Earlier this month, President Donald Trump threatened to eliminate National Endowment for the Arts funding going forward.
As someone who has been shaped by the theater, that stings.
Growing up, my parents took me to see many community productions and touring Broadway musicals.
Productions held many lessons and fueled my imagination.
Stepping on stage for the first time myself – I was 12 and a member of the children’s chorus in “Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat” – I fell in love with the process of creating theater.
Research and thought was the foundation of every decision made as the production came together – from the way a particular scene was blocked to the paint colors eventually selected.
Each audience member picked up on some subtle choices, not all, which meant the show left each spectator with a slightly different experience, grappling with the meaning of it all.
Sounds a lot like life, doesn’t it?
As I continued to audition for and play in shows, my confidence grew. I became a better team player. I learned how to think on my feet. I became a stronger communicator. The list goes on and on.
All of these skills I use today in my career as a journalist.
While I didn’t end up performing for a living, I did continue to study theater throughout college.
Traveling to London for a month-long theater class, I was exposed to some work I probably wouldn’t have ventured out to see on my own. Not everything was to my taste, but I learned more about the world and was able to appreciate points from others’ perspectives.
That learning experience helps as I tell stories on the page, rather than the stage, My stories are true ones, and often, musicals are not. But I believe they have a way of illuminating the truth the same way a good journalist does.
Neil Postman’s book “Amusing Ourselves to Death” was written in 1985, but so accurately predicted the world we live in today – Trump’s America.
He argues that while we were warding off the climate depicted in George Orwell’s “1984,” we were blind to the realities of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” as they presented themselves.
Postman’s son Andrew wrote a powerful piece for The Guardian in February, pulling the following quote from his late father’s book:
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.”
Theater and art more generally does so much more than entertain. It makes you feel something and makes you think, and I fear a world where that is undervalued.
Though the NEA’s annual budget of $148 million is chump change in the grand scheme of the larger federal budget (it’s less than .004 percent of the approximately $3.9 trillion budget), artists do a lot with a little.
The loss of money will certainly harm arts organizations locally, as money from the NEA is funneled through regional and state arts agencies, including Arts Midwest and the Minnesota State Arts Board, which supports Lyric Arts, the Rumriver Art Center and many others.
Larry Weinberg, director of the Rumriver Art Center, said his organization won’t feel the loss of funds as much as others, but young artists are questioning society’s progress as arts funding is pushed aside.
Learning about the Renaissance in one of Weinberg’s classes, students questioned whether the arts might die again. Arts helped bring about society’s rebirth following the Dark Ages.
Eliminating arts funding, “it’s going to have a major effect just on the creativity that goes on in our society as a whole,” he said.
But there’s hope, too. Trump’s proposal is attracting a lot of attention, and artists are mobilizing with ballads and brush strokes.
I hope society is eager to feel something and ready to think.