Editorial: Defending artistic freedom with PVPA’s ‘The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told’
SARAH CROSBY Students from the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter School rehearse a scene from "The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told." It will be performed this weekend in Northampton. Purchase photo reprints »
On Friday, the curtain will go up on “The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told,” a play performed on the Academy of Music stage by students from the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School. Even before the first curtain falls, we applaud school officials for not letting thousands of emails objecting to the production stop them from putting it on.
In 1999, Amherst Regional High School handled a controversy over a planned high school production in an entirely different manner. When local parents protested a performance of “West Side Story,” saying it contains racist stereotypes, the school cancelled the play. That was a bad call. On the other hand, Amherst High has presented the controversial play “The Vagina Monologues” three times in the last 10 years, despite the fact that it offends some people’s sensibilities.
Art offends. It pushes boundaries. It provokes thought. It can make people feel uncomfortable. At its best, art brings tears, laughter and makes people feel. Artistic freedom on Broadway, off-Broadway and in high school auditoriums must be protected.
PVPA’s spring play is a satirical, comedic retelling of the Book of Genesis, with gay characters and an omniscient narrator who claims to be God. The issues it explores — relationships, infidelity, gay politics and the role of faith — are themes found in theatrical productions since the days of Shakespeare. It was written by noted playwright, screenwriter, novelist and humorist Paul Rudnick. It was first performed in 1998 in the New York Theatre Workshop to critical acclaim.
Those who deride it as “blasphemous and hateful” miss the point that it is a satire and comedy.
Still, it’s important not to dismiss people who feel their religious views are challenged or misrepresented by this play.
Controversy over the production appears to be making some within the PVPA community feel marginalized and misunderstood. While artistic freedom should be defended, so, too, should tolerance for all religions be encouraged. That means not dismissing people who say the play offends their beliefs.
School officials are holding discussions about the play, examining the responses it has generated. We hope that in addition to acting quickly to guard artistic freedom, school officials are protecting students or staff who may feel ostracized because of their beliefs.
The vast majority of protest letters PVPA and the Academy received have come from petitions that appear to be generated from a blog associated with a religious website in Pennsylvania. It’s likely that the site has a Google alert letting its members know when this play is being performed. Past productions have received similar email blasts.
What’s not clear with the PVPA production is whether people locally oppose it and whether they will turn out to protest.
If they do, we hope conversations are civil, with everyone remembering that this is a high school production and a learning opportunity on many levels for PVPA students — those on stage, those behind the scenes and those in the audience.
School administrators were right to alert police about the potential for trouble at the Academy. We feel they neither overreacted nor ignored warning signs.
It is also worth noting that anyone who objects to the play or its premise is free to express that displeasure by not supporting the play. Simply don’t buy a ticket, and don’t go to the show.
In fact, there’s another high school play being produced right up the road this weekend. Northampton High School’s production of “Annie” is being performed tonight, Friday and Saturday at the Northampton High School auditorium.
There is no shortage of opportunities to see live theater in this area. Our Valley is rich with culture and arts. If one of the offerings doesn’t sit right with you, choose another.