[This post has been updated twice since it was originally published. I urge you to read it fully before drawing any conclusions.]
Rent is at the center of an academic controversy again, with a few twists. This time, it’s not the whole show, it’s just one song, “La Vie Boheme.” It involves multiple high schools and a college simultaneously. The performance is over and done. But the song echoes.
Here’s the gist, summarized from video and written reports from AZcentral.com: earlier this month, students from Arizona high schools attended the Arizona All-State musical festival on the Arizona State University campus, under the auspices of the school’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. While there, they attended a performance made up of various pieces by the university’s performing arts groups, across many disciplines. The Lyric Opera Theatre program performed the aforementioned number from Jonathan Larson’s musical. Reportedly some of the students were uncomfortable with the content and physicality of the presentation and decided to leave during the performance, some fairly quickly. They shared their feelings with their teachers and their parents.
Subsequently, the Herberger Institute sent an e-mail to the music teachers of the groups in attendance. It read, in part:
“We sincerely apologize for the poor programming and lack of communication that led to the presentation of an inappropriate scene from the musical Rent at our host concert. I apologized directly to your students in each ensemble rehearsal on Friday afternoon, but I wanted to make sure you know that the entire School of Music community feels remorse over this unfortunate decision.
We have addressed this situation with those responsible. I assure you that we will implement a new protocol for the review of performance material so that this does not happen again.”
A similar but not identical statement was issued to the media. It read, in part:
“The faculty member who coordinated the host concert trusted that those planning the musical theatre portion of the concert would make appropriate decisions regarding the selection from the musical Rent. Unfortunately, this did not occur and an inappropriate scene was presented. The poor decision made by our Lyric Opera Theatre faculty marred the experience for many. The Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts recognizes an audience’s right to choose what they come to a concert space to see. Unfortunately, the audience was not given a choice as our program contained no warning about the adult content that was presented nor was an announcement made from the stage giving them the opportunity to choose to stay for the performance or not. The concerns of parents and directors were taken seriously with personal emails and phone calls made immediately, and a process has been put in place to reconfigure the leadership and organization of the Lyric Opera Theatre program so this does not happen again.”
The media message finished with “The School of Music deeply regrets this situation.” Both messages were issued by Associate Dean and Interim Director of the School of Music, Heather Landes.
Here’s what we don’t know: did “rows and rows” of students exit the auditorium, as one parent asserts? It’s unclear if that parent was even in attendance, or characterizing a situation based on hearsay. Considering that news reports say the school received 14 or 15 calls about the incident, it’s hard to tell how many of the several hundred students were troubled by the performance, though the calls could have come from teachers, rather than parents. We also don’t know what the staging of the scene was precisely, so a characterization of it as being “pornographic” is most probably hyperbolic (and catnip to TV coverage, as well as a caption writer who declared “an extreme performance … left the students shocked and disgusted”), even if a bare behind was flashed. I certainly hope the staging was exuberant and enthusiastic, as the show calls for. [I did attempt to get more details, but save for the prepared statements, received no other response to my inquiries to Prof. Landes and two separate staffers in the Herberger School of Music’s communications office.]
It does appear that the high school teachers who brought their students to the event didn’t know what the programming would be, and it turned up without the context of a full production. While I wouldn’t bat an eye at high schoolers seeing a discrete performance of that song, I grant that some parents and teachers might not condone even a flash of partial nudity or simulated intimacy. Because high schools do have a supervisory right and responsibility over what their students see while under their care, especially when away from school, I agree that somewhere along the way, a step was missed. A heads-up wouldn’t have been out of line, though an actual warning would have been. Although unless these schools have private showers for gym class and school sports, someone’s butt wouldn’t exactly be a revelation. Some pelvic thrusts or a bit of groping? Like it or not, par for the course in so many aspects of our popular culture, familiar except in the most sheltered of teen lives. I’m speculating now, but shudder to think that the portrayal of same sex couples could have brought on such swift disapproval by the offended teens.
A mistake was made, students made a choice not to watch once they saw a glimpse something they preferred not to sit through, no one was harmed, and given what ensued, it’s highly unlikely that such a thing would have ever happened again. The rather profound mea culpas – remorse? really? – that were issued strike me as a bit much, especially with emphatic statement about new protocols and reconfiguring. The disavowal of the scene from Rent is overboard, unless the production went way overboard. Given that mooning provoked the complaints, it’s perhaps a bit glib to say now that the statements suggest asses were being covered, but I can’t resist.
But there’s more. I turn your attention to a statement issued jointly last night by Acting Dean Landes and Dr. William Reber, Director of the Opera and Musical Theatre training programs since 1991 at the ASU School of Music, announcing that Reber would no longer lead the Lyric Opera Theatre program.
“Dr. Reber made the decision to step down from his administrative role as director of the Lyric Opera Theatre program voluntarily, and we respect his decision. He remains a faculty member of the ASU School of Music; where he has served the students of ASU for more than 23 years and will continue to do so. Our school and our students have greatly benefited, and will continue to greatly benefit, from his creative spirit, his commitment and his love and passion for music…
Leadership in the arts requires both artistic vision and difficult work. It also requires the willingness to take responsibility for how that work is presented and communicated. This incident was important enough to the school and its relationship with the Arizona community that Dr. Reber felt he needed to accept responsibility, and he has chosen to use this as a teaching opportunity for his students about the role and responsibility of an arts leader, not just to the organization he leads but also to the community at large.”
I’m not so sanguine about Dr. Reber “needing to accept responsibility” in the way that he did; one never knows the behind the scenes pressures that lead to such a prepared, jointly-issued set of remarks. I can’t help but think that the university felt it needed someone to take blame for this, needed someone publicly shamed, and this was the solution worked out. While I applaud Dr. Reber for not throwing anyone under the bus, it troubles me that the university couldn’t absorb this gaffe and maintain intact a program that was, apparently, working just fine save for this one-off gaffe. Dr. Reber protected his staff, but couldn’t ASU have found a way to fully protect its faculty and programs?
Unlike a content controversy in a high school alone, where all the stakeholders are close by, a university setting is rather different. In the case of ASU, it’s a public university, so there’s all kinds of governmental politics that come into play. I have no idea what the ASU town-gown situation is, and how that may have affected into this. ASU’s students certainly aren’t necessarily all from Tempe, where the school is located, nor were the high school groups, so this is a statewide issue. But the strongest constituency for a school, its alumni, could be scattered across the country. I fear that a vocal minority has prompted swift results while the majority of Dr. Reber’s potential supporters didn’t even know that a problem existed.
So here’s the deal. If you live in Arizona and believe that Dr. Reber should still be running the Lyric Opera Theatre program (without having his hands tied over the work he does for the university’s students), start writing to the school’s president Dr. Michael Crow (Michael.Crow@asu.edu). Don’t call him names or presume anything about his personal beliefs and politics, just speak out in support of a vital theatre program and urge him to reinstate Dr. Reber to the Lyric Opera Theatre. Do the same if you’re just a supporter of quality arts education, for both high school and college students, no matter where you live. If you’re an alumnus or alumna of ASU, write to Dr. Crow as well, but you might also want to include R.F. “Rick” Shangraw Jr. (firstname.lastname@example.org), the head of the ASU Foundation, on your note, and mention whether these circumstances will have any impact on your future donations to the school. That can get a university’s attention.
Early reports and an online petition, since amended, incorrectly had it that Dr. Reber resigned or was forced to resign. He’ll remain on faculty and teach, but it still seems a shame that he’s been separated from the Lyric Opera Theatre program he ran. While some parts of the local community may be satisfied by this outcome, it’s worth noting that such events could cast a pall over the creative arts on campus. To insure that ASU can be a strong resource not only for its current students, but for students who may want to attend in the future, ASU should be standing behind Dr. Reber, acknowledging the error but not bending over backwards to placate the public. Because let me tell you, if aspiring theatre students, if aspiring arts students, hear that at Arizona State, Rent is something to apologize for, they may well think twice about where they want to go to school.
P.S. It may interest you to know that the incoming dean of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, Steven Tepper, is the author of the book Not Here, Not Now, Not That: Protest over Art and Culture in America, which by coincidence is on its way to me from Amazon as I write. I’m dying to know what he makes of all this.
Update, April 24 1 p.m.: On Facebook, I saw the following statement shared, which adds very important perspective to this discussion. It is a personal statement from Dr. David Schildkret of the ASU School of Music, and in no way an official one from the school, in response to the online petition:
“A petition is circulating that castigates ASU for allowing Bill Reber to step aside as Director of Lyric Opera Theater. Earlier this month, LOT presented a portion of Rent to high school students without warning of adult content. It was part of an ASU School of Music showcase for the Arizona All-State music festival. Bill, recognizing how damaging this is to our school, has chosen to step aside. I believe the petition, while well-intentioned, is misguided. I posted this on their Facebook page. I am speaking for myself, at no one’s urging, and in no official capacity. Here is the post.
Friends: I speak as a friend and colleague of Bill Reber who deeply admires what he has done. I feel that this petition fails to recognize the honor and nobility Bill has shown by his actions.
Please understand the incident. Students participating in the Arizona All-State came to a concert that was meant to showcase our School of Music. An excerpt from Rent was offered as part of that. The excerpt, “La Vie Bohème,” included explicit language and highly suggestive staging. It was NOT appropriate for a general high school audience, and there was no warning of that. (When the same excerpt was presented in a preview for the Lyric Opera Guild, the staging was toned down. That didn’t happen when the same material was performed for 14-year-olds, and even Bill was surprised by that.)
The students in the audience did not come to see Rent. They did not know (none of us did, in fact) that material that was not school-appropriate would be presented. About a quarter of them left the hall and returned after the Rent excerpt ended.
This is not about a few offended parents. It is about the responsibility of artists to know their audience. It is about what we were trying to present to students and teachers at All-State. The question is not whether Rent itself is problematic. The question is whether this was the suitable occasion for this particular performance. (“Seasons of Love” would have been touching and appropriate and would have caused no such difficulty.)
Make no mistake, this damaged the ASU School of Music. You may not like that, but it is the reality. It undid work to build bridges to local schools that many of us, including Bill Reber, have undertaken with zeal and passion for years.
If in fact the university had caved to a few cranky parents, I would sign the petition in capital letters. But people were legitimately and justifiably offended at an occasion that was meant to be anything but offensive. That is their right.
Please give Bill Reber the credit he deserves. He did not succumb to strongarm tactics: he is more powerful than that. He felt that a wrong choice had been made and took responsibility for it. He has stepped up to say that he recognizes that we accomplish most when we respect our audience. He has stepped up to say that there were better choices to be made and that he could have seen to making them.
I deeply admire Bill for this. He is a model for all of us. By all means, send him letters of affection, thanks, and support: he deserves them. But don’t dishonor him by trivializing his very courageous and noble actions.”
I wish the school had been more forthcoming from the start with this kind of clear information. It mitigates a good deal of what I’ve written, and provides essential context, but I leave my post intact rather than remove or alter it. Thank you, Dr. Schildkret.
Update, April 24, 4 p.m.: Dr. Schildkret has written me directly to respond to something which I questioned in my original piece. He says:
“Rows and rows of people really did walk out of the performance on 4/11. About 25% of the audience left for that piece. Some of that was teachers taking their classes out en masse so that the teachers wouldn’t get in trouble.”
Once again, my thanks to Dr. Schildkret for straight answers to important questions. From here on, I leave everyone to draw their own conclusions.