Friday, March 9, 2007

Talkback: The Pope and the Witch

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When the academic history of the University of Minnesota is written, it will be extremely unlikely that efforts by “Ray from MN” from his undergraduate and graduate years will appear anywhere in the footnotes to that lengthy tome; so imagine his surprise when he popped in for the “talkback” session following the Thursday performance of “The Pope and the Witch” and a few of his blog posts were posted for all to admire and plagiarize for their deftly crafted phrases.

Some of my better efforts in the recent weeks unfortunately were not chosen for display.

The design and promotion team, aware that this most controversial of this drama season’s schedule, was generating thousands of emails and letters to the University and its staff, thought that during intermissions attendees who aren’t comfortable speaking to their hookup partners, might enjoy reading the outraged emails, editorials and blog posts.

Of course there were others posted also, some whose authors might be ashamed to admit that. Messages generated by an automated email program hosted by the TFP (Tradition, Family, Property) group based in Pennsylvania were grouped together to make some statement about the quality of the protests. Too bad that they didn’t have copies of all the identical form letters sent out by President Bruininks, Dean Rosenstone of CLA and Robert Rosen, the play’s director.

Signs in the parking ramp and on the doors of Rarig Center indicated that the last two performances of TP&TW were sold out. At 9:30 a half dozen or so cheapskates were seen in the lobby waiting for the evening’s performance to end so that they could go in and grab a seat for the talkback session. Probably half of the 450 patrons left so that was not a problem.

I have never been to a theatrical talkback session so I don’t know how they are normally handled. But 40 minutes was allocated. A moderator from the College of Liberal Arts introduced Herbert Blau, a professor from the University of Washington and a founder of the Actors’ Workshop in San Francisco and Ruth Mazo Karras, a professor of History at the U. They were joined by Robert Rosen, the performance’s director, a Visiting Professor at the U making his first appearance there, and a founder, actor, director, etc. of Theater De La Jeune Lune, a well known theater in downtown Minneapolis. The moderator proceeded to spell out four or five topics that he thought might be interesting to discuss. Nobody else did but maybe fiften minutes was wasted.

Professor Karras used the theater’s faulty sound system to regale the audience with a plethora of bits of Medieval Catholic trivia, apparently proving to her that the Church was deserving of mockery and criticism. To her credit though, she later was seen nodding vigorously when a statement was made that a major reason that theater, the university and many other things exist in Western Civilization is because of the Roman Catholic Church. To attest to her impartiality, she related a classroom anecdote where she was criticized for proselytizing as a Catholic when she taught her Medieval History class. She’s not. But I don’t know whether that makes more a statement about her, or about the 21st century college student.

Professor Blau, with a very good resume’, who must have flown in for this historic theatrical event, placed into the discussion the fact that the Jesuits in San Francisco and a few in St Paul were very enamored of the theater. He also dragged that long deceased star into the conversation — wait for it — Galileo. (What thoughtful discussion of the Catholic Church could be had without academia decrying the injustices and house arrest imposed on Galileo Galilei 400 years ago or so). Blau actually revealed himself, though, to be a closet Thomist and felt that he could make the arguments against the play better than the complainers could. He probably could.

Rosen, the reason why most were there, got about three minutes and wasn’t able to say much.

The moderator warned us that the forty minutes were almost up and the arms of audience members shot up around the room. To my surprise, a goodly number of Catholics were present and were called upon, some making their point well, not for banning the play, but for the university giving an opportunity for opposing points of view to be presented. And some not so well made points, including some by a nun in civvies of 53 years’ service to her order whose presumed home base was in St Paul who thought the play was hysterically funny.

The point was made by several people, including an Emeritus Professor of 30 years at the University, that Catholics are treated differently and that if the subject of the play had been Mohammad, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King or Abraham, it might not have been performed.

Jeremy Stanbary, local actor, producer and head of Epiphany Productions (whose new play, The Scrutiny Passion, debuts March 29 and 30 at St Olaf Church in Mpls) proved that if you want to get on stage, you have to be persistent, was finally called on and, characterizing TP&TW as nothing but the equivalent of "racist blackface comedy", made a strong plea for giving the views of those opposed to the views of Dario Fo (the play’s author) more time. After the session, he was approached by a reporter from the Minnesota Daily and several minorities who thanked him for his views.

Jeremy's review of the performance and the talkback session may be found here.

A couple of people who had been to talkbacks before, thought that Thursday’s session was not a proper talkback.

Director Rose, who still professed to be a little stunned by the objections to the play in a private conversation with me after the “talkback” was over, had admitted publicly and later confirmed that the play was not one of author Dario Fo’s best works. That took the air out of some of my best lines, so I just thanked him for being cordial and for giving people an opportunity to make their points.

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