Sport & Culture

Theatrical Culture Wars

The implications of theater funding go well beyond the arts. It can say much about a country’s geostrategy.

By Veronica R. Bainbridge for

Coincidence or pattern?  Three plays on stage in New York this winter, by American playwrights, tell stories of culture shock for Americans in China. David Henry Hwang’s commercial Broadway comedy Chinglish sends an American businessman to China to secure a manufacturing contract.  Mike Daisey’s The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at the nonprofit Public Theater is the story of his visit to an iPhone factory in Shenzhen, and is drawing attention to labor practices in factories abroad.  And the nonprofit Vineyard Theatre is premiering Zayd Dohrn’s Outside People, a dark comedy about love, cultural difference and the uncertainty of translation.  Seeing the plays, reading reviews and features – and watching China Daily’s coverage of Outside People – prompted me to contemplate where these productions secure their funding, and what kind of theater Beijingers are able to see.

Outside People’s playwright Zayd Dohrn lives in Beijing for three or four months each year with his wife Rachel DeWoskin, a former star of the popular soap Foreign Babes in Beijing.  He describes the gulf that censorship has created between underground experimental theater and the high-profile or commercial theatre, like Beijing Opera performances, which is approved and often supported by the government. In New York, a fringe play and a splashy Broadway musical can also seem like they’re in different worlds, but the middle ground is densely populated with productions at all levels. 

Anxiety about competing with the West has made cultural matters a priority for China’s Central Committee, which has recently introduced measures intended to boost international awareness of Chinese culture (somewhat reminiscent of U.S. efforts during the “cultural Cold War” in the 1950s to disseminate anti-Communism) and continues to invest in high-profile cultural production. Indeed, this issue was highlighted by China Power blogger David Cohen, when he noted Chinese President Hu Jintao’s claim last month that China is engaged in a “cultural war” with the West. Tied to this are initiatives such as the huge new National Center for the Performing Arts (NCPA) in Beijing, which showcases international and domestic theater, emulating flagship venues like America’s Kennedy Center or Lincoln Center; among its goals are to persuade the rapidly expanding Chinese middle class to embrace homegrown theater. 

However, the Central Committee’s 2011 publication on Cultural System Reforms also emphasizes a renewed commitment to “guiding public opinion,” a shift that prompted popular Chinese blogger Han Han to argue that cultural vitality and global influence can’t be bought with money. Han Han has also pleaded for more freedom to create.

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Of course the question of government involvement in the arts – and where public funding is directed – is hardly uncontroversial, even in countries that typically pride themselves on a lack of censorship. For example, the U.S. Congressional allocation for the United States’ National Endowment for the Arts was cut by 40 percent in 1996 after conservative groups objected to some specific grants; the agency ceased funding individual artists. 

In the U.K., meanwhile, where historically generous government support for the arts has been scrutinized and limited in the economic downturn, David Edgar makes the case that concern for outcomes is the enemy of art, while Stewart Lee’s reference to dissenters from “ideologically driven mind-control programs disguised as economic rationalism” is exaggerated for effect, but still illustrates the sensitivity to any hint of a political goal for cultural policies.

Still, there’s little concern among U.S. nonprofit theaters these days about intrusive government interest because the funding rarely amounts to more than a few percentage points of any budget; it’s valued more for its perceived stamp of approval (being accessible only to those who can point to their history and past achievements) than for its dollar impact. The balance of revenue is a variable mix of ticket sales and other earned income, and contributed income from individuals, corporations and foundations. Tied to this, the consequent proliferation of applications, events and compliance/fulfillment structures is the reason for the increase in administrative staff members at arts organizations in recent decades, particularly in fundraising.

And some similar developments are expected in China. The 2011 Central Committee pronouncement hinted that private investment would be a continuing feature of the cultural funding scene; the NCPA’s website features the logos of several large corporate sponsors, as well as membership packages for high-level donors. As international cultural connections multiply – through tours of foreign productions, increasing investment in commercial theatre and through the arts management field (Lincoln Center Executive Director Reynold Levy visited the NCPA in 2010, and training courses in the United States are increasingly attracting Chinese students). The diversification of funding sources therefore seems set to continue.

Some aren’t happy with the changes in the U.S., and the labor-intensive American system has fueled concerns that administrative needs are prioritized over artistic ones. But the broad base of stakeholders in the U.S. facilitates freedom of expression – the system permits risk-taking, however circumscribed by economic realities and administrative goals. The Chinese government, in contrast, may increasingly welcome participation in cultural production, but will almost certainly maintain its tight controls over all new partners in this arena. 

The Bridge Project, a Brooklyn Academy of Music/Old Vic collaboration that produces and tours classic plays for international audiences, recently presented Shakespeare’s Richard III at the NCPA in advance of its 2012 New York premiere; a Bridge Project press release on the NCPA website says that “China’s theater scene is in the early stages of its development, with non-government troupes struggling to find space and funding and censors controlling what goes on stage.”

Richard III, it seems, isn’t viewed as a threat to stability and unity.

Veronica R. Bainbridge is a fundraiser, event producer and development consultant in New York City.  She has served as Director of Development at Vineyard Theatre and LAByrinth Theater Company, as Business Manager for The Directors Company, and as a panelist for the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and the Association of Fundraising Professionals.