ASU Professor William Reber Resigns as Lyric Opera Theatre Director Following Controversial Rent Performance

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gammage-architecture.jpg
Wars via Wikimedia Commons
The controversial performance of a scene from Rent took place at ASU Gammage.

Longtime ASU music professor William Reber has resigned as the director of the university's Lyric Opera Theatre following a controversial presentation of a scene from Rent to high school students attending the Arizona All-State High School Music Festival, which ran from April 10 through 12.

Parents of the students complained to ASU after Lyric Opera Theatre performed "La Vie Bohème" at Gammage Auditorium without warning the audience that the piece would contain sexual themes.

A statement on the matter from the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts was issued April 23 and signed by Reber and School of Music interim director Heather Landes. It reads: "This incident was important enough to the school and its relationship with the Arizona community that Dr. Reber felt he needed to accept responsibility, and he has chosen to use this as a teaching opportunity for his students about the role and responsibility of an arts leader, not just to the organization he leads but also to the community at large."

See also: ASU Tempe's Binary Theatre Looks for Answers with Earthlings

Reber will continue working as a professor at the School of Music. He has been a member of ASU's faculty since 1991.

The Herberger statement explains that "an internal communication breakdown" resulted in the presentation of the age-innappropriate material.

"The concert program contained no warning about the content that was presented nor was an announcement made from the stage giving the audience an opportunity to opt out of that portion of the event," it reads.

As part of its 50th anniversary season, Lyric Opera Theatre is staging Rent, a Tony-winning musical about young creatives in New York dealing with HIV and AIDS, through Sunday, April 27.

Reber has not responded to requests for comment as of this writing.

Community members have weighed in on the situation, with some calling Reber's choice to resign admirable and others accusing Herberger of censorship.

A change.org petition titled "Dr. William Reber is not to blame for the recent 'risque' performance and should not 'take responsibility' (Landes P5) as an 'Arts Leader'" was created in response to Reber's resignation. It has garnered at least 2,500 signatures as of this writing.

The petition, organized by Phoenix Theatre actor Evan Tyler Wilson, says, "Dr. William Reber deserves his position reinstated in full and ASU should take steps to ensure that those not interested in experiencing live theatre be educated on the "risks" of being an audience member."

Herberger's statement on Reber's resignation includes a response to the petition.

"This petition contained many inaccuracies, the most significant of which are that Dr. Reber has resigned from Arizona State University and the implication the university is engaged in arts censorship," it reads. "Dr. Reber made the decision to step down from his administrative role as director of the Lyric Opera Theatre program voluntarily, and we respect his decision. He remains a faculty member of the ASU School of Music; where he has served the students of ASU for more than 23 years and will continue to do so. Our school and our students have greatly benefited, and will continue to greatly benefit, from his creative spirit, his commitment and his love and passion for music."

Nearly Naked Theatre creative director Damon Dering took to Nearly Naked's Facebook group page to share the petition and encourage others to sign it. He wrote, "The typical staging of LA VIE BOHEME is not IN ANY WAY pornographic. RENT won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Tony Award for Best Musical, and is a staple in the American Theatre cannon. And kids can see everything in La Vie Boheme the second they turn on the television or log onto the internet. Punishing a man who was NOT directly involved with demotion from department head is like curing dandruff by decapitation!"

Dering writes, "We cannot teach our young artists to be fearful. And we cannot punish their teachers for teaching them the true meaning of theatre."

ASU School of Music faculty member David Schildkret also took to Facebook to share his take on the matter and address the petition. He wrote that the excerpt from Rent included explicit language and highly suggestive staging, adding that it was inappropriate for 14-year-olds and about a quarter of those high schoolers left the auditorium during the performance.

"This is not about a few offended parents," Schildkret writes. "It is about the responsibility of artists to know their audience. It is about what we were trying to present to students and teachers at All-State. The question is not whether RENT itself is problematic. The question is whether this was the suitable occasion for this particular performance."

He adds that this performance damaged the School of Music and the work it's done to involve local schools.

Schildkret goes on: "If in fact the university had caved to a few cranky parents, I would sign the petition in capital letters. But people were legitimately and justifiably offended at an occasion that was meant to be anything but offensive. That is their right."

Herberger's statement has a similar contention. "Leadership in the arts requires both artistic vision and difficult work. It also requires the willingness to take responsibility for how that work is presented and communicated."

Schildkret closes his statement by saying that he admires Reber for taking responsibility and acknowledging that better choices should have been made.

"I deeply admire Bill for this," he writes. "He is a model for all of us. By all means, send him letters of affection, thanks, and support: he deserves them. But don't dishonor him by trivializing his very courageous and noble actions."

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42 comments
maryis
maryis

ASU School of Music faculty member David Schildkre---sounds like he's campaigning for Reber's job.

Jay Zarecki
Jay Zarecki

They didn't like that one scene but the cross dressing gay scenes were okay?

Jody Lew
Jody Lew

I saw rent with my grandmother in San Francisco. Is the complaint 'sexual content' or is it homophobia? The meaning of the actual concept of artists dealing with aids and dying shouldn't be offensive. It's heartbreaking. What kind of sexual references are they so offended about? That artists have dealt with aids?

Lucia Perry
Lucia Perry

no, but what do you expect from high school? This modern La Boheme was too threatening. Scairdy-cat conservatives!

Jeff Kee
Jeff Kee

Mormons! There's life outside of your bubble. People are gay, people are diverse, people have AIDS. That is the message of RENT. Most of those teens are watching porn in their bedrooms and sending naked selfies to each other.

Jona Henry
Jona Henry

No! People should read about performances prior to going- duh

Lori Bunce Nash
Lori Bunce Nash

I admire the guy for falling on the sword. However, as a parent of teenagers and young adult children they have heard and seen much worse at school. The parents must take some responsibility for allowing the kids to go. There were many times we checked movies first before allowing our kids to go. Let this be a lesson to parents.

Shirley Burley
Shirley Burley

This is absurd it is a play about struggling artists and AIDS...Art should reach with in you, shake you, make you understand outside of your own box. The world does not come with ratings...high schoolers are old enough to make a choice to watch or walk out.

Matt Welch
Matt Welch

Definitely not. Again the idiots rule.

David James
David James

I think perhaps you're asking the wrong question. It's not about whether or not it was right for him to do this, but about why he even felt the need to.

Robert Liccardo
Robert Liccardo

If something is objectionable to you on TV, change the channel. If something could be objectionable to you in the theater. Don't go. This is a prime case for free speech and freedom of expression. Not everyone in America will agree on what is objectionable but they have the choice not to watch or listen.

Robert Liccardo
Robert Liccardo

No, he fell on the sword for no reason. People exercised their right to leave and that should have been the end of it. They can have their money back if it was offensive to them. Do your homework if something may be objectionable to you. Rent is not a new musical.

Jackie Wilson
Jackie Wilson

No. That was ridiculous. Parent your children & do your research. You could have googled Rent and decided whether your child should attend or not. The world is not your babysitter...

Carolyn Vasos Fidler
Carolyn Vasos Fidler

If none of the bankers that destroyed our economy stepped down, I think we can let this minor infraction, against a fringe religious group, pass without any need to resign!

Tyburn Gallows
Tyburn Gallows

No. Fucking prudes. If those parents want a real shocker, they should go look at the browser history on their children's computers.

James David Porter
James David Porter

I couldn't speculate on that. One would have to be more familiar with what happened internally at LOT in the wake of this incident.

Jackalope Ranch
Jackalope Ranch

That sounds like a reasonable way to deal with the situation. Why do you think it turned out the way it did?

James David Porter
James David Porter

It should have been handled with a more proportional response. No one was injured in any way by this incident -- merely offended. It would have been appropriate to send sincere letters of apology to school leaders, students, and their parents. It would've made sense to release a comprehensive plan for ensuring that age-inappropriate material is never again presented to school groups without disclaimers and permission slips. ASU should have refused Dr. Reber's resignation. There is a tremendous difference between actual harm and offending sensibilities. A resignation would have been appropriate had actual harm taken place. But it did not. This situation did not warrant the total restructuring of leadership at Lyric Opera Theatre in response. The resignation was over-kill, and instead of quieting down the controversy, we now have a whole community of artists who have had their own sensibilities offended by the resignation of a beloved director. This incident has gone from bad to much worse.

AZ10
AZ10

The comments are going to start rolling in about censorship and that teens/their parents should have somehow anticipated that the scene would be included in a music concert specifically for minors.  Make no mistake, the issue was that it was presented to an audience that had been given NO advance notice that it would be included in the concert.  Even ASU's LOT page for the show states the following: "This show is verbally, sexually, politically and culturally charged. It is meant for mature audiences only."   The students should have at least been given the same respect so that they could choose whether to attend. 
Allow me to present another perspective, however.  Performing this scene, in isolation, served no artistic purpose.  The audience had no connection to the characters, the plot, or the themes.  No deep meaning could be conveyed apart from those elements. 
The next argument will be that "everybody knows the story." Actually, no, everybody doesn't.  In fact, had they performed, say, "Seasons of Love" they might have actually stirred an interest in the audience to come and see what the show was actually about.   They deliberately chose to perform this scene  to be provocative and they achieved that.  Don't be fooled.  This controversy was not about censoring "art."

AZ10
AZ10

@ConcernedCitizenAZ No one lost a job. A professor who was supposed to provide oversight voluntarily stepped down from an administrative role.  He is still fully employed and teaching.  And assumption that all students choose to watch soft porn reveals your reality, not theirs. 

AZ10
AZ10

Since Dr. Reber is reportedly planning to retire next year anyway, is it possible that he was planning to "phase out" and that his resignation from the administrative role was part of the process he was planning to take anyway?  He remains on faculty and there is no indication that this was a disciplinary action by ASU.  The immediate response to the performance (the next day, in fact) of the University was to state that there would be "restructuring of leadership" in the department soon and that procedures were being put in place to keep incidents such as that from happening again.  Seems that the LOT was already planning a change of administrators (if not this year, then next) and perhaps it only appears that it was done in response to the controversy because of the timing.  Either way, Dr. Reber has been emphatic that the decision to step down was his alone.  It seems there may have been other internal events that lead to this change of leadership than ASU has revealed. 

valleynative
valleynative topcommenter

I does seem like a huge over-reaction, but you're also under-playing the damage.

"Merely offended" doesn't really express the violation of trust involved.

Whether or not we agree with their decisions, parents have the right to control some of the perspectives and values to which their children are exposed in public schools, even in high school.

Imagine if these had been younger children, and the performance had been about the fact that Santa Claus isn't real.  No physical harm would have been done, but I hope that you can see that the damage would go far beyond being "merely offended".

AZ10
AZ10

As stated, it never should have happened.  A more appropriate scene could have been presented or, if they felt strongly that Vie La Boheme, was the best choice, the schools/students attending should have been informed ahead time so that the teens could have been either prepared with some context or they could opt out if that was their/their family's preference - the same options paying audience members have.

The majority of the responses have completely ignored the actual issue and have instead focused on how it's okay because "ALL" teens see/do this kind of things on a regular basis, etc.  Again - that's not really this issue and is no one else's right to make that determination - especially not for a minor.  David Schildkret's response was very thorough and appreciated. 

Acknowledging that it was a serious lapse of judgment/ lack of respect for the audience rather than making arguments about how all teens see worse, etc. would have gone a long way to mend fences for those involved and to shed a more positive light on ASU. (It seemed that few bothered to actually read/try to understand the facts of the situation before responding.)


Jukes
Jukes

@valleynative But it WASN'T younger children.  Are you one of those people who wants to jail people for what they MIGHT do?

Xannish
Xannish

@AZ10 As a close friend of some of the actors involved, the breakdown in communication was that somewhere in the chain, the cast had not been told that they were performing for students. They had performed La Vie Boheme for several adult audiences prior to this, and had expected to be performing for teachers only. I have no doubt that if they had been aware of the audience, a different piece would have been selected, or the potentially offensive elements toned down.

AZ10
AZ10

@Xannish Cast members performed other songs at lunch time outside the MU, interacted with some of the visiting high school students, and told them they were looking forward to performing for them that afternoon.  Also, this scene was presented after several other music groups performed, so it is very odd that they were the only ones who didn't know that the audience was full of 500+ teens before performing.  Perhaps they didn't know days in advance, but they had to know prior to going out on stage.  They had enough notice to choose a different piece or tone the "offensive elements" down IF they had wanted to. 

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