The Land of Less

Reeling from a major funding drought, vanguard performing artists downsize their dreams

All through the culture war, bombs blasted the landscape built to support artists. Somehow, they're still expected to live there. Expected to suffer. Forged in the fire— all that rot. It's as if, while no one was looking, starving in garrets (once again) became national cultural policy.

Nowhere has the wreckage been tougher to work around than in the performing arts, where only 'Cats' and 'Lion King's survive without subsidy. But the theaters are full, you say. Presenters wear brave smiles. Hellzapoppin'.

Then consider, as the new season begins, why an internationally recognized theater artist and MacArthur fellow like John Jesurun hasn't had a full production in New York City since 1995. Why the venue where you're most likely to see Karen Finley these days is an episode of Politically Incorrect. And why, in the dance world, hardly anybody can keep a company together. Something is very wrong.

Elizabeth Streb: Artists, Streb says, can't continue to engage in "undercapitalized activity."
photo: Robin Holland
Elizabeth Streb: Artists, Streb says, can't continue to engage in "undercapitalized activity."

A steady erosion has been underway since 1995, the most devastasting year of the culture war. Heady with victory in the Republican Revolution of '94, right-wingers thought they could finally kill the hated National Endowment for the Arts. They managed merely to take its soul, wiping out fellowships to individual artists except in folk art, jazz, and (thank you, Garrison Keillor) literature. Even worse, Congress cut off general operating support to venues. That's just money to pay the light bill, but without it, the edgiest venues in town can't take many chances on what they present. They need box office.

Since '95, there's been a domino effect, especially on the cultural margins. The whole idea of an enclave that isn't beholden to the marketplace seems to be up for grabs. Funding still exists, of course, but what's supported now is product, not process. And it's harder than ever to make work without the support of a large cultural institution.

This is beginning to change what we can see on a stage. And a generation of experimental artists who came up in the nonprofit world face the reality that they may no longer make even a meager living there. Everyone is scrambling to adjust.

The multitalented John Kelly is one of those successful midcareer artists who now finds himself at a crossroads. Actually, he appears to be flush with prestigious projects. He's about to make his midtown debut in The Dead, the musical adaptation of James Joyce's story, with Christopher Walken. Composer David del Tredici is setting some of Kelly's poetry to music. A third work-in-progress is a Hal Wilner­produced CD of '60s and '70s tunes and one Italian art song.

But don't look for another of Kelly's brilliant ensemble theater pieces like Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte or Find My Way Home, at least in the forseeable future. This is the work Kelly really wants to do and can't possibly afford. He is currently carrying about $20,000 in personal debt.

What helped before were the NEA fellowships, a pittance at either $10,000 or $15,000 a year, but still "the core of my income," says Kelly. He has not created a new ensemble piece since 1993, when he reached one of the few pinnacles a performance artist can even aspire to, a slot in the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Light Shall Lift Them, a tribute to Paris music-hall star Barbette, cost $185,000 and nearly bankrupted his company. (They had self-produced, which meant it was all on his company's dime.) Kelly performed the piece four times.

This summer, determined to make some real money, he went to Provincetown to do his popular Joni Mitchell impersonation— six shows a week for eight weeks. He merely broke even. Kind of. Considering that he'd borrowed to get there, he actually lost money. "I've thought about moving to Europe for years," says Kelly, who is now 44. "I don't want to begin my life over, but I just see it getting worse and worse here. I'm going through a period of transition, attempting to go the traditional route, the commercial theater."

As Norman Frisch, a consultant for Arts International, observes, "We're moving back towards a giant chasm between commercial artists and amateur artists. I don't think there's going to be such a thing as a professional noncommercial artist anymore. Maybe we just lived through that little window where that was possible. Maybe we were the aberration."

There are so many unfundables now. But some are more un than others. The unaffiliated, unassimilable, uncommodifiable.

Take Jesurun's dense, ambitious plays, which reconceive the oldest philosophical problems in the light of new technologies. That might mean 20 video monitors onstage, however. Expensive. And it will never take him to HBO. At age 48, Jesurun is no longer willing to plow every dollar back into his work. By the time he won his MacArthur in 1996, he was $50,000 in debt. So Jesurun now works abroad, doing his Faust last year in Mexico City. "A great production with 100 performances," he said on the phone from Tokyo. But in New York, his home base, a whole new generation of theatergoers doesn't even know who he is.

Nor will they know anything of the groundbreaking Ridiculous Theater, apart from its most commercial piece, Irma Vep, a great tour-de-force but a minuscule part of what the Ridiculous was about. Charles Ludlam's surviving partner, Everett Quinton, fought for years to sustain the theater. The NEA was the biggest funder they ever had, giving them as much as $85,500 one year, though usually it was closer to $60,000. After their funding dropped to $28,000, they left the old Sheridan Square theater with its killer $5000 monthly rent. "Then we limped along for two years hoping against hope," says Quinton. "Finally I just thought, this can't work. I was waking up suicidal every day."

Next Page »