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


Anonymous NCAC said...

From the National Coalition Against Censorship:

That students are not taking censorship lying down and that allies are coming forward in support of these productions is heartening. However, students should not have to leave campus in order to stage relevant contemporary theatre. The high school stage, in addition to providing entertainment, has a potential to be a vital platform for young people to explore the complexities of life. Or it can be reduced to a sanitized reflection of those who seek to impose their views on others, something educators and free speech advocates have an obligation to guard against.

More commentary on the issue from the National Coalition Against Censorship can be found at:

2:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Cahill,
I play Suzanne in West Linn High School's version of Picasso. I want to thank you for your lovely, well-written article. I am deeply, deeply saddened that your cast and crew couldn't perform as originally planned. However, I am thrilled, WE at West Linn are thrilled - that you will perform! We can not wait to see everyone on stage!
Sara Sebastian

10:48 PM  

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