Saturday, February 28, 2009

Banning Picasso at the Lapin Agile, part 2

This post was revised at 7:15 pm.
What follows is a letter I sent in to the local paper, The Observer. I don't know if it will get published but the issue is sure to get hotter in the coming days.

Years ago I would sometimes go into my classroom wearing a button on my lapel. It said, “I want complete control.” It was a joke, of course, though there were times when it did seem more like a plaintive wish. The fact of the matter is that I’ve never had complete control of anything and certainly not of anyone. But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t exercised authority. My many years in public education have driven home the distinction between control and authority in myriad ways, some of them benign, others not so much.

On February 26 the La Grande School Board upheld a ban on the LHS production of the play Picasso at the Lapin Agile. The discussion that night was wide ranging but at no point did I hear anyone object to this play being performed at a different venue. To the contrary, several speakers on the side of Mr. Glaze, including the complainant’s husband, conveyed an expectation that this indeed was an option, as long as school district funds were not involved.

I proceeded, therefore, in good faith to attempt to secure a theatre venue at EOU. Theatre faculty and at least one student club offered to sponsor the event and to reserve McKenzie Theater as well as help raise funds for the production to go on. Several community members including some parents of my cast members also pledged to help in this effort. It had all the makings of a difficult but exciting community volunteer effort.

But then the president of the university, Dixie Lund, informed me in a telephone conversation on Friday, February 27 that she would not allow the event to take place on the EOU campus. She cited interagency loyalties between EOU and the La Grande School District, and she cited political concerns from conservative elements in our community. She said that she would be happy to see a forum or debate about the play on the EOU campus and that she would support such an event.

When I suggested that the forum take place immediately after the production so that audience members and cast members could all take part in a unique educational activity perfectly suited to a university, she demurred, saying that EOU would host the forum but not the production. I pointed out that I have heard of many such forums but never one in which the production did not precede the discussion. As I hung up the phone, it was as if I had just heard the sound of a great door slamming shut. A couple of hours later, one of the parents working for the play project called to let me know that he had tried to rent the Armory but that when he told them what it was for, he was turned down flat. Slam.

Ironically, the very next day The Observer ran a column authored by EOU president Dixie Lund with the heading “Community plays an important role in EOU success.” Lund cited the EOU mission statement. “The educational, cultural, and scholarly center that connects the rural regions of Oregon to the wider world,” and she added that “you are all an important part of that mission.” I guess she meant “wider” in a narrower sense and I guess “all” just isn’t as inclusive as it used to be.
The events of the past few days have caused me ponder the meaning of the words “community” and “public”. Is there no longer even the pretense of a commitment on the part of local public servants to recognize the simple fact that we do not live in a homogeneous community and there are a significant number of community members who see this theatrical project as a positive expression of good, solid moral, aesthetic and intellectual values?

No amount of polite manners and decorum can obscure the offense that has been committed here. It is not only professionally and personally offensive to me; it is absolutely dismissive of an entire segment of our community. A segment that is offended by the insinuation that it has no values or standards or that it does not have the best interests of its children at heart. The fact that these insinuations are being made by nice people doesn’t make it any less terrible. In fact, that’s about as nasty as it gets.

It is time for the powers that be in this community, those public and those who operate behind the scenes, to declare themselves. Do they mean to recognize the entire community and be worthy of the authority that derives from doing right by all of us. Or do they simply want complete control?

Kevin Cahill

Friday, February 27, 2009

Why we shouldn't ban the play Picasso at the Lapin Agile

To: School Board

From: Kevin Cahill

Date: 2/24/09

Re: Appeal of the Superintendent’s banning production of the play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, by Steve Martin

Here’s a true story. Yesterday, I came home from work. My five year old boy, Colm, ran up to me carrying the front page of the Observer. “Daddy! You’re in the paper!” he said. I nodded and said, “Yeah, I am.” Colm said, “Is it because you’re the Best Daddy of the Year?” I was just about to say to him, “Not quite,” when my wife, Beth, coincidentally hit the message button on our phone. A jarring voice on the speaker said, “Kevin, why do you defend evil? Your butt should be fired from that school!” I took a moment, looked at Colm and said, “Not quite.”

(General laughter)

One of my goals tonight was to see if I could get everyone to laugh at least one time together. A part of me wanted to believe that if we could share that experience it might remind us of something essential. But as the day of the meeting drew nearer, I despaired of finding any joke or story that would reach across the whole room. I feel as though my boy gave me a gift right at the last moment, and I thank you Colm for it.

Before I begin my prepared remarks I want to address two things. The first regards a comment made the superintendent. He says he’s heard the argument that kids see videos and films that are far worse than the content of this play. I want to be clear on this. I have never and will never make such an argument. I don’t buy that argument. My kids do not watch TV at home because we don’t allow a television set in our house. Those are our parental standards.

Second, I have repeatedly asked the superintendent, the complainant and now you, the board, to perform the following thought experiment. Imagine the play in question was Romeo and Juliet. How would you apply the standards cited in the present complaint towards Shakespeare’s script. It is a play whose language includes jokes about virginity and rape, swearing, sexual innuendo, blood vendettas, murder, sex, and teen suicide. I would illustrative and educational, I think, for the board to declare itself on this play which I directed three years ago on the LHS stage. After all, everyone here is looking for a principled and consistent application of policy. You could help us see what that might look like by responding to this thought experiment.

I want to thank the Board for giving me the opportunity to appeal the recent decision by Superintendent Glaze to ban the play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, from being performed at LHS. I begin by acknowledging that Mr. Glaze has every legal right to make the decision he did. My arguments have more to do with educational and moral values than legal ones.

A brief chronology. I first heard of this play from some people who had attended a production last year at West Linn High School. They gave an enthusiastic thumbs up and reported that it was very well received by those in attendance. I subsequently bought the script, read it and became enthused about taking on the project here at LHS. I knew that the material would not suit everyone, however, so I was careful to communicate to all prospective actors the nature of the material in the play. I even went so far as to make available excerpts containing some the material in question so as prevent any misunderstandings. This all happened two weeks before Christmas break in December.

I offer this underscore the simple fact that my intent has always been to be transparent and proactive and to follow board policy in my dealings with all concerned. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of those who have brought this complaint against the play. The first communication I had with Mrs. Jackman was in a meeting with Larry Glaze on Feb. 13. As of that meeting, Mrs. Jackman by her own admission still had not read the play. Four days later she had collected a petition with over a hundred signatures and she had submitted a formal complaint with a copy of the script highlighted with her notes and comments. By this time we had long since cast the show and were three weeks into rehearsals. The set design was complete. I had assembled a crew. Building materials had been listed and prepared for purchase. Students were already at work designing costumes, lights, publicity, and collecting props.

I have always believed that reasonable people can disagree on all sorts of things, including the merits of a play. The question is not whose point of view will prevail but what is an appropriate and productive approach to resolving such disagreements? If, for example, Mr. Glaze had come to me at the beginning of the year and asked me what play I was doing, I would have told him. If he had asked to read the script, I would have furnished him a copy. If he had then told me not to do it, I would have doubtless tried to change his mind but failing that I would acceded to his wishes. Instead, Mr. Glaze entrusted Doug Potter and myself with the decision making process which we followed according to board policy.

The argument has been made that this play violates the policy governing student conduct in connection with student performances. This argument is based on a misreading of that policy which is easy enough to illustrate: students performing on a football field are permitted to pile drive other players to the ground. Were they to do such a thing in the hallways however they would face suspension or worse. Similarly, students who while in character slap another character onstage are exempt from the policy governing conduct codes, and all the more so for students who merely pretend to do such things as drink alcohol or stab or shoot or kiss someone. There’s a reason for this distinction. It is well known that actors relish dying onstage but surely no one seriously thinks that this promotes suicidal thinking among student actors who perform such actions.

As I look for a way out of this mess, I keep coming back to a simple standard, the standard of reasonableness. If each side were to embrace this standard then I think we might find a resolution. I am here tonight because I seek such a resolution.

Lets begin with the issue of play selection. I don’t expect everyone to agree with my selection, but the question ought to be, “Did Mr. Cahill embrace the standard of reasonableness in selecting Picasso at the Lapin Agile? “

Consider the following facts. The play has won prizes for being an outstanding work. The play has been performed by many high schools across the country, including West Linn High School in Oregon just last fall. This same West Linn production was one of three high school productions chosen to be performed this spring at the Eugene Hult Center as part of the State Thespian Conference. Finally, in spite of several attempts to find one, we have as yet failed to find a single instance of this play being banned from by a high school. Despite one’s personal feelings about this play, it would seem clear, therefore, that my selection of this play does satisfy the standard of reasonableness.

Lets move now to the complaint and hold it to the same standard of reasonableness. I will leave aside for the moment the fact that policy was not followed in the complaint process. I will also pass over the rather obvious fact that the timing of the complaint maximized rather than minimized the public trauma and drama for all involved. Instead lets focus on the substance of the complaint and ask ourselves does it reflect the standard and the spirit of reasonableness? It is my intent to prove to you that the complaint is marked by extreme even inflammatory tendencies, utterly devoid of one single mention of positive attribute of the play, and that it reveals a desire to impose moral standards on those who do not share her views.

The play is described as endorsing an entire laundry list of behaviors, including but perhaps not limited to: casual sex, alcohol use, irreverence towards religion and swearing. She also inventories the infractions in the script and offers up a tally, concluding that only about 34% of the script is fit for public consumption without being modified/censored. This description is then accompanied by a copy of a highlighted script in which Mrs. Jackman lays bare the full scope and inclination of her thinking. Among the passages earning reprimand are the words “hell” and “damn” and the phrase “Oh my God”. In addition she complains that adults in a bar consume alcohol. Anyone paying attention to this document submitted by Mrs. Jackman might want to note the way it foreshadows the tone and substance of future efforts that are no doubt in the offing to limit and control student access to a quality education. Conspicuously absent from her complaint is any concession of any sort regarding this play’s possible or even theoretical merits. One is justified,therefore, in summarizing her complaint thusly: the play is obscene trash, and as such it has no business on a high school stage. Community members following this story from a distance might be forgiven for wondering why this teacher is still employed by the district given his decision to peddle such filth.

We have long since departed the zone of reasonableness here and entered into the realm and rhetoric of culture wars. There is no presumption of good will, no acknowledgement of legitimate aims and objectives, there are only aspersions and calls to arms.

What disappoints and saddens me is that Mr. Glaze has validated Mrs. Jackman’s intemperate and excessive judgment of this project and her insinuations concerning me rather than allowing this project to move forward even as he might admonish me and declare his personal preferences to be at odds with mine. At the same time he could have called for a new policy regarding the play selection process in the future. That would have been a reasonable approach to take.

Then we come to the script itself.

It has become commonplace to hear references to this play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, as a play about or at least preoccupied with sex, vulgarity and alcohol. I have read this play many, many times, as have my cast members, and here are what I consider to be its central themes:

  • Celebrity often gets confused with genius.
  • Great artists and great scientists aren’t so very different.
  • Just because someone is a genius, doesn’t mean he isn’t also an ass.
  • Comedy like Beauty is in the ear or eye of the beholder.

I can’t find anything on the above list to complain about. Most people probably wouldn’t either. Obviously, the problem for some people lies in the manner in which these themes are raised and developed. Steve Martin chooses the turn of the 20th century art world and the figures of Picasso, Einstein, Sagot, Matisse, Max Planck, Immanuel Kant, and Elvis Presley to have fun with the above mentioned themes. Comedy makes us laugh first, reflect later. Laughing at sex isn’t the same thing as endorsing it. Picasso’s painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon expresses the dark side of the sex that the character Picasso so blithely pursues in his personal life. The image of five prostitutes in a brothel which appears in the bar near the end of the play suggests the dangers and the trauma of sex. Picasso’s vision in this painting is anything but glib and it stands in stark contrast to the character we see onstage.

For the student actors, part of the challenge of this script is to learn the historical/cultural references upon which Martin’s jokes are based and then try to sell those jokes to the audience. Picasso was a womanizing bastard, in addition to being a visionary and a genius; Sagot was an art entrepreneur who parlayed other people’s art into profits for himself, and Einstein was a quirky, solitary figure who marched out of step with the academic establishment.

When I read the complaints raised against the play, I am struck by the tunnel vision that seems to see only words and not ideas, only taboos and not humor, only surfaces and not interiors. Mostly though I am struck by the characterization of our students as people who lack discernment and who should not grapple with adult conceptions of life.

This seems to me to be a caricature of the young people I work with daily. We call them kids, and they are, but they are also young adults. Some of my students all already enrolled at EOU taking courses there, some of them are holding down jobs working side by side with adults in the workplace, some of them are enlisted already in the military and are drilling with recruiters on weekends, some of them live alone and support themselves, some of them are mothers or mother-in-waiting, some of them are pursuing alternative diplomas. In short, a great many of our students at LHS are well on their way in making the transition from childhood to adulthood. My experience is that they appreciate being treated accordingly and that they tend to rise to our enhanced expectations of them.

Very near the heart of this debate is the question, “What kind of people are our students?”

I perceive a fundamental incoherence in the school districts practices and pronouncements vis a vis material containing references to sexual conduct or vulgarity or alcohol use. Let me offer a case in point:

Last year the district invited noted motivational speaker, Milton Creagh to speak at a high school assembly. A powerful orator, Creagh took a captive audience (the entire student body) through a harrowing evocation of criminal behaviors and destructive behaviors that included, rape, sexual molestation, child abuse, murder, drug abuse, gang banging, prostitution etc…Again and again he worked his audience skillfully, getting almost everyone to raise a hand confessing some kind of connection to one of these horrible things. I remember sitting there both impressed and aghast. I looked at the kids we had compelled to attend. There were kids in tears, others shifting nervously in their seats. The imagery being triggered in the minds of the kids sitting there, had it been projected on a screen would likely have been described as pornographic. After his speech, Creagh sat in the lobby and met briefly with several LHS students, mostly girls who stood in line, their eyes bloodshot from crying so much. How many kids, I wondered, went home and privately replayed those images in their heads without anyone to talk to? Such however is the prerogative of the motivational speaker. You can try anything if your advertised motives sit well with the public. Shock and awe. He was invited back this year for an encore performance. Interestingly, his act had worn palpably thin this time around. You could sense the kids chafing at his bludgeoning approach. Interestingly, many adults dismissed my critical comments about Creagh by claiming that his “message” justified the tough, take no prisoners approach.

All of which leaves me puzzled. If the message is the thing that matters most then perhaps we should judge the play according to its message. I would urge you to reread the previous section of this document. But if the method matters at least as much as the message then I would suggest that the district compare the care and seriousness with which we mount our theatrical productions with the tent revival approach exemplified by Creagh. Lastly, how does the district square its professed concern for individual differences when it mandates attendance at an event such as the assembly, versus the completely voluntary nature of our school play?

All that is left is for me at this point is to contemplate the message you and the superintendent are sending by banning this play. It may not be the one you intend, but it will be heard loud and clear by many of us in this room including those young impressionable minds you and I are entrusted with educating. It goes something like this: be afraid; don’t get outside the box; be afraid; don’t be curious; be afraid; don’t trust yourself, be afraid; others might think that you have no standards.

I urge you to reconsider the course we are now on and to step back and embrace a more reasonable and educationally sound path. Change the policy if you wish, admonish me if you wish, but respect the good intentions and worthy aspirations of all involved. Let the play go on, and let those come or stay away as they see fit.

thank you,

Kevin Cahill

Tempest Times

I've been preoccupied for the past couple of weeks. A lot of folks have been wanting a piece of my time or in some cases a piece of me. Here's the local media coverage and the state wide coverage if you're interested. Later on I'll post the statement I made to the school board.
more later.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Heart Blogging, conclusion

Numerus Abundans

a poem by Kevin Cahill

for my wife, Beth, on her 40th birthday

He learned to play the lute

when he was forty years old.

That is what they still say,

as if all the years prior had

been no more than a gestation,

a long uneven labor delivered

at length of a childlike surprise.

When he was forty he picked

it up, his fingers gently round

the neck, he felt the heft, the

balance point on his lap, he

searched the fretted reaches

and he plucked sweet notes

like ripe cherries, so they say.

(There is another saying,

“Stupid after forty, always stupid”

but one who learns to play the lute

at forty, such a one is remembered.)

They say Moses lived one hundred

and twenty years – forty years in

Midian, then again in Egypt before

prophesying forty years in the

wilderness. They say the Prophet

whose heavenly name is Ahmed, first

heard God’s voice when he was forty.

Forty is an age of reckoning, we

ask what we have added up to,

what is the sum of all our seasons,

time multiplied by knowledge,

divided by experiences, all of it

subtracted from a veiled number

not yet etched on a lonely stone.

Abundant numbers – four added

to eight added to twelve added to

sixteen is golden. Ahed means “One”

signifying God – add to it the letter

mîm whose value is forty and you get

Ahmed. Forty steps, the journey from

man to God, near, palpable, infinitely far.

They say there are forty saints, mix

with them and you will disappear.

The marathon wedding feasts of Persia,

the forty pillars gathered at Stonehenge,

the perilous ride above the Great Flood,

Jesus’ satanic trials in the desert, the vigil

at his tomb, the lenten journey to Easter.

Forty, numerus abundans, imbued with

the miraculous and the coincident,

quarantined today in convertibles

and sterile surgeries. So it is good to

remember what they say, they say

that when he was forty, he learned

to play the lute… it means a lot.


Heart Blogging, part 8

The morning after....that fuzzy feeling in your head, shards of unremembered poetry in the air, the house asleep.

Heart Blogging, part 7

The wierd sisters cooking up Indian food for the feast.

The menu: Lamb Rezala, Tikka Masala Chicken, Mulligatauny Soup, Lake Palace Hotel Eggplant and a few other things. All of it washed down with Mango Margaritas.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Heart Blogging, part 6

We're getting ready for the party. Wren, Sammy, and Tess occupy themselves.

Heart Blogging, part 5

Heart Bloggin, part 4

Here's an idea I'm sorta proud of. I clipped lines from essays and poems having something to do with love. I then tied each slip of paper to a length of black yarn. I put the quotations in the bottom of the bowl (itself a gift for Beth) and I covered them with chocolate kisses. The idea is for people to pick up a kiss or piece of thread and see how they like it. The strings will then be tied to a line running across our living room. There will be love poetry in the air. Did I mention that we're plying our guests with Mango Margaritas? That should help.

Heart Blogging, part 3

Everything coming out of the kitchen lately has a Valentine's Day flavor. Check out the heart shaped homemade pizza and the red oatmeal.

Heart Bloggin, part 2

Tess and Colm are thri'lled to have Wren over from Portland. It's been almost a year but they pick up like it was only yesterday.

Heart Blogging, part 1

It's been too long but I've been swamped. Valentine's Day is upon us. So is Beth's 40th birthday. We've got friends coming over from Portland and party planned. I'll post serially as time permits.
Lets begin with the fundamental thing: love.