Monday, February 9, 2009

An Open Letter to John McCain

I don't know what's gotten into me. Maybe it's the facebook group Dear John, encouraging people to send John McCain letters about NEA funding. I of course, predicted that any funding of the NEA would be squashed. It has been. At the time, I debated whether art was a luxury. I suppose I have come down clearly on one side of that issue now.

A few years ago, I wrote an open letter to President Bush on matters of civil rights, while working on the Havel Festival. This is on a matter that affects me much more directly of course. Perhaps it's working of the Festival of Jewish Theater and Ideas: "If I am not for myself, who will be. If I am for myself alone, what am I." (Hillel)

Dear Senator McCain:

I am not from Arizona, but I am an American, and as an American, I feel you and I both have a cause in common - the health and well being of our country. As a senator, I think it is your responsibility to nurture our country, to see beyond partisan rhetoric to the overall good of our country. There have been times I felt you have been able to do just that.

Which is why my heart broke to hear you, like so many, hold the NEA and what it does in such disrespect.

Senator, I have worked in theater all my adult life. It has never been easy. Like so many with a passion for the arts, I at times had to work a second job. One job was to work as a temp worker in a series of investment banks. There I saw the rampant greed that has brought about the current crises, as bankers slowly lowered the wages of the temp workers while raising their own bonuses, at a time when the economy was its most robust.

Most of the temp workers were in the arts. Many of us went on to make our living, small though it might be, in our chosen field, but it took years of toiling to achieve that honor.

Most of the bankers were puzzled by us. They assumed, if we had been able to make the money they made, we would be. What value, one banker wondered to me aloud, does theater have, if one gets paid so little to do it? Try banking, he advised. Or at least the movies.

At the time, I was mostly working in a downtown theater called NADA. It was a tiny theater, of sixty seats, much like the hundred of tiny theaters scattered across Manhattan. The permanent staff at NADA consisted of three people, all of whom lived at or near the poverty line, but still managed to survive. Every month 100 different people - actors, directors, playwrights, and technicians - used it as their temporary home.

The businesses around NADA loved it. The Lower East Side was then known more for drug dealing than art - but NADA began an influx of artists that have now transformed that sketchy neighborhood into a very desirable one. Every night, actors and audience members flooded nearby establishments, bringing business where there had never been any. With less money per year than the average bank spends in an hour, that tiny theater was able to create more jobs and more economic stimulus for a neighborhood than anyone had been able to provide for decades.

NADA was not alone. The theaters grew, the neighborhood with it, eventually the rents rose - and NADA disappeared. No one valued it enough give it the money to survive in a better economic climate.

Senator, I have not been a temp worker for years. Instead, I have been running my theater, where I have tried again and again the magic trick of taking one dollar and making it into five. I put on theater festivals with hundreds of performances. When people ask me my budget, I lie. I lie because I am embarrassed how small it is, how little I am able to pay anyone, and because I know they would not believe me if I told them. But for fifteen years, I have been able to keep the theater running. Our last festival was in honor of the former Czech President and playwright, Vaclav Havel. At times, when he would introduce me, he would say “This is a very important man in New York theater.” I would have to laugh. Who in America would call someone who earns what I earn very important?

But we are important, Senator McCain. You say that everyone loves the arts, but I don’t know that you believe it. I think it means to you that we all have been told we should love the arts. And I think we should. The arts ennoble a society and helps to form its moral core. In the theater, people without a voice can step onstage and suddenly be heard. It is a boon during dark times and can be a caution when times are better. I don’t know that everyone loves the arts, but I do believe we need the arts.

But you asked another question. Do the arts create jobs? Let me tell you what I think is behind that question – can someone who earns so much less than a CEO really be that important?

Senator McCain, I am ashamed of you for even asking.

Edward Einhorn

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