An effort to cut funding for a Summerville theater company after a popular musical generated complaints over language is the latest battle in an ongoing war between conservative politicians and artists.
Flowertown Players' production of "Rent" was nearly sold out for every one of its 11 performances in January, according to artistic director J.C. Conway. It's the story of a group of impoverished young artists and musicians struggling to survive in New York City, while a couple of them are living with HIV/AIDS. It's won four Tony awards.
Some found the language offensive, according to Summerville Councilman Terry Jenkins.
"It was one of the raunchiest things I'd ever seen in my life - and I'm far from being a prude," Jenkins said at a finance committee meeting earlier this week. "I just thought it was totally inappropriate for a neighborhood community."
Jenkins urged council not to give the theater company any more of the town's accommodations tax money, a fund from hotels meant to bring in tourists. It would be a $3,000 cut. His effort failed, but now the theater company will have to come to the next committee meeting and explain itself.
"We look forward to sitting down and talking to Summerville Town Council and the finance committee," Conway said. "We're proud of the production and we do not regret doing it. We feel it was positive for the Summerville community, but we're happy to sit down with the council and discuss the issue further."
Of those who bought tickets to "Rent," 61 percent were from outside Summerville, Conway said.
"The accommodations tax money is supposed to be about bringing tourists into the community," he said.
Mayor Bill Collins said he was opposed to making the Flowertown Players defend the production.
"I don't feel like we need to do that," Collins said at Wednesday's council meeting. "The arts community is an integral part of the community. If you start picking and choose what plays they put on, you're going to open a whole can of worms."
Councilman William McIntosh agreed.
"Apparently a sizeable portion of the community wanted to go see it," McIntosh said. "I don't see it as our job to subject our judgment on them."
Reaction from the local arts community was heated. Dozens of people weighed in on the Theatre Charleston Facebook page.
"For God's sake, come out of the Dark Ages, South Carolina," actor and teacher David Loar said in a post.
Daniel Hall Kuhn, acting coach at The Studio Art School & Gallery, also expressed outrage.
"When politicians start abusing their position in order to censor the arts, to label themes and values which differ from their own as 'inappropriate for a neighborhood community,' or to deny funds because a particular work of art examines subject matter that makes them uncomfortable, it is time to remove those politicians," he said.
Politicians also recently intervened in a summer reading program at the College of Charleston. Some senators raised a fuss because incoming freshman last year were asked to read "Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic." It's a graphic novel that explores author Alison Bechdel's upbringing and coming to terms with her sexuality. The book raised the ire of some senators because a page depicts two women having sex. To protest the book, the legislators cut $52,000 from the college's $227 million budget, which is the cost of the college's summer reading program. The money was restored on the condition that the money is used to teach incoming freshmen about the U.S. Constitution and similar founding documents.
"You can't ignore the irony of this, right?" associate provost Lynne Ford told a reporter after the compromise was announced. "The First Amendment is all about free speech regardless of content."
State lawmakers also cut $17,000 from the University of South Carolina Upstate's budget earlier this year because of a book called "Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio," which depicted a gay and lesbian radio station. That money was restored under the same condition, that the Spartanburg school use it "for instruction in the provisions and principles of the United States Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Federalist Papers, including the study of and devotion to American institutions and ideals."
Brian Hicks and Jeremy Borden of The Post and Courier and Monica Kreber of The Journal Scene contributed to this story. Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553.
Summerville Town Councilman Terry Jenkins×
Flowertown Players in Summerville presented the production “Rent” in January. Now town council wants them to explain their decision to produce the play.×