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On NEA tour, all the country's their stage

New York's Aquila Theatre Company is performing "Othello" this weekend in Keene, N.H. But some of the most newsworthy drama has already occurred offstage.

Aquila is one of a half-dozen theatrical companies that are participating in "the largest tour of Shakespeare in North America in history," as Dana Gioia puts it. And Gioia's interest in the production is the real news here: He's the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, which, with Arts Midwest, is sponsoring this massive road show.

The "Shakespeare in American Communities" tour began last weekend with an Aquila production in New London, Conn., and will continue over the next 15 months with stops in more than 100 cities and towns in all 50 states. (See www.arts

.gov for a full schedule.) Six professional nonprofit troupes were originally chosen to participate, with a seventh recently added and negotiations underway with an eighth. Professional actors will visit 1,000 high schools, 16 military bases, and perhaps even a Native American reservation or two. "If you simply think of the logistics," Gioia says, "it will keep you up at night."

But there are several reasons Gioia considers this program worth losing sleep over. It began as a wish expressed by his NEA predecessor, Michael Hammond, who died just eight days after taking office, "to revive the old Shakespearean tour," Gioia says. "I took what was a terrific big program and turned it into a colossal program."

Why? First, he says, the NEA is hoping to "revive the tradition of touring theater, which has been in jeopardy." By making connections between touring companies and local presenters, Gioia says, "we're creating a circuit that I hope these companies can go back to."

That's part of the appeal for Peter Meineck, Aquila's producing artistic director. The tradition of touring "straight" plays, as opposed to musicals, "was really dying," Meineck says. "We've been doing it for a long time, but there's certainly not enough of it."

While Meineck notes that Aquila "would have toured with or without the NEA" and that the $50,000 his company received forms only a small part of its $1 million tour budget, he says the NEA's support has brought a lot more press and interest and has bolstered his company's educational outreach programs.

The educational component of the NEA program is also important to Gioia. "We're hoping to revive the custom of memorizing and reciting Shakespeare," he says, with a national recitation contest for students. Videos, posters, and an audiobook for teachers will supplement educational presentations by touring companies. And all this outreach to schools has a double focus: both to educate students and to encourage them to become regular theatergoers. "We're hoping to introduce a new generation of Americans to the excitement of live theater," Gioia says. "Most American high school students have never seen a live professional theater production. We're introducing them not just to Shakespeare but to live theater, and we're really excited about that."

With support for theater companies, subsidies for local presenters, and educational programs to build audiences, Gioia says, "this program is really an investment in the future of American theater." It's also, and not incidentally, an investment in the future of the NEA.

Gioia contends that many attacks on the NEA and its grants to provocative artists grew out of a "false controversy," but that the NEA contributed to its own woes by not always making its purposes and contributions clear. "The average American did not understand what it did," he says. "We need programs that embody the value we bring to the American people."

It's no accident that this tour is focusing on smaller cities and towns, places that often don't get any touring professional companies. "You can make a very legitimate critique of the endowment that it sometimes became remote from serving Americans," Gioia says. "We did almost nothing in rural communities. We never did anything for the military. . . . We've done almost nothing for Indian reservations."

This tour is an ambitious attempt to change that -- and, along the way, to build support for the agency that's promoting it. (Laura Bush is an honorary chair of the program.) And for anyone who wonders why an American program would kick off with a British playwright, Gioia has a ready answer.

"Shakespeare was not an American citizen, but he was one of those authors who helped shape the United States," he says. "He helped form the American consciousness."

Meineck, who grew up in England but has lived in the United States for 10 years, concurs with that idea and notes that "Shakespeare is definitely more popular here than he is in England." Beyond that, he says, it was clearly important for a sometimes controversial agency to choose an uncontroversial standard-bearer.

"You need something that everybody can get excited about," Meineck says. "And, at the end of the day, Shakespeare is going into American communities. And that's got to be a good thing."

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

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