Gotham Gazette

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A National Theater at Ground Zero

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 National Theater.

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 Center 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 live in 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 from would-be playwrights across the country. The project never made it off the ground.

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 theaters.

Given this history, it’s not surprising that many theater professionals have 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 the 1960s to challenge the dominance of New York theater and the commercial prerogatives of Broadway—have themselves been challenged by smaller, less 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 of a national theater. We are not automatically less of a civilization without one.”

Catch the FEVA

To judge by this summer’s HOWL! Festival, high rents and Starbucks have not diminished the East Village’s role as a crucible for counterculture. In all, more than 100,000 attended the festival’s 262 music, performance, film, and poetry events.

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 the 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’] leaky garage 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 Island 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.

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