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Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles' online bid for the Bard

The Shakespeare Center is hoping to get enough clicks on the Chase Community Giving contest on Facebook to win a share of the $5-million prize.

May 24, 2011|By Mike Boehm, Los Angeles Times
  • While Shakespeare is inarguably history's greatest English-speaking artist, could the fact that he's nearly 400 years dead prove a drawback in the age of Facebook?
While Shakespeare is inarguably history's greatest English-speaking… (Folger Shakespeare Library )

Can William Shakespeare win a competition for $500,000 that is straight out of "American Idol?"

We'll know after online voting ends late Wednesday. JPMorgan Chase, one of the world's biggest banks, is donating $5 million through its Chase Community Giving contest on Facebook. Of the 100 finalists, the 25 organizations who get the most votes win $45,000 to $525,000, and the 75 also-rans get $25,000 each.

The clicking public will decide whether the Bard and some of his chief L.A. backers — including a raft of celebrity actors who've been tweeting their support for one finalist, the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles — have the juice to prevail when all the cyber world's a stage.

Among the household names enlisted on the Bard's behalf are the husband-and-wife team of Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson. She's a member of the Shakespeare Center's board, and as a couple they sponsor the theater's annual star-studded fundraisers. Others are Christina Applegate, country singer/musical theater star Reba McEntire and Brent Spiner of "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

But as of mid-afternoon Monday, the Bard's bloc had not yet turned up in force at the polls: with 1,238 votes, Shakespeare Center Los Angeles was in 40th place, trailing the leader, Youth Education in the Arts, by more than 8,000 votes. In between were an assortment of drum and bugle corps, religious charities, animal welfare and wildlife agencies, and two other Southern California contenders, the private foundation that supports the Arcadia Unified School District and the Hugh O'Brian Youth Leadership of Westlake Village, which ranked 12th and 18th.

Voters can peruse 1,000-character descriptions of the "big idea" each finalist aims to implement.

The Shakespeare Center's winnings will go to its Will Power education programs, which provide summer jobs for teens and enhance L.A. schools' teaching of Shakespeare. The new "big idea" that the company hopes to fund is extending paid job-training to recently discharged military veterans who would learn theatrical lighting, sound engineering and set construction.

Ben Donenberg, the Shakespeare Center's founding artistic director, acknowledges that an online popular vote isn't exactly the gold standard in charitable grant-making — and he should know, because he serves on the National Council on the Arts, the board of presidential appointees who provide policy advice to the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA disburses more than $100 million in federal arts grants each year — awarded through a rigorous peer-review process in which panels of experts have the crucial say.

"If we were to win by popular vote, I wouldn't say it would be testimony to the quality of our work," Donenberg said Monday. "I would say it would be testimony to the quality of our community organizing."

Last year another L.A. nonprofit company, the Actors Gang, made the final 100 and earned $20,000. Donenberg said the Shakespeare Center's leaders set some rules about how far they would go in getting out the vote. For instance, the tweets from Hanks and others provide their Twitter followers with links to the Shakespeare Center's website, rather than to the voting site on Facebook. A direct, one-click route might have been more effective, Donenberg said, but it also might have implied that the celebrities were somehow endorsing Chase as well as Shakespeare Center Los Angeles.

Chicago Tribune columnist Chris Jones wrote that while he understood the funding imperatives that arts nonprofits face, such contests "turn theaters into online hucksters, which lacks dignity and turns off many real artists."

Donenberg says that social networking has "radically" changed corporate giving, which is becoming increasingly geared toward making companies' charitable work help drive marketing and publicity. "I'm not saying it's good or bad. It's just realistic."

Donenberg said ethical rules don't allow him to use his position as a government arts appointee to benefit his company. But over the coming two days he's certainly going to use his connections in the far-flung Shakespearean theater community to summon votes.

While Shakespeare is inarguably history's greatest English-speaking artist, could the fact that he's nearly 400 years dead prove a drawback in the age of Facebook? Or does old Will's appeal transcend technological change? "You would think," Donenberg said. "We're trying to post on all the Shakespearean sites. We work for him, so it'd be great if he would turn around and do a bit for us."

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