On the occasion of her return to the Broadway stage in Honour, 1998 Tony nominee Jane Alexander spoke about her adventures and misadventures in Washington as the embattled head of the National Endowment for the Arts (1977-1993).

Alexander won a 1969 Feature Actress Tony for her role in The Great White Hope, which, incidentally, was not featured in any aspect. She was Tony-nominated in 1973 for Best Actress in 6 Rms Riv Vu, in 1978 for Find Your Way Home, in 1979 for First Monday in October, in 1992 for the revival of The Visit, and in 1993 for The Sisters Rosensweig. She received a special 1995 Tony Award in recognition for her work at the National Endowment. Perhaps that Tony was also by way of the 1991 Tony nominating committee's extraordinary blunder in not nominating Alexander for her mesmerizing performance opposite Nigel Hawthorne in Shadowlands (for he won the Best Actor Tony).
[You may recall this was the year that a very embarrassed Cherry Jones, in an ensemble role in Our Country's Good, found herself nominated in the Best Actress category, a nod, nonetheless that began her rise to stardom.]

Jane Alexander: Even though I acted on Washington's Arena Stage for many seasons, I hadn't spent time in politics the way I had in theater. It was a tough act, but a learning experience, too. Ironically, there are quite a few similarities between politics and theater. In both, people spend their careers appearing before the public, voicing feelings. The great thing about theater is that it's make believe. But these days, in Washington, a lot of what is going on is make believe, too!
I was stunned to see so many politicians hostile toward the arts, and particularly to the work of the National Endowment. Unfortunately, I was naive. I came in wide-eyed, thinking all I had to do was say how great the arts are, and everything would be dandy.
That wasn't the way it was. The majority of legislators didn't see its importance to the nation or how even the smallest grants from the NEA helped arts groups survive, even in their own districts.

They just didn't get it! They don't understand the creative process. It's just not in their gut. They don't know the arts, or the legions the arts affect in so many wondrous ways. It was an uphill battle to get even the most modest of budgets for grants. The open hostility and lack of trust outraged me. They were just out for blood!

I talked to [Republican] Senator Trent Lott [the Senate Majority Leader] about the great literature that came out of his state of Mississippi. I noted that the city of Oxford [where he graduated from the University of Mississippi], alone, has produced more great writers than any city of its size in the nation. I feel these talks contributed to the reason that the literature fellowships were kept alive, when it seemed every effort was being made by conservatives to abolish the NEA. [From $150-million plus in 1993, grants were slashed to an all-time low of $81-million by 1997.] The great thing was that the American public was behind the agency; which, in the end, helped build bridges between cultural and political leaders who rarely speak the same language.

I'm delighted to be back on Broadway and in such an exciting play, Honour... I was away from New York theater for four years. I've noticed many changes. It wasn't long ago that many were saying that Broadway was dead. Now, it's absolutely thriving! The truth is theater will never die. When theater reaches its highest degree of excellence -- as it often does on Broadway -- audiences will be there to see it. And this is a bumper year. There are more dramas and comedies than ever. Most important, all sorts of efforts are being made by the American Theater Wing and the League of American Theaters and Producers to make sure that all kinds of people can come to the theater, not just those who could afford it. I see these efforts paying off, especially with school programs where children are introduced to theater. Once exposed to it, they want to come back again and again.


Key Subjects: 
Alexander, Jane; Trent Lott, Honour, National Endowment for the Arts, NEA.
Ellis Nassour
Writer Bio: 
Ellis Nassour contributes entertainment features here and abroad. He is the author of "Rock Opera: the Creation of Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline," and an associate editor and a contributing writer (film, music, theater) to Oxford University Press' American National Biography (1999).
Jane Alexander Career Highlights: THEATER: Jane Alexander has been nominated seven times for the Tony Award: 1969: Tony Award, Best Featured Actress in her Broadway debut, The Great White Hope 1973: Tony nomination, Best Actress, 6 Rms, Riv Vu 1974: Tony nomination, Best Actress, Find Your Way Home 1979: Tony nomination, Best Actress, First Monday in October 1992: Tony nomination, Best Actress, The Visit 1993: Tony nomination, Best Actress, The Sisters Rosensweig 1998: Tony nomination, Best Actress, Honour (closed June 14). 1993: Named by President Clinton to head the National Endowment for the Arts. 1995: Elected to the Theater Hall of Fame. 1998: Returns to Broadway. FILM: 1970: Academy Award nomination, Best Actress, "The Great White Hope." 1976: Academy Award nomination, Best Supporting Actress, "All the President's Men." 1979: Academy Award nomination, Best Supporting Actress, "Kramer Vs. Kramer." 1983: Academy Award nomination, Best Actress, "Testament." TELEVISION: 1975: Emmy Award nomination, Best Actress, "Eleanor and Franklin." 1976: Emmy Award nomination Best Actress, "Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years." 1980: Emmy Award nomination, Supporting Actress, "Playing for Time." 1983: Emmy Award nomination, Best Actress, "Calamity Jane." 1984: Emmy Award nomination, Best Actress, "Malice in Wonderland." ********* Simon Saltzman's 2000 interview with Jane Alexander may also be found in TotalTheater's Periodica section.
Spring 1998