Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Hillary Miller's "Drop Dead"

Hillary Miller is an Assistant Professor of Theatre at California State University, Northridge. Her essays and reviews have appeared in publications including Performance Research, Lateral, The Radical History Review, Theatre Survey, and PAJ. From 2013-2015, she was a Lecturer in Stanford University’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric and Immersion in the Arts: Living in Culture.

Miller applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Drop Dead: Performance in Crisis, 1970s New York City, and reported the following:
Each chapter of Drop Dead: Performance in Crisis, 1970s New York City is a case study focusing on a company, a production, or an element of New York’s theater infrastructure during the municipal crisis of the 1970s. The book visits Broadway, Off-, Off-Off-, Coney Island, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, community theater, and other locations to bring into focus the changes wrought by the financial realignments of the day.

Chapter 3 of my book looks at the theatre director Vinnette Carroll, who directed Don’t Bother Me I Can’t Cope (1973) and Your Arms Too Short to Box With God (1976) on Broadway. Page 99, however, is part of a section within that chapter, “Martin Segal and the Dollar Approach to Culture,” which analyzes the ways in which the municipal government’s philosophies toward supporting the arts in the city changed due to the 1975 fiscal crisis.

Vinnette Carroll’s ensemble, the Urban Arts Corps, had at one time been the beneficiary of funding that followed a philosophy of “culture for spiritual uplift” and targeted neighborhoods across the city. As the 1970s progressed, Carroll and her company needed to adapt to new municipal philosophies. Page 99 highlights one of the book’s overall conclusions: as part of the cultural and economic transformations occurring during the municipal crisis, a “dollar approach to culture” became the strategy for arts advocates—like philanthropist and businessman Martin E. Segal-- to argue for the city’s arts and cultural life during the crisis.

This happened on a local level, as well as on a national level, as I describe on page 99:
A similar trend played out in Washington, as once-symbolic aspects of urban culture became conceived as ‘material’ shapers of cities…. The Carter administration (1977-81) decided to locate their special assistant to the secretary for cultural affairs, Louise Wiener, within the Commerce Department, a placement that underscored the strategy of looking foremost at the arts in economic life—as a philosophy but also as a legitimization of the arts as a contributor to the nation.

The relative health and productivity of arts institutions—however the city chose to define them—became both a harbinger and an engine of the fiscal crisis rebound.
I include in my study the development of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Times Square TKTS discount ticketing initiative, Joseph Papp’s Public Theater, Ellen Stewart’s La Mama E.T.C., and many individual playwrights and theater artists. My chapter 3 analysis of Vinnette Carroll’s path-blazing Urban Arts Corps attests to a changing approach from the state-sponsored “Ghetto Arts” programs to the city-supported 1960s “cool streets” initiatives of Mayor John Lindsay, culminating in an abandonment of comparable support for the company’s core activities by the late 1970s. The “dollar approach to culture” that is explicated on page 99 changed the relationship between the city government and its arts organizations, and contributed to the emergence of today's "creative city" paradigm.
Visit Hillary Miller's website, and learn more about Drop Dead: Performance in Crisis: 1970s New York at the Northwestern University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue