Turning a blind eye

Kelly Tyko

In July, a bemused Richard Osburn sat in the fourth row of the FAU Theater and “thoroughly enjoyed” a musical that featured male students dressed as Nazi soldiers and a female student wearing fishnets and talking about getting an abortion.

The name of the production was Cabaret, a 1966 Broadway play that was also a 1972 movie starring Liza Minelli. “I enjoyed our version much more than the Broadway version,” recalls Osburn, FAU’s interim president for the past four months.

Osburn has attended almost every FAU play since 1992, when he was hired as provost. Some he missed because of prior commitments. But one he missed on purpose. “I didn’t agree with the subject matter,” he says sternly.

That play, back in the spring of 2000, featured Jesus Christ depicted as a gay man murdered because of his sexual orientation. It was called Corpus Christi, and Osburn wasn’t the only one who had problems with the “subject matter.” So did a half-dozen state legislators, who threatened to cut off all funding for FAU’s theater department if they ever staged another production like Corpus Christi.

“People at FAU have to realize this is offensive to about 80 percent of the people in Florida. It’s offensive to me,” state Rep. Walter “Skip” Campbell told local newspapers and TV stations at the time. “And you don’t offend someone who controls the purse strings.”

FAU’s theater department might be doing it again.

This time, the play is called The Laramie Project. It’s yet another gay-themed production named after a small town. (Corpus Christi is in Texas, Laramie in Wyoming.) The Laramie Project tells the story of the death of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student who was murdered four years ago.

It debuts at the FAU Theater on November 15. And Osburn plans to be there.

Will history be repeated?

In fact, Osburn’s looking forward to being there. “It’s a play that was written for us to become better people and more accepting of others,” he says.

Whether others will accept the play is uncertain. They might. They might not.

Since The Laramie Project doesn’t contain a religious aspect, Fred Hoffman, chair of the University Faculty Council, believes most will accept the play.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of appeal in going after a university for basically taking the side of Matthew Shepard who was victimized by horrible people. I just don’t think that anyone can make the political points that they made with Corpus Christi,” Hoffman says.

Some state lawmakers might have problems with FAU’s upcoming play. Five of seven wouldn’t respond to the UP’s repeated requests. They weren’t shy, however, during the production of Corpus Christi.

  • State Rep. Walter “Skip” Campbell, D-Tamarac, said, People at FAU have to realize this is offensive to about 80 percent of the people in Florida. It’s offensive to me. And you don’t offend someone who controls the purse strings.”
  • State Rep. Don Sullivan, R-St. Petersburg, said theater departments at state universities should not stage risquí© plays. “We don’t have to condone and encourage certain behaviors, and if we find it is offensive, then we’ll let our feelings be known.”
  • State Rep. Dan Webster, R-Orlando, warned of financial repercussions against FAU: “We need to be asking-is this one of our priorities? We’ve already had to cut a lot of funding. Maybe the school’s art and cultural program funds are better spent somewhere else.”

Senator Debby Sanderson’s legislative assistant Barbara Ferguson passed along a “no comment,” and wrote in an email, “She (Sanderson) did not see Corpus Christi and was not involved in the discussions.”

  • Sanderson, R-Fort Lauderdale, who graduated from FAU in 1974, was in fact quoted as saying, “For anyone who’s a Christian, it’s very offensive,” said Sanderson, whose district includes FAU. “It’s in terrible taste and poor judgment.”

Senator Debbie Wasserman Schultz disagrees with her fellow representatives. She didn’t see a problem with FAU performing Corpus Christi, and doesn’t see a problem with The Laramie Project.

  • Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, says, “Plays are supposed to be innovative. A university is the last place where anyone should be critical. That’s how things are in America. If we stifle all the ideas that come out of universities, then society will never advance. I’m sorry, we create universities to foster ideas, not stifle them.”

Some of FAU’s Board of Trustees (BOT) members agree with this concept of academic freedom, but say FAU needs to be careful.

  • Norman Tripp, vice chairman of the BOT and a partner of a law firm in Fort Lauderdale, says, “Universities are where you go for free speech.”
  • Sherry Plymale, a former chief of staff for a state education commissioner, says, “We are bound to protect the free speech, but I do know there’s a line they have to cross.”
  • Jorge Dominicis, vice president of Florida Crystals Corporation in West Palm Beach, says, “At the end of the day, if you want to use material that’s offensive, you are not going to be able to continue putting on plays.

Some FAU officials agree that if FAU keeps on playing with controversy, it can come at high cost.

William Mech, the dean of FAU’s honor college, says, “If enough people are objecting and they hold power over our budget, it might be academic freedom, but it might be politically stupid.”

FAU needs to worry about ruffling too many feathers because of the current funding of universities, according to George Sparks, a music professor and past chair of the Boca Raton Faculty Senate.

“The way the present funding of the university is set up, the legislature directly funds FAU. So if FAU does another Corpus Christi, we could be in trouble,” Sparks says.

‘Not another Corpus Christi

Theater chair Jean-Louis Baldet says his department was not looking to do another Corpus Christi with The Laramie Project. “We’re not trying to rehash the same topic in another play,” he says.

Even if FAU was, Prof. David Lee doesn’t see any problem.

“We certainly did nothing wrong and it was a real slap in the face for us to have the commissioner of education insist that the provost fax over the entire script,” Lee says.

Raising eyebrows and getting publicized, proved the play was a success to David Mann, a theater professor.

“Anytime you get a large reaction in some way you are doing what you’re supposed to be doing as an artist,” says the director of The Laramie Project.

“It is the role of the university to bring it up. Artists look at who we are and try to reflect it back on you,” Mann says.

Former President Anthony Catanese stood up to state legislators when they were seeking Corpus Christi‘s cancellation. While he didn’t agree with the content of the play, Catanese says he did what any decent university president must do regardless of the consequences.

“We made the point that you can never leave the content of teaching to the approval of the politicians and community-that is censorship and loss of the freedoms that define America,” Catanese says.

Catanese doesn’t believe FAU will get a large reaction this time around as he doesn’t see The Laramie Project as being “offensive to any religious group. So it should not be a replay of Corpus Christi.”

Though, he adds, “I am sure that there will be someone who is offended, however. That is what universities are about-the constant search for the truth.”

Also unlike Corpus Christi, The Laramie Project is a true story.

“Since it’s a semi-reenactment of a factual event, it would really puzzle me if anyone had a problem. But it puzzled me that anyone took offense at the other one. I’m hard to offend-especially from an artistic standpoint,” Sparks says.

Baldet, who didn’t see Corpus Christi‘s problem-making potential beforehand, checked up on The Laramie Project before finalizing the season’s theater schedule.

“I don’t think anyone will have a problem. In the long run, I think people will be moved by the humanity of it, perplexed by the struggle that the people of Laramie, Wyoming, of what people had to go through in coming to grips with tragedy,” Baldet says.

Controversy is everywhere

For Baldet, Corpus Christi has turned into the production that won’t go away.

“I wish it would, because we’ve gone past that. It’s over,” Baldet says. “We’ve been trying very hard. We went through a tremendous amount of frustration and anxiety.

“The department of theater has built its reputation over the course of 30 years. Based upon developing students and training students in the arts, teaching them the classics and working with contemporary often controversial material.”

Anything can cause a controversy-even Shakespeare.

“There are going to be some people that are offended by Shakespeare,” says Ken Jessel, FAU’s interim provost and senior vice president of fiscal affairs. “It’s always possible that someone will be offended.”

And sometimes it takes offending someone to get a point across, says women studies professor Jane Caputi, “Almost anything that’s thought or written revokes some type of controversy. If it didn’t, who’s going to be interested in it anyway?”

Besides, she adds, “Part of the idea of the university is to expand your mind, to build your soul in some way, so that you’re able to deal with diverse positions and be able to think about ideas. This helps you grow and helps you learn and exercise your brain and your mind.”

Currently, Baldet is looking at a play called Homebody Kabul, which deals with a woman’s disappearance in Afghanistan.

“Whether or not we chose it, I don’t know. But the point is if I didn’t look at plays like these, if my faculty didn’t, then we wouldn’t be doing our jobs,” Baldet says.

“I feel that the department certainly is going to look (at future plays) with great care, we don’t in any way ever want to in fume the good name of FAU or put FAU in a bad light ever again,” says Baldet. “That certainly was never our intent.”

And if being controversial for the sake of being controversial was a play’s intent, Osburn would have a problem.

“I would be upset if I felt controversy was the reason a play was put on. But as a learning experience, I certainly would defend the right to put it on,” says Osburn. “I would defend forever the right for people to put on plays and write what they wish to write. I find nothing offensive that someone wrote that.”

The rest of the season

The 2002-2003 theatre season offers plays that delve into the human condition. They confront such themes as loss of identity, hatred, sexuality, love, and social class.

The bawdy English comedy The Country Wife explores the debate between love and lust.

Closing out the theatre season are a pair of plays written by American dramatist Horton Foote. Courtship and Valentine’s Day are part of a cycle of nine plays called The Orphans’ Home. The plays are short, and will comprise a single performance with an intermission between the two plays.

All these plays are free to FAU students, employees, and children under 12. ID is required for students and employees. You can get tickets at the box office or call 561/297-3737.

The Laramie Project can be seen from November 15-24 at Studio One Theater.

The Country Wife can be seen from February 14-23 at the University Theater.

Courtship/Valentines Day can be seen from April 4-12 at Studio One Theater.

For more information, go to: www.fau.edu/celebration

-Information compiled by Dan Restrepo.