Dramatists Takes Sides in NEA Fight

The controversy over new anti-obscenity language in National Endowment for the Arts legislation, originally focused on the visual arts, has hit the theater world.

Playwright Terrence McNally, whose “Lisbon Traviata” is expected on the Mark Taper Forum schedule next season, wrote a letter to the Dramatists Guild newsletter criticizing the writers who sign acceptances of this year’s round of NEA fellowships: “Yes, an artist has mouths to feed and bills to pay . . . but an artist has a conscience to nurture, too. I think it’s better to drive a cab or wait tables than sign such a pledge.”

Suzan L. Zeder, who chaired the peer review panel that recommended this year’s NEA playwriting grant recipients, has responded to McNally in a letter to the Dramatists Guild.

“At this point . . . refusing grants is exactly what the forces of darkness want artists to do, and only supports their contention that NEA funding is not really needed,” she wrote. “Until there is final legislation on this matter any schism between the NEA and the artists of this nation is extremely perilous. . . . There may come a time when restrictive language really does make it impossible for panels to function freely, or for artists to accept federal support. That hasn’t happened yet.”


Among the playwrights who received this year’s grants were John Steppling and Lisa Loomer of Los Angeles (each won $15,500), Ellen McLaughlin of San Francisco ($20,000; she’s currently performing in “Millennium Approaches” at Taper Too), and Marlane Meyer of New York, whose plays have opened primarily in Los Angeles or at South Coast Repertory.