NEA Arts Magazine

The Theatrical Arts

Artistic Excellence and Commitment to Communities


Bill O’Brien

Theater and Musical Theater Director Bill O’Brien. Photo by Kevin Allen.

In the recently published Culture Track 2007, an ongoing study of the cultural market in the nation, "dramatic theater" and "musical theater" are listed as being the second and third most frequently attended cultural activities in the nation. There is more live professional theater being presented in more places today than there has ever been in our nation’s history. The question then becomes this: Exactly what is the nature, quality, and character of the theatrical art that is being carried forth throughout all of this geographic expansion?

More than 400 theater and musical theater applications are reviewed by NEA panels each year, offering unique perspectives into the inspirations, artistic processes, and civic commitments driving the projects being put forward in the nation’s theatrical arts. Applications that receive the strongest recommendations from our panelists also reveal trends that are taking root in the most capable programs across the country. Some of these trends include projects that balance artistic excellence with a deepened institutional commitment to the communities served by our theaters, efforts to create new works that more accurately reflect the true nature and diversity of the nation’s population, and musical theater works that test and expand the boundaries of the form.

The civic and social concerns that are emerging in some of these projects reveal a field that is populated with maturing institutions who continue to reassert and refine the commitments of service that they have made to their communities. It is important to remember, however, that the primary concern of the Arts Endowment is to provide grant support to the most artistically excellent project submissions we receive. An application that demonstrates high artistic potential, regardless of whether or not it is driven by any implied or expressed social ambition, will typically win support. A project that reveals an admirable social conscience without the assurance of artistic excellence typically will not.

In the following pages, we introduce you to some theatrical projects from across the nation that have recently won funding from the NEA and represent some of the best of today’s theater companies.

Bill O’Brien
Director, Theater and Musical Theater