Cancellation worries heighten tension at Walla Walla University Festival of One-Acts

Concerns about content put the Walla Walla University Festival of One-Acts in question, but the show will go on after all.

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COLLEGE PLACE -- The pressures of directing a play were suddenly intensified when the day before opening night, the student directors of the Walla Walla University Festival of One-Acts were told that their show might be canceled. The two-week run, which will in fact go on as planned, almost opened and closed on the same night.

The administration had approved the scripts beforehand, but after receiving complaints from a student who attended a private dress rehearsal and was disturbed by the dark material of three of the plays (which include rape, suicide, and child abuse) decided the show might not fit with the university's mission.

University President John McVay organized a panel to attend the opening performance and determine whether or not the material was appropriate to continue being shown on the WWU stage.

Directors Jessica Roe, Amy Shine, Bjorn Smars, Darcy Sturges and Shane Wood were allowed to show their plays under the condition that they changed the order so that the one-acts containing potentially disturbing material were after intermission. This was a disappointment to the directors, who had worked carefully to pace the comedy and drama of the five plays.

In addition, Smars, Shine and Wood, the directors of the darker one-acts, were asked to write statements that explicitly stated the plots of their plays and their reasons for choosing them. They also had to provide information about available resources for victims of rape and child abuse and suicide prevention.

Word about the threat of cancellation spread quickly across campus, and students and professors came out in increased numbers to support the directors and actors. The balcony of Village Hall, typically spotted with only a few audience members, was completely full.

Just before curtain call, the dressing room was bustling with energy. Actors were getting their hair and makeup done as they would for any show, yet the thought of cancellation still lingered in everyone's minds.

"If they actually do cancel it, that will immediately polarize the students and the administration," said actor Kelsey Harrison.

The directors were especially upset at the prospect of their plays, which are the culmination of six months of work, being canceled.

"I felt like we really tried to put on a different kind of show, and we're being punished instead of praised," said Wood.

Before the show began, drama director David Crawford informed the audience of the changed order, and warned them of the "dark, difficult and possibly offensive nature" of the content to come after intermission.

The two comedic one-acts, Sturges' "Overtones" and Roe's "The Odd Couple," went off smoothly and received big laughs from the audience.

Despite all the warnings, the theater remained full after intermission, though a few people did choose to leave. One man, on his way out the theater, said he didn't think the post-intermission one-acts were appropriate for a Christian school.

The second half of the show was full of heavy emotional material as promised, but unexpectedly, some of it came from the directors themselves.

In introducing his "Medusa's Tale," which contains an off-stage rape, Wood revealed that he had been abused at age 11, a secret he held for many years. He said that he hoped his play will encourage victims to speak up, as silence empowers the abusers.

In her introductory statement, Shine, whose "Women and Wallace" depicts an onstage suicide, shared of her suicide attempt at age 14.

"That kind of pain and desperation exists ... pretending it isn't here doesn't make it go away," said Shine in her speech.

Shine said her decision to share her past was simple.

"I had two options; I could say 'these are the facts and figures on suicide, blah blah blah,' or I could be honest about own my personal experience and be honest about why it was important to me."

The precautions paid off. The show ended with raucous cheering and a standing ovation. Soon after the performance, the panel decided to let the show have its full run, though the directors will still have to prepare the audience with adequate disclaimers.

McVay, who attended the performance, approached Shine after the show and said he was very pleased with the show and didn't understand why there were complaints in the first place.

Iris Alden can be reached at irisalden@wwub.com.

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