Letter: Response to “Kiss Me, Kate” Controversy

Jeff Clapp

Artistic Director of Theatre at PLU, Jeff Clapp

I write in response to the article “Kiss Me Kate brings shocking controversy” by Samantha Lund that appeared in the Lute Times on October 22, 2013.  This was Lund’s account of a panel discussion regarding gender politics found in the play Kiss Me, Kate.  I first thought the idea of having a panel discussion about the play was a good idea.  Addressing the two eras that the play covers (Elizabethan England and mid-20th Century America) then analyzing them through the critical lens of today’s gender politics should have been an illuminating talk.  Sadly, it seems that is not what occurred according to Lund’s story.

Since I was not invited to be a part of the panel, as artistic director of the theatre department I felt that I should address some of the misperceptions and mistaken assumptions that were reported in the article.  In particular I object to charges that the theatre program does not have the students’ best interests in mind when picking the productions and that the choice of this play came from “higher up.”  I assume some folks believe the administration told the theatre program what production to mount for the opening of the Phillips Center.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  In the 18 years I have been here, the theatre program has never been told what, or what not, to produce.  That approach reflects the mission statement of this university and the unwavering support of academic freedom here at PLU.

There are a hundred different decisions to be made when we pick a play; too many to list here.  However, I would like to discuss the three major considerations of our decision-making process: Students, Context, and Audience.

STUDENTS:  The first question we ask is, “What are the students going to take away from this process and this particular production?”  In this case, what kinds of opportunities are there for both theatre students and music students, since this is a joint venture combining the theatre and music departments.  I firmly believe in the classwork we provide, but theatre doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  It is my goal to offer as many opportunities as possible for students to take the skills acquired in class and competently apply them on the stage.  Over 60 students were involved with this production in many different roles.  Some had never been on stage before.  Some had never learned a choreographed dance before.  Some had never been exposed to our new stage technology before.  Some had never sung outside of the shower before.  Yet all of these students jumped in and after a three and a half week rehearsal process showed what they learned to great success.  What was in the conversation is that central point.  This production was a wonderful success for the students.

CONTEXT:  For every production we ask, “Why choose this play?”  Is it to teach?  Are we raising up a social question for a larger discussion?  Is this purely for entertainment?  Is it to expose students to a new or different theatrical genre?  Are you producing the first production to be presented in a brand new 20 million dollar facility?  That last one doesn’t come up very often, and I would challenge anyone to find a grand theatre that did not open with a musical.  It is the genre with the widest appeal, and we would be fools to buck that established trend.

The chair of the music department, Dave Robbins, and I were in complete agreement that a golden age American musical was the way to go.  Primarily because the cast size is large and varied, and the lush and jazzy music of that era does not require voices of “American Idol” quality.  We wanted a stage brimming with the spectacle of 28 dancing, and singing actors, huge moving sets, intricate scenery and lighting, a full jazz orchestra, and a multitude of costumes.  We set out to make a splash with style, and by all measures we succeeded.

AUDIENCE:  As a theatrical producer it is important ask, “Who is our audience?”  In the case of PLU that audience includes current students and alums, current and former faculty and staff, surrounding community members, theatre and musical professionals from the South Puget Sound region, prospective students, and the list goes on.  To be sure, there are times when the theatre program seeks to speak to particular constituents.  In recent years we have taken on some very difficult texts that bare some of the ugliness of life; plays like Rabbit Hole and How I Learned to Drive.  Challenging dramas that dealt with controversial issues, and which we hoped would create a larger campus discussion.  At other times we are called on (and want) to cast a larger net and create an event that speaks to the whole PLU community, and Kiss Me, Kate fits that bill.

The Lute Times story claims the theatre program chose this play to “fill seats and please the alumni.”  At the risk of sounding snarky, “ Yup… Guilty as charged.”  We wanted to fill seats and please many of the other people who make up the PLU community as well.  We did.

The reports says a panel member suggested that the student body should speak to the School of Arts and Communication to find a way to add their voices to the play selection process.  Here is my issue: we discussed some thirty scripts before landing on this play, and it took the production staff two months of deliberations to come to a consensus on Kiss Me, Kate.  Following on this panel member’s suggestion, I would propose you offer a course where the student body gets to add their voices to the textbook selection process.  My bet is by the time finals arrive, you might have narrowed it down to twenty.

Lastly, a few questions and observations.  What current value does a play from any earlier era have?  Does it not show who we once were, and thus speak to what we have now become?  A play that does not reflect who we are – here and now – can offer greater value because it gives context to how much has changed.  There will never be a play that pleases everyone, but that does not mean all plays should be abandoned.  The Lute Times story says that Kiss Me, Kate did not properly represent current PLU students and thus should not have been performed.  Does that mean the last 2,500 years of theatrical literature is also off limits?

Boy I hope not.


Jeff A. Clapp

Artistic Director of Theatre

Categories: Opinion

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