Arts Desk

Parsing Arena Stage’s Scheduling Changes

In today's Washington Post, Peter Marks and Jacqueline Trescott broke the announcement that Arena Stage has removed two shows from its schedule next spring. One, a musical version of the Laura Esquivel novel Like Water for Chocolate, was postponed over creative difficulties. But the other, Tazewell Thompson's new play Mary T. and Lizzy K., has been dropped with federal funds for D.C. arts institutions drying up.

Of Arena's decision to cancel Mary T. and Lizzy K., Marks and Trescott wrote:

[It’s] a concrete demonstration, too, of the impact that the battle in Congress over support for the arts is having on nonprofit institutions such as Arena, which rely only in small measure on public money but require it nonetheless to make ends meet.

Being forced to drop “Mary T. and Lizzy K.” was especially painful for Arena’s artistic director, Molly Smith, because it was in no way related to the piece being ready. It was, instead, a result of the drying up of revenue from the National Capital Arts and Cultural Affairs program, a grants initiative that for 25 years has provided federal funds to theaters and other arts groups in the District.

The National Capital Arts and Cultural Affairs program, established in 1985 to provide financial support to non-federal (and some quasi-federal) arts organizations, was cut by 70 percent in April in a continuing resolution to avoid a shutdown of the federal government. Though tiny even at its peak of $9.5 million in fiscal year 2010, the NCACA program provided significant amounts of funding to many of Washington's smaller theaters and museums. The compromise funding level for fiscal 2011—House Republicans proposed cutting it entirely—was just under $3 million. And because the grants are doled out based on a strict, merit-free formula, large institutions like the Kennedy Center and Washington National Opera receive the most, even though the $650,000 each received in fiscal 2010 accounted for a sliver of their overall budgets.

What's more, it remains a mystery what domestic discretionary programs the joint deficit reduction committee will target next week when it releases its proposal to cut federal debt by $1.2 trillion.

The formula for the grants, which are overseen by the relatively obscure U.S. Commission on Fine Arts, is as such: The first 70 percent of NCACA’s total funding is divided evenly among the recipient groups—under current levels each of the 25 grants had a base of about $84,000. The remaining 30 percent is parceled out based on each organization’s operating income as a percentage of the combined operating income of all beneficiaries

The NCACA grants have much greater significance to organizations the size of Arena Stage or smaller. Dance Place, for instance, a dance organization and studio in Brookland, received its first award from the program last year. The $290 it got accounted for a full quarter of its operational budget for that season; in 2011, Dance Place came away with just $87,000, or about 6 percent of its budget.

Some organizations affected by the drop in NCACA funds prepared for this scenario by cutting back on overhead rather than programming. “We have put an absolute freeze on all hiring and raises,” Dance Place founder Carla Perlo told me in April.

GALA Hispanic Theatre, another NCACA recipient that depended on the program for a major portion of its budget, is following suit, for now.

"The only way we’re saving in overhead is by running people ragged," says Rebecca Medrano, GALA's executive director. "Now we can’t bring anyone on."

Nor can GALA afford to add to its current season. Medrano says GALA, which saw its NCACA grant drop from $296,385 to $87,371, is also losing a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts that funded its special events series with new limitations on how many NEA grants applicants can apply for. The overall loss of federal support has Medrano rethinking the next season, and perhaps even the tail end of this one.

"We have not made a decision to let anything go through June of this season, but the board is meeting again in December," she says. "My prediction is it’s definitely going to impact the following season; it may impact the end of this season."

But Arena appears to be the first NCACA recipient to attribute a mid-season scheduling change to the program's reduction. Not that Arena hasn't made moves this year to pad its revenue with crowd-pleasing, quick-selling fare. The combined runs of Oklahoma! did plenty of business—selling more than 100,000 tickets—but possibly not enough to stave off the effects of cuts in government support.

And this comes a week after NPR's Morning Edition aired a story about Arena Stage's American Voices New Play Institute, which was founded in 2009 with a $1.1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The program, which allows the theater to take on writers-in-residence, has burnished its reputation as an incubator for emerging, local talent. Thompson, who wrote the canceled Mary T. and Lizzy K., is not part of the program, but the removal of his play means, as the Post notes, that instead of debuting a new work, Arena's 200-seat Kogod Cradle will be dark for much of next June and July.

In place of the postponed shows, Arena is adding a touring production of The Normal Heart, which wrapped up its Broadway run in July. As Marks and Trescott write, the Larry Kramer play is "a strong replacement," but it can't replace the prestige of debuting a new piece.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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