Choreographer Eliot Feld has it all figured out, he told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior yesterday. "I was reading that proposed new 300-foot nuclear submarines would cost $1 million a foot," said Feld, founder of the dance company that bears his name. "I have three ways that you could restore the $5 million reduction in [National Endowment for the Arts] dance programs. One: If one of these submarines was only 295 feet long, support for dance could remain at the current level of funding."
The hearing room shrieked with delight.
Feld's other solutions: Cut five submarines by one foot each, or 37 submarines by an inch and a half. Having a slightly shorter fleet of submarines, he said, "would make little difference. It's my observation that things appear longer submerged under water."
Those remarks won him an enthusiastic round of applause from a packed room that held some sparkling lights of the arts community, all there to testify before the subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Sidney Yates (D-Ill.), on President Reagan's proposed 50 percent cut in the NEA budget.
Yesterday's lineup included actress Jean Stapleton, actor James Earl Jones, actress Patti LuPone, choreographer Jerome Robbins, playwright Edward Albee, retired conductor Maurice Abravanel, opera singer George Shirley, sculptor Richard Hunt, jazz musician Billy Taylor, artist Robert Rauschenberg and dancer Carmen deLavellade. Most of them waited patiently for hours in the lofty Rayburn building room as the hearing continued through the entire day and at one point, had to change rooms because "another production has to come in," as Yates put it.
Among those testifying were representatives of the business community, who argued that they could not make up the shortfall in government funding to the arts. The corporate community, said Kenneth Albrecht, vice president of The Equitable Life Assurance Society, "will not be able to pick up all that may be cut or even a significant portion of it. The corporate community is not an endless source of funds any more than the federal government is."
All the witnesses from the arts community urged continued federal support for the regional theaters, scholarships and fellowships that trained them and that bring artistic performances to smaller cities.
"It took me nine years of my life before I could be Evita on Broadway," said LuPone, who starred in the title role of that Broadway musical, "and even then it was a struggle. But at least I had had training in nonprofit theater. We want to know how government can take the jobs away and explain the empty theaters to people. If there are cutbacks in nonprofit theaters [many of which are funded by NEA], not only will it limit the theater people can see and eliminate places for actors to start; it will mean that no new young actors will be rising through the ranks in commercial theater."
The plea was basically the same from each witness. A sampling:
Jean Stapleton: "I'm aware, as we all are, of the scores of citizens pouring in here, crying out against cuts -- the hungry, the poor. Are arts important in the face of all these basic needs? Yes. Man is a spiritual being. He must be spiritually fulfilled. I join you in fighting inflation. But I ask you to let down a safety net for arts, music, dance -- the very identity of our nation."
James Earl Jones: "There's no way I could have played in 'Roots' if 15 years ago I wasn't given a shot in an endowed nonprofit theater [Arena Stage's production of "The Great White Hope]. Having spent two years in the Army -- 1st lieutenant, Infantry -- it was important to me that I was well trained and well armed. Young actors coming up are in need of being well trained and well armed as soldiers in the theater."
Maurice Abravanel, after listing a number of countries that far outdo the U.S. government's 70 percapita annual contribution to the arts: "But I also want to be fair. Libya and Iraq give less for the arts. And Uganda gives nothing."
Gordon Davidson of the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles: "'Children of a Lesser God' would have not come into being if the playwright hadn't received an NEA grant at a crucial stage in his life, and it would not have played in our theater if the theater had not been supported by NEA grants."
Yates reiterated his stand that the 50 percent cut was too drastic. "What will the administration do next year when [Office of Management and Budget Director David] Stockman says he has to find $100 million to cut?" Yates asked. "Will the arts survive? Of course not." Yates said the proposed cuts are "the first step toward eliminating government support of the arts."
But Rep. Tom Loeffler (R-Texas) was unconvinced. "Our figures show NEA's budget represents 5 percent of the total [national] performing arts budget. How does a representative go to a full House and then the people and tell them that if funding gets reduced -- which just reduces performing arts budget by 2 1/2 percent -- it reduces your ability to enjoy the arts?"