Shakespeare goes on tour, thanks to NEA endowment


Starting in September, the National Endowment for the Arts will be spreading Shakespeare around the United States in Falstaffian doses.

The Shakespeare in American Communities project, to be officially unveiled tomorrow (the 439th anniversary of Shakespeare's presumed birthday) will bring professional-quality performances of some of his fundamental works, accompanied by educational programs, to some 100 small and mid-size American cities in all 50 states.

"Not only is this the largest tour of Shakespeare in American history," Dana Gioia, the chairman of the endowment, said in an interview yesterday, "but it is certainly the most complex program the NEA has ever executed."

The idea is to spread cultural wealth to communities with generally limited access to high-caliber theater. Though theater touring of the classics has never entirely vanished from the American landscape, it has been a dwindling commodity since the arts endowment's budget diminished during the cultural wars of the 1990s. (Its current annual allotment from Congress is $116.5 million, down from $176 million in 1992.)

Subsidized by the endowment to the tune of about $3 million, and administered in partnership with Arts Midwest, one of the nation's six regional arts councils, the program will sponsor six established nonprofit companies, including two based in New York, and allow each to tour, some for several months, with its own production of a play. Four different works will be presented before the project concludes in November 2004.

The performance schedules are not complete, but the six companies are: the Aquila Theater, New York; Chicago Shakespeare Theater; the Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis; the Acting Company, New York; Arkansas Repertory Theater, Little Rock; and the Artists Repertory Theater, Portland, Ore.

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