British Taxpayers Send Plays Galloping Across the Atlantic

War Horse and Jerusalem, two plays developed in Britain’s subsidized theatres, received high honors last month at America’s Tony Awards, which recognize excellence in Broadway productions.  

Michael Billington is one of England’s foremost drama critics and a veteran journalist for the British newspaper, The Guardian.  (He’s also Harold Pinter’s biographer.)  Billington recently wrote, with bitter pride, about the support that subsidized British theatre provides to commercial American theatre.  This upside-down trans-Atlantic relationship was evident at the Tonys when British actor Mark Rylance won “best leading role in a play” for his work in Jerusalem and War Horse won a whopping five Tonys, including “best play.” 

Billington reports that War Horse and Jerusalem were nurtured over long gestation periods that only subsidized theatre can provide.  Without that taxpayer support it is doubtful that those scripts and productions would have achieved their excellence.

America’s antipathy to subsidizing the arts is exceeded only by its hatred of taxes and fondness for greater economic inequality. 

At a recent meeting in Seattle, veteran arts consultant Susan Trapnell (she is advising the board of Seattle’s Intiman Theatre about its present crisis) noted that over the last 25 years the message our society, as represented by our elected officials, has given the arts is that they are a private sector charity.  Her numbers backing this up are that in 1982 public funding (mostly NEA but also state, county and city funding) represented 12-16% of a theatre’s annual budget.  Today it represents 1-2%.  Do you wonder why so many arts organizations today in America are struggling or even going under?

A further irony, one which Billington is only too aware of, is that current political and economic winds in Britain are shoving it in America’s direction:  subsidies for the arts are being cut there.  Billington’s immediate concern is not for the big subsidized theatres in London such as the National and Royal Court, but for the small community theatres that are the proving ground for many of the artists and scripts that make their way to London.  If that proving ground perishes from lack of funding, London will eventually suffer, and of course, so would the neighborhood around Times Square. 

The same dynamic is playing out in America, except that deprivation of the arts here began long ago (led by an actor, Ronald Reagan) and cuts much deeper.  How many high schools in America have had their arts curriculum reduced or eliminated in the last decade?  At the high school in my Seattle neighborhood we are asked to make private donations to keep the choir, band and drama classes and clubs going.  If young people are not exposed to the arts, as participants as well as spectators, should we be surprised when they don’t support them as adults?

We might interrupt these discouraging thoughts (discouraging, at any rate, for those who value the arts) long enough to give a small prayer of thanks to the British taxpayer.

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