Editor's note: A response from the University of Wyoming Department of Theatre and Dance ran in Sunday's Laramie Boomerang. It can also be read for free here.

Native American high school students — attending a weeklong summer institute at the University of Wyoming that aims to give them a first taste of college — walked out of the Department of Theater and Dance’s production of “The Fantasticks” on Thursday during intermission after taking offense at the play’s content.

The production — first performed in 1960 — contains a scene in which characters dress up as and villainize Native Americans. Attendees said they were also shocked at the casual use of the word “rape” in the play’s dialogue.

The walkout prompted a response from UW’s United Multicultural Council, hasty scene edits before the next performance and a boycott of the play by another summer camp. Upward Bound — a summer camp aimed at recruiting low income and first generation students to UW — will no longer be attending the Saturday performance its participants were previously scheduled to attend.

“Our program has students from diverse backgrounds and cultures and we decided it would be inappropriate to attend the play,” said Trevor Montgomery, a dorm director for Upward Bound. “We didn’t want to dismiss the offensiveness of outdated stereotypes by taking our kids to see this performance.”

UMC Co-Chair Tyler Wolfgang was in attendance and said the play contained rape jokes in addition to inappropriate comments about Native Americans.

The UMC’s statement, authored by Wolfgang, condemns the production for projecting cultural stereotypes of both Native American and Latinos/Hispanics.

“The show especially demeans Native American cultures with outdated stereotypes of Native American appropriation by non-native actors wearing headdresses/warbonnets,” the statement reads. “It also portrays Native American and Latino/Hispanic characters as the villains or antagonists of the show.”

UW President Laurie Nichols and her husband, Tim, were also in attendance. Although he is not employed by UW, Tim Nichols was instrumental in setting up the Native American Summer Institute.

He said that the derogatory content of the production hurt — but did not undo — the progress the institute has made toward welcoming Native American students from the Wind River Indian Reservation and elsewhere in the state.

“It’s a 1960s play, but it was, in my view, inappropriate,” he said. “ … (But) we shared our concerns with the theater department and we shared our concerns with the students and, you know, we’re OK. We’re going to have a good week. … We’re going to finish strong here and not let that drag it down.”

Despite wide condemnation of the production’s content, Nichols, Wolfgang and students said they did not want to throw the actors under the bus.

“We have been reached out to by some of the actors in the show who are currently reworking moments from last night(’s) opening for the remainder of the run,” the UMC statement says. “We support this decision …”

The content, while inexcusable, was simply unfortunate, Tim Nichols said.

“I think there’s a broader issue about racism in Laramie that is very much worthy of in-depth examination,” he said.

An insert for the production’s program, explaining the context of — and warning audiences about — the scene was put together Friday by the Department of Theater and Dance.

“With historical productions, we see a ‘point in time,’ which is different from the one in which we live,” the insert reads. “We see portrayals of characters that are painful to watch as 21st century audiences. The challenge then, in producing historical works, is to help audiences understand the context and/or story for the play without taking undue or illegal liberties with the script.”

The insert expresses the department’s wish to start and contribute in a dialogue about the production’s content.

“The Department of Theatre and Dance is committed to presenting high-quality, meaningful, and sometimes challenging material,” it says. “But it is never our intention to offend.”

(9) comments

clipper
clipper

Glad I didn't waste my money on a ticket. Ms. Nichols, maybe your next budget cut should be the Theater Dept.

Bdust
Bdust

Yeah, maybe instead of giving purpose and education to artists who want to create, she should just give another $50 million to the football team, right? The athletes are all that matter to this school anyway

clipper
clipper

You mean artists outraging their audience? Another $50m to the fb team? When did Ms. Nichols budget her initial $50m towards the fb team? Shed your jealousy and bitterness towards athletes, bdust. They had nothing to do with last night's debacle.

luxx
luxx

I am a recently graduated dance major from this department. We already struggle with limited opportunities due to our lack of funding, but somehow still find the passion and drive to continue on this difficult path. Art is incredibly important for our society, whether you realize it or not. To make a comment about cutting the budget of our department, even further, is insensitive and ignorant. I am proud to say I was a part of this encouraging department, and had the opportunity to create beautiful work during my four years here. It concerns and saddens me when I hear someone comment on wanting to cut the arts. Even if you do not attend dance and theatre performances, I am sure you still enjoy movies, music, architecture, literature, etc. you cannot deny that art is everywhere around us. And as artists, we support one another and encourage one another's craft. To suggest cutting funding for a department, after one controversial incident, is completely disregarding the beautiful work they have put out for years. Below is my artistic statement- the reason I do what I do. The reason I feel art is vital for society. I feel it is important for us to remember this at this particular moment. Artists make mistakes, just as every other human alive, but it doesn't dismiss the importance of creative art forms. Creative art forms encourage discussion; they encourage growth. These conversations need to occur between audiences, performers, and directors. It is what keeps our society moving forward.

Artistic Statement:
There is a certain beauty to the precision of dance, and the strength required to bring the precision to life. Dance is not purely artistic, but it is not purely athletic. It is incandescent to watch the two merge together. A dancer must procure both mental and physical strength to artistically and aesthetically convey their message.

It is not something that can be described in words, it is something that must be felt throughout the body. Dance is a kinesthetic experience, which can impact the viewer in sensational ways. It is simply human. We do not all speak the same language, but we all move. We can use movement to share our story when words will not suffice. We can use movement as a way of connecting to those around us. As an artist, this is what I wish to achieve. I want my art to speak to those around me, and to impact those involved.

Art has the ability to reach every one of us on an emotional level. A friend of mine once said, “Good art makes you feel something.” If you walk out of a theatre, or any other space where art has lived, and feel different than when walking in, the art ignited new thoughts—new appreciations. I desire to set alight thought provoking responses as humanity evolves and society advances. Art can aid as a powerful tool when exploring the past, living in the present, and creating the future. I’ve witnessed dance that honored the past by reliving events, both contented and tragic. I’ve witnessed dance that sparked innovative ideas which instilled a flame of hope for the future. The relatability that I can experience through dance is poignant. I dance to share this poignancy with others. I dance to connect. I dance to make a difference. And if I achieve this as a person, and as an artist, I will be fulfilled.

clipper
clipper

What does your screed have to do with last night's theater performance? Did you buy a ticket and attend to support your fellow artists?

Royal Coachman
Royal Coachman

Her comment had to do with your ill-informed reaction, or whatever you want to call your mumbling about cutting funding.

And her comment is spot on.

clipper
clipper

Annoying you made my day.

ArronS
ArronS

Events like this remind me of the following interview with Dr. Reich: http://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2017/04/30/berkeley_professor_robert_reich_and_ann_coulter_agree_on_first_amendment.html. College campuses are supposed to be places where these issues should be discussed amongst our current and future leaders so that hopefully, the incidents like what happened in the Laramie community may be averted and/or prevented in the future. Dr. Reich makes some excellent points.

Kevin
Kevin

Here is the text from the piece that ran today, copied and pasted:

Two Voices Are Important For A Dialogue
In the Boomerang article, dated June 17, several allegations about the June 15 performance of “The Fantasticks’ were quoted in the paper. We would like to address these statements.
Theatre is a vehicle for education and communication. Watching live theatre touches our emotions and thoughts in a way that we can only process based our own experience. For some of us, the Fantasticks (having opened in 1960) has always been playing, off Broadway and elsewhere; it's the world's longest-running musical, frequently produced, universal in its core story, and typically enjoyed by all ages. Different from the responses we may have to television or digital media, live performance impacts us in a more visceral way. This is the magic of theatre, but as we are periodically reminded, it comes with the potential to offend.
UW Theatre and Dance’s current production, “The Fantasticks,” presents a musical about two young lovers who see the world as a patchwork fantasy based on information they have gleaned from romance novels, adventure stories, and references to works of art. These tropes present stereotypes, and even caricatures, from specific historical periods. The story follows the pair as they discover the difference between fantasy and reality and build a lasting relationship. The play functions as a critique of the lovers’ untested and unrealistic perspectives of the world, as well as a celebration of love.
“The Fantasticks” was pivotal in the history of the American musical theatre, a departure from the excess of the time, and led to the development of future works. This musical may not always represent the overarching values of society or our personal values, but it can help us to reflect on such. We can laugh, cry, and take offense, as stereotypes and caricatures present difficult representations of our realities and ideals, and others’ perceptions.
In their director's guide, authors Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt acknowledge that they "borrowed theatrical devices from many cultures and many times," including the Greek Chorus, Italian Commedia dell 'Arte stock characters and staging, the invisible properties man "from the Oriental theatre,” and "the robust traditions of our homegrown American musical comedy."
The challenge, then, in producing historical works is to help audiences to understand their context. For example, we can only assume that the reference to alleged “rape jokes” in the June 17th Boomerang article grows out of a misunderstanding of the two uses of the word in the musical. "It Depends On What You Pay,” the musical number in which a proposed fake abduction of the girl is pitched to the parents as a means of bringing the lovers together, was in the original production "the Rape ballet” and although that word was intended to be used in its archaic sense of “abduct” (such as in Alexander Pope’s poem, The Rape of the Lock), that is not what the modern ear hears. Thus, the song was updated in the mid-1990’s. The girl also refers to the “Rape of the Sabine Women,” an incident from Roman mythology that has been depicted by many early Renaissance painters, which epitomizes the foolishness of her romantic ideals. Other language, such as the frequent use of 'gay' to mean happy, is usually deemed obviously dated, but harmlessly quaint.
The use of "Indians" as stock characters, alongside pirates and bandits, as a shortcut for exotic and dangerous outsiders, is now coming to the fore as problematic. Whether it is unquestioned, as in Peter Pan productions the world over, or painfully obvious, as it was for our audiences on opening night, this kind of portrayal deserves consideration. In this case, it is an actor playing a two-bit actor playing a stock character from his traveling troupe, and truly reductive and indicative: a caricature. With historical productions, we see a “point in time” that is different from our own, and character portrayals that can be painful to watch to 21st century audiences.
While, professionally, we are bound to present works “as written,” and cannot take undue or illegal liberties with a script, we recognize that we failed to provide sufficient context for this scene and the play to prospective audience members. We immediately produced program notes for future performances to address this error.
We regret the discomfort that this scene in the opening night performance caused the Native American students and other audience attending, and honor the validity of their response and their protest. We are sympathetic to their perspective.
The cast and the crew were shocked and saddened, and wished that they would have had the opportunity to have a dialogue with these students. We invite future conversations with all members of the community.
As a department, our primary responsibility is to support our students and their work. In a meeting with the cast members of the production, we discussed whether to close the show because of the prevalence of this issue in social media and the resultant newspaper article, and how this might impact their commitment to the work and their performance. The performances scheduled for the state, sadly, will be cancelled. We want to focus on the Laramie community, provide a time for dialogue and for people to have the opportunity to see the performance for themselves.
The performers’ response was vehement and unified. “As actors we stand behind the integrity of this production. It comes from a place of love. We look forward to sharing this beautifully simple love story with all of our audiences.”
“The Fantasticks” is a show about love – the naive love that sees no flaws, and the world-wise love that comes from a mixture of experience and knowledge. We know that there are flaws in the play, but it contains a message of hope and inclusion, delivered through the simplest elements of theatrical magic. We hope you will feel the same.
We encourage you to support the company members in this production, and if you come please understand that “The Fantasticks” presents elements that are clearly sensitive, but are not intended to offend.
Sincerely,
The cast, crew, and production team of “The Fantasticks”

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