St. John’s University administrators stepped in last week after discovering that the Chappell Players production of "Hair" required the actors to display signs with the words ‘sodomy’ and ‘masturbation’. The theater group was told to change the scene because of the contents. "We were told that some of the words are against the Catholic doctrine and the rest are against St. John’s doctrine," said Chappell Player Alex Pereira.
The issue arose Sunday, Oct. 19 after Stacy Merle, Assistant Director of Campus Activities and the theater group’s liaison, saw the show.
The production of the fall musical "Hair" opened Friday, Oct. 17. This past weekend, which was Pa Family Weekend, marked the second, and final, weekend of the show.
Prior to the decision by the University, no complaints had been received pertaining to the content of the show.
"I’m not aware of any complaints that were brought up,"Chappell Player’s president Nicholas Caccavo said. "I didn’t receive any complaints personally and I don’t know of any that were issued towards the group about anything in the show."
"We asked if anyone complained from last weekend’s show and no one did, but we were told that was not important because they feared the reaction from next weekend’s audience," Pereira said.
The decision to change the scene was based on the fact that it went against the Vincentian mission of the University. Mary Pelkowski, Director of Campus Activities, said that she would not have upheld the Catholic mission had she allowed the students to display the signs.
"We just thought…that it wasn’t in the best interest of the University,"Pelkowski sad.
The executive board of the Chappell Players was informed at the beginning of the week that the "Sodomy" scene would have to be modified and cast members were told Wednesday, Oct. 22.
Once the issue with the signs was raised, Jason Kane, the professional director hire for the show, began thinking of a way to solve the problem. This solution called for the letters to be removed and replaces with dashes.
At rehearsal on Oct. 22, the signs were repainted using the dashes. Then, Thursday shortly before the show, the Chappell Players were told by administration that this was still not acceptable.
"I found out Thursday night about two hours before the performance," Reilly said. "I got there for make-up call and the director told us to come on stage and he explained the situation."
Other cast members heard about the possibility that further changes would need to be made earlier in the week, but were not certain of it until later on.
"It was mentioned in passing to myself and a few other cast members on the Monday following the first set of shows that the signs may have to be changed," said Chappell Player Dustin Freeley. "The entire cast was not formally informed by administration about the situation of the signs until about one hour before our Thursday show."
Although the news was surprising to some, they still can see where the problem would have come up due to earlier censorship within the show.
"It was surprising, but I guess we all could have expected it from the way things had been censored earlier on in the show," said Joe Reilly, a member of the Chappell Players. "It was kind of a time bomb."
As the audience waited to take their seats Thursday, the Chappell Players worked to come up with another solution for the scene. The show started 15 to 20 minutes late but a compromise was reached. Now, the majority of the signs would be painted black except for the ones that said, ‘Father why do these words sound so nasty?’ Also, at the beginning of the scene, Chappell Player Amitra Gabriel stepped onto the stage and said, "The following song has been censored by St. John’s University."
"I wanted to say it because I was the one who put my time and effort into painting the signs to begin with," Gabriel said. "I was like alright, if we’re going to have to redo the signs I better be able to say something."
Once this solution had been decided on, some of the cast members felt better about performing.
"I found it easier to perform the show after we came up with a solution that got across the same message about unfounded censorship that the signs did," said Freeley.
After Thursday’s performance, the Chappell Players considered canceling the past weekend’s shows when they were told they would have to permanently change one scene.
"We didn’t want to do the show Thursday night if we couldn’t perform this scene because as artists we have an obligation to perform something, not to take out something, because especially ‘Hair’ has so much political impact," said Jean-Paul Morselli, an actor in the show. "You’re taking off a piece of us if you take away a piece of the play."
"We all took a vote to see if we wanted to stand up or not and everyone in the cast voted yes [to stand up]," Reilly said.
The administration responded by informing the theater group of what could happen if they were to cancel the remaining performances.
"They threatened if they say that they’re not going to do the show and the show gets canceled, the Chappell Players will be suspended for the rest of the year, anyone receiving financial aids or grants via the Chappell Players will be revoked and any tickets sold for this upcoming weekend if the show was to be canceled, they would have to repay," said Kane.
"We wanted them to know the whole picture, so it wasn’t a threat," Pelkowski said. "It was, ‘okay guys, before you walk out Saturday do you know everything that’s going to happen?’ We just wanted them to know the whole picture."
On Friday, Oct. 24, the Chappell Players met with Pelkowski about the incident.
"I will say that I admire Mary for coming in and making sure that the morale was not destroyed for the rest of the weekend," Kane said.
"When Mary came to talk to us the day after I think she gave us a lot more hope," Reilly said. "She really just came down and apologized and I think once we heard that it’s kind of making things easy."
The signs were not seen by a school official until the first Sunday performance of ‘Hair’ opening weekend. Merle did not see the signs until Sunday because they were not finished until the very last dress rehearsal," Caccavo said.
"Generally the procedure is that Stacy will come to a dress rehearsal and see everything and then if they have a problem they tell us about it at that point," Caccavo said. "It was just because the signs were there but they hadn’t been painted yet and it was a lack of us doing that at that time, not because we were trying not to get them finished or anything, but there were more important things that needed to be dealt with."
Pelkowski had been told of the signs before then and originally gave the go ahead.
"It was weeks prior to the show I had spoken to administration about it and based on what was explained they didn’t seem to have an issue with it," said Caccavo.
"The signs were a very, very, very late addition," Pelkowski said. "When Nick said it to me probably four days before the show opened I said, ‘Yeah as long as it’s done tastefully."
Throughout Thursday, many involved in the incident feel that there were a lot of emotions present that had an impact on the situation.
The theater group pushed her [Stacy] to the limit Thursday night by their demands of wanting to keep the signs in and I think Stacy’s emotion was ‘What do you mean you’re going to walk out?" said Pelkowski.
"√ØøΩThis whole situation was one giant miscommunication fueled by passionate feelings. Ultimately, the cast and crew needed to understand that we are part of a private Catholic university and if administration felt that something needed to be cut, they are legally allowed and ethically obligated to make the cut," said Elizabeth Hounsell, vice president of the Chappell Players.
Had the decision been made before the Chappell Players had begun their performances, they would not have been so upset with the decision.
"It was like okay you told us we could put the signs and now all of a sudden it’s not what you wanted but if that’s not what you wanted you should have come and seen it sooner," Gabriel said. "If it wasn’t a problem for the first three nights and those parents that came, why is it going to be a problem for Parents Weekend?"
"If they wanted to censor something they should have told us before the shows ever started," Morselli said. "We were already three shows into it."
According to some involved in the show, the administration did not handle the situation as well as they could have. Moreselli said that the administration was rude in dealing with the cast.
"I feel that these 24 students plus everybody else involved in the show who’s a student here, that they were treated with disrespect and it was disgusting," said Kane.
Some Chappell Players, such as Freeley and Caccavo, felt that the scene did not need to be changed, although they do understand the University’s reasoning for the modification.
‘Personally, I felt that the scene was fine as it had been running, but we knew from day one that if something was seen as inappropriate by administration then it would go," said Hounsell.
Even though this incident may have caused complications, the Chappell Players still had a successful weekend, performing two sold out shows on Saturday.
"I think the play was awesome," Pelkowski said. "I think the cast did a great job."
"We went up there and we figured out creative ways to channel our energy and our anger and it became something very positive," Morselli said.
In the future, Caccavo said that the theatre group would do their part to avoid other situations such as this one.
"I think to make things a little bit easier, to make things a little smoother, what we will do is pay more attention to questionable content that could become an issue," he said.