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88 88 5 patronage and playwriting: richard b. and jeanne donovan fisher’s support of charles mee Jennifer Schlueter In recent years, contemporary American playwright Charles L. Mee Jr. has garnered critical acclaim for works such as bobrauschenbergamerica, his Humana Festival collaboration with the SITI company in 2001, and Big Love, which has been regularly staged at regional theaters since 2000. Mee’s work has fascinated for three main reasons. First, after writing a handful of Off-Off-Broadway plays in the 1960s, Mee moved into a career in editing magazines and writing popular histories and did not return to playwriting until the 1980s. Since then, he has produced a startling thirty plays, with four more under construction as of this writing. So the trajectory of Mee’s career, and its relentless productivity, is highly unusual. Second, Mee’s playwriting technique is decidedly unorthodox. His plays are collages of his own writing and found material, sampled from a variety of texts, up to copyright law’s three-hundred-word limit for fair use. Mee also maintains a Web site ( from which his playscripts can be downloaded for free. He does so because, 89 patronage and playwriting he says, he “borrows” material from the culture at large for his creations, and so he returns what he creates to the culture again. He encourages readers to take the plays he has created, make radical alterations, and then attach their own name as authors. And if a small company with limited financial resources wants to stage one of his plays as written, he doesn’t charge royalties. “That,” he explains, “seems only fair to me.”1 Mee’s laissez-faire attitude toward finances has led cynics to scoff, wondering how, if his works are available for free, he survives. In fact, he does charge some royalties, asking professional theaters and universities that can afford to pay to do so. But the real answer to that question is the third element of his uniqueness, as extraordinary as the plays themselves: since 1999, Mee has been fully supported by Richard B. and Jeanne Donovan Fisher, who act as his patrons. In perpetuity, he will be paid a generous stipend, so that he is able to devote his time fully to writing. The arrangement , which has coincided with the most prolific portion of Mee’s career, is without parallel or precedent in American theatrical philanthropy. The Fishers’ support, which is unhampered by stipulations or expectations, makes, Mee says, “the Medicis look like nitpicking cheapskates.”2 The Medicis as analog to the Fishers is not hyperbole. Richard B. Fisher , who retired as chair emeritus at the investment powerhouse Morgan Stanley, spent four decades at the company. In that time, he participated in, and then presided over, phenomenal institutional growth, amassing a personal fortune in the process. Then he set about disbursing that fortune in a string of uncommonly generous philanthropic gifts in contemporary art, theater, and education. He supported, with his time as well as with his wallet, Bard College, Rockefeller University, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, The Paris Review, the SITI Company, the Urban Institute, the Tate Modern, and the Museum of Modern Art. Some of his gifts were staggering: $25 million went, in 2000, to Bard College for a performing arts center designed by Frank Gehry. He gave $10 million in 2004 as a leadership gift to the BAM endowment, which spurred the growth of that organization’s endowment from $18 million to more than $50 million, and he gave $10 million to Rockefeller University for enhancement of the Rockefeller Research Building. Along the way, he endowed university chairs, supported a host of other institutions, and lent his time and expertise to the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan think tank for which he served on the board and as chair from 1987 to 2004. 90 jennifer schlueter Fisher’s support of Charles Mee, then, is one small strand in a far larger philanthropic weave. But in the panoply of individuals and organizations that benefited from Fisher’s generosity, Mee’s case is a very special one indeed. Long before Fisher was a Wall Street titan or Mee was an avantgarde icon, the two men had forged a deep friendship. It stretched from the summer of 1971, when the two were young fathers just embarking on their careers, through decades of steady upward mobility (in Fisher’s case) and fitful seeking (in Mee’s), all the way to Fisher’s death in December...


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