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Best Christmas Pageant Ever

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2008-08-04


There's a great story going around Fort Wayne theatre circles, based on a real incident, that sounds so much like a made-up parable about smalltown stupidity and censorship that you'd swear it was invented by the guys who wrote Footloose. Fortunately, though it's all too true, and it goes like this: one night last December, a small business owner in the area bought out a performance of a local theatre's Christmas show as a present to his employees.

During the first act, the owner who didn't know what the play was about was shocked, shocked to discover that the PG-rated play had four or five obscenities in the script and a few mildly risque scenarios. At intermission, he informed the theatre's staff that the show was over; he then stood in front of the stage and spoke directly to his employees, telling them that the play wasn't what Christmas was all about and that there would be no second act. The boss then gave his company holiday speech, awards were given out, and finally the audience slumped out, apparently in search of a more morally acceptable background for the rest of their celebration.

When I first heard this story I flat out didn't believe it, but I immediately found corroborating witnesses who all reported the same thing. Apparently, the guy really did pack up his marbles and leave. I knew the script being performed, and I couldn't believe anybody would object to such a benign, sweet little play, one that has less racy content than any hour of network television. And I couldn't help but wonder how his employees must have felt, sitting in the audience, having their boss decide for them what was appropriate to watch. These are adults, mind you, with fully formed opinions and a lifetime of developed tastes, being told to pack it up because the guy signing the checks says so.

The theatre staff was shocked, I could tell, by what happened, but after talking about it for a while I could start to hear the indignation and anger creep into their voices. And you could hardly blame them this was such a clear cut assault on free speech and expression that it's just about impossible for an artist not to get righteous about such a feeble-minded act. For me, well, I have to admit I was delighted by all that had happened. It's so rare in life that you get the pleasure of having an absolute anti-thesis placed right before your very eyes, when you can look right at a person and know with complete certainty that they will be your enemy for life. It is an occurrence to be relished. Having an enemy simplifies things; when you can focus all your dark energy on one target, you usually don't fling it about indiscriminately at people who don't deserve it. It makes you a better person. And for an artist, having an antagonist who enrages you can really be an inspiration. Whenever I get confronted by someone who's been offended by something I've written, I feel compelled to make my next project a thousand time more combative. Ever since I heard the Christmas story I've been trying to figure out a feasible way to do an all-nude, street theatre version of La Cage aux Folles in that guy's parking lot.

I know I'm a complete zealot about free speech, but honestly, I don't know how you can be an American and not be. It's the greatest freedom our democracy offers, yet it constantly gets challenged on almost all fronts. To me, free speech is free speech, and if that means that occasionally your delicate sensibilities get abused, well, too bad. I'm no great fan of Mein Kampf, but I'd consider it my duty as an American to fight for your right to read the damned thing.

And frankly, I can't believe this point is even arguable, but virtually every day I'm proven wrong. Too often in America there is someone so offended by a work of art that they want to keep everyone from seeing it. I've been to two movies in my life that were picketed by protestors--The Last Temptation of Christ, and Basic Instinct. The former was under fire by right-wing Evangelicals, and the latter, by left-wing activists. I hated them both, of course, and nearly got into a fist fight with a GLAAD member when I told him he was no different than Jerry Falwell or Jesse Helms. Let me see the movie, I told him, and I'll figure out what I think about it. But don't shut the door on me, or you are Jerry Falwell (who, by the way, never did see the movie that he so vociferously denounced.) In a free, pluralistic society there are inevitable going to be voices you hate and beliefs you abhor, and, at some point, you are going to be offended. So what? You want an apology? You won't get one. Get a thick skin, develop a sense of humor, protest if you like but don't shut it down when somebody else wants to see what the fuss is all about.

I love The New Yorker for not apologizing for its recent Barack Obama/militant Muslim magazine cover. If there's one rule all artists should adopt, it's that one: Never apologize. The magazine got screamed down, readers cancelled their subscriptions, but The New Yorker never backed down for a minute, saying, in affect, to all the aggrieved tough. It's free speech.

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