Theater festival loses county funds after Texas college stages controversial play

Friday, November 12, 1999

Officials in an eastern Texas county have revoked a grant to the Texas Shakespeare Festival after the college that provides the majority of the funding for the festival refused to cancel a controversial play.

Gregg County commissioners voted Oct. 28 to rescind the challenge grant that would have matched — up to $50,000 — funds raised by festival organizers.

Officials gave various reasons for revoking the grant, said Kilgore College President William Holda.

“One person said, ‘I don’t think we should be funding the arts,’” Holda said. “Another said he thought the arts were going to be controversial, and he didn’t think they should be funding something controversial. Another said, ‘If we’re going to fund some arts we should fund all arts.’”

Commissioners could not be reached for comment.

Those involved with the festival say commissioners withdrew the funding because they objected to Kilgore College’s Oct. 14-17 production of Angels in America, Part 1: Millennium Approaches.

“The sad part of this is that it is pretty obvious that they voted [to rescind the funding] because of the play,” said Raymond Caldwell, director of the Kilgore College theater department and founder of the Texas Shakespeare Festival. It “is a scary sign to all of us — that you can wield that kind of power to say that if you do something we don’t like, we will punish you.”

Holda says neither he nor festival organizers plan to try to have the grant reinstated.

“I don’t feel angry,” said Holda. “If there [were] going to be a constant stream of oversight regarding censorship or placement of that money, it’s better off that we don’t have it.

“I’d rather not prostitute our values to take an appropriation,” Holda added.

Caldwell says in the wake of the commissioners’ decision, the city of Longview’s Arts and Culture Commission and the city of Kilgore have said they will reconsider their respective $32,000 and $15,000 pledges. He believes, however, that these funds won’t be revoked. Neither group could be reached for comment.

Gregg County commissioners approved the county budget — which included the $50,000 grant — late last September in a 3-2 vote. The grant had marked the first time the commissioners considered funding the annual festival.

In mid-October protests arose over the college’s production of Angels in America, a Pulitzer Prize-winning play focusing on the lives of five homosexuals. Several news organizations, including the Associated Press, reported that the Gregg County commissioners threatened to revoke the grant if the college didn’t cancel the play. Eleven days after the play closed, the commissioners held a second vote, deciding 4-0 to withdraw the grant. (The county judge, who oversees the commissioners and who would have represented the fifth vote, was absent from this meeting.)

Caldwell said that the commissioners are treating the festival and the college as if they’re one institution.

“The productions we do with our students are totally separate from the Shakespeare Festival,” Caldwell said. The commissioners are “hurting one program because of what another program did.”

In a letter to Holda and Caldwell, Angels’ author Tony Kushner compared the commissioners to a mob that tried recently to burn a building in Romania where Angels was being staged.

“There’s less moral ground separating that mob from people who threaten to pull funding from a college, or a theater festival, as a way of stopping a production,” Kushner wrote. “What they seek is no different from what that mob in Bucharest sought: a world in which people are afraid to make art that challenges convention, that says what may not have been spoken before.”

Caldwell said he staged Angels because he felt he should do a piece that was timely and relevant. “I realized this summer that I hadn’t directed anything with my students that was written during their lifetime,” he said.

Caldwell stresses that his students are his first concern.

“I do plays for the students and not for the community,” he said. “If we don’t ask students to look at difficult things and make their own decisions, what are we here for?”

Both Holda and Caldwell say the loss of funding will not prevent next year’s festival.

“There will be a festival this summer,” Caldwell said. “I don’t think its quality will suffer because of the loss of the funds.”

The festival’s future beyond 2000, however, is unclear.

According to Caldwell, several other cities have shown an interest in hosting the festival. “The city of Tyler has expressed the most interest in the festival being there,” he said. But no official offer has been made, he added.

Holda says he believes a fear of losing the festival prompted the commissioners’ original decision to provide the grant. “I think their real reason for initially funding [the festival] was to keep someone else from getting it than that they really loved the arts,” he said.

The festival’s future depends on the college’s ability to fund it, Caldwell says. “If the college can no longer afford it or if funding is not forthcoming from other sources, then it will either die or it will be looking for a new home,” he said.

Holda, however, is confident that the festival will remain in Kilgore. “It’s a challenge, but it’s a great festival,” he said. “Our long-term goal is to try to raise $4 million to $5 million in a permanent fund so that the festival has a long future.”