Monday, March 30, 2009

Spring Break

You can see some photos of the kids and the weather at Oceanside last week here. We rented a house along with Tanya and her two kids, Piper and Ariel.

This photo captured a sunny interval. We spotted the dark backs of whales in the distance a short time after this pic was taken.
We spent the last couple of days in Portland. Spring blossoms are plentiful there. Some more pics here.

Hurdles at home

We got home from spring break late Saturday and discovered two problems (unrelated I think). First our phone and internet service was down and will remain so until sometime today (I hope); second, there was about three inches of water covering our basement floor due to a sump pump failure. Probably just as well that I didn't have access to the wider world, not sure that anyone would have wanted to hear what I felt like saying. Looking forward to being back on line and on track sometime soon.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Ticket info for Picasso at the Lapin Agile

Been on the west side of the state for a few days, beach combing, visiting friends in Portland, socializing the puppy...I'll post photos soon.

Meanwhile, the ticket situation for the play has been clarified thusly:

Tickets will be issued at the door of Mackenzie Theater, first come first serve, open seating. Donations will be accepted with all proceeds going to a scholarship fund for La Grande High thespians. People wishing to reserve a spot on a particular night may do so by making an advance contribution. A ticket will be held for you at the door. Performance dates are May 16,17, and 18 (Sat -Mon). Times to be announced.

Linda Jerofke, Eastern Oregon University, 1 University Blvd., Ackerman Hall, La Grande 97850. ljerofke@eou.eduThis e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it or call her at 541-962-3179.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Banning Picasso at the Lapin Agile part 17...taking a breath

Spring break has arrived, and not one day too soon. Yesterday, I was visited by Tim Gerda, the local pastor of the Church of the Nazarene who appeared on the radio with me a couple of days ago. He said that if he was going to be involved in a controversy with someone he wanted to know who the person was. I give him credit for that.

We had an amiable conversation, and one in which he strove, it seemed to me, to back away from the perception he left on the radio that he would like to co-direct the play. I appreciated that as well though I pointed out to him that his effort to cancel the play more or less made his offer, genuine or in jest, a moot point.

Like I said, our conversation was amiable and civil, but there comes a point always in conversations like these where if one is going to get anywhere, one has to stake out a claim about where and how things went awry. It's fashionable perhaps to chalk everything up to differences of opinion and simply shrug, but I'm not in the mood these days for that sort of thing. I'm certainly not in the mood to apologize for what we're trying to do.

So I asked him point blank why he felt that the educational values and aspirations of the people who support the play project were illegitimate. He protested that he did not think that way at all. I countered that the proof in this case was fairly easy to obtain, namely, that he and the rest had forced the cancellation of play.

Paraphrasing here, I said that we feel the play has educational merit; you don't. What do you do? You force cancellation of the project on the grounds that it is inappropriate and immoral. The inference I make is that our educational values are, in this case, illegitimate.

I give the pastor credit for pausing at this juncture of the conversation instead of responding reflexively. He did not offer a riposte; rather, he seemed to weight both the words and the circumstances. In the end he said that he would think about what I'd said. I told him that that was more than I had come to expect from most people lately, and I thanked him. Before he left, I ventured one more thing. I asked him if he was coming to the play. He said probably not. I appealed to him to change his mind and to give my cast the opportunity to capture his respect for their work. He said he'd think about it.

I'm glad he dropped by. I don't need a villain out there to prop up my own belief in the value of what I'm doing. This project can and ought to stand on its own merits. As John Milton put it in his defense of Truth and free speech in his pamphlet Areopagitica in 1644:
Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?

One more thing. I'm taking a break from blogging for a few days. Gonna hang with my family and play outside, let the elements take a turn at ruffling my feathers. I don't intend to blog agtain until the end of the week. To those readers who've lately come to Free Hand, it was exciting having you along for awhile. You really boosted my numbers (whatever that means). If you're still around when I get back, we can pick up where we left off. If not, it was fun while it lasted.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Banning Picasso at the Lapin Agile part 16...Think Out Loud

That's the name of the OPB radio show I appeared on today. It was interesting to be in a radio studio and to observe first hand how it works. Needless to say, the OPB crew is a very professional bunch. I was impressed too by the host Emily and co-host David who were extremely smooth and capable. I sat there during the first part segment which was a taped interview with Melisssa Jackman, alternately watching the hosts at work and looking through the sound proof glass at the producers in the next room. It was a bit like being in an episode of "Frasier". The guys behind the glass reminded me a bit of the writers in "30 Rock", kind of laid back and at home in their work envrionment.

Anyway, the program went pretty well from my perspective although time flew by and left me wanting to wrap up a few loose ends. My segment ended with a rather odd exchange between a local pastor and myself in which the host seemed to dangle before the audience the titillating prospect of some kind of on-air rapprochement between us.

The pastor had just gotten through conceding to me finally that there was some good dialogue in the play (the very first time anyone on that side of the issue has said a single positive thing about the play, by the way) but that if only some of unnecessary parts were cut then it might be okay. The host then put the question to me, was I interested in that sort of conversation with the pastor. I replied that I was confused as to the sort of conversation that was being proposed and I posed the question, "Do you (the pastor) want to be my colleague in this project?" By which I simply meant, did he want some sort of directorial role in the project. The pastor responded that he would be very willing to work with me. At that point the host waited for me to say something. I demurred and said nothing. Frankly, I was struck dumb by the pastor's ability to turn on a dime and offer to co-direct a play that he had been denouncing just moments earlier.

In retrospect, there were any number of clever ripostes I might have offered (I rehearsed many on the drive home) but I think the pastor's own words disclosed pretty well the bent of his thought. He doesn't like the play, so he wants to change it to his liking. His offer of "help" or of "cooperation" is nothing more than an unctious gesture whose intent is to highjack our project and turn it into something else. He should see what kind of response he gets from the football coach if he were to offer to "help" design the game plan or call the plays.

I don't why, but even now I find my jaw dropping at the utter tone deafness displayed by people like this pastor. They absolutely do not get that those of us involved in this project have no desire or intention of apologizing for it. Quite the contrary. We contend that it is a good and worthwhile project.

What I really want to say to him, to Jackman and to all the others in that camp is this: I understand that you don't like the play, but why is it so hard for you to simply and gracefully allow those of us who do like it to carry out our work?
No hard feelings, just leave us alone.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Banning Picasso at the Lapin Agile, part 15...on the radio

I'll be appearing live on the OPB radio talk show "Think Out Loud" this Thursday morning at 9:00 am. Not quite sure what to expect but my reason for accepting the invitation has to do with my intention to enlarge this conversation from one about the merits of this particular play to one about the way in which we view the role of the arts in education. We'll see if that opportunity presents itself.

Banning Picasso at the Lapin Agile, part 14...accomodating Art

About twenty ears ago I received a telephone call from a parent of one of my freshman students at La Grande High School. The man was a pastor at a local church, and he had called to tell me that he objected to his son having to read materials in class that promoted paganism. The work in question was the Greek epic "The Odyssey" . Our discussion was fairly wide ranging and even interesting, however, the resolution was fairly narrow and straightforward.

I informed him that the work in question was a keystone in the traditional canon of Western Literature and that under no circumstances was I going to allow a student out of my freshman English class without him having studied this work. I was younger then and possessed with a kind missionary feeling for literature, but the times were different too.

I live and work today in an educational culture that holds dear the idea of accommodations. Nowadays, it is quite likely that confronted with a similar parent I might be tempted if not mandated to accommodate his child with some sort of alternative assignment. For the record, I have never received another complaint about Homer's works. Teachers have been conditioned over the last decade or so to inoculate themselves against such complaints by furnishing students in advance with alternatives. A child can watch a film, say on the French Revolution which might offer some fairly graphic images of scenes involving guillotines or that child might opt to research the topic in the library while his mates view the film.

We try to accommodate all sorts of people for a variety of reasons. The home schoolers who want their children to have access to lab sciences or music offerings at the public school. Kids with special needs who require extra time and/or support in order to complete assigned work. ESL students. We even accommodate folks who are skittish about evolution and we take care to underline the word and the idea of theory whenever we speak of it in the classroom. The spirit of accommodation is generous, flexible, and taxing. At it's worst it lacks rigor and is merely a servile response to criticism; at its best it enriches and enlarges the scope of a subject or endeavor . We do it because we believe that the differences that exist amongst people are real and they merit consideration.

So why don't we accommodate those people for whom art is one of their primary means of both inquiry and expression? Why don't we recognize that there are kids and community members (many more than some folks imagine by the way) who would place art very near the top of their list of educational values and very near the center of their lives?

It seems hubristic for one group of people to dictate a narrow and more or less denuded range of artistic expression to students who are capable of, and who in fact need, more. We don't say to our students "Algebra II is as high or as far as you need to go in Math. Don't trouble yourself with the more esoteric material of Calculus and beyond." We don't say to them, "To Kill a Mockingbird" is fine. There's no need for you wrestle with the likes of "Dostoevsky or Hemingway or Kate Chopin." We don't say to student athletes, "You're good enough, don't waste your time trying to be a Michael Jordan."

Yet when it comes to theater arts, we send exactly these kinds of messages when we censor their efforts. We tell them: avoid controversy, don't stretch yourself, don't aspire to something beyond the norm. People who don't love the theater don't realize perhaps how constraining and how patronizing these messages are.

Whatever the case, there is a principle that needs to applied here in the same way that it is applied elsewhere. It is the principle of accommodation. The students, the parents, the community members who value highly the theater arts in its fullest and widest expression, these people exist. Their needs and aspirations are legitimate. They are taxpayers and community members too. They deserve to be served by the public schools. Their message is simple: accommodate us; accommodate art.

Monday, March 16, 2009

the Sisyphean task of rolling back Bowdler

If you're dyslexic then the above title might qualify as a pun. If you're not then just pretend you are and indulge me.
Putting on my English teacher hat here. The story of Sisyphus is the ancient and enduring expressions of absurd and futile struggle. His torment was to be consigned for all eternity to try to roll a large boulder up a steep hill and just at the point of reaching the top to see the boulder elude his control and roll back to the bottom once more.
Thomas Bowdler was an English physicist who died in 1825. His name is notable to literature and drama types because it inspired the term "bowdlerize" which means to expurgate or omit material deemed vulgar of offensive. In his lifetime, Bowdler published a ten volume set of books entitled, "The Family Shakespeare" in which he edited some of Shakespeare's plays, omitting language so that they might be read aloud by the entire family.

That sounds an awful lot like the rhetoric of the people who brought the complaint against "Picasso at the Lapin Agile", namely that it wasn't fit fare for the entire family. Makes me wonder if the "Family Shakespeare" might become an adopted text for our school district.
Here's just one example of Bowdler's work. It's taken from a website devoted to the censorship of Shakespeare:

Shakespeare's original:

"the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon” – Mercutio, Act II, Scene 4, line 61

Bowdler's Family Shakespeare:

"the hand of the dial is now upon the point of noon"

That's a line that was actually recited by a student actor upon the La Grande High School stage about three years ago when we did "Romeo and Juliet". Funny, nobody said anything then.
It should be noted that the practice bowdlerizing Shakespeare has a long history that stretches back before Bowdler and lingers to the present day. It is a practice of which he may in fact have been one of the more benign exponents (he claimed only to cut text, never to add any). The notion that we will ever be free of this sort of thing strikes me as unrealistic to say the least. The effort to rid ourselves of it seems, well, Sisyphean.
What are you gonna do? Just roll on, I guess.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Banning Picasso at the Lapin Agile, part 13...and bigger

I've gotten a lot of emails today from friends letting me know that our story has hit news outlets all over the country and even some international spots. We don't have a television in our house, but I suspect it's mostly happening online anyway.
Meanwhile some nice developments happened today. A former student and LHS grad from the early 80's called today and hooked us up with the costumer at Weber State University in Utah. They did "Picasso" last year. She is willing to give us access to their stock of costumes for a nominal fee.

The constraints imposed on our production by the president of Eastern Oregon University, namely that no college faculty or resources be involved in collaborating on our production and also the scheduling of our performance dates between two music concerts have forced us to scale down our set design in order to be able to "load on" and "load off" the day of the performances. Also, we won't have access to the theater in the days before, so we'll have to do the entire set up, dry tech, and dress rehearsal in the early part of Saturday the 16th and then perform that night.

It'll likely have the feel of a portable, traveling production, the kind that sometimes tour rural areas like our own...hmmm there's a thought...anyway, I'm hopeful that we'll be able use costumes and lights to compensate and create production values above and beyond what our normal high school productions might present. Fortunately I've got good help on the lighting front.

Lastly, so many people have inquired about tickets (a goodly number from out of the area as well) that it looks like the club sponsoring the event will make this a ticketed event after all instead of taking donations at the door. As soon as I get solid info on how to purchase or reserve tickets I'll post them on this blog.

Banning Picasso at the Lapin Agile, part 12...the pond gets bigger

Friday after work Beth and I met some friends downtown for happy hour. While we were catching up in the bar, my cell phone rang. It was a woman from Entertainment Weekly asking for an interview. I told her that I was in a bar consuming alchohol, "Just like in my play," I said. "Don't report that," I quickly added laughing. We chatted for ten or fifteen minutes. At the end of the inteview, the woman (can't remember her name) said she'd she was putting something up on their online edition and that she'd call me back "if the story gets bigger." I remember wondering what that could possibly mean.

I went back to my table and reported out to my friends. It was good for a laugh. Nobody here takes celebrity too seriously. We wondered though about how this reporter got my cell number. I finally realized that it was probably Steve Martin's publicist with whom I've had some communications over the funding the play. I mean that's part of a publicist's job description I guess, to get his client's name out there.

Then later at home I came across an email from a parent of a cast member who informed me that she had posted a link to my blog on one of her favorite political blogs.

If you're one of my few regular visitors to Free Hand you may have noticed an uptick in the comments section. When I checked the traffic on my site I discovered that yesterday and today were roughly ten times the normal amount. The scale of this thing is very small by big time standards; nevertheless, for me it has been a fascinating process of serendipitous developments. I suppose that's the sort of thing that the current media environment is good at facilitating.

Almost everything that has come my way so far has been very positive, even uplifting. Still, it's a bit strange.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Time out for pi day

Otherwise known as my son Colm's birthday. Here's a picture of one of his last sentient moments as a five year old. Here he is the next morning, a newly minted six. What's the difference?
A Good Knight's sleep.
Colm wanted his birthday party to be about knights. So Beth sprung into action, she fabricated armor out of cardboard and duct tape, helmets out of milk jugs and duct tape, broom stick horses made out of sticks, old socks, and, of course, duct tape. I cut out shields from some scraps of plywood. The only thing we actually bought at the store were the swords. At the party Colm and his fellow Knights of the Kitchen Table had to earn each item by successfully completing a quest for Queen Mathilda (Beth). Their tasks:
  • find ten objects of great beauty and give them to the queen
  • find six pieces of wood roughly the same length and fashion a shape with them
  • rescue Colm's favorite superhero, Spiderman, from the evil clutches of Darth Duct Tape (he was taped to a limb in the apple tree above the tree house)
  • using their swords, battle an army of angry blue balloons back to edge of the back yard and pop each one without using their hands
  • catch the dragon (yours truly) and remove each one of his three tails

Two hours flew by.
We even managed to squeeze in cake and presents. Good day.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Banning Picasso at the Lapin Agile, part 11...Steve Martin weighs in!

Steve Martin's letter in defense of his play and in support of our efforts to stage it in La Grande appeared in the The Observer today. The paper also featured its own column here as well as a front page article here .

Needless to say, I really like Martin's letter. He strikes a very reasoned tone and tries to appeal to people's sense of decency and openness. He also says some nice things about me, and he pledges to fund our production. So he gets my vote for White Knight of the Year.

One of my favorite parts of the letter is where he says that upon hearing of the dust up concerning his play, he reread it in order to check his own perceptions of the material. I wonder how many people noticed that. I mean, he wrote the damned thing. He's overseen rehearsals of it; he's witnessed countless performances of it, yet he still took the time to reread it just to give a fair hearing to the complaints brought against it. Contrast this with the selective and cursory readings performed by the complainants and by the superintendent and you begin to get an idea of who's been operating in good faith and who hasn't.

The arguments presented thus far against the play have all had one thing in common. They are extreme; they are blanket condemnations; they concede nothing meritorious to the other side, and they insist on preventing other people from having a voluntary educational experience.

Time and again, I have attempted to show respect for the diverse individual opinions of people by furnishing them with information about the play so that they can decide whether or not they wish to take part or attend. The response to this good faith effort has been for certain people to shut down the project entirely, to remove any chance of other people choosing to participate or attend, and to label supporters of the project as morally inferior beings.

For all the good feeling engendered by the news that Steve Martin has thrown his support to our cause, I fear that the really important news today concerning the role of theater arts in our school system got buried inside this story in today's Observer. The story reports that superintendent, Larry Glaze has appointed school board member, Michael Frasier to head up a new committee. Pay attention to this passage:
The committee is being formed in response to the controversy involving the LHS student play “Picasso at the Lapin Agile.’’

A bit later this passage.
Glaze said it would have been easier to avert the controversy if the district had had a specific policy addressing the selection and approval of student plays.

I hope people are paying attention. The intent here could hardly be more transparent. Mr. Glaze wants to make sure that it's easier to make sure that a play like Picasso at the Lapin Agile never gets produced at LHS.

Let me make a prediction: this committee is going reflect a "cross section" of the community. It will attempt to put in place some kind of ratings system that more or less reflects the district policy on films shown in classrooms. It will also require scripts to be submitted by drama coaches to some one or some group of readers who will evaluate scripts for appropriateness of content. I could be wrong, but I'm willing to wager that I'm not.

In the end, whatever this committee recommends will then be considered by the board in May, quite possibly before our production is staged at EOU. I find this timing to be fascinating. There won't be another theater production until late next fall yet for some reason the committee needs to conclude its work before even having had a chance to see the very production which the new and as yet undefined policy will be designed to prevent from ever taking place in the future. Now here's a radical idea. Before this committee makes a single recommendation, its members should be required to view the production at EOU. Is it asking too much for people to at least become informed on the subject before crafting policy recommendations on it?

I suggest that people get butts seated on that committee because the other side will definitely be represented there.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Banning Picasso at the Lapin Agile, part 10...the playwright speaks!

Tomorrow. I was told by the newspaper staff that Steve Martin's letter to the Observer will run tomorrow. Meanwhile click here for the update on the online poll.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Banning Picasso at the Lapin Agile, part 9...Loop Hole Stage Players

Here's a cast photo of what we're lately calling the Loop Hole Stage Players (LHS Players for short). We had toyed with other names fitting the same acronym.

One of my personal favorites was Little Hypocrites Stage Players.
Tomorrow I'll have a cool piece of news for you. Steve Martin has sent a letter to the local paper in support of our production! It's a very eloquent and very Martinesque piece. It runs tomorrow.
I did my heart good to read Martin's letter. I've been run over the coals pretty regularly in the letters to the editor over the past few days. As a teacher, I'm not used to being called out in public as a smut peddlers and corrupter of youth. The tacit endorsement of this view by the board and superintendent has legitimatized these attacks in a way that really saddens me.
So, thanks Steve Martin. You really rescued my day today.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Banning Picasso at the Lapin Agile, part 8 ...donate!

Here is an update on donation info.

Checks to help with the LHS student production of Picasso at the Lapin Agile at EOU should be made out to EOU Democrats and mailed to Linda Jerofke, Eastern Oregon University, 1 University Blvd., Ackerman Hall, La Grande 97850.

People sending checks should write if they want the check to cover production costs or go to the EOU Democrats scholarship fund for thespians. Donations to the scholarship fund are tax deductible.

People who have questions about making donations can e-mail Jerofke at ljerofke@eou.eduThis e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it or call her at 541-962-3179.

I'll post some more specific info about production budget and needs in a few days.

hope that helps


Saturday, March 07, 2009

Banning Picasso at the Lapin Agile, part 7

When our play got banned from the La Grande High School stage, we had several parents and community members step up and offer help. People have opened their hearts and their wallets to make sure that this project doesn't die.

The parent of one of my cast members gave us access to this building for a rehearsal space. Everyday we meet here and go through our paces. So far our rehearsals have characterized by a combination of focus and playfulness. The cast is highly motivated to put up a good show. They understand what's at stake. Our production will be in a real sense our closing argument in this entire public trial. Meanwhile, the debate continues to be carried out on the editorial pages of our local paper. The letters in support of the school's ban include calls for a boycott of the production, praise for the superintendent for supporting Bible values in our schools, and alarms about declining morality and standards in our schools. Some of the letters on the side supporting the play have come from LHS students and graduates, current and former students of mine, and from parents and community members.
The online edition of the paper is even running an electronic poll on the question "Did the school board make the right decision in banning the play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile? You can vote and check the latest results here.

Working with individual actors on character development and on their craft is my favorite part of the theatre process. If people could watch the actual process of assembling a cast into a cohesive and collaborative unit, of individual actor's explorations of character development, of the rigorous discipline they submit themselves to in an effort to successfully perform on the stage, they would be in awe, I think, of what these kids endeavor to do.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Banning Picasso at the Lapin Agile, is it censorship?

The production of the play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile by Steve Martin was banned at La Grande High School by the superintendent and the school board. Was that censorship? Yes. Was it illegal? No.
When we sought to have the play produced at Eastern Oregon University and the intitial response from the EOU president was no, was that censorship? Yes. Would it have been illegal? Yes. That is why the president relented finally and allowed a student club to sponsor the event.

I would argue that censorship operates differently in these two cases and that while it is repugnant in principle, in practice it is not so cut and dried. In the first case the law seems pretty clear that high schools may regulate speech in a variety of ways. Disputes about student speech therefore often boil down to whether school policies have been violated or perhaps whether the policies in question can withstand legal challenges. There are, for exam
ple, sometimes competing claims about the educational environment and whether certain forms of speech are likely to interrupt or prove detrimental to students' ability and opportunity to learn. The shutting down of our theater production was a legal move, I believe, but this in no way should suggest that it is or ought to be the end of the story. The heart of the censorship debate as it touches the high school has to do with educational philosophy and cultural values.

There have been many letters from community members critical of my play selection opining that there are myriad plays out there that are not controversial and wondering why I haven't selected one of them. This question deserves an answer not just a shrug or a rant. But my answer will reveal, I think, a fundamental disagreement with these folks about the nature and the purpose of education at the high school level.

Controversy is a perfectly legitimate vehicle for learning; indeed it could be argued that controversy is an essential ingredient to certain essential kinds of learning. Controversy is nothing more or less than the presence of rival claims. As such it is a prerequisite and a catalyst to informed discourse and debate. Without controversy there is literally nothing to discuss, there are only facts to assimilate and formulas to commit to memory.

Theater thrives on the tension between characters and ideas. One could argue that controversy is its engine. Calling a play uncontroversial is akin to saying that it has no heart. If what is enacted onstage does not make rival claims upon our hearts and minds, if it does not occasionally perplex and provoke us, it is not doing the job it has had ever since its inception in ancient Greece.

Yet some people want to domesticate theater; they want to rewrite its job description. They want theater to simply amuse us, to allow us to merely while away the hours. The is no earthly reason why theater cannot do this too, but to suggest that this is the primary function of theater is tantamount to high jacking an entire art form for the narrow and selfish pleasures of one specific group of people. Consider the following analogy. Imagine a high school football player being asked by squeamish members of the public to merely play at half speed, to not hit with full contact, to not reach deep down and find that little extra to make a difference at a critical moment. People who don't know what it means to compete between the lines may not understand how deep the desire runs inside an athlete to discover the limits of his potential on the playing field. The same is true of student actors.

My role as a director is to furnish my student actors with creative challenges that allow them to discover their potential. People who want to question my play selection are entitled to do so, but they ought to consider the ramifications of second guessing a serious and well founded theatrical project. When a teacher and a principal with 50 combined years of educational experience between them, with proven track records of high standards and unquestioned commitment to students, when they commit to a project such as this and are passionate in advocating its benefits to students, one would hope that would count for something. Where is the presumption of good faith? Where is the conservative temperament that patiently observes and reserves judgment until the results are in evidence?

Instead, what we witnessed in this case was a rush to judgment, a impulse to censor something because it seemed controversial. It was, to my mind, a response ruled by fear as opposed to one ruled by curiosity. This is a brand of censorship that eats away at our innate capacity to learn because it tends to foreclose opportunities for new and interesting experiences. I would be the last person to suggest that we as parents and educators don't have an obligation to protect our young people from influences and experiences that they are ill equipped to face. And here is where we get to the heart of the matter. What are they equipped to face? And do we want to encourage or discourage them from facing controversy?

While reasonable people can disagree about such things, the most distressing thing to me about this whole affair (the Picasso Affair)has been the almost total lack of willingness on the part of the complainants and their supporters to acknowledge any potential merit in this theatrical project. No mention of the cultural and historical context of the play specifically it's being set at the beginning of the Age of Modernity, the allusions to artistic and philosophical movements, to famous artists like Picasso and Matisse, to scientists like Einstein, the wit and intelligence of the humor, and to the absurdist techniques employed by Martin in his play. Instead the rhetoric of the complaint conveyed complete and utter disdain for the project on absolutely every level. It is impossible to have a dialogue with someone who has cast your motives and your objectives into the gutter, even while protesting that they don't mean to impugn your teaching talents.

It's censorship pure and simple, but it is a censorship that emanates as much from the bottom up as from the top down. My position here is not play the censorship card like some kind of shibboleth, nor is it to insist upon some absolute right of free speech; rather, it is to simply confront the thing and call it by its real name.

The case involving the university is different insofar as it potentially represented a top down effort to prohibit speech in a manner that was transparently inconsistent with policy and law. For the EOU president to even contemplate banning a club from sponsoring this production suggest that for her the principle of intellectual and artistic inquiry is not as near the sweet spot of the university's mission as might conventionally be supposed. It is hard enough to digest her refusal to allow the university theater department to have any role in sponsoring the production, citing inter agency cooperation, a rather chilling phrase times being what they are.

Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of censorship is how, if it is given a toehold, it steadily erodes our instinctive and intuitive defenses against it. A community member who opposed the play recently wrote me a letter in which he endeavored to lecture me on the dangers of "Vice". Substitute "Censorship" for "Vice" in the following excerpt and you have an eloquent statement of how it works. He wrote:
We know what "Vice" is and how ugly and frightful it's consequences are. You and I have been taught that when we become too familiar with "Vice", it becomes easy to "endure, pity, and embrace."
Indeed. First we endure censorship, excusing it even as we perhaps regret our own practices, all the while rationalizing that we only do it for the good of those less discerning than ourselves. In the end, however, we drop all pretense of openness and we cozy up to the the uncontroversial, the utterly banal and predictable, and we amuse ourselves to death whilst we ignore the clamorous voices outside the confines of our gated consciousness.

Let's not get too comfortable with shutting down theater productions, with avoiding certain topics, or with shying away from controversy. Rather, lets cultivate the kind of inquiry and courage and judgment that will ensure a lifetime of learning, discovery, and, hopefully, happiness.

Banning Picasso at the Lapin Agile, part 6

The Eastern Oregon University club sponsoring the performance of Picasso at the Lapin Agile, the EOU Democrats, has set up a donation fund for folks wishing to support the production and/or the student scholarship fund for La Grande High School Thespians. Here's the info.
Make checks payable to:
EOU Scholarship Foundation (subject LHS Thespians)
One University Boulevard
La Grande, OR 97850-2807
Donations can be posted online at: (click on "make a donation" at the bottom of homepage)

I'm glad to see that in addition to the play being performed and the community getting an opportunity to see this production and to judge it by its merits, LHS students will benefit from this scholarship fund. Win win.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Banning Picasso at the Lapin Agile, part 5

Yesterday we got a venue. Today we got performance dates. Here they are: May 16-18 (Saturday - Monday). There are approximately 400 seats in this theater. Proceeds from the event will go to a scholarship fund for La Grande High School Thespians. The student club, EOU Democratic Party, is sponsoring the event and will soon have an account set up for people who wish to donate to support the production and/or the scholarship fund. I'll keep you posted.

Today I was informed by the superintendent that all scripts purchased by the school district should be returned ASAP. I've agreed to return them if I can. I informed my cast members who are quite frankly incredulous and nonplussed. If the kids won't part with them, we may have to reimburse the school for the books. Actors routinely mark up their scripts heavily with notes about blocking and character. I understand that they are technically school property and the school district has every right to ask for them, but there is no way these scripts will ever be of any use to anyone else. Makes me wonder what will happen to these books after they've been returned, hmmm? I'll leave it to readers to speculate.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Banning Picasso at the Lapin Agile, part 4...a victory finally

Here's the latest. Dixie Lund, the president of EOU, reversed herself today during a meeting at EOU. In the face of a hue and cry raised by faculty and students in support of the play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, recently banned at La Grande High School, she relented and allowed the play to be performed as a club sponsored event. The club which stepped forward to sponsor the play, the EOU Democratic Party, has agreed to rent the theatre space and fundraise for the production. Performance dates are not yet set, but I'll keep you posted. Needless to say, the cast and crew are ecstatic. We just want to do the play and give the public a good show. If people come and see it, I believe that they'll wonder what all the fuss was about.
time to exhale just a little,

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Banning Picasso at the Lapin Agile, part 3

The lock out of Picasso at the Lapin Agile continues. We are continuing our search for a performance venue. After being turned down by the president of Eastern Oregon University and then by the Armory, we've begun contacting private entities. It's interesting to hear familiar voices make the transition from the friendly, genial greeting of the neighbor to the circumspect and even wary tone of the stranger. One guy heading up a fledgling arts group here in town said to me, "Look we can afford any controversy with our donors." His issue is exactly the same as the university president. Him I can sympathize with, his group is small, struggling to get a toehold, but to hear the university president echo the same kind of nervousness is frankly chilling.
The cast is scheduled to rehearse at an off-campus site tomorrow. I wish I could give them some hard and fast performance news. They're going to have rehearse without knowing those things for a little while longer, and then be ready when the time comes.