The Money's Also the Thing

Michael Phillips is The Times' theater critic

Last month in Washington, President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, along with Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynne, attended "An American Celebration" at Ford's Theatre.

It was twang night in our nation's capital, the Bush inaugural shindig all over again. Jeff Foxworthy told some jokes. Preteen Nashville warbler Billy Gilman sang. The group SHeDAISY sang too. ABC-TV's Sam Donaldson, no longer officially a member of SHeDAISY, hosted the show, to be broadcast Aug. 18 on ABC.

During the event, Bush lauded Ford's Theatre as "a testament to public and private partnerships." He said it was a "model for the blueprint"--though "blueprint for the model" might make more sense--"of how government, corporations and individuals can cooperate to support the arts."

"It is right," he added, "for government to support such causes."

Within reason, of course. As long as nothing dicey or offensive or controversial is at issue.

Bush didn't add these caveats, but he didn't need to. These days they're a given.

At the gala, Bush quoted Abraham Lincoln, who said: "Some think I do wrong to go to the opera and the theater. But it rests me. A hearty laugh relieves me and I seem better after it to bear my cross." Referring to Lincoln at a Ford's Theatre gala is a textbook definition of a "Yes, but." Yes, but look what going to a play did for Lincoln.

The times in which we live, as much as any one administration can shape them, have done wonders for the word "private," as in "private enterprise." This is not the era of expansive civic-mindedness. No safety net feels quite as safe as it used to. "Public art" and "federal arts funding" aren't phrases public figures use with full confidence in 2001.

Look again at Lincoln's words, carefully chosen by Bush's careful advisors. They are comforting, even inspiring. The theater is indeed a place and an occasion for rest and relaxation. It can lift spirits, lighten a load, ease a burden for a few hours.

It can do all that, and it can do much more. It can provoke, challenge, even enrage. It can enthrall.

But such leaps require a certain degree of daring, which comes more readily with a certain degree of freedom from the bottom line.

This is where patronage on the federal level comes in. Or should.

Depending on where the hot air's coming from, political winds can shift at will. At the Ford's Theatre gala, a silent reminder of this looked on as Bush spoke of federal arts funding.

Her name was Lynne Cheney, former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, sister agency of the National Endowment for the Arts. During her tenure, Cheney tried to eliminate her own agency while running it, owing to what she perceived as a terminal case of left-wing bias in its grants.

This is what's known as the fox middle-managing the henhouse.

Also known as the SOIFS (Shell of Its Former Self), the NEA is alive if not exactly hale. Owing to one too many political cat fights, the agency no longer funds individual artists. It no longer has the political nerve to risk offense. Its determinedly centrist value is now more symbolic than practical.

But it has value nonetheless. Bush's budget earlier in the year recommended the agency for flat funding of $105 million. After it is done winding its way through the House and the Senate, the NEA appropriation may end up with a $10 million increase over the initial recommendation, totaling $115 million. Sometime this month, the Bush administration is expected to name a replacement for outgoing NEA Chairman William Ivey.

It's a good time to remind ourselves that not every country thinks so little of its culture.

Take England, to whom the U.S. colonies used to answer. Earlier this year, the Arts Council of England boosted its funding to 337 million pounds for the fiscal year 2003-04. This is the equivalent of $472 million.

In rough terms, for every buck we spend on, say, the Mark Taper Forum or South Coast Repertory or the Geffen Playhouse, England spends four times as much on their counterparts. (Arts funding in the United Kingdom comes in part from money raised by the multibillion-dollar National Lottery.)

In England, under the directorship of Trevor Nunn, the Royal National Theatre has come under fire for playing it too safe, eyeing the commercial marketplace too intently. Its revivals of "Oklahoma!" and "My Fair Lady" have made plenty of money and will continue to do so in the commercial arena, both in England and the United States.

Some have questioned the place of such projects at a major subsidized house. "It is worrying that Arts Council money can be used to produce commercial theater," Peter Ainsworth, a Conservative Party official, said earlier this year,

In this country, we tend not to care about the appearance of too much commercialism. Politicians and their influential constituents, many of them are in a position to cough up or withhold arts philanthropy dollars, are more likely to decry the experimental, the untested, the projects without a recognizable title or brand name.

The truth may well lie in the middle. I really want to see the new "My Fair Lady," whether or not it began its life at a subsidized house. In the same spirit, I'm eager to see how the forthcoming "Flower Drum Song," coming soon to the Mark Taper Forum, turns out. But pardon me if I have a mixed feeling or two about using a nonprofit stage for projects some feel may be at odds with even a loose definition of a nonprofit theater's mission.

The old dreams are pretty much gone, the initial goals and dreams of the nonprofit resident theater movement: A full-time acting company, performing in repertory, comparatively free from the pressures of Broadway. The new dreams are more limited. A little risk now and then, but primarily, favorites. Comfort food. Survival.

These days, fund-raising for a nonprofit is the toughest and highest calling in the arts world. It's hard and getting harder.

You can sense the scrambling everywhere, all the time. Example: Check out the Ford's Theatre Web site at http://www.fordstheatre.org . There, Ford's calls itself "a living tribute to President Abraham Lincoln's love of the performing arts." Good so far.

Then: "Ford's Theatre produces musicals and plays that embody family values, underscore multiculturalism and illuminate the eclectic character of American life." And that's where it trips all over itself, to sound attractive yet inoffensive to every single potential funder or playgoer in the land.

We must remember this: It's simply money well-spent, this notion of funding our nation's cultural pursuits, generously . It's part of any reasonable notion of a good society.

"Don't know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal--you sockdologizing old mantrap!" An actor named Harry Hawk spoke those lines, just before Booth took aim and fired at Lincoln during a performance of "Our American Cousin."

No one does that play anymore, but we see plenty of 20th and 21st century variations on it, all across America. Stage sitcoms are fine, and sometimes they're heartily deserving of funding.

But that's not the only kind of theater that means something to me. And going to the theater, despite Bush's quotation of Lincoln, might be something more than a way to get some rest.

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