More than 70 arts groups responded to the Lower Manhattan Development
Corporation’s invitation to move to Ground Zero, but the one making
headlines came from an organization that does not yet exist—the American
Proposals also came from El Museo de Barrio, for a Hispanic cultural center;
from Hunter College, to create a downtown arts campus; and from UrbanGlass,
a contemporary art glass center now housed in a small space in Fort Greene.
The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation will work with the Department of
Cultural Affairs and the New York
State Council on the Arts to evaluate the proposals, though how and when are
not clear. For arts groups, there is a great deal at
stake, including as much as $200 million in public funding and the chance to
set up shop on the world’s most famous stage.
The proposal for an American National Theater is in some ways as
optimistic -- some might say naĂŻve -- as the creation of a World Trade
three decades ago. The project is headed by a little-known actor named Sean
Cullen and has been endorsed by Arthur Miller, Blair Brown, Emily Mann,
Harold Prince, and others. Cullen envisions it as a showcase for the best of
what the regional theaters have to offer, selected from the 72
members of the League of Resident Theatres and some 80 other major theaters throughout
the country by theater professionals hired as jurors. An artistic director would
then choose 15 plays to form the season on the
national theater’s three stages, with 800, 700, and 400 seats.
The idea taps into the theater person’s perennial frustration. Most
New York but, because they can’t make a living Off Broadway, spend their
career on the road in Minnesota, Texas, and Oregon. Very few productions
make it to New York, and even fewer arrive with their casts intact. While
Europe sends its national theaters—many with resident acting companies—on
tour, American theater people work largely in artistic isolation.
Perhaps the earliest attempt to found a national theater came in the 1920s,
when the critic John Corbin founded the New Theatre in New York. In search
of a homegrown “American” aesthetic, he read thousands of scripts
would-be playwrights across the country. The project never made it off the
There were several more attempts in the mid-1980s, when Peter Sellars took
the reins at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont; Joe Papp proposed to fund
such a theater through the sale of air rights over Broadway houses; and
Actor’s Equity hoped to seed the country with “mini” national
Given this history, it’s not surprising that many theater professionals
voiced reservations about Cullen’s proposal. At a time when even
long-established nonprofits are struggling, there are obvious concerns about
how a national theater would be funded. Virginia Louloudes, executive
director of the Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York, points out that
there is only a finite amount of money to go around, and yet many deserving New
York theaters. Cullen estimates that the national theater would cost about $170
million and have an annual budget of $17 to $20 million, financed by private,
corporate, and foundation support. In addition, he would create an apartment
tower to raise rental revenue for the theater.
Ben Cameron, director of Theatre
Communications Group, has expressed
concerns about the fairness of the selection process. Even if jurors saw 150
plays a year, that would be only a fraction of the work mounted at the
country’s 1,800 nonprofits. The regional theaters—which arose in
to challenge the dominance of New York theater and the commercial
prerogatives of Broadway—have themselves been challenged by smaller,
institutional theaters in cities like Austin and Seattle that reject the
demands of a subscription audience and institutional model. And, while many
regional theaters consistently produce original, quality work, others
copycat each other and produce whatever new play has been hot and
crowd-pleasing that season.
Because theater occupies only a marginal place in our society, theater
people would want to enshrine it in some way. But it will take some
extraordinary resources and a leap of faith to create one. As Newsday critic
Linda Winer wrote recently, “There is nothing inevitable about the notion
a national theater. We are not automatically less of a civilization without
Catch the FEVA
To judge by this summer’s HOWL! Festival, high rents and Starbucks have
diminished the East Village’s role as a crucible for counterculture.
more than 100,000 attended the festival’s 262 music, performance, film,
For the younger crowd, the festival served as a primer to East Village
history—a 3-D slide show of the neighborhood in the 1980s, a video of
Tompkins Square Park riots, a panel on art moderated by Karen Finley, and
the publication party of a book about the history of film and video on the
Lower East Side.
The festival was produced by the Federation of East Village Artists, a new
group that aims to honor and promote the neighborhood’s cultural legacy.
Executive director Phil Hartman says that FEVA plans to leverage its new
visibility to push for broader social goals, which include advocating for
better health insurance and housing for artists, improving arts education in
local schools, and bringing more public art into neighborhood streets.
The group also plans a Museum of the Counterculture, part archive, part
gallery, and part performance space. Among other things, it would seek to
preserve the collection of filmmaker Jack Smith, (whose Flaming Creatures
was shot on the roof of a Lower East Side movie house) and the beat poet Ed
Sanders, whose papers are, according to Hartman, “in [Sanders’]
upstate.” They are also in the process of raising money to create an
emergency relief fund for the many downtown artists and organizations
fighting for survival.
But FEVA doesn’t plan simply to worship at the altar of Allen Ginsburg.
We’re defining the East Village spiritually, not geographically,” Hartman
says. “Next year we hope to include more of the Brooklyn scenes, Long
City, da Bronx, wherever good, crazy stuff is happening.”
Martha Hostetter has written about the arts for the Village Voice, American Theater and Empire New York.
The comments section is provided as a free service to our readers. Gotham Gazette's editors reserve the right to delete any comments. Some reasons why comments might get deleted: inappropriate or offensive content, off-topic remarks or spam.