Dancing Towards Censorship in Oklahoma State University’s Theatre

March 2nd, 2016 § 0 comments

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When a student-devised piece of theatre begins as The Politics of Dancing, an examination of relationships springing from Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, and is ultimately produced as This Title Has Been Censored, something is amiss. When a student production scheduled for multiple performances in a college theatre department’s mainstage season ends up as a single workshop performance with rudimentary tech given during a final exam period, something is strange. When an original work of theatre begins to address gender roles and is immediately downsized, something is troubling. When these actions were prompted because an inchoate project was judged by departmental leadership based solely on a few preliminary scenes reviewed  four months before the work was to be finished, something seems wrong.

But those are all aspects of what transpired over the past several months in the theatre department of Oklahoma State UniversityThe Politics of Dancing, which had been announced as part of the school’s 2015-16 mainstage season in the Vivia Locke Theatre, which seats some 500 patrons, was to have been presented in February; the rest of the season included A.R. Gurney’s What I Did Last Summer, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Instead of The Politics of Dancing, the school produced John Cariani’s Almost, Maine.

So what exactly happened to The Politics of Dancing? In October, Professor Jodi Jinks, who holds the school’s Mary Lou Lemon Endowed Professorship for Underrepresented Voices, shared a few short scenes from the work the students had begun to create with the head of the department, which both she and the students say weren’t necessarily representative of what the finished work would be like, given the evolving nature of any devised theatre.

“Professor Jinks allowed us as an ensemble to explore what we wanted. It kind of naturally flowed in that direction,” said student Jessica Smoot via e-mail. “Honestly I think it just came from the fact that you can’t properly explore romantic relationships without understanding gender, and since it is such a hot topic these days it became a much more fascinating subject to explore.”

Student Joshua Arbaugh said, also via e-mail, “The focus of the show never switched from ‘general relationships.’ Gender was only one subject that the show was going to touch on. There was never a time that we as a group decided that the show would be about gender. However, gender and gender roles play a big part in relationships so we devoted a healthy amount of time early in our devising process to explore the many facets of gender in our research and our work. We had no idea that this would displease anyone and did not believe that it was a divergence in our declared ‘focus’.”

Prof. Jinks says that she shared some very early drafts of Dancing on October 19 and two days later department chair Andrew Kimbrough met with the students involved in the production and, in Jinks’s words, “dropped the bomb, or gave the option.”

“We could change the direction we were heading in and create something for our [mainstage] audience, or the students could say what they wanted to say and move to the studio,” explained Jinks.

The audience, as described by students in their meeting with Kimbrough, was “over 50, white and Republican,” according to Jinks in an interview with the campus newspaper The O’Colly.  Kimbrough told The O’Colly, “I believed the students’ assessment of the audience was accurate.” From The O’Colly:

The theater department advertised the play as a production that “examines the mating rituals of our planet’s most advanced and complicated species,” according to a department brochure.

“I was seeing an evolution of work that was, one, not on the topic that was proposed, (and) two, that tended to be one-sided in its address of transgender issues,” Kimbrough said.

Kimbrough said he visited the class and requested that if the students continued with “The Politics of Dancing,” they keep in mind the type of audience they would be performing for.

“Even though they were moving in a new direction, they were never asked to abandon the topic but simply to proceed from the vantage of mid-October with our current audience in mind,” Kimbrough said. “And I believe when you’re running a business, this is the No. 1 rule. You must create work that has your audience in mind.”

After a weekend of consideration, according to Jinks, the students decided to move the production to the smaller studio. “Ultimately,” said Jinks, “they decided to perform the play they originally wanted to write.”

But that plan hit a snag when Jinks and the students were later informed that their production in the studio would have no production support, because the technical departments, in her description, “could not do two things that close together or at the same time,” with the substituted mainstage show cited as a conflict.

“They were offered the studio and thought they could do that,” said Jinks. “That was the option they were presented, and slowly, bit by bit, it was removed.”

Regarding Kimbrough’s position on the project, Arbaugh wrote, “The idea of him bullying our work until he was ‘comfortable’ with it was too great a cost. However, none of us would have chosen to lose departmental support and our spot in the season. We were all blindsided by the decision and I would say it’s because we gave the “wrong answer.”

Arbaugh continued, saying, “The Politics of Dancing was supposed to be a true test of all our talents. We, as students of the theater, were to use everything we had learned in this in this endeavor. When it was cancelled, it was like a big door was slammed in all of our faces saying, ‘who you are is inappropriate and what you have to contribute has no value.’ So self-esteems suffered and even now there is anxiety in the department.”

So why did the show become This Title Has Been Censored?

“As a class,’ wrote Smoot, “we found that using the source materials we were initially assigned (A Doll’s House and the “Politics Of Dancing” song) were becoming more of a hindrance to our creativity, so we scrapped them from the show. This, along with the struggles we had faced through the process, made the show look completely different from what it was initially intended to be – but that can be expected with devised theatre! We wanted to rename the show in a way that acknowledged the struggles in the process. The final product still discussed gender, but in a much more personal way that drew from many of our personal experiences and life moments interspersed with current events revolving around gender.”

At the show’s single performance, Jinks wrote the following in the program:

During the first few weeks of this current semester the Devised Theatre class was developing a different play than the one you will see today. It was called the The Politics of Dancing and it was to be performed in the Vivia Locke in February of 2016. The devised class would build it and perform it, with me serving as facilitator and director. Over a year ago I made preliminary choices to jump start the process with the class. We were to deconstruct Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House and build a new piece by looking at Ibsen’s work through the lens of gender identification, transgenderism and gender politics – subjects which are omnipresent in the media of late. However other lessons (struggles) interrupted that process.

Jinks believes that some of the problems that arose came from many in the theatre department being unfamiliar with company-created theatre.

“I was working with faculty who have no experience with devising, but I thought we were addressing those needs, “ she said, noting that there was “some rigidity, some pushback even before it was canceled.” Jinks said she discounted that response, calling it “irrelevant.”

“It was so early in the process, the play could have gone in any direction. We had four months. They canceled it because the idea was threatening.”

Jinks described a series of meetings with the dean, the provost, the faculty council and the Office of Equal Opportunity between November and early February.”

“I was met with a wall of silence and denial,” she said, “I’d like them to tell me why it isn’t a denial of academic freedom of speech.”

In February, Jinks met with Kimbrough and the provost.

“I gave both men by action requests, “ she said. “One, Andrew was to acknowledge that an error was made in canceling The Politics of Dancing. Two, Andrew would apologize to the department – faculty, staff and students. Three, the department would write policy so that this doesn’t happen again. Four, there would be a recusal from professional advancement discussion by Andrew over me.”

“Andrew said no to one and two,” she continued. “He did say he would apologize for not having everyone in the same room at the same time to discuss the issue.”

Jinks has been at Oklahoma State University for five years, four of those on a tenure track. She will be up for tenure review in two years.

*   *   *

Dr. Andrew Kimbrough was contacted by e-mail and asked for an on the record interview regarding this situation. His entire reply was as follows

I’ll be happy to speak to you once our challenge is fully resolved and behind us. I’m learning a lot, and would appreciate more professional response. Thanks.

A second request, noting that his replies to The O’Colly would be the only opportunity for his voice to be heard in this article, received no reply.

Since Dr. Kimbrough asked for more professional response, it seems only appropriate to provide him with some.

My first thought is to say that if indeed you are not already well-versed, Dr. Kimbrough, you should become familiar with the process of devised theatre as an evolutionary process that cannot necessarily be given a label more than half a year in advance and be expected to stick to exactly the original premise. That said, devised theatre must have a place in the OSU theatre department with the full resources of the department, because devised theatre is important both academically and creatively; it is essential that theatre students of today learn about and experience devised, collaborative works to prepare them forprofessional careers.

Please reconsider your statements and overall perspective, Dr. Kimbrough, about the audience being the most important arbiter of what students perform at OSU. Your assertion in The O’Colly, “When you’re running a business, this is the No. 1 rule,” seems profoundly misplaced within an academic theatre program. Students should not be educated according to the perceived preferences of the local consumer marketplace, but rather taught in order to develop their talent, their skills, and their knowledge so that they themselves are competitive in the marketplace of theatre. Indeed, if your position on why we make theatre were voiced by the artistic director of most of America’s not-for-profit theatres, that individual would be questioned by many in the field for abdicating the role of an artistic leader and kowtowing to lowest common denominator sentiments. Yes, there are financial demands on all theatres, and theatre cannot survive without an audience, but those concerns need to operate in balance with the creative impulse. To visit those concerns on students who have paid for a complete theatrical education, with audience satisfaction superseding the education imperative,  seems a corruption of the role of academics.

Dr. Kimbrough, your students have the same sentiments as I do.

Jessica Smoot wrote, “He sees this department as a business, and while that has been very beneficial when building the department, it can become dangerous for the creative integrity of the department, which I think is very detrimental to our department. There are ways to warn people to not come if you’re easily offended – add ratings, label shows as avant garde or fringe – but don’t take freedom of speech from the students. We will spend the rest of our lives having to worry about where the money to support our art will come from. Let us have some freedom while we still have the ability to not worry about finance, so that when producing our work becomes harder, we will be creating better quality work from the start because we have already had a chance to practice.”

Joshua Arbaugh wrote, “How could we possibly predict what every audience member came to see and how do we know whether or not there is a completely different audience that has simply been alienated by these ‘choices’ in the past. When someone says, “We need to cater to our audience.” That person is really saying, ‘what’s going to be the most digestible to the kinds of people I personally want to come to these shows.’ My answer is no, the theater season should not be selected to impress Andrew’s hetero-normative white friends.”

Finally Dr. Kimbrough, while one would hope you would do so in all things, it’s particularly incumbent upon you when your department has an endowed chair for underrepresented voices to always demonstrate genuine concern and respect for the students who embody those voices and the professor directly charged with serving them. When you offered the students the opportunity to pursue their vision in a smaller space due to your concerns over the marketability of a piece which appeared to be leaning towards a consideration of gender, and they were subsequently informed that they would receive no technical support and no promotion, you were effectively suppressing art on that subject, regardless of your intent.

I am very fond of Almost Maine (and its author, John Cariani) and I’ve seen Cabaret numerous times, but I don’t think those are shows which deeply explore gender issues and represent efforts at diversity, as you suggested to The O’Colly. You need to redress the impression you have instilled in your students as quickly as possible, by planning for work which explicitly examines that topic, either on the mainstage or for a sustained run in the studio. In addition, you would do well to endorse a new student devised work on the subject of gender in modern society that you will stand behind as firmly as you do The 39 Steps or As You Like It (which does have a bit of gender bending of its own, rendered safe by being 400 years old).

On top of all of this, Dr. Kimbrough, to speak your language for a moment, if money is an important consideration, your actions may be alienating a presumably important donor. To cite an article in The Gayly:

“Literally, the name of this endowed professorship is ‘The Mary Lou Lemon Endowed Professorship for underrepresented voices,’” said Robyn Lemon, daughter of the late Mary Lou Lemon. “Not allowing these students to perform this play contradicts the very reason this entire professorship was set up.”

The bottom line here is that the education of students must come first at a university, and that education must not be simply current but forward-thinking in its philosophy, its pedagogy and its practice. The Politics of Dancing isn’t likely to be resurrected; its moment has passed. But if Oklahoma State University theatre wishes to stand for excellence, if it wants to both compete for students and for the students it graduates to be competitive, it must make very clear that it embraces students no matter their gender identity, their race, the ability or disability – in short, it must be genuinely and consistently inclusive – and it should use its stages to make that clear to the entire university, the local community and beyond.

*   *   *

One last word: as The O’Colly researched its story on this subject, Kimbrough acknowledged that he attempted to have the story quashed. He was quoted saying, “I think it would be in the best interest of the department if there was no negative publicity of this incident.” When there are charges of censoring a piece of theatre by reducing its potential audience significantly and withdrawing support from it, that’s not a very good time to also try to keep the story from being told. As is so often the case, efforts to avoid negative stories only lead to yet more inquiry and more concern. That holds true for decisions to cease answering questions about a subject in the public eye. Theatre is about telling stories and very often, about revealing truths. The story of The Politics of Dancing is incomplete. It is up to Oklahoma State Theatre to bring it to an honest, open, inclusive and satisfying ending for all concerned.


Howard Sherman is director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at The New School College of Performing Arts. This post originally appeared at arts integrity.org.

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