Is the “NEA-Rejected” Women’s Project Playing with Fire?

Journalists know what journalists know, and what they know isn’t necessarily the same information, insight or wisdom that theater professionals possess, or, for that matter, the same information, insight or wisdom that press agents who represent those theater professionals possess.

This post is therefore by definition a matter of “What if?” — but perhaps, an important “What if?” worth discussing.

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The Women’s Project, an Off-Broadway theater company founded in 1978 by Julia Miles and now spearheaded by Julie Crosby, its producing artistic director, “provides a stage for women playwrights and directors,” according to a recent press email, “who even today receive fewer than 20% of professional production opportunities nationwide.”

Without questioning the full veracity of that statistic (as folks like blogger Thomas Garvey have done successfully and often), there’s no question that a company focused exclusively on theater created by women, especially one that has endured 32 years, is intimately woven into the fabric of the New York stage and ought to be funded in manner fully appropriate to that accomplishment. For the better part of a year, however, press releases for the Women’s Project have aimed to make a cause celebre out of the company not being funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Here’s the headline and first graph of that aforementioned press email, announcing a benefit concert for the company:

Laurie Anderson,
Joan Osborne and
Suzanne Vega
Unite to Perform Women of Achievement Benefit Concert for
NEA-rejected Women’s Project
199 Seats, One Nite Only
Mon., March 8, at 6:30 pm

Laurie Anderson, Joan Osborne and Suzanne Vega will unite to perform a one-night-only benefit concert for the NEA-rejected Women’s Project, the 32-year-old theater company dedicated to producing the work of female theater artists, on International Women’s Day, Mon., March 8, at 6:30pm at the Women’s Project’s home, the 199-seat Julia Miles Theater, 424 W. 55th St.

True, in the deafening din of the New York theatrical world, one must always be doing something to be heard, and by inserting the phrase “NEA-rejected” into the top of the body of the email, and by inserting the phrase yet again further into the announcement, it does grab your attention. Indeed, all press releases for the Women’s Project since its NEA rejection have highlighted this circumstance again and again.

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Consider, moreover, this graph from later in the email, which spells out what happened:

The National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C. is no longer funding Women’s Project’s development of female playwrights and directors, perhaps figuring that Women’s Project, coming off its most successful seasons in recent history (Freshwater, Aliens with Extraordinary Skills, crooked, Sand) and this year’s hit, extended by popular demand, Or, by Liz Duffy Adams, can create great theater by women without Federal support or stimulation. (Women’s Project was also rejected for NEA stimulus money and therefore no woman’s job was saved by the Federal government.) Have no doubt, Women’s Project will present women theater artists no matter how the winds blow in Washington.

Perhaps all of this information is being presented because there’s a strategy at hand, be it guilt or sympathy or a pity party. Bruce Cohen, the Women’s Project’s press rep (and a man!), is smart as a whip and not one whose professional expertise should put under scrutiny lightly. Still, one wonders what the aim really is here. Is this anger management via the press? Does the Women’s Project, as a nonprofit, really believe that “no woman’s job was saved by the federal government” as a result of the economic stimulus plan? What are the risks here in hammering away over and over on the issue? While it’s obviously unfortunate that the company didn’t receive any piece of the NEA’s stimulus funding — presumably not through the New York State Council on the Arts, and not directly from the NEA — does this mean the company won’t apply for future NEA funding? Are other traditional sources of contributed income, such as foundation grants, quietly or not-so-quietly supporting the “NEA-rejected campaign”? How is it working?

In the interest of full disclosure, I have not yet contacted Crosby (or Cohen) for a comment. I’d love to hear from them — but more, I’m interested in hearing whether you think there’s smart counter-ops marketing going on here or not.

Again, the idea here is not to take the Women’s Project to task. If there’s a sincere, abiding belief here that the funding rejection by the NEA bears traces, of whatever size, of gender bias, perhaps it’s true. But to paraphrase a great line by Dorothy Parker, if all companies not funded by the NEA were laid end to end, would anyone be a bit surprised?

Meantime, here’s the 411 for the benefit concert for the Women’s Project. It’s billed as the “Women of Achievement Benefit Concert” and tickets begin at $550. For details, contact (212) 765-1706 or click www.womensproject.org.

Here is some additional information:

This year’s Women of Achievement Award, co-chaired by Arlene Scanlan and Cassandra Del Viscio, marks the 25th anniversary of the award. Past recipients include Estelle Parsons, Toni Morrison, Beverly Sills, Diane Sawyer, Gloria Steinem, Donna Karan, Susan Sarandon, Barbara Walters, Rosie O’Donnell, Katie Couric, Lauren Bacall, Maya Angelou, Dame Judy Dench, Joan Didion, Eveyln Lauder, Whoopi Goldberg, Twyla Tharp, Susan Lucci, Eve Ensler and Kerry Washington, among many others. In 1999, the late Gerald Schoenfeld of the Shubert Organization became the first and only male recipient of the award.

The 2009-2010 three-play season of Women’s Project boasts of the widely-acclaimed Or, by Liz Duffy Adams; the upcoming Smudge by Emmy-winner Rachel Axler, directed by Pam MacKinnon; and Lascivious Something by Sheila Callaghan, directed by Daniella Topol.

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  • As always, the astute Clyde Fitch Report asks all the right questions.

    A deeper inspection of the NEA process may be in order. Just how do they dole out money, and is NYC, not just these women, truly getting its fair share?

    One quibble: “For the better part of a year, however, press releases for the Women’s Project have aimed to make a cause celebre out of the company not being funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.”

    Actually, it’s only been since mid-November that Women’s Project press releases say “NEA-rejected.” It just seems like a year.

    • I am duly corrected. Sorry about that, Bruce!

  • Roger Armbrust

    Hi, Leonard.

    I’m some four years away now from a decade of covering NEA funding for Back Stage, including a few years of delightfully working with you, but my journalist’s reflexes bring some immediate questions, and my experience with politics offers a suggestion.

    The project email states “no longer funding,” indicating the endowment had been providing money. What amount of funding was the NEA providing earlier, and for what specific projects? If the NEA had set precedent with consistent funding in the past, did it offer an explanation of why it was cutting it off?

    If there was precedent of consistent funding, and I were the Women’s Project, I would gather a record of past funding. I would research the NEA’s stated mission and mark where the project fits within that mission. I would take that and any other support data and contact at least my Congressional representative or senator, probably through a project board member who might have connections, and make my case. Federal agencies respond to federal elected officials. That’s how politics works.

    If the project leadership has already done this, then well done. If it hasn’t worked, then you need some new elected officials, since they have the power to decide NEA funding in the first place.