Feb 242012

By Teri Walker —

While the discourse is largely civil at this stage, there is still a strong divide between some Snowflake and Taylor residents and the greater Northland Pioneer College community over the college’s production of Grease last fall.

At this week’s meeting of the Navajo County Community College District Governing Board, Northland Pioneer College Vice President of Administrative Services Blaine Hatch reported the college had concluded an investigation into allegations of sexual abuse and harassment, possible religious harassment and a possible pattern of pressure to coerce students to behave in a manner against their personal standards, and found no evidence substantiating the claims levied against the college.

The serious accusations stemmed from an outcry raised about the college’s production of the stage show Grease.

The college received a series of e-mails and letters during and following the play’s run, primarily from Snowflake and Taylor community members.

Ryan Montgomery, who spoke on behalf of the Community Values Committee of Snowflake and Taylor, attended the college board meeting. He said he and his wife, and another couple that attended the production were shocked by the sexual themes and “vulgar” references and antics.

He said neither he nor his wife had seen the movie Grease, but knew it had been rated PG and figured the play would contain typical PG content.

After being shocked and offended by the production, Montgomery contacted the college to express his outrage and what he deems a pattern of presenting productions at odds with the values of Snowflake and Taylor residents. With the backing of the Community Values Committee, Montgomery initiated a campaign urging other community members to levy complaints.

In a statement to the college board, Montgomery said, “With play after play containing adult content many are questioning the motives of those producing it. With the type of content in Grease many ask at what point is the line crossed,” said Montgomery.

He also noted, “There have been other plays that included a nude poster of a woman, and plays that included vulgar and crude talk of sex, contained adult content, and assaulted our most cherished values. Would you feel comfortable in participating in these kinds of plays or feel comfortable if your son or daughter was in them?”

“What we are exploring with this debate is a sense of common respect for our beliefs and the ability for us all to participate in our community college without alienating the majority of taxpayers who fund the college and theatre program,” said Montgomery.

Montgomery said that he was glad to hear the results of NPC’s investigations into the sexual abuse allegations, but distanced himself from them, saying his group did not make the allegations.

The e-mail containing abuse accusations objected to “the repugnant content of the college’s production of Grease, the pattern of hyper-sexualized content in college productions and the handling by the college of this community conflict.

“Of even greater concern (is that) some students may have felt pressured by the instructor to participate in the offensive activity. To the extent that is true, accusations of sexual abuse and harassment becomes plausible. If any of these students were minors, it becomes far too analogous to Penn State.”

Hatch explained in his report on the internal investigation that he interviewed all of the cast members and crew involved in Grease. He prefaced the results by saying that the allegations were based on hearsay, and in some cases “extreme hearsay,” with none of the charges expressed directly by people involved with the production or previous productions.

Hatch said none of those interviewed said they had been abused or harassed, or pressured into doing anything they were uncomfortable with in this or other NPC productions. The three minors who participated in Grease were interviewed with their parents present, and denied any of the claims, as well.

Hatch pointed out that the contact referred to took place with adult cast members, not minors. The adults who were touched said they did not consider the contact abusive at any time.

Only one person who claimants identified as concerned about her experience within the NPC theater program did not participate in the investigation. She is currently out of the country serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In each case, Hatch said interviewees said they elected to participate in NPC productions because of a personal interest; none claimed to be targeted or coerced to participate, and none felt they were harassed because of their religious affiliations. None said they were threatened with the loss of financial aid, scholarships or funding if they wouldn’t take part in elements of productions deemed uncomfortable, Hatch reported.

In fact, Hatch said one interviewee spoke to the director about language in a play was allowed to use a variation instead.

Hatch said there was only one interviewee who felt threatened during the production.

“One said they had feelings of concern about their personal safety leaving the building after the production. They had feelings of fear and a concern of retaliation because of the controversy,” Hatch said.

Of his investigation, Hatch said, “We didn’t find any evidence of sexual abuse or harassment…our findings were opposite of the accusations, with the instructor described as caring and reasonable.”

The instructor referenced in relation to the controversy is Theatre Arts Department Chair Dr. Michael Solomonson.

Hatch said that the college continues to receive communiqués related to displeasure about Grease and other NPC productions that some deem out of line with area residents’ community values.

Several people speaking in favor of the college’s theater department pointed out that the NPC community is not just Snowflake and Taylor, where the performing arts center is located, but extends from Winslow to all of the White Mountain communities.

Board member Ginny Handorf reminded attendees that the college district spans a geographic area larger than the state of West Virginia.

To comments made by Montgomery, such as, “There’s no secret most people in our community are very morally conservative,” and “We’re asking NPC to understand that we were raised in a community where we are taught to have respect and discretion towards sexuality,” Janet Fish of Winslow said. “Don’t forget there’s a whole lot of NPC, not just the southern end, and there are some value differences.”

Another speaker said, “This campus stretches from one end of the mountain range to the desert. Just because the theater was built in Snowflake/Taylor, doesn’t make it Snowflake/Taylor’s theater.”

Michael Overstreet, who identified himself as a member of the Arts Alliance of the White Mountain, said, “There’s all kinds of brands of morality…If you don’t think it’s moral, don’t buy a ticket.”

Overstreet’s sentiment was echoed by many who spoke of the theater patron’s responsibility to find out what a production is about before going to see it.

NPC President Dr. Jeanne Swarthout said that as a result of the controversy, the college has instituted a policy requiring notices to be issued if a program includes content that includes adult themes, crude language, and other material that may be deemed offensive or unsuitable for some audiences.

Solomonson said his department has had the practice of warning audiences of content in place for some time, but said in the case of Grease, he thought because the stage production and movie have been on the public scene for so long–more than 40 years–most people would be aware of what to expect.

In fact, at the top of the list of results of a Google search of “Grease play” or “Grease stage production” pops up the Wikipedia definition that states, “In its record-breaking original Broadway production, Grease was a raunchy, raw, aggressive, vulgar show that since has been sanitized and tamed down by subsequent productions. The show tackles such social issues as teenage pregnancy and gang violence; its themes include love, friendship, teenage rebellion, sexual exploration during adolescence, and, to some extent, class consciousness/class conflict.”

Detractors questioned Solomonson’s motives for selecting the productions he does, pointing to the fact that he followed up the controversial Grease production with the play Underpants.

Solomonson explained that the selection of Underpants as the college’s next production predated the Grease scandal.

“Some have said I was deliberately trying to jab a stick in the eye by doing Underpants. There’s no truth to that. We were planning to do Underpants since July,” Solomonson said.

Solomonson said that in response to allegations that the college is presenting too many non-family friendly productions, he evaluated the college offerings.

“I decided to break down everything initiated in the performing arts building from the last five years and found a three-to-one ratio,” said Solomonson, explaining that for every three he deemed “family friendly” productions, there was one that he would classify as something for mature audiences.

“Grease, Underpants and Edges (an upcoming mature audience production) just so happened to run together,” said Solomonson, explaining that scheduling is influenced by when the college receives the license from production companies to put on requested plays.

While Montgomery and another member of the Community Values Committee, Bev Kay, claimed they do not wish to censor the college productions, many in the audience, along with Swarthout and Solomonson, referred to censorship in their defense of the college.

Dannette Weiss of Apache County said, “I do not agree with censorship of any kind. It makes me really sad when people try to decide what I should see or read or hear.”

Kay said, “Where did we lack in our communications that somewhere in all of this the committee was marked as censorship? All we want is that we just have productions that we feel comfortable with.”

Montgomery said, “We respect freedom and the 1st Amendment. All we ask is that NPC and the theatre department show some respect and consideration to the type of area they serve. Censorship does exist in community college theatre. A standard is that directors normally avoid controversial plays to the area, this way the audience is protected from harm or insult.”

“We do some self-censorship,” said Solomonson. He went on to say that there are several productions he was interested in putting on because they would provide valuable learning opportunities for his students or explore subjects he felt were important to explore, but he opted not to put them in the college lineup because he felt they would be too controversial.

Solomonson said part of his job is to prepare his students to go on to university or other four-year institutions. Some of those who addressed the board pointed out students would be unprepared for university-level theater programs if they only participate in “milk toast” or Disney productions at the community college level.

Solomonson said a look at the University of Arizona website would show warning labels for three of the six upcoming productions scheduled at the university, and similar warnings are found on Arizona State University’s and Northern Arizona University’s websites.

“These students are going to be expected to be conversant in world literature of theater and that’s not Little Mary Sunshine,” he said.

Board Chairman Bill Jeffers asked Solomonson if he was comfortable with the requirement to put warning labels on questionable productions, at which point Solomonson pointed out he already does, but said, “Now, I think if it’s anything from ‘Oh God’ on up, I’ll be putting an adult language label on it.”

He said, “You never know someone’s moral scale. You do your best to warn them, but the responsibility to do a little research is on their end.”

Eli Blake, an NPC employee, said his daughter was the youngest member of the cast of Grease.

“If I had any doubts with anything with the department, I wouldn’t have let her participate,” he said.

Lisa Jayne, who has studied under Solomonson, and directs and acts in theater productions, said, “I am offended on his (Solomonson’s) behalf that him doing his job would call into question his morals. He is one of the most upstanding people and honest people I know.”

While the NPC community and greater community opinions on matters of morality, censorship and the college’s duty to community vary greatly, the mandates under which the college operates are clear.

Swarthout pointed out that the college has reaffirmed its policy on academic freedom, and that the college’s policy is in line with requirements NPC must meet to keep its accreditation. “We are required by our accreditors to have an academic freedom policy and adhere to it,” Swarthout said.

The college won’t soften its policy by allowing an outside group to review and approve course content or program materials. It is instituting a couple of procedural changes, however. In addition to the warning label requirement, Swarthout said moving forward, students under 18 will have to secure parental permission to participate in a college production.

Montgomery and Kay said they were pleased with the college’s findings on the investigation and its actions to inform audiences of adult themes.

Both struck a conciliatory note in their presentations, with Montgomery saying, “We mean no harm; we’re just trying to follow what we feel is right. We really do hope you can sense our concern and know our intentions are not meant to offend anyone.”

Audience member Terry McConville, who said he’s been part of the performing arts program since 1977, put a positive spin on the controversy. While acknowledging he could argue both sides of the argument presented, he said, “The college is doing what it’s supposed to do. It’s supposed to create a little controversy. That’s what art is supposed to do. It’s supposed to get under your skin a little bit.”

After approving the policy changes related to the topic and listening to all of the public statements, Handorf said, “I think it’s very good that we had community input. The old answer is if you don’t approve, don’t attend. Don’t patronize.”

Jeffers said, “When we have accusations of sexual misconduct, minors being threatened, sex abuse, we have to jump in. We had accusations of coverups…I took this seriously, we took it seriously. I’m certainly glad there were no findings of any of those. But I think we’ve addressed this issue, particularly the most serious of the accusations.”

Jeffers thanked Montgomery and others who provided input, and acknowledged the civil nature of the exchange at the meeting.

Swarthout, who has been shaken by the intensity of the vitriol of some of the accusations and the manner in which they have been conveyed over the past few months, expressed a more somber sentiment. In a voice choked with emotion she said, “I do really want to comment on how difficult it’s been for some of us to go through this. It’s been a tough road; it’s been a hard one and I hope we don’t have to go through this again.”