UPDATE, Monday, 1 PM:
The National Endowment for the Arts has issued the following statement regarding the New York Shakespeare Festival/Public Theater presentation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park:
“The National Endowment for the Arts makes grants to nonprofit organizations for specific projects. In the past, the New York Shakespeare Festival has received project-based NEA grants to support performances of Shakespeare in the Park by the Public Theater. However, no NEA funds have been awarded to support this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar and there are no NEA funds supporting the New York State Council on the Arts’ grant to Public Theater or its performances.”
In a telephone interview Monday, Victoria Hutter, a spokeswoman for the agency, told Deadline that the statement had come after “we received an inquiry” about the NEA’s support of the production. The show, in which the assassinated Caesar is depicted as a Trump-like figure, has sparked some protests and seen two corporate sponsors, Bank of America and Delta Air Lines, terminate longtime support of the nonprofit theater.
Asked about the nature of the inquiry that prompted the statement, Hutter said she couldn’t recall whether it had come from an individual or multiple sources. “We put together a statement,” she said, “to correct a misunderstanding” as to where NEA funds went. “We’ve supported them for years,” Hutter added. The current list of NEA grantees shows a $25,000 grant to Joe’s Pub, a popular cabaret and performance venue at the Public, “to support the New York Voices commissioning program at Joe’s Pub. The program selects artists from a variety of disciplines and asks them to explore theatrical storytelling and songwriting to create new multidisciplinary works. … Selected artists include performance artist Joey Arias, performance artist Justin Vivian Bond, jazz ensemble The Hot Sardines, multidisciplinary artist Daniel Alexander Jones, singer Martha Redbone, and singer Somi.”
Asked whether there was any discussion of including a comment voicing support for the Public Theater, Hutter repeated her statement about correcting a misunderstanding.
Delta Air Lines said today that it was terminating its four-year-old sponsorship of New York’s Public Theater because a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in Central Park “crossed the line” of good taste and “doesn’t reflect” the company’s “values.”
Bank of America, the presenting sponsor of the Public Theater and an 11-year backer, has also withdrawn its sponsorship of the production, but not the nonprofit itself.
“Bank of America supports art programs worldwide, including an 11-year partnership with The Public Theater and Shakespeare in the Park,” according to a statement given to Deadline by a company spokesperson. “The Public Theater chose to present Julius Caesar in a way that was intended to provoke and offend. Had this intention been made known to us, we would have decided not to sponsor it. We are withdrawing our funding for this production.”
A Delta spokesman had provided Deadline with a similar statement earlier in the evening. “No matter what your political stance may be,” it read, “the graphic staging of Julius Caesar at this summer’s Free Shakespeare in the Park does not reflect Delta Air Lines’ values. Their artistic and creative direction crossed the line on the standards of good taste. We have notified them of our decision to end our sponsorship as the official airline of The Public Theater effective immediately.”
The Delta spokesman said that the show had been seen by Delta representatives. It’s been running since May 23 and officially opens tomorrow. Deadline and The New York Times ran reviews yesterday, Deadline because of the newsworthiness of the production, which is staged by the nonprofit’s longtime artistic director, Oskar Eustis.
But Delta has been rattled lately by bad press, including its response to a computer glitch that left thousands of travelers stranded last January. (While United has fared worse in the public eye of late, all airlines have been on heightened brand-image alert.) The Shakespeare backlash also comes in the wake of Kathy Griffin’s use of a bloody Trump-like head in a gory prank decapitation photo shoot gone awry, and Snoop Dogg’s video of him shooting a clown that resembled the president.
In a tweet this weekend, Donald Trump Jr. brought up the production and questioned the use of public funds to support it. “I wonder how much of this ‘art’ is funded by taxpayers? Serious question, when does ‘art’ become political speech & does that change things?” (Shakespeare reputedly tweeted, in response: “Art is always political speech and no, that does not change things.” Deadline has been unable to verify the tweet.)
There had been scattered reports of patrons angered by the events graphically depicted onstage: The updated drama, at the outdoor Delacorte Theater in Central Park, portrays Julius Caesar and his wife, Calpurnia, as Donald and Melania Trump look-alikes. In Deadline’s review, the parallel between Caesar, the triumphant general who declines the crown offered him by Marc Antony, and Trump “makes no sense” but noted that Shakespeare had survived far worse interpretations.
So could the Public Theater, at least financially. Delta, according to the Public Theater, contributes between $100,000 and $499,000 annually to the theater, which developed recent Tony Award winners Hamilton and Fun Home and presented Sweat, a nominee for best play at tonight’s Tony Awards.