Cultural Initiative: NEA tours the US to bring Shakespeare to new audiences

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is as loved by liberals as it is loathed by fiscal conservatives.

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is as loved by liberals as it is loathed by fiscal conservatives.

To its supporters, the NEA nurtures America's cultural growth through the funding of artists who might otherwise be overlooked. To others, it's a way to artificially prop up a handful of deservedly unpopular hacks.

In an effort to clear up misconceptions - and bring universally appreciated art to the masses - the NEA created Shakespeare in American Communities (SinAC), a project bringing professional productions of the Bard's greatest plays and related educational activities to more than 100 communities in all 50 states over a 14-month period.

Strategy

Edelman and the NEA planned to promote SinAC across the country by cutting across cultural, ethnic, and economic boundaries to make Shakespeare's work exciting to everyone. The widest possible audience would be reached through the involvement of actors, artisans, politicians, community leaders, and celebrities.

The messages would be life lessons and moral themes derived from Shakespeare's work, but modernized to appeal to contemporary audiences who might normally find his work inaccessible.

Tactics

First lady Laura Bush and Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, were brought in to co-chair the campaign. Edelman and the NEA then put together a "players guild" of stage and screen actors and other arts experts to spread the word. "The goal was to get a diverse group in terms of sex and age in order to appeal to the broadest audience of Americans," explains Edelman senior account executive Trisch Smith. "Guild members included Julie Taymor, James Earl Jones, Michael York, Shakespearean expert Harold Bloom, Angela Lansbury, Hillary Duff," and others.

Members of the guild attended events around the country, recorded a CD of messages for distribution to the media, and participated in interviews.

The team also compiled a database of influencers, known as the Shakespeare 1,000, who were regularly apprised of SinAC's progress through media, direct mail, and special events. These influencers included members of Congress, columnists, and major figures in the arts community.

Educational toolkits and special curricula were distributed to schools. In-school performances and workshops were also booked around the country. Local theater owners were presented with how-to guides to help in promoting their shows, as well.

Results

"SinAC has been under way for a year now, and the public response has been overwhelmingly positive," says Felicia Knight, NEA's director of communications. "It's one thing to do a project like this, but it's another thing to make sure people know about it. In that area, we got a lot of help from Edelman."

Major coverage in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Newsweek, among others, helped make the tour a huge success. "Shakespeare in American Communities is the largest tour of Shakespeare's plays in US history," reports Smith. "To date, 210 performances have been held in 104 cities in 44 states." Since September, the materials have reached 6,000 schools and 3.2 million students.

More to the point, Congress overwhelmingly approved a bill giving $1 million for SinAC to tour military bases, and the 2005 budget included an $18 million increase for the NEA in support of similar programs, the largest increase in the agency's funding in 20 years.

Future

Based on the success of the first year, the NEA has decided to extend the campaign into what it is calling Phase II.

A year from now, SinAC expects to have brought the Bard's work to about 500,000 people; engaged more than 29 nonprofit traveling theater companies; and employed nearly 30 directors, 400 crew, and 500 actors.

PR team: Edelman's Washington, DC office and the National Endowment for the Arts (Washington, DC)

Campaign: Shakespeare in American Communities

Time frame: March to December 2003

Budget: $30,000 a month

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