Understanding Shakespeare to Understand America?: The National Endowment for the Arts's Shakespeare in American Communities Initiative
Hildy, Franklin J
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In 2003 the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) created the Shakespeare in American Communities initiative. The purpose of this initiative is to introduce participants to the plays of Shakespeare through live productions and educational workshops. Each year, selected theatre companies receive a matching grant through this program that enables them to create educational activities and performances that are then provided free or at low cost for communities that have traditionally been considered under-served by arts programs. In an introduction to the Shakespeare in American Communities initiative published on the NEA's website in 2007, former NEA Chairman Dana Gioia wrote, "In order to understand American culture or American theater, one must first understand Shakespeare." It is this provocative statement that provides the impetus for the primary research questions of this dissertation. What did the NEA under the chairmanship of Dana Gioia believe that Shakespeare could and should teach citizens about American culture? How did the NEA's marketing of the Shakespeare in American Communities initiative serve to establish a branded product that could improve the reputation of the NEA following the battering it had taken during the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s? Through interviews with key participants in the initiative, including Chairman Gioia, analysis of the NEA's promotional literature for the program, data compiled from the self-reports of participating theatre companies, and analysis of the media's response to this and other NEA projects, this study provides both a detailed history of the Shakespeare in American Communities initiative as well as a consideration of its position and importance within the overall narrative of the history of the Endowment. This study also includes an analysis of Gioia's understanding and use of the term "culture" and the manner in which that understanding influenced the goals of the NEA under his leadership. This detailed analysis of the Shakespeare in American Communities initiative provides not only an overview of a major Shakespeare performance-based educational program, but also an explanation of how the program was strategically branded and marketed to improve the reputation and status of the NEA at the turn of the twenty-first century.