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NEA Program to Celebrate Bard

When it came to exploring the theatrical possibilities of backroom power plays, political posturing and good old-fashioned man-made hubris, the Bard stood in a class of his own.

Small wonder, then, that studying William Shakespeare is frequently cited among Members’ most poignant educational memories.

“Some Members have even gotten misty-eyed” while recalling their first encounters with the great English playwright, said National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Dana Gioia.

With that in mind, expect to see plenty of hankies on hand at a Tuesday evening Capitol Hill event honoring the NEA’s ambitious Shakespeare in American Communities initiative currently wending its way across the 50 states.

After opening last month in New London, Conn., the tour, which aims to expand access to the Bard’s works to small- and mid-size communities, will eventually travel to 120 cities, 16 stateside military bases and up to 1,000 high schools in an 18-month period.

“The Members love this program,” Gioia said. “Not all of them will have the opportunity to visit the performances of it so we thought we would bring some of the performances to them and invite them to participate.”

In addition to Gioia, who plans to recite from the Shakespearean cannon at the Hill reception and dinner, the event will also include a performance by a group of Los Angeles inner-city fifth graders led by their teacher, Rafe Esquith.

Dubbed “Stratford-Upon-Main Street” by The New York Times, the Shakespeare in American Communities initiative, expected to cost more than $15 million, has expanded considerably since its official unveiling earlier this year.

While six of the nation’s larger theater companies are currently taking part in the tour, the NEA recently received an $850,000 grant from The Sallie Mae Fund to help about 20 smaller theater companies bring the program to U.S. high schools. (As part of Shakespeare in American Communities, the NEA has also developed an educational resource packet to be distributed free of charge to some 25,000 schools.)

And, in an unprecedented move, the military will also soon get in on the act, Gioia noted.

“In the history of the endowment, we’ve never done a significant program for this very important and large community,” he said, referring to U.S. service personnel.

“When I visited Undersecretary [of Defense David] Chu, I told him that I believe I was the first chairman of the NEA ever to visit the Pentagon. And he said I probably was. Then I said I know I’m the only chairman of the NEA who has a sister currently on active duty,” Gioia added, recalling the day he pitched the idea to the Pentagon brass.

With the help of Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) $1 million was tucked into the Defense appropriations bill, which passed Congress last month, to fund a tour of U.S. military bases and communities.

As for Tuesday night’s event, it seems some lawmakers may be suffering from a light case of stage fright.

A “Dear Colleague” distributed last week invited Members to take part in a mini-Shakespeare performance as part of the festivities.

“This is your chance to show the world your inner Iago or latent Lysander,” urged the letter, referring to characters from “Othello” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

But as of press time, there were only two confirmed takers — Reps. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) and Nick Smith (R-Mich.) — brave enough to bare the spotlight’s glare.

“I grew up in one of those towns where we were not exposed to [Shakespeare] at all,” said Slaughter, who said she plans “to croak” out a performance Tuesday evening despite recovering from a nasty case of laryngitis.

Smith, meanwhile, said he decided to participate to impress his daughter, Juliana Bellinger, a teacher and thespian in Los Angeles.

“My daughter taught me to like Shakespeare,” he said.

For his part, Gioia said the Congressional arena should be a natural incubator of dramatic flair.

“I think there’s a great deal of theatrical talent found on Capitol Hill,” the chairman quipped.

Members of Congress and staff are invited to a “Celebration of Shakespeare” Tuesday at 6 p.m. in the Cannon Caucus Room. To RSVP, call (202) 326-1729.

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