Tarleton officials say security risks prompted cancellation; production may be performed in Fort Worth
STEPHENVILLE —The Tarleton State University student whose production of the gay-themed play "Corpus Christi" was canceled last week said the decision was made because "jobs were threatened," not due to security concerns.
Meanwhile, a move is afoot to bring the student cast to Fort Worth to perform the play, followed by a panel discussion on censorship and attacks by the religious right. If that happens, the play would likely be seen by many more people than in the small theater on the Tarleton campus.
The Terrence McNally play has never been performed in the Dallas area.
After several weeks of threats from religious groups, student John Jordan Otte’s professor, Mark Holtorf, canceled a performance of the play last weekend, saying he was concerned about safety.
Liza Benedict, an associate vice president at Tarleton, said since it was a class project, only the professor could cancel the production.
"The professor cited safety and security concerns for the students as well as the need to maintain an orderly academic environment as reasons for canceling the plays," Benedict said. "The performance of these four class plays will not be rescheduled."
Holtorf attended a tech rehearsal on Friday, March 26, a day before the excerpt from "Corpus Christi" was to be performed along with the projects of three other students. Holtorf will grade all four productions based on that rehearsal.
Otte said he’s disappointed that after weeks of rehearsals, there will be no performance. He said his professor was under pressure from the administration. Despite earlier words of support, the school president’s statements immediately prior to the cancellation showed Otte didn’t really have the full backing of school officials, he said.
President F. Dominic Dottavio cited freedom of speech and academic freedom as a reason for allowing the play to go forward. But in an editorial that appeared in The Star-Telegram of Fort Worth, Dottavio slammed the production.
"My personal reaction is that I see no artistic or redeeming quality in the work," Dottavio wrote. "I believe, as many have opined, that it is offensive, crude and irreverent."
Rather than defend his student, Dottavio wrote, "I am deeply saddened that so many people offended by the play believe that the university is endorsing it. We are not."
Otte told Dallas Voice this week that, "Jobs were threatened at the university."
Even Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst weighed in on the controversy.
"We must also protect the rights and reasonable expectations of Texas taxpayers and how their money is used," Dewhurst said. "A play that is completely contrary to the standards of decency and moral beliefs of the vast majority of Texans should not be performed using any state resources, especially by an institution of higher learning."
In fact, no university money was used for the performance, and as a class project, the performance wouldn’t have been open to the general public. Otte paid for rights to the play himself and said he was the only one out money for the project.
Otte suggested that Dewhurst’s comments might have been what prompted the professor to cancel the production. The school needed state police to help with security on campus, and without the backing of the lieutenant governor, officials couldn’t be sure that backing would arrive, Otte said.
A group in Fort Worth that wants to bring the students to the Metroplex has contacted Otte about staging the play in Cowtown. Otte said he’d like to finish the semester first before possibly staging the piece in May.
Playwright McNally has offered his support to Otte, mostly through e-mail correspondence. Otte said he’d like to invite McNally to North Texas if the play is performed at a theater in the Metroplex.
He also said he’d like to see Linda Chavez-Thompson, Dewhurst’s Democratic challenger for lieutenant governor, attend.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 2, 2010.