The Rockefeller Foundation (RF) has consistently sponsored drama programs throughout its support of the humanities. Over many decades RF work has advanced the regional theater movement, improved university programs in drama, and supported emerging playwrights. Interest in drama took shape in the 1930s when RF trustees and humanities director David Stevens (1932-49) wanted to broaden popular engagement with the arts and to support distinctively American regional cultures. Drama proved an ideal medium to tell local stories in ways that would be appealing to large audiences.
Beginning in 1933, as part of an initiative to preserve and interpret American cultural traditions and to promote appreciation of the nation's heritage, RF gave its first grants in drama to outstanding community theaters and university programs in drama. Throughout the 1930s grants were given to institutions that included the University of Iowa, Yale University and The Cleveland Play House Foundation.
Among the first and most consistently supported grantees was the Carolina Playmakers at the University of North Carolina (UNC). The Carolina Playmakers, comprised of UNC students led by faculty member Frederick Koch, had already written and performed plays based on regional folk tales and the lived experiences of the students and their families. They had taken them to audiences throughout North Carolina and the southeastern United States, performing in towns where no permanent theaters existed. Inspired by Irish writers and poets such as Yeats and Synge, Koch was an American pioneer in the field of folk drama. RF was drawn to his work because "the plays written and produced under his direction deal predominantly with people and situations of which his students have direct knowledge, either by their own experiences or from living tradition. This relation of the author to his material gives the plays a value as authentic records of American life.”
The program at UNC appealed to RF officers not only for its secure academic grounding but also because of its regional focus and its demonstrable audience appeal. RF appropriated funds in 1933 to aid UNC programs in playwriting and experimental production and to extend the Playmakers’ reach into high schools, community centers and festivals across North Carolina. The relationship between RF and Koch’s drama program continued for a decade. Major achievements included the 1937 production of The Lost Colony, written by former Koch student and UNC instructor Paul Green. That play traversed the state and was seen by an estimated audience of 100,000.
Along with its support for university drama programs and community theaters, RF revived the National Theatre Conference, which had been established to raise the level of amateur drama and to promote theater education. RF drew leading playwrights and directors together through the Conference and used their expertise to administer fellowships and other theater training programs. The appeal of theater to the humanities division was well expressed in the National Theatre Conference's 1935 proposal: “No form of leisure time activity presents wider or richer possibilities than the theatre. A synthesis of all the arts, it offers to every individual some form of active or passive participation.”
While RF-initiated work at UNC, Iowa, and Yale continued, other universities benefitted from RF grants in the late 1930s and 1940s, including funding for a new drama building at Stanford and for strengthened drama departments at Smith College, the University of Saskatchewan, the Stevens Institute of Technology, the University of Wisconsin, and many other schools.
RF's work in drama was not exclusively university and community-based. The Foundation also supported professional theaters with notable grants in the 1950s to Shakespearean festivals, including Connecticut’s American Shakespeare Festival and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada.
Playwrights and Plays
With the consolidation of the Foundation's programs in the humanities and social sciences in 1962 and the retirement of Charles B. Fahs as director of humanities that same year, every field of foundation activity saw strategic shifts in focus. In 1964 work in the arts was separated from work in the humanities. Norman Lloyd, formerly the dean of Oberlin's Conservatory of Music, directed the program from 1965 to 1970. Drama, along with music and literature, remained the key disciplines receiving RF funding. "Cultural development" was the driving theme, an acknowledgement that while artistic creativity was thriving and audiences were more robust than ever, the financial support system for artists and artistic works was fragile. As the Foundation's 1964 Annual Report complained: "Government support of cultural activities is virtually non-existent; of the estimated $850 million a year appropriated by foundations, perhaps only 1 per cent finds its way to the performing arts and other cultural projects."
The RF, which had played a key role in the decentralization of American theater and built a strong base for theater in universities, now turned to breaking down the barriers between professional and educational theater. RF helped Stanford plan for a professional theater company on campus, and it helped the University of Minnesota collaborate with the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.
The Foundation also assisted emerging playwrights, including a financially strapped Sam Shepard, then in his early twenties. Despite his self-described doubts about whether he would be a "good investment" for the Foundation, he was given $5,500, allowing him to write full-time. During that year Shepard wrote the Obie Award winning play La Turista. In 1970 RF support for playwrights was provided through the Fellowships for American Playwrights and Playwrights-in-Residence Program. This program joined playwrights in mid-career with regional theaters across the United States for six-week residencies. The program provided a pressure-free space for creativity since there was no expectation that a play had to be produced by the time the residency ended. Notable grantees included Sam Shepard, who partnered with San Francisco’s Magic Theater, and Harvey Fierstein, who was nominated and hosted by Ellen Stewart of New York City’s La Mama Experimental Theater Club. The program had dual (and dramatic) results, supporting talented writers and also helping to create a thriving network of professional off-Broadway theaters.
This program persisted into the 1980s as the “Fellowships for American Playwrights”. Other drama grants in the 1980s included support to the Lincoln Center Theater in New York City, and funding to develop international drama at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). The establishment of the Festival Fund helped theater to take root throughout the United States, often in places that rarely saw the work of living artists, while the Fund for U.S. Artists in International Festivals and Exhibitions (partnering with the NEA, the Department of State and the Pew Trusts) exported American theater around the world.
As theater changed to expand into multidisciplinary initiatives and new types of storytelling, as well as making use of new technology, the Foundation broadened its support. In 1999 the Foundation was approached by Moisés Kaufman of the Tectonic Theater Project as he and fellow theater members worked to create a play inspired by the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard and based on the oral histories of the people of Laramie, Wyoming. The RF contributed $40,000 to the development of The Laramie Project. The play opened in Denver before an off-Broadway run in NYC. Since 2000, The Laramie Project has been performed in numerous cities, and went on to be made into an HBO film of the same title.