Making The Show Go On (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Making the Show Go On: Arts Groups Grapple with Federal Funding Cuts

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:09
Welcome back to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir. Today, we're talking dollars and cents and as the fall kicks in, performing arts organizations across D.C. are shelling out their dollars and cents on a brand-new season of recitals, concerts and plays like this one, "Ay, Carmela," the newest offering from GALA Hispanic Theatre, now playing at the historic Tivoli Theatre in Columbia Heights.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:38
GALA's co-founder and executive director Rebecca Read Medrano says their launching their 36th season with "Ay, Carmela" because it's a powerful story of artists caught in the wrong place at the wrong time during the Spanish Civil War. But they also chose Jose Sanchis Sinsiterra's modern classic because well, frankly...

MS. REBECCA READ MEDRANO

00:00:56
It will be cheaper.

SHEIR

00:00:57
GALA usually opens at season with what Medrano calls a classical classical.

MEDRANO

00:01:01
But we thought a 19-person classical play, the Spanish classics are very large.

SHEIR

00:01:08
And "Ay, Carmela" is very small.

MEDRANO

00:01:11
It's two people.

SHEIR

00:01:12
Hence the cheaper budget, which Medrano says is a good thing. Her $1.6 million theatre company is among two-dozen groups facing major cutbacks to the grants they receive from the National Capital Arts and Cultural Affairs Program.

MEDRANO

00:01:26
Last year instead of our regular grant is between $290,000 - $300,000. We only got $74,000.

SHEIR

00:01:31
The NCACA started in 1985 to help fill the gap left by D.C.'s lack of state arts funding. But back in the spring, Congress announced the $9.5 million program for fiscal 2012 would be slashed to $2.5 million. That's a reduction of nearly of 75 percent.

MEDRANO

00:01:49
This was so very hard hitting because we've reached, you know, 35 years. We were doing a big anniversary celebration. We were going to close with a big musical and our announcement that the funds wouldn't be available came late April, early May. Our fiscal year ends June 30th so that is not enough time to replace $200,000 - $300,000.

SHEIR

00:02:11
Medrano thought fast and went to GALA's board with a quick fix, how about she said, if we just cut the season's final show, that big musical.

MEDRANO

00:02:18
But then you all will have to understand we won't have ticket income coming in and they're all like, we don't want you to cut the shows. No, no, we have to do the show.

SHEIR

00:02:27
So they did and it was a hit, but they still had to make for that $225,000 federal cut. So they ixnayed stuff like new office supplies, they cut a careful eye production costs and most importantly, they borrowed money...

MEDRANO

00:02:42
Borrowed from Peter to pay Paul.

SHEIR

00:02:43
...from themselves. See, they had $800,000 left from a loan they had received a few years back to renovate the Tivoli.

MEDRANO

00:02:49
We didn't pay the whole thing off. I was like, let's get out of debt and my board said, no, no, you pay $600,000 and put $200,000 aside and don't touch it. So we borrowed from ourselves to be able to finish the season. The question is, going forward we don't want to cannibalize that.

SHEIR

00:03:04
Of course, they don't cancel productions or programs either. In fact, Rebecca Read Medrano vows never to touch the free after-school classes they provide for area youth. But some of her fellow NCACA recipients...

MS. DEBRA KRAFT

00:03:17
What we're looking at is eliminating actually the freelance musicians and artists who are able to go into schools.

SHEIR

00:03:22
...feel they have no choice but to cut education programs.

KRAFT

00:03:25
Music helps learning how to count, learning how to -- sing the text helps to read. It's literature. So the teachers rely on us as re-enforcement resources and we can't sustain that alone, that's just not possible.

SHEIR

00:03:38
This is Debra Kraft.

KRAFT

00:03:39
I'm the executive director of The Choral Arts Society in Washington.

SHEIR

00:03:42
A 47-year-old non-profit whose grant was reduced from $314,000 to about $93,000. Kraft says the NCACA is Choral Arts last surviving source for education funding so they're shifting their approach.

KRAFT

00:03:58
We are still trying to reach students but we're doing through concerts for students instead having teaching artists in the schools.

SHEIR

00:04:05
Choral Arts recently launched an email campaign, appraising supporters of the financial situation and asking for help. Debra Kraft says people need to understand how crucial these federal funds have been for so many arts organizations in D.C.

KRAFT

00:04:19
There's not the pocket of money from city, from county or state. if you live beyond the District you often have those three public sources plus the federal money so we need this very badly. It's because of that, otherwise there's no source to fund the Philips or the Corcoran or Shakespeare theatre or arena stage. These are national giants.

MR. THOMAS LUEBKE

00:04:38
Washington itself doesn't have a large tax base compared to a larger state's arts organization, places that are typically putting, you know, $50 to $100 million a year into their larger institutions.

SHEIR

00:04:49
Thomas Luebke is secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which administers the National Capital Arts Program.

LUEBKE

00:04:55
So I think the original idea was for the federal government to step in and help support the quality that we would have here in the national capital.

SHEIR

00:05:02
And yet in terms of how the feds are supporting that quality right now.

LUEBKE

00:05:07
We're not expecting any funding in the current year coming up, in the fiscal '12 year unless Congress puts it back in.

SHEIR

00:05:14
But some program members say their hedging their bets and assuming Congress won't put it back in.

MR. JOHN VREEKE

00:05:19
Let's back in, read through scene 11 one more time, page 89.

SHEIR

00:05:24
Prime example, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, now in rehearsals for the first play of its 32nd season, "A Bright New Boise," written by Samuel Hunter and directed by John Vreeke.

VREEKE

00:05:35
There's one little cut that Sam and I thought would be something we could instigate right away. Let's start at the bottom of 92.

MR. SAMUEL HUNTER

00:05:44
It's like the very last sentence on the page. So it'll just go, you work at a Hobby Lobby, Anna, you're life is meaningless. My life is meaningless.

SHEIR

00:05:50
In 2010 Woolly received nearly $320,000 from the program. Managing director Jeff Herman says that number was chopped by $225,000.

MR. JEFF HERMAN

00:06:01
Which amounted to, you know, I'm going to say five or six percent of our annual budget, which about $4 million.

SHEIR

00:06:07
When Herman received word of the cuts he immediately emailed the entire Woolly Mammoth database to explain what happened and to lay out a plan.

HERMAN

00:06:14
We're going to have to increase individual contributions, we're going to have to tighten our belt where we can. We're going to have to sell the last couple of shows of the year very strongly.

SHEIR

00:06:22
And it worked, the last two shows, "Booty Candy" and "Clydeborn Park" sold remarkably well. The staff reduced expenses like travel and office supplies. In fact, Herman even cut a full-time position.

HERMAN

00:06:33
Which was, you know, hard.

SHEIR

00:06:35
And as for those individual contributions, the company blasted regular email updates.

HERMAN

00:06:40
You know, we've got $100,000 to go. We got $75,000 to go.

SHEIR

00:06:44
Until...

HERMAN

00:06:44
We probably brought in another $150,000 plus than we had originally budgeted.

SHEIR

00:06:49
Still Jeff Herman says the members of the Woolly Mammoth family aren't getting too comfortable. After five years of growing the budget, they're reducing their sites and letting things flatten out, lest they come to resemble an actual woolly mammoth a bit too closely.

HERMAN

00:07:05
You know, as a shagging, kind of rare creature, which kind of shakes things up as it kind of rumbles across the -- and I think it's a really appt image for, like, what we try to do here and hopefully we won't go extinct like our namesake did.

SHEIR

00:07:16
For now, Woolly and its National Capital Arts and Cultural Affairs cohorts are hanging in there but GALA Hispanic Theatre Rebecca Read Medrano says it's going to be tough unless the U.S. changes how it prioritizes the arts.

MEDRANO

00:07:30
It can't just wily-nily say produce this art and do these services with no public funding. Somebody has to help find the money and then say this needs to go for arts and education, this needs to go for art programming. That is the soul of our city and if you close those places you just, you close the soul to the city.

SHEIR

00:07:49
It's anyone's guess when Congress will decide about arts funding for the next fiscal year. in the meantime, local arts organizations say, "The show must go on." Even as the real-life drama over their funding unfolds offstage. For more on the National Capital Arts and Cultural Affairs Program and some of the arts organizations involved, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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