The Republican House and Senate are coming for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The US doesn’t have a ministry of culture, like many other countries. The NEA was created in 1965 to promote the arts, and distributes arts-related funding within the US. The NEA “gives Americans the opportunity to participate in the arts, exercise their imaginations, and develop their creative capacities.” It works with “state arts agencies, local leaders, other federal agencies, and the philanthropic sector.” It is a vital resource for cultural institutions.
President Trump (aka #45) announced his intent to cut funding to the National Endowment on January 19, 2017, two days before the Boston Women’s March. When my wife and I marched, we also marched for the NEA. There, we spotted this sign:
The sign names extreme environmental activist Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme. She is most famous for her involvement with Charles Manson, but it wasn’t the murders that put her behind bars. Fromme was convicted of attempted assassination of President Gerald R. Ford in 1975. She held a gun up to Ford but was tackled by Secret Service. Later, it was discovered that the gun was loaded but no bullet was in the chamber. Fromme claimed she "...was so relieved not to have to shoot it, but, in truth, (she) came to get life. Not just (her) life but clean air, healthy water, and respect for creatures and creation."
“... I’d just had a big fight with my daddy about, I don’t know, my eye make-up or the bombing of Cambodia.”—Squeaky’s monologue, Assassins
Fromme is immortalized in Stephen Sondheim’s musical Assassins, which reveals the humanity of a time-scattered tribe of POTUS murderers and would-be murderers. In the musical, Squeaky is portrayed as an air-headed ingénue pining for her imprisoned boyfriend, Charlie. The script paints her as foul-mouthed and brash. In reality, Fromme was calm and well-spoken. Perhaps she did intend to shoot President Ford, and her gun malfunctioned. Maybe she got cold feet. Either way, she didn’t kill him, and was ridiculed as an incapable, hippie flake.
Fromme’s tool was a gun. Her dramatic action brought attention to her causes. Now we face a time for action, and we should examine the non-violent tools we have at our disposal in the theatre field: community building, marketing schemes, budgeting for impossible projects, public speaking, attention grabbing, pacing, and storytelling.
Fromme’s portrayal by the media is not so dissimilar to the traditional portrayal of many activists. Conservative journalists like to depict us as flighty, superficial, and impractical when, in reality, we are forces with which to be reckoned. I believe that the clever sign holder was not only making a tongue-in-cheek reference #45’s call to 2nd Amendment supporters to take out Hillary Clinton, but also reminding activists to consider more extreme motions to protect our civil rights.
Squeaky and Assassins inspire me to use theatre as a motivational, truth-telling tool. Assassins tells a side of the story that was unpopular at the time. Some events related to Squeaky’s character parallel our current reality. Squeaky was willing to violently protest for a healthier Earth. Were her actions grounded in nonviolent, sane activism, there’s no telling how she could have altered her story.
“Everybody’s got the right to some sunshine!/Not the sun, but maybe one of its beams. Rich man, poor man, black or white/Everybody gets a bite/ Everybody’s got the right/to their dreams……”—Assassins, Sondheim & Weidman
Theatre audiences were shocked when Assassins opened off-Broadway in 1990. Too many of those in attendance remembered the shock of living through JFK’s assassination. Many recalled the stories of Fromme in the news. Assassins wasn’t funny; it was real. It wasn’t a “safe space,” as Trump presumed to call theatres in November, 2016. Sondheim and Weidman forced their audience to accept that these villains were more than their acts. It challenged the audience to see political criminals not as monsters, but as people.
By using theatre as a weapon, we must remind #45 and his cronies that the arts aren’t a gaping hole into which a modest percentage of the national budget is tossed blindly. The NEA is a resource that enables Americans to communicate our cultural, social, and even capitalistic humanity to other nations. Without it, artists fostered by its funding, such as Brandon Victor Dixon, wouldn’t exist for Mike Pence to patiently ignore as he left the theatre early.
Assassins is only one option out of multitudes to protest the gutting of the NEA. The opportunities for resistance and revolt are endless! Boston-area theatres are busy creating reactionary pieces to #45’s administration. Anthem Theatre Company’s production of I, Snowflake was compiled from questionnaire answers from across the world. New Repertory Theatre in Watertown, MA adapted their production of Brecht on Brecht to parallel Hitler’s Germany to #45’s administration. Praxis Stage performed Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy similarly.
“... (T)hey share a common purpose: a desperate desire to reconcile intolerable feelings of impotence with an inflamed and malignant sense of entitlement.”—John Weidman on Assassins
A January 19 Snopes article on the destruction of the NEA referenced a 2016 Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, document that reads:
Taxpayers should not be forced to pay for plays, paintings, pageants, and scholarly journals, regardless of the works' attraction or merit. In the words of Citizens Against Government Waste, 'actors, artists, and academics are no more deserving of subsidies than their counterparts in other fields; the federal government should refrain from funding all of them.'
This thinking hasn’t prevented them from funding our counterparts in the energy, agricultural, or transportation sectors. This supposedly fiscally conservative view didn’t prevent the government from bailing out banks deemed too big to fail in 2008. They are more than willing to spend money and advocate for expenditure when it suits their purposes. They have identified art as an enemy of the state since they do not value it. They do not value art because they do not value expression beyond a narrow viewpoint. This is short-sighted.
The creative industries, of which theatre is one part, play a huge role in the global economy and in the US were estimated at about 4 percent of our overall economy in 2015 and 4 percent of our GDP added value in 2011 (even with both Construction and Information). Any industry requires significant investment to maintain and letting 4 percent of our overall economy languish has an associated cost, in this case to the tune of an estimated overall loss around $700 billion dollars a year. Arts activism must take central focus within the community, fringe, professional, and all other theatre communities.
Lynette Fromme was released from prison in 2009. Her nefarious legacy lives on. Assassins is still a popular Sondheim musical. The work of arts activists right now will enable the NEA to contribute to our economy for many years to come. Dramatic action is needed to ensure that the National Endowment for the Arts (as well as the National Endowment for the Humanities) is preserved.