend a Happy Marriage)
“So many of my plays have received funding, directly or indirectly, from the NEA that it’s hard to pinpoint which plays might have become lost without such funding… Dead Man’s Cell Phone was developed with funds from the NEA at Playwrights’ Horizons and at Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C., which was given a $25,000 grant from the NEA for that first production; For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday was produced with funds from the NEA at the Humana Festival; Stage Kiss was commissioned and produced by the Goodman Theatre, which receives funds from the NEA both for development and production, partially funneled through the Illinois Council for the Arts.
Yale Repertory Theatre, where I have now had six productions, receives money from the NEA for new work from both early career and established playwrights; often this money has gone to support the work of women writers and writers of color. Support from the NEA goes to new plays at every stage of development; from inception to production.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that without the NEA’s support of new plays, we’ll immediately see a loss of new plays getting birthed in this country. We will see a diminishment of this culture talking back to itself in the theatre, at precisely this contemporary moment, which needs vital discourse more than ever. We will see a decrease in visibility for new voices in the theatre. We must not be complacent about what the loss of this funding means for our community.
The attempt to kill the NEA is an attempt to suppress culture and dissent. A country without culture is a piece of land; a country without dissent is not a democracy.”
STEVEN SATER (Book Writer and Lyricist, Spring Awakening)
“‘The United States themselves,’ Walt Whitman famously wrote, ‘are essentially the greatest poem.’ No one believed more vitally than Whitman in our need to champion those poets who can actually make our country sing. No doubt, he would have felt that national responsibility all the more acutely today, at a time when truth-telling itself is under siege—on the way to becoming, officially, an outmoded form of speech.
For more than 50 years, the National Endowment for the Arts has fearlessly embraced the most democratic mix of arts imaginable. My once-unlikely musical version of Spring Awakening, prompted by the terrible shootings at Columbine, was supported in every stage of its development by institutions funded by the NEA: La Jolla Playhouse, Sundance Theater Lab, Roundabout Theatre Company, and the Atlantic Theatre Company. Likewise, Deaf West Theatre, who produced our groundbreaking Broadway revival, has been generously supported, since its inception, by the NEA.
All these years later, so many young people still write me to say how much Spring Awakening has meant to them, what an effect it’s had on their sense of hope for their lives. None of that would be possible if those institutions had not offered the necessary space, resources, and time to an unproven composer and lyricist/book writer.
It is a source of true gratitude and pride, for Duncan Sheik and me, that those institutions have continued to support our new shows. In December, we returned to Sundance to work on Ma Vie En Rose. At a time when transgender rights are being rescinded across the land, Sundance passionately embraced our musical about a young trans girl, living in a remote Belgian village, years before the world had even heard the word ‘trans.’
‘I do not doubt,’ wrote Whitman, ‘that the majesty & beauty of the world are latent in any iota of the world.’ I read in those words a mandate for inclusiveness—for what Susan Sontag called a ‘populist transcendence’ in our writing, our painting, our cinema, our sculpture, our dance... To insure the survival of fundamental democratic principles such as this, we must continue to support the National Endowment for the Arts.”
LLOYD SUH (Playwright, The Wong Kids in the Secret of the Space Chupacabra Go!) “Through its New Play Development program, the NEA provided essential support for my play for young audiences, The Wong Kids in the Secret of the Space Chupacabra Go! The play, commissioned by Children’s Theatre Company, has since been produced in Minneapolis, New York, Boston, and even Manila as part of ongoing global exchange initiatives between the Cultural Center of the Philippines and the NY-based Ma-Yi Theatre Company.
These productions have been seen by thousands of young and often first-time theatregoers, and provided opportunities for classroom workshops and outreach efforts between theatre, community centers, and local schools in each city. The play is about two adolescent Asian-American siblings who discover they have unusual superpowers, but still need to rely on each other and the help of some generous souls to save the universe from an egomaniacal monster that is instigating galactic destruction.
Without the NEA, they couldn’t have taken this journey. The NEA gives superpowers to heroes who need them, and without those heroes, the universe is imperiled.”
REBECCA TAICHMAN (Director, Indecent)
“Indecent was created in residence at The Sundance Theatre Lab, and I believe it would not exist were it not for the extraordinary support of Sundance and the NEA. The unique process at the Sundance Lab and its support of artists, facilitated the creation of this unique piece. As we arrive on Broadway, I shudder to think of the many vital stories and storytellers that will never see this opportunity if the NEA loses funding. I cannot—nor do I want to—imagine our America without the NEA.”
REGINA TAYLOR (Playwright, Drowning Crow) “The NEA Grant supported the essential research, dramaturgy, and production costs for Oo-Bla-Dee (American Theater Critics/Steinberg New Play Award 2000/1999 co-production with Goodman Theater and La Jolla Playhouse).
I appreciate the NEA Grant continuing its support in the upcoming 2017-2018 production of Oo-Bla-Dee at John Dias’ Two River Theater. Originally a play with three songs, this current reimagining of the play—guided by the visionary Ruben Santiago Hudson—extends the possibilities of the storytelling musically with haunting new compositions by Deirdre Murray.
Set in 1946 at the end of WWII, the story follows Evelyn Waters and the Diviners, an all-female jazz band traveling from St. Louis to Chicago in order to set up a record deal. On this trip towards freedom, the latest member of the group, sax player Gin Del Sol, must wrestle with the complex timing of the music as well as the complicated times in which she lives.
When is the right time to be a female, African-American artist forging one’s own space in unexplored/restricted territory? I’m very excited about the reinvention of Oo-Bla-Dee in this current climate as we question where we are in terms of race, gender, and identity today.”
ANNE WASHBURN (Playwright, Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play) “In 2011, my play Mr. Burns was given a workshop at Playwrights Horizons as part of their NEA supported New Works Lab. Mr. Burns was an unwieldy piece to develop; largely a play, partly a musical drama, in part a dance extravaganza. It took time for the creative team to understand how the pieces truly worked, and how they worked together; more time than is afforded in any normal rehearsal process. With the New Works Lab, we were able to focus our attention on the pieces that were a puzzle for us without the pressure of putting together a polished presentation of the whole. It was a gift.”
DOUG WRIGHT (Book Writer, Grey Gardens) “Almost every single play I’ve birthed—from Quills to I Am My Own Wife to Posterity and the musicals Grey Gardens and Hands on a Hardbody—owes a debt to the National Endowment for the Arts, directly or indirectly; their producers received funds from the Endowment to either develop or stage these works. Without the NEA, like so many other artists, I would have no career.”
MAURY YESTON (Composer and Lyricist, Nine)
“I honestly can say that I owe the beginning of my career, as a composer/lyricist of American musical theatre, to the NEA and its support of the O’Neill Center in Connecticut, which granted me the first staged reading of Nine - The Musical in the summer of 1978. That show opened on Broadway in May of 1982 and won a Tony for Best Musical, launching new careers of actors, designers, and theatre professionals.
When I count the number of multiple productions Nine has continued to spawn nationally and worldwide (England, France, Sweden, Finland, Germany, Italy, Greece, Poland, Mexico, Argentina, Korea, Japan, Philippines, Australia, among others) over the past 34 years, its positive economic contribution to America’s balance of trade dramatizes the NEA’s undeniable status as one of our country’s most precious artistic and business assets. And my career has contributed other new shows that have become favorable international balance of trade assets to our economy.
American arts—music, theatre, film—spread America’s culture and the message of our democracy to the far corners of the world, and enrich our nation from abroad, with a continued overwhelming return to the NEA’s relatively modest investment in talent.”