Sunday, February 24, 2008

Free speech at Arkansas Tech

Posted By on Sun, Feb 24, 2008 at 4:01 PM

You've perhaps seen items here and there about the decision by the president of Arkansas Tech in Russellville to stop production of a play, "Assassins," supposedly because gunshots were fired in the production. He cited recent events at Northern Illinois. But is that the whole story?

At a minimum, it was a poor defense of speech in the academy and a pitiful commentary on the president's view of the maturity of his community.

Today, I received a letter on the matter from an Arkansas Tech alum. I share it on the jump. I hope more will be written about this in the days ahead.

SPEAKING OF DRAMA: Kelly Ford was right about "Doubt," the Rep's current production. Good show and thought-provoking. Not pablum, by any means.


Hello, my name is Jason Cutler.  I graduated from the Arkansas Tech University Theatre Program in 2002 and went on to get my Master's in Playwriting from the University of New Orleans.  I now reside in Queens, New York.

I'm writing to explain an ongoing story taking place at ATU that should merit your attention.

Last weekend there was a shooting at a party thrown by the Tech Football Team.  The event was being used as a recruiting tool.  Here are a couple links to news stories posted about it.

Dr. Robert C. Brown, the President of Arkansas Tech, has funneled a large amount of money into the sports programs.  The horrible result of alcohol and firearms last weekend was thus quite an embarrassment.  But Dr. Brown released no statements about what happened.  He spent his energies to different ends.

The ATU Theatre Department was scheduled to open their production of Steven Sondheim and John Weidman’s ASSASSINS, a musical about the men and women who attempted and/or succeeded in assassinating U.S. Presidents, on Thursday the 21st.  Dr. Brown had no problem with this until last week.  He suddenly told the department that the play they had been rehearsing and building for three months could not have its run after all, "out of respect for the families of those victims of the tragedies at Northern Illinois University and Virginia Tech."  Here's a link to the statement.

The students, of course, were devastated, and the professors were afraid to do anything because their jobs were on the line.

Dr. Brown allowed the department their final dress rehearsal but told them that they could not fire the starter pistols they had planned on firing due to issues of campus safety.  Upon communication with Sondheim's estate, it was learned that pistols could not be used in ASSASSINS unless they were fired.  So the students made wooden cut-outs of guns instead.

All this happened the day of the final dress.

Throughout the day, Wednesday the 20th, Dr. Brown received communication from the entire American College Theatre Region and from Alumni, recommending he reinstate the show's run.  Dr. Brown's reaction was to tell the Theatre Department that they could have NO firearm iconography whatsoever in the play or in the building the rehearsal was to take place in, and that Campus Police would be on hand to make sure of it.  The students were forced to stick out their fingers and yell, "BANG!"  Lee Harvey Oswald held a one-by-four when he shot Kennedy.

Here's a link to the local paper's article about the final dress rehearsal.

Fox 16 came the next day to do a story, which was aired and is archived here.

ATU presented the Denzel Washington movie AMERICAN GANGSTER for the students on the 21st, the night ASSASSINS was to open.  It's been argued, correctly, that AMERICAN GANGSTER is exponentially more violent than ASSASSINS, and ASSASSINS gives an anti-violence message to boot.  Just go to and search for AMERICAN GANGSTER.

Here's an article that was posted recently about the cancellation and its causes from Inside Higher Education.

Friday the 22nd the Miss Tech pageant was held.  One of the contestants did a song and dance routine that used a fake rifle.  She sang about shooting her dead-beat boyfriend.  No one had any problems with it.

Both Steven Sondheim and John Weidman, the writers of ASSASSINS, have been notified.  John Weidman, who also happens to be President of the Dramatists Guild, sent a statement to Dr. Brown personally.  I'm certain that contact with Mr. Weidman would yield his opinion on the matter.

I implore The Arkansas Times to investigate this story as well.  It's only getting bigger and Dr. Brown has yet to give the Theatre Kids a date at which their run may begin, despite saying the production has only been postponed.  We all know the show has been canceled, WHY it was canceled (despite no mention in the state media of the connections with the Tech Football Team, Dr. Brown, and the shooting last weekend), and the only way to bring it back from the dead is for Dr. Brown to rescind his decision.  He hasn't done so yet and it appears he never will, although this story is one step away from embarrassing national media coverage.  Well, embarrassing for him--vindicating for the Theatre Kids.

I would be happy to discuss these events with a representative of The Arkansas Times, as would any other Alumnus of the Tech Theatre Program or any of the current students now studying at Tech.  The professors, though, have wisely chosen to stay out of the debate, for their jobs are on the line.  The American Association of University Professors has been notified but has yet to take any steps.


Sincerely Yours,

Jason Cutler


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