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Big Fish Authors Denounce Community Theater Cancellation Of Musical Over Gay Dad Characters

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A Pittsburgh “family-friendly” community theater has canceled a production of the musical Big Fish after a dispute with the director over the inclusion of a same-sex couple as background characters, drawing a strong rebuke from the musicals authors.

Family-friendly “shouldnt mean ignoring reality,” said the 2013 musicals book writer John August and composer Andrew Lippa in a statement provided to Deadline. “Lets remember that in America there are all kinds of families, including ones with two dads, two moms, people of all gender identity, color and creed. Family-friendly is something bigger than it once was.”

August and Lippa spoke out after they learned that Pittsburghs Palisade Playhouse had nixed a production following the May 8 protest resignation of director Nik Nemec and several cast members. Nemec quit when told that the playhouse producers would not allow his depiction of a two-dad family in the background of a musical scene.

Though the producers had initially okd the inclusion of the gay fathers, “an additional moment of reflection between the lead character and the gay parents” (the producers words) apparently was a step too far.

In a statement posted Tuesday to the playhouses Facebook page, theater management – Palisade is owned by founders Matt and Michelle Belliston – wrote that they “grieve with those who feel hurt by this decision” but “also grieve because of the intolerance and the spite with which they were treated as well,” apparently a reference to backlash following the cancellation. “Palisade Playhouse remains true to its founding ideals,” they wrote, “and for that reason, Palisade maintains the need as an organization to maintain a level of neutrality on this issue and many other issues, so that all people may feel welcome.”

The dispute, the playhouse contends, prompted a social media “campaign to disparage the reputation of the Playhouse,” and that “working in harmony to produce the show on time and within budget would no longer be possible.” The loss of the director and cast threatened the productions “ability to move forward as planned,” and the Playhouse could have faced “a significant financial loss” and “the possibility of closing permanently.”

Th “neutrality” sought by the producers apparently was breached, in their estimation, when director Nemec focused a moment too long on the gay dads. In their own Facebook post, the producers wrote:

In an effort to show genuine acceptance and welcome all, an initial compromise had been made upfront to include two gay fathers holding a baby and walking across stage as part of a scene with a bustling park setting. The direction shifted with blocking and scene direction that would have created an additional moment of reflection between the lead character and the gay parents during an emotionally charged song about the feelings of becoming a father for the first time. This added moment of focus created question about whether the directors addition would convey a message about gay marriage in a way that would be seen as inclusive to some but exclusive to others.

Or as August and Lippa interpreted the statement: The producers “didnt want to risk offending anyone.” The authors pledged to help the director find a new home for his production. (See their statement in full below).

The scene in question comes during the musicals song “Stranger,” set in a park and performed by lead character Will Bloom, who is about to become a first-time dad and who vows to build a better relationship with his own, now-ailing father. The songs title refers to how Will views his father Edward.

The songs writers sharply rejected the playhouses stance. “In defending their decision,” wrote August and Lippa, “the theatre argues that, the script did not include any reference to the LGBT+ community. Thats correct; nowhere in the script does it say that any character is gay or lesbian or trans. But nor does it say they arent. A directors decision to signal that two silent characters are same-sex parents isnt changing the text. Its providing context and framing. Its directing.

Big Fish is a musical about parenthood, family and love,” the authors continued. “These are shared experiences of all human beings.”

According to August and Lippa, Big Fish has been produced “hundreds of times in the U.S.,” in part at least because of the very family-friendly nature that the playhouse extols. “Theres no sex or violence,” said the authors. “In some cases, we will allow for words to be changed or omitted. We do this because we want as many people as possible to get to experience it – both as an audience and as part of a production.”

On the Palisade Playhouses website, Michelle Bellistons bio states that “she has always loved theatre, but has been frustrated that so many shows are inappropriate for children (and her!)! Michelle wants a place for community theatre to thrive with shows that the whole family can enjoy together.”

Big Fish, based on the 1998 novel by Daniel Wallace and directed by Susan Stroman, opened at Broadways Neil Simon Theatre on October 6, 2013, closing December 29 following mixed reviews. The novel was adapted for the screen in 2003 by Tim Burton, with Ewan McGregor starring.

The Palisade Playhouse production had been set to begin performances June 15.

Here is the Playhouses Facebook statement, followed by the response from August and Lippa.

It is with deep sadness that Palisade Playhouse announces a decision to halt production of the upcoming musical “Big Fish”.

The decision to cancel “Big Fish” comes on the heels of a dispute between the director and co-founding producers over how to proactively insert representation of an LGBT+ family despite the fact that the script did not include any reference to the LGBT+ community.

In an effort to show genuine acceptance and welcome all, an initial compromise had been made upfront to include two gay fathers holding a baby and walking across stage as part of a scene with a bustling park setting. The direction shifted with blocking and scene direction that would have created an additional moment of reflection between the lead character and the gay parents during an emotionally charged song about the feelings of becoming a father for the first time. This added moment of focus created question about whether the directors addition would convey a message about gay marriage in a way that would be seen as inclusive to some but exclusive to others.

As a result of the dispute, the director resigned and some cast members followed, creating a divide between the producers, directors, cast and crew, and igniting a fiery discussion on social media in the days following. Additionally, a campaign to disparage the reputation of the Playhouse emerged, and it soon became clear that working in harmony to produce the show on time and within budget would no longer be possible. Without the ability to move forward as planned, the Playhouse will face a significant financial loss and face the possibility of closing permanently.

Since its founding in July 2016, people of all different walks of life and with diverse views and beliefs have existed harmoniously and cooperatively within the Playhouse. Throughout this time, the Playhouse successfully produced a variety of family-friendly musicals, a host of choir concerts and events, and was fully immersed in the current 2018 season of shows, concerts and events. All shows were produced and planned with the intention to be welcoming to all, regardless of personal beliefs and views. Many people in the area had happily received the benefit of these offerings.

Palisade Playhouses founders grieve with those who feel hurt by this decision, but also grieve because of the intolerance and the spite with which they were treated as well. Palisade Playhouse remains true to its founding ideals, and for that reason, Palisade maintains the need as an organization to maintain a level of neutrality on this issue and many other issues, so that all people may feel welcome.

– Palisade Playhouse

And todays response from August and Lippa:

“This week we learned that an upcoming production of BIG FISH at the Palisade Playhouse in Pittsburgh has been canceled over a disagreement between the director and the theatre. Specifically, the director planned to include a same-sex couple as part of the background action during the song “Stranger.”

In defending their decision, the theatre argues that, “the script did not include any reference to the LGBT+ community.” Thats correct; nowhere in the script does it say that any character is gay or lesbian or trans. But nor does it say they arent. A directors decision to signal that two silent characters are same-sex parents isnt changing the text. Its providing context and framing. Its directing.

BIG FISH is a musical about parenthood, family and love. These are shared experiences of all human beings.

The theatre continues: “This added moment of focus created questions about whether the directors addition would convey a message about gay marriage in a way that would be seen as inclusive to some but exclusive to others.”

Which feels another way of saying, “We didnt want to risk offending anyone.”

And look, we get it. BIG FISH has been produced hundreds of times in the U.S. in part because its so family-friendly and unlikely to offend. Theres no sex or violence. In some cases, we will allow for words to be changed or omitted. We do this because we want as many people as possible to get to experience it – both as an audience and as part of a production.

But “family-friendly” shouldnt mean ignoring reality. Lets remember that in America there are all kinds of families, including ones with two dads, two moms, people of all gender identity, color and creed. Family-friendly is something bigger than it once was.

This notion of “thinking bigger” is something Big Fishs hero Edward Bloom would certainly endorse. After all, his friends include a giant, a witch and a werewolf.

When we see #bigfishmusical videos on Instagram of high schools doing “Be The Hero,” it reminds us that the show we wrote inevitably changes with every production, every player, every choice. Thats theater. It exists only because people come together to put on a show.

Were sorry the show wont go on at Palisade Playhouse, but look forward to working with the director and company to find a new home for their production.”

– John August and Andrew Lippa

Original Article

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