Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Rural Theatre

Thanks to Nick at Rat Sass for pointing this out to me (I need to resubscribe to the Art Journal feed -- I got annoyed and unsubscribed). It was an article in the Columbus Dispatch entitled "Audiences, Support Growing for Rural Troupes." The article draws attention to Mad River Theatre Works (West Liberty, OH), Roadside Theatre (Whitesburg, KY) and Barter Theatre (Abingdon, VA). Nice article indicating that it is not only possible to have a professional theatre in smaller towns, but also that the support is growing. And it includes a good description of how artists and audiences interact on a more personal level ("We . . . buy a gallon of milk at the supermarket. That's where we get our reviews," says the artistic director) and how the atmosphere is different ("a feeling of more of a camaraderie -- of a closeness -- to the actors" says an audience member).

Perhaps I am over-sensitive to these things, but there was one part of the article that annoyed me. Here it is -- see if you can spot the annoying part:

Arts organizations in big cities receive most of the National Endowment for the Arts grants because metropolitan areas have more projects.

In the past five years, though, the agency has increased by 14 percent its support of arts that reach rural and other underserved areas.

"Our funding comes from taxpayers in every corner of the country," said Bill O'Brien, director of theater and musical theater for the NEA. "It's just appropriate for us to consider the cultural health of every American.

"But it has to be good. It has to be access to excellent art, not access to mediocre art."

If you chose the last two sentences, you win. To my mind, the NEA's ass(umptions) are showing. Why would it even be necessary to suggest that the rural art being supported "has to be good...not...mediocre"? When talking about all the money being funneled to New York or Chicago or San Francisco, would Mr. O'Brien feel similarly compelled to make sure it was understood that those productions have to be good? No, it would be assumed that if they got NEA money they were good. But when talking about something outside the metropolises, and off the radar of the MSM, the NEA representative feels compelled to issue a disclaimer concerning quality.

This prejudice is not only common, but unashamed. In conversations on this blog, many commenters have insulted the work being done in non-Nylachi venues with an impunity that I have found shocking. There is an assumption that anything outside of Nylachi is lower quality which is unfounded and, frankly, offensive. There is crappy theatre everywhere, and excellent theatre everywhere as well. In fact, I don't think the prejudice has anything to do with quality, at least as far as the NEA is concerned, but rather with budgets and buildings. If a production isn't being done in a multi-million dollar arts palace with big bucks being spent on design and actors being flown in from NY, then the NEA needs proof that the productions are good.

The assumptions that are strangling the American theatre run deep, and aren't even recognized as being prejudices. They must be countered whenever they arise.

1 comment:


Lord knows I would take some funding out here in the midwest!!!!