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One doesn’t expect to hear the words “nudity” and “children’s theatre” discussed in the same sentence. But there’s been a lot of that juxtaposition going around up in Boston as a result of the Boston Children’s Theatre production of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest in the latter half of April. “Artistic director caught in storm over nude scene at Boston Children’s Theatre” blared the headline in The Boston Globe one day late last week, only to be followed the next day by “Amid nudity flap, board member resigns at Boston Children’s Theatre.” WBUR’s The Artery had commentary headed “Nudity Turns ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ Into Hornet’s Nest at Boston Children’s Theatre.”

The headlines were spurred by internal disputes between the board and staff of BCT regarding the nudity in the production. Executive artistic director Burgess Clark informed the press that he is on layoff at the moment, as an alternative to his resigning, in the face of what he sees as board meddling in his artistic prerogatives. He characterized what took place to Don Aucoin of the Globe as attempted censorship by two “overreactionary ninnies” on the company’s board.

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Scene from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, as seen in The Boston Globe

The fuller situation, as pieced together from e-mail correspondence with Clark and BCT executive director Toby Schine, a phone conversation with BCT board member Henry Lukas, and the press accounts, is as follows.

The not-for-profit BCT, through its program for young people aged 14 to 19, has been producing shows in the past few years geared towards more mature youths, including Rent, Spring Awakening and Reflections of a Rock Lobster. Cuckoo’s Nest was part of that progression of work. Clark says that he has done the full texts of those shows, not student editions.

When Cuckoo’s Nest was announced for production, there was no public notice that nudity would be part of the production, nor was the board apprised of it. Clark, in an e-mail, said that the nudity (one male actor, aged 21, enacted during an exchange that covers less than one page of the acting edition script) was not pre-planned, but, per Clark, originated at the actor’s suggestion at the first rehearsal. “I asked him if he had ever appeared nude onstage before and he said no,” wrote Clark, “but that he was willing. I thought it was a brave risk for a young actor to offer.  I told him we would attempt it if it seemed organic. Five weeks later when we were in tech, we tried it and it played beautifully.  The cast had become so comfortable with one another by that point that it was pretty casual and had just the right tone.”

Asked when he learned of the nudity, Schine, the executive director, wrote, “Burgess mentioned it to me two weeks in to the rehearsal process. He had considered it for the scene in the pre-production, but thought it better not to take the risk, given that we likely wouldn’t have an actor who was comfortable with the idea. On the first day of rehearsal, the actor playing McMurphy, Sam Mulcahy, asked if the scene would be played with him nude for a few moments – Burgess then reconsidered. He finally said he wanted to move ahead with it two weeks before we opened.”

For student performances, the actor wore boxer shorts, and for the first two general public performances (there were ten general audience shows in total), he wore them as well. The nudity was introduced at the third public performance and was in place for the remainder of the run.

“We had agreed to try it both ways—so we did it without the nude scene the first two performances and did on the next two,” wrote Clark. “The scene as we had rehearsed it (nude) worked much better with our audiences.” In light of that decision, Schine wrote, “We contacted the parents involved in the scene and had discussions with them, [and] had Sam Mulcahy sign a nudity waiver based on AEA’s for his protection and for the theatres.”

During the second week of the three-week run, following the introduction of the nude scene, all parties agree that two board members contacted Schine to discuss the nudity; one audience member also called the company with concerns. What is unclear is the exact nature of the board members’ communications, which has been described variously as “demands from the board members to cut the nude scene” to “a concern about process.” Arts Integrity has asked Schine for clarification, since he was on the calls, and none of the complaints went directly from board members to Clark; as of the morning of May 9, Schine’s e-mail has an auto-respond message saying he is out of the office for two days.

In response to the initial expressions of concern, heated or not, Clark writes, “Toby called Hank [Miller, the board president] back and Hank said, ‘This is an artistic decision and I have to trust you to make the right one. You have my support.’” Lukas, the board member interviewed, confirms that Miller gave his support and makes clear that the board never met or discussed the issue until after the production had closed, and that at no time did the board ask for the production to be altered. Clark acknowledges that the two board members were acting independently.

Clark has said that from the time the concerns were raised, he felt uncertain from day to day as to whether the show would go on. He characterizes the subsequent events as, “After daily harassment from these board members, who were acting completely without authority, I made my plan to resign.  My board president and my executive producer collectively offered the alternative of being temporarily laid off rather than have me resign, until they could present a united front from the board. That has yet to take place.”

Subsequent to this, one of the two board members who took issue with the nudity resigned. The board met on Monday May 8, following which Lukas said, of the more advanced work Burgess has done with the older participants, “Burgess has done a great job.” He went on to say, “We’re hoping that we can sit down with Burgess, clarify the issues and have him back. Asked whether there have been any other organizational changes coming out of the meeting, Lukas responded, “Not that we’ve finalized, no.”

News accounts report that the staff has gone on “strike” in support of Clark, and BCT classes were canceled this past weekend. Asked about the strike, Schine responded, “I did not strike – I felt it was most advantageous for our process as an organization to stay on staff and work aggressively to move conversations forward between our Board President, Burgess and the Staff. As of this moment, I’m hopeful that we will be able to move past this challenge towards a very invigorated Boston Children’s Theatre. We’ve had very, very challenging conversations, and we have learned a lot as an organization about how we need to re-align our organizational spine.”

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Scene from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest at Boston Children’s Theatre (BCT publicity photo)

There are numerous issues bound up in the situation at Boston Children’s Theatre – censorship, public nudity, content for children’s theatre, not-for-profit leadership and governance among them – and they bear consideration, separately and together.

Taking censorship first, it is clear from all accounts that the board of trustees Boston Children’s Theatre did not attempt to censor Burgess Clark’s production of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. While two board members independently did express concern – what they sought, how strongly, how often and at what volume is in dispute – they were not acting on behalf of the board. The board never met to discuss the issue while the show was running, and the board president was supportive of the company’s staff leadership in making the decision that they thought best under the circumstances.

In a letter to the BCT board, dated May 8, the National Coalition Against Censorship’s Director of Programs, Svetlana Mintcheva wrote, in part:

“Adults, possibly shamed about their own thoughts and fantasies, may occasionally be embarrassed, but if anyone can look at a nude and not see an issue, it is a child. Nevertheless, there are frequent calls to censor artwork containing nudity so as to “protect children” from what some claim is “indecent,” or simply to avoid controversy.

However, the U.S. Supreme Court has stated multiple times that simple nudity (i.e., representations of the nude body in a non-sexualized manner) is constitutionally protected expression. Schad v. Mount Ephraim (1981), Jenkins v. Georgia (1974), Osborne v. Ohio (1990).”

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest was originally seen as a three-act play on Broadway in 1963 for a short run and subsequently revised into a two act for an Off-Broadway revival in 1971. The Off-Broadway script is the one that is available for production through Samuel French. It carries a message from playwright Dale Wasserman saying:

“There is profanity and strong language in the play. Particularly as concerns educational institutions and community theatre, you may feel free to modify or delete language which may give offense in your community without, however, altering the basic text.”

What it does not have is any stage direction indicating nudity. Indeed, in the scene in question, the script notes that the character of McMurphy, when told to remove a towel around his waist, reveals silk boxers covered in white whales, saying:

“Ain’t they some shit? They was a present from a co-ed at Oregon State. She said I was some kind of symbol.”

Commenting on the addition of nudity in his production, Clark wrote, “When it was written, I doubt that would have even been an option.” At a separate point in the correspondence, he wrote, responding to a question about the dialogue about the boxers, “The dialogue was the same with and without the boxer shorts. The particular line ‘Ain’t they some shit?’ (which now referenced his manhood on display) got quite a laugh as I recall.”

In a phone call with Samuel French, the company’s executive director Bruce Lazarus said that BCT had not sought any permission to alter any of the show’s text. Stage directions and costuming, however, are not the same as text in some cases, and not always followed in staging shows unless the action is essential to the plot or the author’s clear intent.

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The issue of nudity on stage is a complicated one when working with professional actors, let alone young ones. Professional practice generally requires that any role requiring nudity be stated as such in a casting notice, and that the actor agree to it in writing at the time of contracting. In university theatres, many schools have guidelines that require nudity to be discussed prior to the start of production with a department chair, and state that no student should be required to perform nude or appear in a production with nudity if they do not wish to do so, among other protections (including prohibitions on photography and video recording of any nude scenes). The advance notices and stipulations are designed to insure that, in the power dynamic between a director (who also may be an employer or teacher) and their cast, no one is expected or pressured to participate in a process that makes them uncomfortable, or seen to be opposing the wishes of the majority opinion on such matters. Such guidelines have been increasingly implemented over the past few decades as protection for all concerned.

While the actor who appeared nude reportedly suggested the idea himself, and the other actors who appeared on stage in the scene who were under 18 received parental approval to participate, the process for nudity in a children’s theatre production could have been more thorough, consistent with professional or educational practice. Burgess professed to being surprised that the nudity had become “such an electric issue.” Separately, he wrote, “The nude scene is organic to the story, and I was proud to again be the first children’s’ theatre in the country to be staging full male nudity by a 21-year old actor.”

This also begs the question of whether it was appropriate to make the audience aware of the nudity, especially in the context of production by a youth theatre program that’s part of a children’s theatre company. “We gave ample warning of the nudity, language and adult themes,” Clark wrote. Schine wrote, “The audience was warned on signs upon entering the theatre, the website, during a curtain speech and in the playbill. During the tech process, we invited parents, theatre staff (those not working on the show already) and solicited opinions.”

However, while notice may have been given at the theatre, BCT’s website speaks only of  “strong language and adult themes,” and notes that, “No one under 14 will be admitted without a guardian’s permission.” Unless there was a pop-up box in the ordering process, now disabled, there is not specificity about nudity in the online advisories. With the nudity only added to the show following the first two performances, the question of whether ticket buyers should have been or were advised about the nudity in advance of arriving at the performance, and how and when, remains unclear.

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Regardless of one’s moral, ethical or even legal perspective on the issues surrounding Cuckoo’s Nest at BCT, the problems that emerged would seem to stem in particular from a failure of communications within the totality of the organization. While board members certainly have the right to share their thoughts with the company’s leadership, if individual board members did in fact demand that the show be altered, they were placing the executive director in an untenable situation, since artistic and managerial leaders typically report jointly to the board, not to individual board members or factions within the board. If that was their demand, as characterized by Clark, then they should have asked for an emergency board meeting to address such an action, since artistic leaders are indeed empowered to make creative decisions for the organization, but are ultimately accountable to a board. If they were asking only for conversation, as characterized by Lukas, then Schine’s account of the conversations may have precipitated the kind of brinksmanship that arose, as Clark was relying upon what he was told by Schine, having never spoken directly to the complainants. The circumstances remain unclear.

While at professional organizations, or for that matter any not-for -profit, the danger of a board trying to micromanage, let alone dictate appropriate artistic content, is always a concern. Strong artsboards have grappled with the issues of governance and put in place procedures for communication and oversight of staff. However, when an artistic director has no direct communications with any of the board in a time of crisis, that is only bound to exacerbate issues. Additionally, when an organization is anticipating potentially controversial issues, not apprising the board in advance, or as soon as possible when such circumstances arise, is foolhardy, since the board’s support and guidance can help to protect against any blowback.

It’s impossible to say how this will all resolve, since the situation seems fluid. There appears to be a great deal more communication needed, ideally with all pertinent parties in the same room at the same time. As for the efforts of BCT to serve older youths beyond the nomenclature of “children’s theatre”? That seems a worthy goal, provided the company follows best practices, hewing to, as the vision statement on their website includes, “maintaining and understanding artistic discipline,” with “professionalism and professional standards play[ing] a key role.” That process calls for – and in light of the specific controversy you should pardon the expression – getting everything out into the open. Everyone in leadership, staff and board, at BCT, needs to be on the same page, on the same team, and acting in the very best interests of the young people they are there to train and serve.

Addendum: As this post was to be published, Don Aucoin at The Boston Globe published a commentary piece which also sought opinions from other youth theatre companies in the Boston area. You can read it here. It concludes with a paragraph that seems counterproductive to a positive theatergoing experience. It reads:

“Reassuring words, but it’s still probably wise for parents to be ready to clap their hands over the eyes or ears of their little ones when they take them to any theater, anywhere. Just in case.”

That seems an awful state of mind for parents to be in when taking their children to the theatre. If they have any concerns, they should call the theatre company and inquire as to specifics of content. Sitting poised for alarm seems no way for anyone to attend the theatre, and to do so seems a certain way of spoiling the show for both parents and children.

Update, May 11, 7 am: The Boston Globe reports that Burgess Clark and the Boston Children’s Theatre staff have returned to work at the company. A total of three board members, specifically board president Hank Miller as well as the two trustees who registered complaints about the nudity in Cuckoo’s Nest, have resigned. The company’s annual benefit, which generates roughly 10% of its income, has been postponed from next week until the autumn. A series of steps are being put into place to address longstanding financial instabilities which have come to light, as well as the company’s failure to compete mandatory tax filings since 2014.

Update, May 12, 8 am: Contrary to their account from one day earlier, The Boston Globe now reports that there is again a rift a Boston Children’s Theatre. Next steps seem to be uncertain following the seeming detente of the prior 24 hours.

This post will be updated as circumstances warrant.

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Note: in the interest of full disclosure, I acknowledge that I attended high school and was friends with BCT board member Lori Correale. While I was aware of her son’s participation in the company, I did not know she was a board member until I began researching this article, at which point I determined that I couldn’t interview her, in order to avoid any real or perceived conflict of interest. I did ask her for help with contact information for board members who might be willing to speak with me.