Arts on public television: signatures of past, present and generations to come

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Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein wowed a lunchtime audience at the Public Television Annual Meeting in June 1994 with her personal testimonial for public TV, relating her experience in terms far more vivid than the bland, generic phrases usually used to describe and defend the medium. Wasserstein received the Pulitizer as well as a Tony and other awards for her play The Heidi Chronicles in 1989. From the podium at the PBS conference, Wasserstein looked out on a vast dark room full of noshing broadcasters …

When WNET invited me to speak to this intimate little luncheon in Orlando today, I jumped on a plane because I had nightmare visions of an imminent merger, and Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse hosting the MacNeil/Lehrer Report and Charlie Rose opening his show by singing, “Be my guest, be my guest . . .”


Actually, I came down today because I believe I owe the launch of my career as a playwright to Jac Venza and Great Performances. My first play, “Uncommon Women and Others,” a memoir about my time at Mount Holyoke College, starred Glenn Close, Swoozie Kurtz and Jill Eikenberry when they were in their 20s. When the play closed, a network called to turn it into a series if I would replace my unknown cast with the girls from Charlie’s Angels. Although I was tempted because it would have been my ultimate revenge on Mount Holyoke, I turned it down because I had, in fact, what turned out to be a much better offer. Jac Venza offered to make the play with the original cast and the original text for public television. Since that time I’ve been a sucker for a three-figure deal. Because of the PBS broadcast, “Uncommon Women” has had a continuous life in over 4,000 colleges. I’m also a sucker for a two-figure deal.

Perhaps I’m overly influenced by the title of my play, but it seems the most natural thing in the world to speak the world “uncommon” in the same breath as the words “public television.” For public television is, to me, something quite out of the ordinary; something very special and precious. It is that group of uncommon people — you people — who take an essentially valueless box of lights and wires, as Edward R. Murrow called it, and fill it with life and promise, imagination and hope. It puts — you put — this little technological contrivance in the service not of profit but of the human spirit. In this day and age, if that’s not uncommon, I don’t know what is.

Again, I’m clearly biased, but for me the most wonderful thing public television has done is bring the arts to so many people. My play, sure — that made me a fan. But, of course, I’m referring to the extraordinary variety of work I see on public television. Dance, theater, opera, jazz, film. The grand, right next to the intimate, a jazz classic beside an opera classic, the gentle beside the shocking. That’s America, if you ask me. And you guys do it like no one else.

Can I mention something I hear just about every day? The Information Superhighway. It’s coming, and it’s going to change our lives. To my mind, it’s Murrow’s boxes of lights and wires all hooked together. And now you’ll be able to interact with the boxes. But whatever miracles of information manipulation it may enable us to do, it’s still machinery without a soul … and machinery that may not be available in America’s neediest neighborhoods, as you are. I only hope that when that superhighway finally detours into my house, I can turn it on, and you’ll still be there. Otherwise, I fear all the technological wizardry will amount to nothing. If you’re needed now — and you are — you’ll be needed even more then. When the vacuum is even bigger, the need for the soul you provide to all Americans will be that much greater.

The soul, if I haven’t made it clear so far, is not just for my benefit. This is not, in other words, about what pleases a single viewer, or a group of viewers for that matter. There’s much, much more at stake. I’m speaking on behalf of my generation of American artists when I say that we have a great need for a place where we can express ourselves with integrity and are treated with dignity. And there is an equally great need for the public to have a place where it can find ideas, beauty, eloquence and inspiration. There is a great need, then, for a medium that allows us to promote and share the finest aspects of our culture. And I have seen how much public television has done to fulfill that dream.

A few weeks ago I spoke to the Women’s Studies Department at the University of Michigan. I was terrified of saying something politically incorrect. At the end of my speech, a student approached me and I thought, “Oh, oh, it’s coming,” and she said to me, “I saw your ‘Uncommon Women’ on PBS when I was eight. It was the first play I ever saw, and from that play I always thought women could be playwrights. From that I always thought plays could be about the conflicts of young women like me.”

Public television has not only brought the finest in the arts to millions of people who would never otherwise have experienced them, but it has also shaped the direction of those arts. It has given voice to new talent even as it has celebrated the canon of great works. That’s why you have had such a great impact.

And that’s what made me want to take my relationship to public television beyond that of playwright. That’s why I became a board member at my public television station, WNET in New York. It’s why I have testified before Congress on behalf of the arts. It’s why I’m here in Orlando today, for key lime cake.

When I was growing up, public television was where I and my generation expected to find the likes of George Balanchine, Beverly Sills, Alvin Ailey, Leonard Bernstein and Joseph Papp. But it also became the medium for our message. Public television was my first highway to America. And so it was for Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman, the playwright George C. Wolfe, Wynton Marsalis, William Hurt and all the other young talents America first saw on public television.

I don’t have to tell you how many more are out there. A new generation of them. And the world is waiting for them, too. It needs them. It needs their humanity and the education they can provide. It needs their diverse reflection of our society. Turn on the television — to any channel but your own — and you will see what I mean. There is a frightening sensationalism running rampant on the airwaves. Commercial interests are rapaciously mining the darkest veins of our psyche. Exploitation seems to be the standard to which almost all television is subscribing. It is a morbid process, and one that degrades us as a people.

But, thankfully, we have another view of ourselves. We have a mirror that shows us as teachers and students, as musicians and poets, as writers and philosophers, as builders and dreamers. As a people with individual voices and a soul. You–public television–are that mirror.

When it comes to taking action, America has always been predisposed to invest in material things. Bricks and mortar find money and support more easily than do ideas. The makers of bombs and rocket ships don’t have to struggle from year to year to keep their dreams alive. Those who celebrate ideas do. You struggle to achieve your vision. It doesn’t come easily, I know. But isn’t it worth it? When you consider the choice — a world of darkness or a world of light — is there really any choice at all?

A cornerstone in a midwestern college bears the engraving, “Arts are the signature of a civilization.” Today’s most powerful educational institution, public television, doesn’t have a cornerstone to carve its grandest intention. But it has something better. It has everyday access to every part of the country to create the signature of a civilization to come.

“Exploitation seems to be the standard to which almost all television is subscribing. It is a morbid process, and one that degrades us as a people. But, thankfully, we have another view of ourselves. We have a mirror that shows us as teachers and students, as musicians and poets, as writers and philosophers, as builders and dreamers. As a people with individual voices and a soul. You — public television — are that mirror.”


Wasserstein died at the age of 55 in January 2006, NPR reported.

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