For 15 years in the northeastern Texas town of Kilgore, the Texas Shakespeare Festival (TSF) has been a "cultural oasis" in an otherwise desolate artistic landscape. So says Kilgore College president William Holda, whose theatre department there sponsors the TSF on an ongoing basis. But the bucolic nature of that arrangement may be in jeopardy following Kilgore College's controversial student production of Angels in America in October.
Community opposition to the student production was so intense, the show was closed and county commissioners voted on Oct. 28 to rescind $50,000 in TSF funding as an indirect but painful lesson to the educators who run the separate college and festival programs.
At the center of the story is educator Raymond Caldwell, who founded the TSF and currently runs Kilgore's theatre department. Caldwell, who has 35 years experience as an educator, knew to expect controversy with Angels but said he was blindsided by the hatred and the level of personal attacks he started to receive.
"At Kilgore, we have done The Crucible, Glass Menagerie, and Our Town, which are great plays," Caldwell told Playbill On-Line. "But they're done to death. This summer, it began to get on my conscience. We hadn't produced a play that was written since 1980, other than an innocuous comedy. We had not done anything serious that had been written since these kids were born. I knew we should do something that spoke to them and came from their generation."
Caldwell told Playbill On-Line he had never read Angels in America until this summer, and he has never seen any other production of the play other than the one he produced at Kilgore. Even so, Caldwell said, he cut the on stage sex scene so that the action was heard but unseen, and he removed the one moment of nudity because he thought it unnecessary. "I've always known what the community would accept and what the students would be willing or unwilling to do," he added.
Caldwell said that after a local clergyman began organizing his congregation in opposition to the play, a second and a third church fell into line. Eventually, Kilgore's largest congregation of that faith joined the fracas.
The threats and attacks started almost immediately, Caldwell said, but they intensified with the addition of protests from members of the Heritage Baptist Church/God Said Ministry from Mount Enterprise, TX. Caldwell said the ACLU had actually called to advise him of the involvement of Heritage Baptist, whose activist members picketed the show with graphic sexual images that were "worse than anything in the play itself," according to Caldwell.
Absent county funding for the TSF, the future of the popular festival is unclear. Caldwell said that other community groups had pledged as much as $45,000 in addition to the county's $50,000, but since the controversy began, they have threatened a review and may pull that funding as well. Kilgore's Holdra said that the funding mentioned above was secured recently to compensate for earlier cuts by the college.
"TSF has struggled financially, and costs have increased while the college's ability to fund the festival has diminished due to a declining tax base," Holdra said. "Last year the college had to cut $50,000 from the festival budget, and this year we cut $30,000. So over two years, the festival has actually lost $80,000 in college funding, and I have been out there trying to come up with supplements."
Widely regarded as a "gay fantasia on national themes," Angels in America has two parts -- Millennium Approaches and Perestroika. Each of the two segments runs more than two hours. In earlier productions, the play dealt with AIDS, sexual issues and politics in what most critics agreed was a remarkably effective and moving way, although it is little surprise that there would be opposition to the subject matter. The original Broadway cast of Angels in America included Ron Leibman, Ellen McLaughlin, Stephen Spinella, Marcia Gay Harden, David Marshall Grant, Mantello, Kathleen Chalfant and Geoffrey Wright.
Kilgore's Holda said community opposition to the play first began after a local clergyman saw provocative cartoons that lampooned rednecks in connection with the production in the student paper, "The Flare." Caldwell told Playbill On-Line he had received threats leading up to and during the play's short run in Texas. The threats were also directed at Holda.
"Eleven thousand people come every summer to see the festival, " Holda told Playbill On-Line. At a given time, Holda said, Kilgore College typically has 7,000 students enrolled -- 4,100 credit students, and an additional 3,000 non-credit students.
Holda originally reached out to the Gregg County Commissioners in Longview, TX hoping they might vote to provide $50,000 in funding, which they did. But he had to reshape his proposal from an outright gift proposal to a challenge grant. "For every outside dollar we could raise for permanent festival funding," Holda said, "one dollar from the commission would go into the general operating fund, up to $50,000. It was a good incentive that everyone believed would encourage people to give to the festival."
On Oct. 28, 11 days after Kilgore College had closed Angels in America and while Gregg County Commission judge Mickey Smith was traveling with Kilgore's Holda in Austin, the remainder of the commission met and voted to rescind the Texas Shakespeare Festival's funding by a vote of 4-0. In Texas, Holda explained, each county has a five member commission led by a judge. Although the commission judge does not have to have legal training, the job confers judicial status.
Asked if he believed the commission did an end run, Holda told Playbill On Line, "Yes." Holda explained that it was the commission judge, Mickey Smith, who put the festival funding into the county budget in the first place, and that rescinding the funding in his absence was an unlikely coincidence. "Judge Smith put it in originally," Holda added, "and they already had lots of other financial issues to deal with, like roads, an airport and salary issues. The whole budget only passed by a vote of 3-2, so two commissioners were obviously against the budget itself from the start."
Holda said that one commissioner felt the county shouldn't fund the arts; another felt that if one program was funded then the county had to fund them all; and a third commissioner believed that since the county couldn't control the way arts money was being spent, the commission shouldn't be funding arts.
"Angels in America created a tremendous amount of fear in the local community," Holda explained. "There were a number of hot buttons -- homosexuality, profanity and the shattering realization that we are a diverse community...[as a society] we've created this illusion of homogeneity, and that was threatened. "
Holda said there was a great deal of misinformation surrounding the issue, and that some members of the community anticipated homosexual sex acts on stage with nude actors.
"The fear was that we were leading people down that road," Holda said, "and that we had an agenda to promote. To me, the play is a commentary on life at the end of the century. People feel disconnected and sad, as if they are searching for meaning or relationship. Some of those basic human needs transcend lifestyle issues. There's a line in the play where one actor says, 'I am not worthy of being loved,' and the other says, 'At least we'll have something in common.'"
Holda said he wouldn't have chosen to get into this position but was dealing with it as best he could.
"The image of the college has been enhanced with educators and people who champion artistic principles," Holda said. "But in the eyes of the community, we're a principal moral threat to the moral fibre of the community."