Despite reservations, Summerville gives Flowertown Players tax money

The Summerville Town Council voted this week to provide funding for lighting upgrades for the Flowertown Players, despite a threat by one official to withhold the money because of their performance of the play "Rent."

The Flowertown Players should be able to cover the rent - or at least keep the theater lights on - after receiving nearly $3,000 the Summerville Town Council had threatened to withhold in a dispute over what one official called the "raunchiest things" he'd ever seen.

Several council members and theater directors said the Finance Committee's 4-1 vote this week to give the troupe $2,930 to upgrade stage lighting at the historic James F. Dean Theater ends an attempt at censorship over the play "Rent" that drew national derision.

"I am opposed to denying them money based upon the content of their plays," said Councilman Bill McIntosh. "I don't think that is a legitimate basis for approving or not approving the funding."

Councilman Terry Jenkins objected last month to giving the theater group money from the town's hotel tax revenues, nearly six months after seeing "Rent," a Tony-award winning play about the effects of AIDS/HIV on the lives of struggling young performers in New York City in the 1980s.

Jenkins, who is out of the country and did not attend the meeting at which the council approved the expenditure, denounced the play as "one of the raunchiest things I'd ever seen in my life."

The lone dissenter was Councilman Walter Bailey, who didn't see "Rent," but said he objected to what he considered the play's vulgar language and also to giving tax money to a nonprofit.

Bailey said the issue is settled, "unless they push the envelope in the future on some other performance."

Flowertown Board Director Monica Shows said supporters were prepared to storm City Hall, but she discouraged them, saying it wasn't necessary. She and Flowertown's Artistic Director JC Conway were at the council committee meeting to answer questions.

"We debated as a board the pros and cons (of 'Rent')," Shows said. "Did I personally like everything that was done in our production? Probably not, but I can appreciate the artistry that went into it."

Shows agreed that the play was not for everybody, but disagreed that the theater group's performances should be censored.

The play could not be edited to be more family-friendly because it is illegal and unethical to change an author's published work, Conway wrote in a letter to patrons. Additionally, she said, "language is important to the character. A twenty-something bohemian in New York is not going to say the word fudge instead of the F-word. Cutting language essentially cuts a part of the character."

At the same time, she wrote, "While 'Rent' has shown us that Flowertown is ready for a wider range of theater (only 1% left at intermission), we also understand the importance of the classics and family friendly shows. We will continue to work hard to provide Summerville with a diverse selection of exceptional theatre."

Bailey remained unconvinced that the theater group was listening to him or others who were offended.

"Instead of coming in there to listen, I got the distinct impression they had their minds made up to continue doing what they wanted to do and just wanted to advocate their position," Bailey said. "Nothing that occurred during that meeting changed my mind and that's why I voted against it."

The tax money Flowertown received can be earmarked for facility upgrades or to promote tourism. Last year's grant was used by the Flowertown Players for a billboard on Interstate 26 to advertise "Rent." Shows said more than half of the people who came to see the play were from outside of the town.

McIntosh said the flap went beyond censorship - it also involved council members' different opinions on how the tax money should be spent.

"As a general rule, you can't give public money to private groups," McIntosh said. "But both the hospitality and accommodations tax statutes allow you to do that in a way that promotes tourism. ... My point was, if we're going to give public money to nonprofits to promote tourism, then that's the test. Is the money being used to promote tourism? Is it being used effectively? It was apparently very effective."

Other nonprofits also received a portion of the $71,524 - Sculpture in the South; the Summerville Community Orchestra; DREAM; the YMCA's Flowertown Festival; the Summerville Jaycees; and the Greater Summerville Dorchester County Chamber of Commerce for the visitor center.

The vote last month to give the other nonprofits a part of the tax money was unanimous, with no opposition from Bailey.

Flowertown, now in its 39th season, is currently performing "Hairspray," which closes on Sunday. Also on the schedule are "Dracula," "Sound of Music," "Moonlight and Magnolias," "Dearly Departed" and "Little Shop of Horrors."

"It's fairly tame in terms of subject matter," Shows said. "But someone could find fault with just about anything we do. We are not here to cause any problems. We are just here to do what we've been asked to do, to bring tourists to Summerville."

Flowertown Players has for years posted warnings about show themes, content and language on its website and scripts are available for preview.

"Hairspray" has been playing to sold-out audiences, which Shows attributed to more people attending plays in the summer and the play's high energy, "but it certainly didn't hurt to have extra publicity (from the "Rent" controversy)."

The dispute over "Rent," in Summerville was one of several censorship controversies in the Lowcountry in the past year.

Some state senators raised a fuss this spring because last year's incoming freshmen at the College of Charleston were asked to read "Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, a graphic novel that explores author Alison Bechdel's upbringing and coming to terms with her sexuality.

Legislators cut $52,000, the cost of the summer reading program, from the college's $227 million budget. The money was restored on the condition that it be used to teach incoming freshmen about the U.S. Constitution and other documents.

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.

Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or @brindge on Twitter.