Tennessee Teen Production of Rent Goes on Despite Clergy Opposition – Exclusive Interview with Director

News   Tennessee Teen Production of Rent Goes on Despite Clergy Opposition – Exclusive Interview with Director The big news in Tullahoma, TN last weekend is what didn't happen.

In a scenario out of Footloose, a Tullahoma clergyman tried to unite local church leaders in opposition to a production of the musical Rent, performed by a mostly teen-aged cast from a group called PACT (Performing Arts for Children and Teens) at the South Jackson Civic Center, staged by freelance director Robert Allen, who lives in the community.

In the days before the July 10 opening, James Zidan, pastor of the local Methodist church in Tullahoma, published an open letter to his congregation, showing information about the upcoming production of Rent. Another clergyman, Pastor Wayne Wester, responded, "Do you agree with me and many of my fellow Pastors and concerned parents that this is inappropriate for such a group? If you do…speak up about it! If you don’t…shame on you. Jesus should be our moral compass, especially for our young people to see from adults." The message was distributed via email to several other church leaders in the area.

Two adult volunteers on the production resigned and participants found themselves on the receiving end of "unpleasant invective" from friends and family members about their participation.

Allen applied for permission from MTI, the stock and amateur rights holder, for permission to cut the song "Contact." Permission reportedly was received.

Despite the letter, PACT's board decided to go on with performances that continue this weekend, through July 18. The only outward protest was a prayer circle of three to four people outside the theatre on opening night. There was no disruption of the performance. Allen told Playbill.com, "This whole journey has been unbelievable. The manifestation of what I always teach my students: that theatre is a powerful catalyst for social engagement and change, and the choice to do it comes with great responsibility."

The Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning 1996 Jonathan Larson musical has drawn opposition previously, dealing as it does openly with homosexuality and AIDS. Opposition tends to focus on the show's adult themes as being inappropriate for participants under 18, though the general subject matter has drawn fire as well. Allen said only two participants in the show are under 18, and filled out permission slips from their parents to take part.

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Photo by Erica Lynn Wonder

Blogger and former American Theatre Wing Executive Director Howard Sherman, director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at the New School for Drama, got wind of the situation and contacted Pastor Zidan. Sherman shared the response with Playbill.com. "I don’t believe or community has an interest or appetite for such fare; particularly for our children. Our previous PACT productions have been Oliver!, Big River, Pinocchio and Peter Pan. This is a pretty big deviation from those family-friendly productions. I have attempted to speak to all the leaders of our theater community, including the current leaders of PACT. I even offered to speak on our local community television show to express my concerns and inform the public. No one seems interested in having this discussion so I have decided to sit and wait. I may write an editorial for our local paper, but I think I well wait until after the production. It is not my desire to sabotage this performance. I think it will fail financially. We’re [sic] it not for PACT money and the accompanying grants (for children’s theater) I don’t think they could even have produced this show. Ultimately it is up to our parents and local theater leadership; and apparently they are all asleep at the wheel."

Allen agreed to a Q&A with Playbill.com.

What made you pick Rent to produce at PACT?
I had just directed Big River and we were sitting at strike with South Jackson Civic Center's Executive Board Chairman Kathryn Hopkins. I said, "You all will NEVER con me into directing a show with the word 'big' in the title again." She said, what is PACT doing next? The program director looked at me and we shrugged. Kathryn said, "What about Rent?" And by that evening we had the rights request submitted to MTI, and Roseanne had our contract ready the next day. I have never been a fan of Rent myself. I always called it Rant when teaching, and told my students I would never direct it. Seven of them ended up in this production and they never let me live down my aspersions. Even as a child, there were things I wanted to say to adults about my life and what I believed, but I never had the voice or courage. We suddenly found ourselves with a courageous board and a PACT group with older kids who have a lot to say. And how could I refuse the opportunity to see theatre become to our town what I always said it is? The board approved the request by PACT to do the show, then hired me as the director. It sort of happened to me.

Did you anticipate the opposition you received?
No...but secretly I think I may have manifested it. Erica, Erik and I knew we had to go into it prepared. We did not pick a fight, but we wanted to be ready to respond. We received a grant from the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee not for Rent, but for ancillary activities to prepare the community for the message and the style in which Rent delivers it. Yes, we all know it's love... what could be so radical about that? Except I knew the SCOTUS would be issuing a landmark ruling on Marriage literally while we performed. And I knew that ruling would be positive, and I knew that anger over that positive ruling would be projected onto Rent. So we prepared an action plan to know how we would respond, always with facts, and always with love.

How was it decided to go on with the show?
It was never an option to cancel. The board said going into it that regardless of what happened, the show would not be cancelled due to content objections. They committed and followed through. It was inspiring and empowering not to have to worry about that. I credit Jim Conelley (legal counsel) and Kathryn Hopkins with that. Ten years ago, the show would not only have been canceled, but would never have been entertained as a performance option.

What reaction from the community were you expecting?
Rent has not been done often in the immediate area. So just the scariness of "a story about HIV and gay couples and someone cross-dressing" was going to be something to combat. I expected our community to come, no matter what, to the support of the "kids" (by kids I mean anyone under 35; it's a Southern expression.) Erica and Erik and I educated ourselves on all sort of statistics...HIV infection rate in our county, number of youth suicides, number of drug arrests.... but we never got that far. The opposition centered on us doing the show with "kids." PACT stands for Performing Arts for Children and Teens. And that was where things went up, even though there were three minors in the cast whose parents were very involved. Even after being informed of this fact over and over...in writing, in photos and hard copies of the three minor actors' waivers...this "fact" kept being repeated. We realized this was the politically correct argument. People could express their prejudices through a symbol (PACT doing Rent) instead of confronting their true fears...and you just can't argue with that. So we didn't. We stuck to our guns with the backing of the board: Rent couldn't be more relevant and necessary for audiences of young people. So the facts still won. And love still won. The prayer vigil drew three people and some curious onlookers....and occurred oddly as an unrelated Confederate Flag rally passed by....and I believe that represents the same type of argument here. People can't say what they really believe because it's too ugly, but hiding behind a symbol makes it OK. Oddly, the community has not responded to the other local productions of 13 and Company taking place in this county and also produced by youth organizations.

What were the most positive and least positive reactions you got?
The most positive responses I have gotten have come from educators who are in the field every day working with "kids." A guidance counselor from the local high school cried during a talk back session saying simply "Thank you." She said, "I see these kids every day and my hands are tied to get them the help they need and the information they need. You are doing work the schools are failing at." A preacher in the cast said: "This is what church should be" (referring to the rehearsal process).

Oddly the least positive reaction came from a local community college professor who sent an email to me saying, "I know who you are and what you are" (oddly I have never met her) and proclaiming no support for any project I did or Rent itself, ending with the words "You are not welcome to work with any project I do at [the college.]"
Of course, since my advanced degree work is in directing and I wanted to talk about the show, the imagery, the metaphors, the approach, the statement, the performances...but all that kind of got pushed to the side. Opening night I told the cast, "This audience is here b/c they love you...you could suck and they'd still love you....the awesome thing is...You don't suck!"

Do you know Pastor Zidan personally?
I know Jim and I consider him a friend. I mean what better publicity could we have gotten? We couldn't have afforded the marketing he provided. But, seriously, I know Jim as a man of faith, responding to a situation he feels threatens the community he has been called to shepherd. I believe his response was misguided. There are many things to object to in Rent, but the idea that to protect young people from things, we censor them has been solidly debunked. The idea that the show was done with or for children has been solidly debunked (though knowing some would see the show we were prepared to handle that situation responsibly with facts for parents). I have choreographed Jim in a production of Anything Goes for the local college, during which he expressed similar concerns as to the sexuality of the composer and the content of the show.

On opening night, several members of the cast (and most pointedly the 22-year-old straight boy playing Angel, whom I know outside theatre from refereeing the match which won him a state championship medal in wrestling) received Facebook messages from Pastor Jim saying, "I would like to wish you good luck tonight, but morally I cannot."
I applaud Jim for his convictions and sticking by them, but I certainly wish Jim would see the show and participate in a talk back session, before he writes an editorial. How can one respond honestly and informedly to something one has not seen? I think without doing so is similar to continually proposing the argument that his daughter (11 years old) would not be allowed to participate in Rent. Because he's right, she wouldn't be. Moving on to the next argument: PACT did Patricia Haines-Ainsworth's Robin Hood this summer for the kids under 18...and several adults participated as the kings. We used the shows both to fulfill PACT's mission.

Did you hear from him or the others area pastors in the days leading up to the opening or since then? What did they say about this production?
I did not. Aside from some random pops on Facebook, nothing was said in the entire year as we move towards the production. The SCOTUS decision [allowing gay marriage] really fanned the flames. Nobody from the concerned communities has approached me directly except for the letter from the professor at the local college. And of course they wouldn't. I'm a sinner.

How did you feel watching the show on opening night?
Full! Surrounded. Safe. I was that kid in that building again. This time hearing messages I needed to hear 20 years ago. I saw people receiving and internalizing that message. The love pouring off the stage and towards the stage, and in the doors and through the cast was something in 40 years of doing all levels of theatre I have never felt.

What’s been the most positive thing to come out of this experience?
For me, personally? I have released 40 years of fear and shame. It's gone. Never again. For the community? We've realized the Parable of the Sower and the Seed from Matthew 13. Good seed in good soil from a good sower will bring good fruit. All those things combined here and a change is coming. Also, we went into partnership with a community theatre from five hours North. Their cast came down opening weekend to join our ensemble and it was a hugely positive experience to grow the Rent family and for our "kids" to know they are supported and loved from everywhere and to know they are important and doing important work.

What was the response you heard from your cast and crew?
We lost two adult cast members due to family objections. Otherwise completely positive. They have offered me complete trust and support.

Has this process affected your standing at PACT or in your community?
PACT is known for high quality productions. Erica and I both have done our masters work in the fields, she in music performance, I in directing. We teach our participants the right way to do things and to recognize the difference between good and bad theatre and performance and habits. We expect them to work as professionals. When you expect that from young people, you get it. So PACT has a lot of respect in the community and I think that's what has made this show possible. We worked hard to gain the respect of the community and that allows them to still support us when we take a risk and know it's for a reason. It's really an excellent position for a youth program to be in. I am open about my past and my life because those things can derail the process if you hide them. They have power over you and can be used against you. I personally am completely transparent, and vulnerable, because I ask that honesty of the actors and if I am not, they cannot be. And it's helped for the cast to be able to ask me questions and know it won't offend me. I do tend to be confrontational and sometimes aggressive in my defense of the program and the productions we do and the characters and communities we represent. I have been proud of my ability to just stick to the facts and argue the merits of the show and the program. I hope people have found a respect for how I have handled the controversy. Much help from Howard Sherman educating us how to respond effectively.

Do you have plans for future shows?
During the process of Rent I lost my mother to Alzheimer's. I need a little break. But I'll be taking contracts again soon and back on the road. So...the next show will be whatever someone hires me for. I'd like to do Laurie Brooks's The Wrestling Season again (it's my pet show).

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Tullahoma is a community of about 19,000 people in southern Tennessee. The closest city is Chattanooga. Tullahoma is also 68 miles from Dayton, the site of the famous 1925 Scopes "Monkey" Trial that served as the inspiration for the play Inherit the Wind, which dealt with the still-contentious issue of teaching evolution versus creationism in local classrooms.

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