News from AmericanTheater Web
Dispiriting Journey
One man's foray into the unlikely blend of arts and Republican politics
ATW News 10/20/2004

"The performing arts and Republican politics, outside of my family, have been the most important part of life for a very long time." Gary Cole said to me recently in a telephone conversation. He continued, rather ruefully, "I never thought it was untenable to do both."

In fact, Cole, the founder of StageDirect, a North Carolina-based company that records and distributes small, "Fringe" productions among the company's titles the Neo-Futurist's "Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious" on video and DVD, and also of CoHo Productions, a nonprofit theater in Portland, had every reason to believe in the correctness of his assumption about Republican doctrine and arts living comfortably alongside one another as he was wending his way through the process of interviewing for the position of Deputy Chairman of Grants and Awards at the National Endowment for the Arts.

Cole, in addition to his artistic activities, served as Oregon fundraising chair for George W. Bush's 2000 campaign for the president. Senator Gordon H. Smith of Oregon knew of Cole's dual interests and in April of 2003 recommended that the White House consider Cole for the Deputy Chairman position at the NEA. In his letter to Dina Powell, Assistant to the President in the Office of Presidential Personnel, Senator Smith wrote "[I] believe that Gary would be an extremely valuable addition to the National Endowment for the Arts." Senator Smith also made sure to highlight Cole's active involvement in Republican politics as well as his StageDirect affiliation.

Smith's letter did the trick: within a week of writing Powell, she responded, asking that Cole complete an online application necessary for Presidential Personnel. Cole did so. Senator Smith continued to champion his recommendation, taking time to meet personally with NEA Chair Dana Gioia about Cole's candidacy and Gioia's plans for the Endowment. Clearly, Cole's assumption about his vision for arts and the Republicans was bearing itself out.

On May 20, 2003, Cole met with Gioia along with Eileen Mason, the Senior Deputy Chairman at the Endowment. Subsequent to the meeting, Cole and Mason had lunch together. During this later meeting, Mason, according to Cole "was encouraging". Cole even made sure that Mason, Gioia and other members of the Endowment's staff had copies of StageDirect videos, dropping off two representative titles that day with a note outlining how he came to include the productions in his company's library. He further indicated how his decision-making process might fit into the oversight position at the Endowment.

Cole's hopes for securing the position of Deputy Chair at the NEA were bolstered throughout May and June. An email from Elizabeth Hogan (also on staff with White House Personnel) noted "I am very optimistic about this opportunity for you to serve in the Administration." On May, 27, Mason wrote Cole saying, "You will bring fine skills to the position, and I'm certainly looking forward to having you with us." One might say this was truly another step forward for the arts among Republicans.

On this same day, Ann Guthrie Hingston, the Director of the Office of Congressional & White House Liaison, also wrote to Cole. In her email, she told him "Yes, you are the candidate of the Chairman and NEA. The White House is processing the form you completed there. We have another form to prepare and we must update the position description to make the position - Deputy Chairman for Programs." Hingston's email indicated that it would take approximately two weeks for White House approval.

During this time, Cole continued to plan for his relocation. Emails from Hingston discussed his start date. Gioia himself wrote confirming that he would see Cole at the Council meeting in July.

The official notification, indicated by Hingston on May 27, came to Cole on June 9 in a phone conversation. Two days later, a member of the NEA's communications staff called Cole to discuss a press release that they were drafting announcing his appointment. One assumes that artists nationwide might have rejoiced had this press release ever circulated. Imagine a statement announcing Cole's appointment. It might have highlighted one of StageDirect's titles, David Schmader's Straight, about the world of conversion therapy, where gays and lesbians are reputedly "cured" of their homosexuality and made "straight." Or perhaps, Jeff Goode's Poona. Clearly, by ensuring that these two plays reached a wider audience, Cole had proven himself to be a rare commodity: a Republican who can separate his view of the arts from partisan dogma.

Unfortunately, the White House and the NEA did not share this opinion. Shortly after his conversation about the press release, where the staffer mentioned having visited the StageDirect website, Cole received a call telling him that "something had come up" with the appointment. The following day, the offer was rescinded with no explanation. Subsequently, Cole did learn that it was indeed these two titles that had quashed his appointment.

And thus, Cole sadly learned that it is untenable for Republican politics and the arts to exist side-by-side. Three months after what was to be Cole's start date with the Endowment, the agency issued a release announcing that a Bush appointee from Texas, Tony Chauveaux, would be filling the Deputy Position.

It's taken Cole a while to come to term with the roller-coaster that he rode from April through June of last year. In conversations about the process recently, Cole has expressed dismay at the administration's hasty reversal on its decision. After all, as he says, "I did say in the interview that StageDirect's purpose was to capture daring, original theater on video, not Shakespeare or Neil Simon."

Even more explicitly, Cole has said "At the end of the interview, Hogan asked me if there was anything in my background that might embarrass the President. I said that they should know that I had produced theater for grown-ups and that some of the StageDirect and CoHo productions had included nudity and profanity, including profanity in the title. Her response was, "So you're saying that you've produced R-rated material, but not X?" I replied, "Exactly.""

In the past year, Cole has struggled with what to do with his story. His ultimate decision was to tell a handful of reporters about the process and the Bush administration's clear signal that any art that might be considered dangerous is not deserving of the Government's support. Can we countenance an administration that will staff the National Endowment for the Arts so that our culture is "politically safe"?

As for the bruised Cole, he said recently that he is moving forward with his artistic life. "I think this fundamentally redoubles my interest and enthusiasm in finding daring and original new work. It's not going to intimidate me. I think the challenge for StageDirect is finding the resources for distribution. I am undaunted in my commitment to the sorts of work....we want to put forward."

-- Andy Propst
All Rights Reserved, AmericanTheater Web, 1999-2003.