The play is the thing that exposes the idiocy of federal stimulus. There are now 14.7 million Americans out of work. The unemployment rate in the Boise metro area is in double digits. In Canyon County, unemployment has climbed to 12.2 percent - the highest in the state and the highest level since 1983. Ah, but at least out-of-work Idahoans will be able to sleep, perchance dream, knowing that their tax dollars will be used to produce a rousing play at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival - next year. The future is unknown. The mortgage is in doubt. But the arts are safe. No reason for there to be starving artists among the masses.
The National Endowment for the Arts announced last week that Idaho is getting $175,000 in art-centric stimulus dollars. The Idaho Shakespeare Festival, Opera Idaho and the Log Cabin Literacy Center are getting $50,000 each in federal assistance. Boise Contemporary Theater is to receive $25,000.
The Shakespeare Festival will use its $50k so that suffering Idahoans will be able to enjoy a guaranteed fourth show in 2010. Opera Idaho is restoring a marketing director position lost in 2007. The Log Cabin Literacy Center and the Boise Contemporary Theater will use the money to keep actors, writers and managers on their payrolls.
The whole notion of the federal government coming to the rescue of an art company like the Idaho Shakespeare Festival puts managing director Mark Hofflund, a bit of a free-marketer himself, in an awkward spot. On one hand, he's gotta take whatever help he can get to sustain his organization. On the other hand, he also understands the oddness of the government having determined that the festival's future is somehow a federal responsibility.
"The question now is, may we stand together with others who need and can benefit from this one time infusion of capital," Hofflund ponders as we discuss the situation. "Can we be part of this (stimulus) in a viable and constructive way?"
Hofflund said his idea would be to use the federal money to leverage private donations, which in turn might be used to keep the Shakespeare program viable long after the stimulus money is gone.
Maybe. But once again, there's a passing strangeness to the federal government's decision that the Idaho Shakespeare Festival must survive. Similar pronouncements won't be made about Roaring Springs water park, or Meridian Speedway or Parma Motor-Vu - other iconic local landmarks that are dependent on a clientele that has diminished disposable income.
Meanwhile, in August, the Idaho Commission on the Arts will release another $293,000 in stimulus cash to any of about 52 eligible organizations. The commission is operating on a budget that's 17 percent larger than the previous year, due entirely to the federal government's stimulus program. Executive Director Michael Faison said Thursday he expects the commission will hold state grants to the typical $2,000-$8,000 level. Larger grants, he said, "would set up unrealistic expectations for the future."
I think the unrealistic expectations are already in place, and federal stimulus has created a Shakespearian witches' brew of "powerful trouble, like a hell-broth boil and bubble." People and businesses now have the expectation that the federal government can save anyone or anything from the natural forces of the economy. All you have to do is have the right mixture of eye of newt, toe of frog and a decent federal government monetary printing press.
Such government involvement perplexes Karen Cornwell, who owns the Parma Motor-Vu. Her parents got her in the theater businesses in 1944 - and her family business has been through good times and bad times. (On her website, Cornwell tells a story of how portions of the Motor-Vu's neon sign went out in the 1980s, but there wasn't enough money to fix it for two years).
Last year was particularly hard on the theater because of the $4 gas. This year's also rough, but not as bad as last year, she told me. Still, Cornwell said she can't imagine taking money from the federal government – ever.
"This is entertainment, and if people can afford it, fine. If they can't, fine. If the time comes that my drive inn can't manage on its own, I would imagine it's over," Cornwell said.
The federal government’s entry into the entertainment diminishes the investment that Cornwell and her family have lovingly made over the course of many decades. Equally ghastly, the federal government will ultimately force her to pay taxes that will be used to finance her own competition. And if her business fails, you can be certain no one in the government will race to her aid in order to protect the obvious constitutional right of the people to watch the Transformers movie on a Saturday night.
Just as Hamlet used a play to expose the murderous conscience of the king, so does the federal funding of Shakespearean plays and other forms of art expose the government’s inabilities. It can’t breathe life into a stone. It can’t raise the dead. And, no, it can’t fix the economy, no matter how many trillions of dollars it chucks into projects – both worthy and worthless – all over the country.