NEA Arts Magazine

The Play's The Thing

The NEA Sets the Stage for American Theater


Tia Speros and Julia Nixon

Tia Speros and Julia Nixon in the Studio Theatre production of Caroline, or Change, supported by an American Masterpieces: Musical Theater grant. Photo by Scott Suchman.

When the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) was established in 1965, there were only seven professional, nonprofit theater companies in the United States. Since FY 1966, when the Arts Endowment gave the first grants to "encourage the artistic development of . . . theatres by enabling them to increase actors' salaries and engage guest directors, performers, and technical personnel," that number has grown to nearly 2,000. In FY 2007 alone, 249 theater and musical theater projects received more than $5 million in NEA grant support. These projects included the 31st Humana Festival of New American Plays in Kentucky, Childsplay's adaptation of Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities in Arizona, and North Shore Music Theater's production of the classic musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in Massachusetts.

This year the NEA also celebrated classic musical theater works as part of its American Masterpieces: Three Centuries of Artistic Genius national initiative, which supports projects that make the artistic accomplishments of great American artists better known to all Americans. Seminal musicals supported by this initiative ranged from Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's modern take on Romeo and Juliet -- West Side Story -- to Caroline, or Change by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner and composer Jeanine Tesori. Twenty-nine theater companies nationwide received more than $1.2 million in NEA American Masterpieces support.

The NEA also has made theater accessible to more Americans with its Shakespeare in American Communities initiative. Since 2003 this program has brought performances of Shakespeare to more than one million Americans, including military personnel and their families. For many of those individuals, this expansive tour has provided their first exposure to live professional theater. Shakespeare for a New Generation, the second phase of the initiative, has focused on the nation's youth and their families, reaching more than 3,000 schools and 800,000 students. Both phases of the program have involved more than 65 of the nation's premier theater companies, including the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Trinity Repertory Company, and Perseverance Theater.

In the recent American Masterpieces issue of NEA Arts,Theater and Musical Theater Director Bill O'Brien said, "The [funded projects] offer a number of very vivid snapshots of what lies at the heart of the American experience."The statement is no less apt when it comes to the projects presented on the following pages: Center Theater Group's premiere of Tanya Barfield's Of Equal Measure; Steppenwolf Theatre Company's world premiere of August: Osage County; Signature Theatre's revival of August Wilson's King Hedley II; Artists Repertory Theatre's production of The Ghosts of Celilo; Folger Theatre's reimagining of Shakespeare's The Tempest; and Arkansas Repertory Theatre's presentation of The Legacy Project: It Happened in Little Rock.