Looking Closely At The Cancellation Of An Anti-Censorship Event

May 19th, 2015 § 1 comment

Playwrights for a CauseThe story practically writes itself: fundraiser for anti-censorship group gets censored. Ironic headline, attention-grabbing tweet, you name it. That’s exactly what appears to have happened in the past few days as the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture’s decision to cancel a rental contract with the theatre group Planet Connections Theatre Festivity has been made public. Planet Connections was producing a one-night event, “Playwrights for a Cause,” on the subject of censorship, which would in part benefit the National Coalition Against Censorship.

“Neil LaBute’s Anti-Censorship Play Is Censored, With Chilling ‘Charlie Hebdo’ Echoes,” was the headline of an article by Jeremy Gerard for Deadline. “Neil LaBute NYC Anti-Censorship Theater Event ‘Censored’ to Prevent Muslim Outrage,” topped a piece by Kipp Jones for Breitbart News. “Sheen Center Cancels Event Featuring Neil LaBute Play About ‘Mohammed’” was the title for Jennifer Scheussler’s story in The New York Times.

In the wake of the cancelation, the situation was described in a press release:

Playwrights For A Cause,” an evening of plays by award-winning playwrights Erik Ehn, Halley Feiffer, Israel Horovitz and Neil LaBute, and a panel discussion concerning censorship in climate science and more inclusion of LGBT, women, and minorities in the arts, originally scheduled for June 14, 2015 at The Sheen Center at 18 Bleecker Street, has been canceled by the management of The Sheen Center.

Although their management originally approved the event and accepted full payment for the venue, a recent change in management resulted in the Center’s decision that some of the speeches the panel speakers were going to make, along with Neil LaBute’s play Mohammed Gets A Boner, are not acceptable or compatible with their mission statement.  The diverse panel of speakers included Cecilia Copeland, speaking on the censorship of women in the arts; Kaela Mei-Shing Garvin, speaking on the censorship of environmentalists and climate scientists; Michael Hagins, speaking on the censorship & underrepresentation of minorities in the arts; and Mark Jason Williams, speaking on the censorship of LGBT artists.

On Tuesday, May 12, The Sheen Center canceled the entire event, including the Planet Connections opening night party which – ironically – was benefitting the National Coalition Against Censorship.

Upon my inquiry as to the cause of the cancelation, William Spencer Reilly, executive director of the Sheen Center, responded:

At the Sheen Center we are 100% for the right to free speech for every American, and always will be. However, when an artistic project maligns any faith group, that project clearly falls outside of our mission to highlight the good, the true, and the beautiful as they have been expressed throughout the ages.

We were disappointed to learn only a few days ago that one of the plays commissioned by Planet Connections Theater Festivity for the Playwrights For a Cause benefit event was called “Mohommad Gets a Boner” [sic].  We were totally unaware of this, and their Producing Artistic Director was fully cognizant that plays of this nature were unacceptable vis a vis our contract. (That contract, FYI, was with Planet Connections Theater Festivity, not with National Coalition Against Censorship.)

In light of this clear offense to Muslims, I decided to cancel the contract. Just as newspapers the world over have chosen not to publish cartoons offensive to Islam, I chose not to provide a forum for what could be incendiary material.  At the Sheen Center, we cannot and will not be a forum that mocks or satirizes another faith group.

I am confident that the programming at the Sheen Center will continue to demonstrate our commitment to meaningful conversation about important issues, and will do so in a respectful manner — to people of all faiths, or of no particular faith.

Reilly wrote, in a separate e-mail, that he learned of the content of “Playwrights for a Cause” from a staff member on May 11, saying that his staff knew of three of the plays prior to his start as executive director in late January, that he signed the contract on February 10, and that his staff only learned of the La Bute play on May 8, when they “discovered” it on the Planet Connections website.

*   *   *

Before continuing, I should note my pre-existing relationship with NCAC. I have worked collaboratively with them on several instances of school theatre censorship, most notably on the cancelation of a production of Almost, Maine in Maiden NC and most recently on a threat to student written plays in Aurora, CO. Last year, they named me as one of their “Top 40 Free Speech Defenders.” They first informed me of the cancelation of “Playwrights for a Cause” because they were seeking suggestions of where they might relocate the event, and they did not solicit me at any time to write about the situation.

*   *   *

In the wake of the cancelation, the NCAC indicated to me that the contract for the event, signed by Planet Connections, provided for cancelations pertaining to content concerns. The statement from the Sheen Center (“unacceptable vis a vis our contract”) seemed to confirm that proviso. However, when I asked Glory Kadigan, producing artistic curator of Planet Connections about provisions for cancelation in the contract, she responded,

It does say no abortions on the premises. And it does say it can’t be pornographic. However the Sheen did not cite pornography as the reason they were breaking contract. They cited religion. I do not see anything in the contract that states ‘religious differences’ as a reason they are allowed to break contract. I also can’t find a clause that states that ‘not upholding their mission’ is a reason they can break contract.

Kadigan reaffirmed this in a subsequent e-mail:

When breaking contract with us – [a Sheen staffer] stated in an email that they had a right to break contract for “religious differences/being offensive to a religion” and not upholding their mission statement. The contract does not state this anywhere that we can find. This was just something she said in an email when breaking contract but it is not actually in the contract.”

Kadigan also said there was no provision in the contract for review or approval of content. In a follow-up e-mail, after two prior exchanges, I asked Reilly if he could share the specific contract language that provided for cancelation due to material that might prove offensive to any religious group. I received no response. He also did not respond to my inquiry asking if the decision to cancel the contract based solely on the La Bute play or if the content by the featured speakers part of the decision.

*   *   *

Sheen CenterThe website of the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture doesn’t make explicit that it’s a project of New York’s Catholic Archdiocese, although it does so in a current job listing for a managing director position on the New York Foundation for the Arts website. However, there are clear public indications that the new arts center has a Catholic underpinning, via its mission statement:

The Sheen Center is a forum to highlight the true, the good, and the beautiful as they have been expressed throughout the ages. Cognizant of our creation in the image and likeness of God, the Sheen Center aspires to present the heights and depths of human expression in thought and culture, featuring humankind as fully alive. At the Sheen Center, we proclaim that life is worth living, especially when we seek to deepen, explore, challenge, and stimulate ourselves, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, intellectually, artistically, and spiritually.

“Sheen Center for Thought and Culture” is also not the complete name of the venue, since its letterhead notes that it is in fact “The Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Center for Thought and Culture.” I wouldn’t begin to suggest that the Center is hiding its affiliation with the church, but it is inconsistent in making the relationship clear.

I think it would benefit the Sheen Center enormously to clarify this, because a religious organization certainly has the right to determine what activities are appropriate in its own facilities. In making its facility available to outside groups for rent, rather than relying solely on its own productions, it behooves the Center to make clear how they might choose to assert their prerogative.

In an article last year in the Wall Street Journal, Elena K. Holy, who runs the New York International Fringe Festival, an early tenant of the Center, discussed her conversations with the Center’s leadership about content, prior to Reilly’s tenure:

The new spaces appealed to Ms. Holy, whose festival typically includes shows that would raise the eyebrows of conservative churchgoers. “We’ve had conversations about it,” said Ms. Holy. “They approached us. And my initial response was ‘Are you sure?'”

Ms. Holy said she was given no restriction on style or content, with one caveat: “They wanted to avoid anything that is hateful about a one group of people. And that probably wouldn’t be accepted to Fringe NYC anyway.”

Of course, the Fringe has the benefit of playing in more than a dozen venues, so presumably it can program its work at the Center accordingly, to avoid running afoul of its content restrictions. From this year’s crop of upcoming productions at the Fringe, I would say we’re unlikely to see Van Gogh Fuck Yourself, Virgin Sacrifice, The God Gaffe, or Popesical at the Sheen Center. I have no idea what they would make of An Inconvenient Poop or I Want To Kill Lena Dunham.

I do find myself wondering about another booking at The Sheen Center, specifically The Public Theater’s Emerging Writers Group Spotlight series. Since the beginning of April, and concluding next week, The Public has presented two free readings of each of ten new plays. While the titles don’t indicate any potential controversy as La Bute’s did – they include Optimism, The Black Friend, The Good Ones and Pretty Hunger – it’s hard not to wonder whether ten new plays by young writers by sheer coincidence manage to not make any statements that could be perceived as contrary or insulting to any faith. Since it doesn’t appear that the Sheen Center requires script material to be submitted in advance, is it possible that if a Sheen staff member attended a 3 pm reading in The Public’s series and heard statements they deemed to be contrary to the center’s mission, the 7 pm reading of the same script might be prevented from going on?

*   *   *

Reilly stated that the Center is “100% for the right to free speech for every American.” However, truly free speech means that we have to allow for both words and ideas that may not be acceptable to everyone. As a project of the Catholic Church, the Sheen Center certainly has the absolute right, as do all religious institutions in the US, to assert its prerogative over what is said and performed on its premises – but that is not 100% free speech for their tenants during their stay, even if the goal of restrictions is to foster, in Reilly’s words, “meaningful conversation that reaches for understanding and not polarization.”

While Reilly’s comments were not shared with her, Kadigan, in her final e-mail to me, seemed to directly confront the idea that the event was meant to polarize. She wrote:

‘Playwrights For A Cause’ is a great event in which we are building bridges. We had two Muslim actors performing that evening who were going to be on our panel.   We also have African American artists performing and Asian American writers speaking.  Women playwrights and LGBT playwrights were also going to be on the panel. Erik Ehn (one of the other presenting writers) is a devout Catholic.  Israel Horovitz is Jewish. All of these people would be on the panel so we had a lot of different opinions/voices.

The events of the past week make it abundantly clear why the Sheen Center needs to be more transparent in its affiliation and restrictions. It should not enter into rental contracts which may be canceled for content concerns unless it makes explicitly clear what lines cannot be crossed in its facility – allowing arts organizations seeking to use the facility to consider whether they want their work subject to such scrutiny, or to work in a facility that imposes such content limitations on others. That way, all parties can be fully informed in their dealings at the very start, understanding that the Sheen Center, in the words of New York Times reporter David Gonzalez, “was envisioned as a vehicle for the church to evangelize through culture and art.”

As for “Playwrights for a Cause”? I’m told by the National Coalition Against Censorship that they and Planet Connections may have a line on a new venue. I hope they do (maybe even one I suggested), and that the result of this conflict will be to fill whatever theatre they end up performing in. After all, one of the results of silencing speech, even in those rare cases where the right exists to do so, usually has the effect of spreading the original message even further.

Update May 19, 2:45 pm: Planet Connections has announced that “Playwrights for a Cause” will take place as scheduled on June 14 at New York Theatre Workshop. However, the program will no longer include Neil LaBute’s piece. The playwright released a statement regarding his decision to withdraw the piece:

Unfortunately the event was starting to become all about my play and its title and not about the fine work that Erik Ehn, Halley Feiffer and Israel Horovitz were also presenting that evening, along with the accompanying speeches and the cause of the evening itself. “I had hoped my work would be viewed on its own merits rather than overshadow our message or become a beacon of controversy. I am honestly not interested in stirring hatred or merely being offensive; I wanted my play to provoke real thought and debate and I now feel like that opportunity has been lost and, therefore, it is best that I withdraw the play from “Playwrights For A Cause.”

Howard Sherman is the director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at the New School for Drama.


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  • Leonard Jacobs

    You’ve done a yeoman’s job on this, and you do acknowledge, albeit reluctantly, that the Sheen Center (branding criticisms notwithstanding) has a legal right to control the content of its own space. But when one reaches the end of your story, Howard, you seem to take sides when you write:

    “After all, one of the results of silencing speech, even in those rare
    cases where the right exists to do so, usually has the effect of
    spreading the original message even further.”

    Whether the Sheen Center spreads “the original message even further” is manifestly not the point. Either the First Amendment covers everybody or it doesn’t. When I read this sentence…

    “As a project of the Catholic Church, the Sheen Center certainly has the
    absolute right, as do all religious institutions in the US, to assert
    its prerogative over what is said and performed on its premises – but
    that is not 100% free speech.”

    …you, in fact, really betray your bias. No, it isn’t 100% free speech if the Church doesn’t want “Mohammad Gets a Boner” in its privately owned and operated space. But what is your remedy? To force the Church to betray its own First Amendment rights to accommodate content that it opposes in a space that it privately owns and operates? That would not be 100% free speech either. You ought to acknowledge that.

    Glory left a comment on my Facebook feed similarly denying any content clause in their contract. Perhaps that is so. Those of us with much longer memories, however, recall what the Church did to Jeff Cohen’s RAPP Arts Center back in 1990. Precisely the same situation, except Jeff sued and lost — and lost, and lost. I’m a liberal, but to argue, as you seem to be, that the exercising of jurisdiction over private property constitutes a form of censorship is too socialistic for my taste. In the America I grew up in, free speech doesn’t mean eliminating someone else’s free speech.

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