The last person you’d expect to emerge as the theater’s savior is Boris Johnson.
Well, maybe not the very last.
On Monday, Johnson, the British prime minister, announced a bailout to keep the arts alive in his country in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. The package of grants and loans was “a much better plan than anyone expected,” Nicholas Hytner, the former National Theater director, told The New York Times. It was also far bigger than anyone dared hope: a startling 1.57 billion pounds, or about $2 billion.
That bounty is not earmarked for the theater alone; it will also assist museums, concert halls, independent cinemas and, because this is Britain, palaces. But it’s still a lifesaver for an art form that has suffered more than most and will likely take longer to recover — if it does; even a sum so large will not keep all theaters from sinking or rehire laid-off staff at those that survive. The cabinet minister in charge of the arts, Oliver Dowden, said he hoped the plan would at least preserve the “crown jewels” of the culture.
In any case, the bailout sends a powerful message about the centrality of the arts in a modern democracy. Johnson, a Conservative, called them “the beating heart” of Britain.
If it’s hard to imagine his American counterpart making a similar statement, that’s not just because President Trump’s cultural engagement has largely consisted of producing a Broadway bomb in 1970, hosting “The Apprentice” and calling the cast of “Hamilton” “very rude.” Johnson is not exactly an aesthete either, though he played Richard III as a student at Eton (forgetting his lines) and was briefly the shadow minister for the arts until an adultery scandal derailed him.
Still, leading British theatrical figures from both the commercial and the nonprofit sectors — including the West End producer Sonia Friedman and the former Doctor Who David Tennant — appealed to Johnson’s government ceaselessly over the course of recent months in the belief they might be heeded. They were.
No one with a similar profile has been doing that here, and you can understand why. Who would waste time appealing to Trump for a theater bailout? In each year of his presidency, he has tried to cut funding to the National Endowment for the Arts and other cultural programs by huge amounts, sometimes to zero. Those programs are described in his budget proposals as having “No Proper Federal Role.”
But America’s arts-funding problem is about something bigger than its president; a laissez-faire approach to culture is baked into our ethos. Begin by rewinding a bit to note that Britain has a National Theater — and also a culture ministry; Dowden’s full title is Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. There is no such theater or cabinet position here.
Nor has federal arts funding in America ever been generous, the way it is in Europe. The National Endowment for the Arts budget for fiscal 2020, approved before the pandemic, was just $162 million. Total Arts Council England spending in 2018-19 was nearly five times greater in a country with one-fifth the population.
The situation is little better in New York, America’s arts capital and home to more theaters than any other city in the world. The budget adopted by City Council last week cuts spending on cultural affairs to $189 million from $212 million, an improvement over the mayor’s much more draconian proposal.
Nonprofit theaters that are already reeling from a lack of ticket income will nevertheless feel more than a pinch. Despite loans to arts organizations from the federal Paycheck Protection Program — amounting to less than 1 percent of the giveaway, according to one analysis — many will surely be squeezed out.
Yet the theater industry seems frozen in doubt about how to proceed. No commercial or institutional leaders have taken the lead or organized a national response. That’s because those leaders long ago stopped looking to politicians for help — a stance the British sometimes envied. Budgetary self-reliance, they felt, protected the American theater from the vagaries of government funding.
Now we see the disaster that always lurked in that formula. When earned income and philanthropy tank, and bridges to government relief burn from both ends, where can theaters turn?
Hubris is the appropriately dramatic failing that has led the theater to this pass. Its commercial arm brought in billions of dollars in good years yet never made common cause with its nonprofit brethren. Both trumpeted their civic value largely in terms of jobs, tax revenues and ancillary business activity, all of which are important and all of which are now decimated.
Through it all, the institutions that might have been expected to promote a larger vision of the importance of theater — the American Theater Wing, the Broadway League, the League of Off Broadway Theaters and Producers, even the unions — have seemed largely complacent and uncoordinated.
For months I’ve been waiting for industry groups to galvanize themselves into meaningful action, as they did in Britain — and as Black theater artists have proved can be done here, too. Instead, coronavirus has rendered theater leaders voiceless and useless. Even small accommodations to the moment seem beyond their abilities. Plans for ticket refunds and the eventual resumption of performances have been ineptly tossed and fumbled.
Or take streaming theater. The promising format, which at least keeps the work of playwrights and actors in front of the public while in-person performance is impossible, ought to be widely embraced as a stopgap measure. Instead, the inability of the parties to create workable new contracts means that most productions can be streamed only briefly and under strict limitations — which is why so many wind up as benefits for The Actors Fund. Wouldn’t it be simpler to pay actors directly?
But the American theater’s biggest failure is the one that renders it helpless in an existential crisis like this. In allowing itself to be cast as just another industry — a role it does not even play very well — it has disowned its true identity as a public entitlement.
Will anyone make that argument now? Imagine for a moment that Jeffrey Seller, Scott Rudin and Thomas Schumacher, commercial producers who know a great deal about wrangling concessions, assembled a dream team delegation that also included Lin-Manuel Miranda; Mary McColl, Equity’s executive director; Charlotte St. Martin, the Broadway League’s president; Oskar Eustis, the Public Theater’s artistic director, and Todd Haimes, the Roundabout Theater Company’s chief executive. Bring in regional theater heads like Joseph Haj at the Guthrie in Minneapolis and Maria Manuela Goyanes at Woolly Mammoth in Washington. Let Jeff Daniels and Audra McDonald join them as they buttonhole representatives. Have Stephen Adly Guirgis write the script.
If they did not succeed in obtaining relief, they might at least demonstrate, as the British have done with surprising success, that the theater is the crown jewel of our democracy too — not just the beating heart of a (dying) cash machine.
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