The Public Humanist

Breaking News on New WORLD Theater & Reflections on the Possibility of Hope

When I was first asked to write a blog post for The Public Humanist, I was unsure whether or not it would be wise in these uncertain times. Uncertain for the arts, definitely, for our communities and the nation. New WORLD Theater’s multiracial, multidisciplinary youth arts program, Project 2050, which had just celebrated its 10th year with the Best of 2050! show, was cancelled for the summer. Not because the program didn’t have funding—we’d just received a grant award of $100,000 over two years from the Surdna Foundation—but because restrictions on expenditures at the University of Massachusetts, reduced staff capacity due to an extended hiring freeze, and fear held by people who have the power to make or influence decisions, all made it seemingly impossible to proceed.

Although I caught glimpses of scribblings on the proverbial wall, I did not really know that the suspension of Project 2050 was a precursor to something much larger. On Tuesday morning, July 14, I was informed that due to significant budget cuts at the University, the Fine Arts Center would no longer be able to support New WORLD Theater. The official statement follows:

New WORLD Theater, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Fine Arts Center, has been at the vanguard of multi-cultural theater practice for 30 years. At this time, we applaud New WORLD’s significant accomplishments over the years and recognize the important role the theater has played in the life of the University, the Pioneer Valley, the Western Massachusetts’ region and beyond.

Over the last decade New WORLD has received considerable support from the Ford Foundation, Nonprofit Finance Fund, the Surdna Foundation, Nathan Cummings, Cricket Island Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, Massachusetts Cultural Council, Women’s Fund of Massachusetts and Mass Humanities, as well as the University of Massachusetts. These generous funders have supported New WORLD’s work in the community through Project 2050 and the Somali Women’s Project; in the field through the Summer PlayLab (New Works for a New World), the presenting season, and Intersection conferences, and in the most tangible way through support of staff salaries and operating expenses. We are grateful to these sponsors for their generous support and extend our heartfelt thanks to them.

Despite this grant support, the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the Fine Arts Center are facing very difficult decisions amid major budget challenges. New WORLD Theater requires a substantial outlay to continue operations, and the recent grants do not fully cover even the costs of the programs they have been written to support. Given the difficult budget situation faced by the Fine Arts Center that is a budget commitment we are unable to make at this time. We have made the difficult decision to suspend New WORLD Theater operations, and we will form a planning group to explore future options for the theater.

We are confident that with a period of planning, New WORLD Theater will emerge once again as a vital member and contributor to the University community and the field of theater and culturally diverse programming.

This isn’t really what I was supposed to be writing about. I was invited to write about the program’s pedagogical underpinnings, its themes of justice and empowerment, and experiences I’ve had with our youth program. I was supposed to write about the meaning, process, impact, theory and practice of our work. I was supposed to be writing about art, and the profound potential for transformation that pulses within it.

As a nation, we have been through incredible highs and lows in the past year: the continuation of unjust and disastrous wars, and the beginnings of new ones; a housing crisis and economic collapse that is only just beginning to show its full effects; an incredible populist wave of hope, belief and optimism that carried the first president who is a person of color to the White House; and subsequent waves of despair, fear, panic, disillusionment, worry … and yes, still hope.

Fear itself may not be the only thing, but it is certainly one of the biggest things that we have to fear—in times of depression, and perhaps always. We can read the indefinite suspension of New WORLD Theater, and thereby Project 2050, as a signal of all the things that have not yet changed in the U.S.—for example, the ways that budget cuts disproportionately fall to the arts. We can read it as code for closure, symbolic death, leading to sensations of loss and despair. Or we can read it as a strange and unexpected crack in the rock of status quo, leading down a dimly lit path to unknown possibilities.

A colleague recently reminded me that the Chinese word we commonly translate as “crisis” is made up of the characters for danger and opportunity.

New WORLD Theater has had a remarkable series of recent successes, despite the economic downturn and challenges at the University. We just celebrated our 30th Anniversary in Spring 2009. In May, the UMass Faculty Senate approved an undergraduate certificate program in “Multicultural Theater Practice,” taught by NWT staff and Department of Theater faculty, to be launched officially this academic year (see http://www.umass.edu/theater/certificate.php ). Between late April and June, New WORLD received new awards from the Ford, Surdna, and Nathan Cummings foundations totaling $375,000 over two years (for details, see http://www.umass.edu/loop/talkingpoints/articles/90240.php ), and was one of only 13 programs in the nation invited to apply for the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s “National Projects” initiative (currently pending), for the creation of a National Directing & Ensemble Creation Institute, in collaboration with the UMass Department of Theater and several national partners.

Despite all this abundance and excitement about our work, all that some can see is scarcity: it’s not as much as we used to have; or, there’s not enough time/people to do it; or, it’s too risky, matching funds are uncertain; or, more cuts might come later, so it’s better to take pre-emptive measures now.

I don’t mean to imply that these aren’t valid, practical concerns, or that they shouldn’t be taken seriously as the basis for conservative decision-making. I do not want to judge anyone faced with extraordinarily difficult and painful choices that affect the lives of many. Perhaps my questions, at this time, are more existential: What is our role as artists, leaders and visionaries? How should we respond to the perception, and reality, of crisis? Is it equally valid to see opportunity and potential where others see chaos? Is it still appropriate to respond to terrible news with hope?

Perhaps, like Gloria Steinem, I am an “incurable optimist,” at least in some ways. About many things in our hurting world—wars, injustice, systemic racism and violence—I am not always optimistic. I know that this economic crisis is going to get worse before it gets better. I know that women, people of color, people who are economically “poor,” and the arts as a sector will suffer the most. But I also know that art is exactly what helps us creatively imagine the future. And that hope is what keeps us from giving up.

The artist in me obsessively dreams, envisions, and mentally elaborates upon possibility. The leader in me is certain that too many people, in our community and in the national field of the arts, care about New WORLD Theater to let it disappear. Perhaps New WORLD doesn’t have to be a dream deferred, as Langston Hughes described. The optimist in me believes in re-emergence, even before submersion; that some collaborative effort, new approach or crazy idea can create a viable home for New WORLD Theater by mid-September; and that we are, just maybe, at the threshold of rebirth.

What do you think?

© 2014 The Valley Advocate