It was six hours before opening night. Sarah Holdren, director of a Yale University student production, had just entered the theater for a routine pre-performance errand when the man who runs the hall gave her an update: In the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, a Yale administrator decided that she didn't want any weapons used or portrayed during theatrical productions.
Holdren was perplexed. Her show, Red Noses, is set in the Middle Ages and includes metal swords and daggers. But they are stage props. And there were no guns.
"I understand the university's need to react to Virginia Tech and display sensitivity, but dealing with it this way is ineffective," she said in an interview Friday.
Holdren said her main concern wasn't the limitation on her production but the limitation on artistic expression. She explained her objections in a Thursday meeting with Betty Trachtenberg, dean of student affairs at Yale.
According to Holdren, Trachtenberg, who did not respond to multiple messages for comment, was unmoved. The dean told Holdren that she needed to look out for a whole campus of potentially vulnerable undergraduates -- a response that Holdren said "made it sound as if I was trying to traumatize people."
Trachtenberg agreed to allow weapons that were obviously fake to appear on stage. Red Noses opened with wooden swords and some peeved cast members. Holdren wanted her commentary to be public record. So before the first production and with the full cast's blessing, the director stepped on stage and delivered this message to the audience:
"We cannot cure the violence of this world by limiting the artistic creations that seek to address it. Red Noses is a play about hope, joy and fellowship in the face of death and injustice.
It is a clear note out of a dark world, and I hope with all my heart that it may do something, no matter how small, to pierce the darkness of our world at the present moment. Taking a sword away from an actor does nothing save limit his ability to tell the story of a play as fully and clearly as possible. Calling for an end to violence on stage does not solve the world's suffering; it merely sweeps it under the rug, turning theater--in the words of this very play -- into 'creamy bon-bons' instead of 'solid fare' for a thinking, feeling audience. Here at Yale, sensitivity and political correctness have become censorship in this time of vital need for serious artistic expression.
Our swords tonight may be wooden, but our show aims to be much more than child's play. We hope our story lifts you and lightens you, for it is founded upon 'the mirth of children and sages, the mirth born of compassion and joy.' And such mirth will not be stifled, no matter the shadows of this or any other time."
Holdren said some in the audience applauded.
The weapons curtailment also has affected other productions on campus. Leah Franqui, student director of Accidental Death of an Anarchist, received an e-mail from Trachtenberg saying: "Given the events of a few days ago in Virginia I question, at this time, the use of even a prop hand gun in this (or other productions). I suggest that you find another way."
Franqui said her show will proceed without a gun this weekend when it opens.
"It's only used once in the show, but still I think the decision is ridiculous," Franqui said. "This is an inappropriate way to show support [for Virginia Tech]. It's an empty gesture and censorship of the arts."
Added Holdren: “This decision is permanent until further note -- who knows if it’s going to change in the next month. It's an odd thing hanging over our heads.”