NEA helps the Autry Museum provide a rare platform for Native American playwrights

The story of the American West would be incomplete without the indigenous people who occupied this territory long before the arrival of European immigrants.

Giving the descendants of indigenous people an artistic platform is the goal of Native Voices at the Autry Museum of the American West, which for more than 18 years has housed the country’s only Equity theater company dedicated solely to producing new works by Native American, Alaska Native and First Nations playwrights.

“It’s never really possible to completely cover this kind of arts endeavor through sponsorship and ticket sales, so we rely on funding from the NEA,” Autry President and Chief Executive W. Richard West Jr. said. “When you receive money from the NEA, you can use it for leveraging purposes for individual donors and philanthropic foundations.”

Since 2001 the National Endowment for the Arts has awarded Native Voices at the Autry 15 grants totaling $427,000. The largest grant of $80,000 came in 2011, but most grants range between $10,000 and $30,000. The most recent grant, for the 2017 fiscal year, was for $10,000.

“It’s not inconsequential,” West said. “It helps support productions like ‘Fairly Traceable,’ by a talented Cherokee playwright and lawyer named Mary Kathryn Nagle.”

That show, a romantic dramedy that closed last week, was set in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and explored issues of climate change and corporate pollution through the eyes of a young Ponca man and a Chitimacha woman seeking to balance environmental advocacy with career ambitions.

The current annual budget for Native Voices is $373,716, which represents about one-third of the museum’s budget for public programming. In this context, $10,000 from the NEA looks small, but a representative for the museum said such funding has become even more important in an era when many corporations are reducing charitable giving and competition for philanthropic dollars is increasingly fierce.

The NEA money for Native Voices isn’t earmarked for particular line items but rather included in the overall operational budget. Nearly half of that budget goes toward ongoing playwright development including staged readings, workshops and festivals that give writers a forum to receive feedback from an audience.

Since its founding in 1993, Native Voices has staged 34 Equity productions, including 21 world premieres. Equity productions meet standards for pay, working conditions and benefits outlined in contracts with Actors’ Equity Assn., the union for stage professionals.

Past shows have included a Native American reboot of “Romeo & Juliet” called “Kino and Teresa”; a tragic story of family dysfunction titled “Carbon Black”; and a tale examining conflicts between tradition and modernity in the Native American community, “The Frybread Queen.”

The company also hosts an annual playwrights retreat that invites three to six emerging and established playwrights to Southern California for a weeklong residency to workshop their plays with professional actors and directors. The culmination of the retreat is the Festival of New Plays, which features staged readings at the Autry and at La Jolla Playhouse.

The Native Voices’ Artists Ensemble is made up of Native American actors, writers, musicians, directors and others. Members are given opportunities to hone their craft and gain professional experience while mining the perspectives of more than 500 Native American nations in the United States.

West said Native Voices is a crucial part of the Autry’s mission to promote the art, history and cultures of the American West. He also said the West needs organizations such as the NEA with increasing urgency — an observation based on his experience as the director for the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., from 1990 to 2007.

“These agencies support the reach of museums not located on the Eastern Seaboard, which often have their own access to federal monies,” West said. On the prospect of the NEA losing its funding, he added: “It’s extremely important in Los Angeles that [it] not be permitted to happen.”

“L.A. Without the NEA” is a daily series looking at a different community group, how its NEA funds were spent, what artistic or public good did or didn’t result and what the cultural landscape would look like if that program were to disappear. Share this article on social media and look for more installments at latimes.com/LAwithouttheNEA.

jessica.gelt@latimes.com

@jessicagelt

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