Worried About Guns? Ban a Campus Musical

At Arkansas Tech U., Sondheim's Assassins is called off, just before opening night, but American Gangster is OK.
February 22, 2008

After the Virginia Tech murders a year ago, Yale University banned the use of stage weapons in a student theatrical production -- infuriating actors and educators who believed audience members could distinguish drama from real life. After a few days of ridicule, Yale backed down.

A year later, after another gun tragedy, college officials are still trying to figure out how to make their campuses safe -- and theater still is a target. A student production of Assassins, the award-winning musical, was to have premiered Thursday night at Arkansas Tech University, but the administration banned it -- and permitted a final dress rehearsal Wednesday night (so the cast could experience the play on which students have worked long hours) only on the condition that wooden stage guns were cut in half prior to the event and not used. Assassins is a musical in which the characters are the historic figures who have tried to kill a U.S. president.

Robert C. Brown, Arkansas Tech's president, issued a statement explaining the decision as follows: "All of us have a healthy respect for the freedom of artistic expression that college theater represents, and all of us agree that out of respect for the families of those victims of the tragedies at Northern Illinois University and Virginia Tech, and from an abundance of caution, it is best at this time not to undertake a campus production that contains the portrayal of graphically violent scenes."

While faculty members involved in the program declined to comment on their views, others said privately (citing fear of offending administrators) that they viewed the decision as an overreaction and one that sent the wrong message about theater, the role of art, and free expression. The local newspaper reported that the administration was so concerned about the production that reporters were barred from the dress rehearsal. Adding to the anger of many on the campus is that the film American Gangster, featuring plenty of blood and violence -- and none from singing historical figures -- was screened on campus this week. Why, many want to know, is musical theater being singled out?

Further frustrating faculty members, there have been reports of gun shots -- and a recent shooting injury -- at parties organized by Arkansas Tech students, but the students organizing those parties were reportedly football players, not thespians. Some questioned why what they see as a false concern (fake guns in drama) was getting attention, as opposed to what they view as more serious problems. Others said that they viewed an order to stop a play as a violation of academic freedom.

One professor who asked not to be identified said "there seems to be a real double standard -- this just feels wrong."

Susie Nicholson, a spokeswoman for the university, said that the play could yet be rescheduled, so it was not really being called off. But others on campus noted that student productions, relying on the time of students who have a range of commitments, can't just be pushed back a few months. Asked who made the decision to call off the play this week, she said "the administration," but then added that the decision had been made "in conjunction" with some faculty members.

Nicholson said that the decision did not limit artistic expression, noting that the president's statement included his support for artistic freedom. She said she did not know if any of the officials who made the decision had ever seen a production of Assassins, but said that they were concerned about the gunshots that are part of the play and might be heard outside the auditorium.

Ardith Morris, a professor of theater who was directing the production, said she could not comment on her feelings about the decision, and could only answer questions of fact. She said that a total of 60 students had been involved in the production -- counting actors, the orchestra and technical crew. When the decision was made to call off the production, she said that she asked if the president wanted to brief the students, but that offer was declined in favor of her doing so. She said the news brought "tears and outrage" from students.

Morris has taught and directed student productions for 26 years at Arkansas Tech. Asked if she had ever called off a show previously, she said, her voice breaking, "never -- including the show that opened the week my husband passed away." Even facing a personal loss, she said, "theater people" wouldn't call off a production. "It's just not what we do. Theater is who we are -- it's how we view the world and realize ourselves as people."

Kurt Daw, dean of fine and performing arts at the State University of New York at New Paltz, and a past president of the Association for Theater in Higher Education, said he was disappointed to hear about a college refusing to let a play go on as scheduled. Daw said that he would understand Northern Illinois University not wanting such a show right now, but that beyond the immediate vicinity, administrators should recognize "the theater's capacity to heal and to make us think." He noted that while Assassins is about assassins, it is by no means a pro-violence play but a work that "calls on us to think about the violence in our culture and what the sources are for it."

Theater productions appear "more prone to censorship" on campuses than are books or professors' writing, Daw said. He thinks this is because "what's powerful about theater is its immediacy." But to Daw, that's no reason to keep theater away from students -- even in difficult times. "I think academic freedom absolutely covers artistic events the same way it covers writing," he said. Some theater may frighten those who watch it, he said, but that reaction may be entirely the point. "I'm in favor of trusting audiences."


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