Play Cancelled Due To Church Meddling, Playwright Steve Martin Steps In

UPDATE: Just want to make it clear, the show will go on. Mr Cahill continues to update his blog with new developments, like the offer of a set of costumes from a community college in Utah that staged the play. He recently appeared on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Think Out Loud, which covered it as part of a longer broadcast to do with censorship in Oregon schools. The pastor of the local Nazarene church, Tim Gerdes, also appeared to discuss the issues with Mr Cahill, and there was a long recorded segment with the parent who originally brought her objections to the play before the principal and school board.

An interesting side note: there are at least 17 girls at La Grande High School who are pregnant. A commenter at the OPB page for the radio show noted, “Abstinence education: epic fail.”

BBC NEWS | Entertainment | Steve Martin backing banned play

Comic actor Steve Martin has stepped in to support a school production of his play that was banned after parents objected to its adult themes.

Students at La Grande High School in Oregon were stopped from staging Picasso at the Lapin Agile.

Martin has offered to help pay for the play to be performed off-campus.

He said he was supporting the production because he did not want his play “acquiring a reputation it does not deserve”.

Written in 1993, the play depicts a meeting between a young Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein in a Parisian bar in which they get into a discussions on the superior merits of art or science.

Although I haven’t seen this play, I’ve read many news stories about it in the past, as it seems to have become one of those new classic repertory staples; as stated lower in the story, it’s been produced by a large number of professional, amateur, and school theater groups. Particularly as the theme features a discussion of the arts and sciences by two famous historical figures, it’s ironic that a school production should be protested in this way. Apparently the objections are that the thing takes place in a bar, and there is some discussion of women as objects of desire, and some parents objected to their kids saying some of the lines or seeing them performed.

Philistines. Bluestockings. I’m surprised that it’s in Oregon, but La Grande was a fairly conservative place based on what some of my college acquaintances from there said about it.

Martin, whose career as a playwright has been pretty successful, wrote a letter to the La Grande Observer:

First let me compliment Mr. Kevin Cahill, the teacher who selected the play, on his excellent taste! The play has been performed, without incident, all over the world by professional and amateur companies, including many high schools.

Because I don’t know the standards of your community or the life experience of your students, it is impossible for me to address whether my play is appropriate to be performed on campus, although in the limited web exchanges I have read, the students, and the eloquent Mr. Cahill, seem to understand the play and can discern that the questionable behavior sometimes evident in the play is not endorsed.

I have heard that some in your community have characterized the play as “people drinking in bars, and treating women as sex objects.” With apologies to William Shakespeare, this is like calling Hamlet a play about a castle. This play is set in an actual bar in Paris that was frequented by Picasso, a historical site that still exists today.

Focusing on Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity and Picasso’s master painting, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” the play attempts to explain, in a light-hearted way, the similarity of the creative process involved in great leaps of imagination in art and science. Pablo Picasso, as a historical figure, does not come gift-wrapped for the sensitive. He lived as he painted, fully sexual and fully daring, and in the play he is chastised by a sage bartendress for his cavalier behavior toward women.

Because of the controversy, I recently reread the play, and, frankly, I could understand how some parents might object to certain lines if they were to be delivered by a 16- or 17-year-old. Yet I do believe that the spirit of the play and its endorsement of the arts and sciences are appropriate for young eyes and minds.

Martin has always been a much deeper performer and artist than merely the guy with the arrow through his head playing the banjo; I really enjoyed the repeat of a Fresh Air interview he did with Terry Gross in 2003 where he talked about those days, and moving beyond them to something he found more fulfulling as he aged into “writer” and “artist” from “comic” and then “comedy actor.”

After this thoughtful response, he goes on to say that he suspects that the signers of the petition probably read only the “dirty bits,” or excerpts of the play before signing the petition — and definitely not the parts of the play that are more sensitive, inspiring or uplifting to the human spirit. He concludes:

To prevent the play from acquiring a reputation it does not deserve, I would like to offer this proposal: I will finance a non-profit, off-high school campus production (low-budget, I hope!), supervised and/or directed by Mr. Cahill and cast at his discretion, so that individuals, outside the jurisdiction of the school board but within the guarantees of freedom of expression provided by the Constitution of the United States, can determine whether they will or will not see the play, even if they are under 18.

I predict that the experience will not be damaging, but meaningful.

Before Martin learned of the controversy and offered to back the staging of the play at another location, some students and faculty at Eastern Oregon University had stepped forward to offer their facilities, neatly dodging a decision by the college’s president that week that the administration of EOU could not be involved. So the Student Democrats volunteered their services and offered to help with fundraising and staging, whose faculty sponsor sent a letter to the college president reminding her that the State of Oregon has a non-discrimination law regarding the use of public facilities at the state-funded college.

Lund decided last week that Eastern’s administration could not be involved in hosting the production because “the (La Grande) superintendent and the school district board have determined it is inappropriate for high school students to perform.”

In elaborating on this statement, Lund added, “I as president do not want to counter what the La Grande School District decided for students. So I opposed this play and supported the La Grande School District’s decision not to have the play.”

Lund did not reverse her decision Monday. Rather she was forced to respond to a new wrinkle. Monday morning Lund received a written request from EOU anthropology professor Linda Jerofke on behalf of the EOU Student Democrats club. The request asked that the EOU Student Democrats be permitted to rent space at Eastern to allow the LHS cast to perform “Picasso at the Lapin Agile.”

Lund said she had no choice but to allow the EOU Student Democrats to rent space and host the play.

“As a public institution, we must abide by a non-discrimination policy, which permits rental of campus facilities by outside groups or clubs,” Lund said.

Nicey played, Prof. Jerofke and students. It’s clear that the president didn’t want to piss off the Concerned Parents and risk pitchforks and torches outside her bedroom windows.

Additionally, I had to chuckle that it was a student political club, and not the college theater students, that felt inspired to help the high school kids put on the production. I’ll have to bring this to my friend Debbie’s attention, she’s from Eastern Oregon originally and she may get kick out of it.

Donation information, if you’d like to donate toward the production anyway (and help Mr Martin defray costs plus contribute toward the scholarship fund) is below.

Make checks payable to:
EOU Scholarship Foundation (subject LHS Thespians)
One University Boulevard
La Grande, OR 97850-2807
Donations can be posted online at: (click on “make a donation” at the bottom of homepage)

Theater teacher Kevin Cahill’s blog has been getting a lot of hits lately, and he’s been updating posts on the saga as the story continues to evolve. He took a call from an Entertainment Weekly reporter while drinking with friends in a bar (heee!!).

But now the story has a darker twist: the local school board now will be creating a special committee, in an item buried in a story about a salary freeze:

In another matter Wednesday (school board Superintendant Larry) Glaze authorized board member Michael Frasier to begin organizing a committee to create a policy that will specifically address the selection and approval of school plays in the future. The district does not have such a policy now.

The committee will consist of parents, district staff and other community members. Glaze wants the committee to report back to the board with a recommended policy in May.

The committee is being formed in response to the controversy involving the LHS student play “Picasso at the Lapin Agile.’’

Oh, bad show! Dirty pool! Not on! Boooo! Boooo!

Mr. Cahill is clearly a fun, creative guy; here he is as a dragon being pursued by the Knights of the Kitchen Table at his son’s birthday party.

I think Mr. Martin need not worry about the relocated high-school play being too expensive a production; the helmets, armor, and horses in the photo are made out of milk jugs, duct tape, sticks, and old socks.

Check out this well-produced student journalist’s video for a look at the players in this drama, including the lady who brought the original complaint. She comes off as the worst kind of religious-nut meddler.

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The discussion at Democratic Underground, where the help of many was enlisted to get the word out (and also probably led to Martin becoming aware of the censorship) has been pretty lively but is kind of hard to read. The gist of it is that a parent (the one in the video) objected and passed around a petition at her church and got a lot of members to sign. She irritated me in the video because she kept referring to the student actors as “children” and “kids.” This definitely irritated some of the young adults in the video, by the way.

When the news first broke over Kevin Cahill’s head, he and his young son got to listen to a message on his home answering machine from one of those good Christian souls who berated him for “defending evil” and expressed the hope that his “butt should be fired from that school.” It appears that this time it was indeed the local Mormon ward or wards that passed the petition around, although it could well have been the Baptists or some other fundamentalist/Evangelical megachurch. And the local people are somewhat afraid of ruffling feathers, but the people who feel strongly about the arts, culture, and broadening their kids’ education are going forward.

I hope that the news continues to get better for the production, and for La Grande in the long run. Ironically, it appears that Cahill’s diligence in cautioning potential actors and parents about potentially troubling dialogue and incidents may have led to the church people getting out the pitchforks and torches. He provided excerpts to students and parents, and eventually the petition got going, more than likely fueled by the fire in the excerpts Cahill so responsibly provided.