From the Executive Director

The Artist's Voice: Endangered or Ascendant?

By Gigi Bolt

Read through this issue of American Theatre and you'll encounter four stories of the transformative power of theatre and what it can mean to be a theatre artist in America today. You'll find the lyrical, distinct voice of Lisa D'Amour, who conjures America, from the Texas Panhandle to New Orleans. You'll learn about Naomi Iizuka's community-based work on Hamlet, transposing the play to drug-afflicted Oakland, Calif., a project in which both the play and city are "complicated, living organisms that invite you to wrestle with them. They demand it."

You'll find yourself in the soggy but joyous bleachers after a rain-drenched performance of Mother Courage and Her Children at the Delacorte in Central Park, concluding with thunderous applause for Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline and the cast, who in turn thanked the audience.

And you'll share in the entirely improbable adventure of Suzan-Lori Parks's 365 Days/365 Plays, at first "an intimate thing between her and her muse," that will this year be produced through the partnership of more than 700 theatres and performing groups in what is certainly a new model of artist-inspired work.

These are only a few of the many glorious stories of theatre artists at work today. And yet, as artists and managers know all too well, events of the last decade, beginning with the 1996 Congressional elimination of most direct federal support for artists, have resulted in fault lines through the foundation of artist support.

As institutions lost dedicated funding, programs that nurtured relationships between artists and institutions have drifted away, resulting in fewer commissions, residencies and artistic staff positions, less opportunity for development and a reduced tolerance for risk-taking. As sustaining opportunities for artists have decreased, a distance if not a chasm has developed between artists and institutions. And almost certainly many individual voices necessary to telling our national story in the coming decades remain unheard.

Not that it's ever been easy. Actors have always struggled for a creative voice at the table, and Peter Shaffer voiced the sentiment of fellow playwrights when he said, "Writing a play is much like holding a rope, and going off into the dark, with the firm belief that it's attached somewhere at the other end, though you can't see it. Sometimes, very often, this belief turns out to be a complete illusion." All too frequently, neither a theatre nor the audience that the theatre might provide is there to grasp the other end.

The Urban Institute's 2003 study "Investing in Creativity: A Study of the Support Structure for U.S. Artists" concluded that most artists are struggling to make ends meet, lack health coverage and have little secured retirement income. In addition, they aren't valued by society commensurate with their significant contributions on the stage, in schools and as public citizens. Despite the priority voiced by most managers on placing artists at the center of their theatres, competing pressures take a toll. As reported in TCG's Theatre Facts 2005, the 100 trend theatres spent on average a slightly smaller percentage of their total expenses on artistic payroll each year since 2002.

But have you noticed, as I have, something new in the air? Change often steals in quietly. Who would have believed once upon a time that New York would have clean streets and smoke-free bars, that children would ride in car seats and see theatre in Times Square?

Though I can't place a date, it's my distinct impression that artists are more actively seeking a bigger platform, envisioning more powerfully their role as creator, change agent, teacher, public citizen and essential link between institution and audience. And there is even some evidence of a shift in the culture. United States Artists, a new endowment fund begun by four major foundations, recently met to award its first grants across all disciplines to outstanding individual artists. The Actors Center's National Congress has now convened in two cities, with more meetings to come, to address both the living support needs of actors and their role as primary creative artists. TCG recently held a panel meeting to select its first Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellows. And the idea of securing support for master artists within institutions, much as universities support endowed chairs, seems to be gaining currency.

Amidst the ephemera of popular culture, theatre is built around an individual vision, with the very best theatre reflecting a deeply authentic voice responding to the complex streams of society. And so, our challenge as a community: Can we summon the collective energy and commit to a decision that artists will be able to make a living in the field? Can we offer young artists a reason for optimism that they'll find creative opportunities throughout their career? Can we order priorities so as to place artists at the center in our theatres and thus sustain their genius? And, concurrently, will our individual artists ask themselves to whom they are responsible? Will they challenge themselves to speak the truth with integrity? Will they commit to help us all discover what it means to live in the world today?

If so, the theatre will fulfill its singular transformative potential and become an ever more valuable gift to the nation.