College President Boots Musical from Theatre for Political Event, Then Blames Theatre Students When Event is Cancelled

Liz Chirico

Imagine you’re a chemistry or biology college student. You’ve spent weeks preparing your lab and have timed everything perfectly. You and your lab partner double checked the equations, and experiments are chugging away. There’s still a couple more weeks of monitoring to go before your work is finished, but you’re feeling pretty good. Now imagine being told that the lab is needed to host a special visitor and that your experiments must be removed. The “compromise” is that you can move to a smaller lab which doesn’t have the right equipment, so all your months of hard work will be lost. You have no say in the matter and nor does your faculty advisor- the college administration made all these decisions for you and without your knowledge or input. This would never happen, right? No one would dream of asking a science student to uproot their work at the last minute. Yet this is exactly what played out at Westfield State University (WSU) and their theatre students.

The theater department’s production of “Urinetown” was set to be uprooted just a couple weeks before opening night. Thankfully these intrepid theater students took to social media and their show was saved but this all should never have happened in the first place. Unfortunately, it’s all too common in this country as virtually everything else is deemed more important, worthy or deserving over theater, music and the arts.

On Wednesday night, April 4, a student member of the WSU theater group walked into the tail end of a meeting between school administration and theater faculty. This meeting took place in Devers, the primary performing arts space on Westfield’s campus and the largest meeting space with a capacity of around 500. It was pure happenstance this student arrived when they did and by doing so, heard the powers-that-be decide the production of “Urinetown” opening April 18, would be moved to accommodate Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-MA) Town Hall meeting scheduled for April 13.

According to students I spoke to, the next night’s rehearsal consisted of a meeting between the Vice President, the Dean of Students and the Dean of Undergraduate Admissions and the members of the theater group. A directive was given to the students: your production will now take place in the Blackbox theater, not Devers. All your sets, backdrops, lighting, etc. would be torn down by movers hired by the college. There was no discussion, no chance for recourse on the part of the theater group. Either move your production from a 500+ seat venue where you’ve rehearsed the last couple months to the 100ish-seat Blackbox Theater and completely reconfigure your blocking, dances, lighting, and sets, or postpone your show and risk students having conflicts, roles needing to be recast/cut, or cancel your show.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, champion of education and the arts, is the reason for this fiasco but she is in no way to blame. Her office was working with two other colleges besides WSU to host her town hall to be broadcast on MSNBC. It was apparently the WSU Administration who decided that the theater department would serve as collateral damage in an effort to make money for WSU and publicize the school.

Faced with this devastating news, the students took to social media to express their frustration and sadness. It was impressed upon me by both my sources that the theater faculty were in no way to blame for the actions of the students and in fact, the students didn’t even organize their dissent. It was organic; these students sharing their grief, disbelief in the best way they knew how.

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There was hope some good would come of it, but that wasn’t their intent. Luckily some good did come of it with MSNBC catching wind of the situation and opting out of broadcasting the Town Hall.

This left President Torrecilha to issue a statement to the campus community on Friday, April 6. The tone of his statement shows a clear disregard and disgust towards those who campaigned to save their show. Rather than be proud of his students who rallied and supported a cause they believe in, he blames them. And for what?

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He blames them for taking an amazing experience away from students, faculty, and staff. Devers holds about 500 people. There are 5,000 full-time undergrads on campus never mind 600 part-time undergrads, 800 graduate students along with faculty and staff that must number into the hundreds. Less than a tenth of the community would attend the one night only Town Hall in person. The rest would be relegated to watching on TV- same as if another institution hosted. Who exactly then is benefitting from this program? Does anyone really think in a year or two a high school student is going to remember this event took place and be swayed to apply to WSU because of it? Do you truly think more funding will be directed your way simply because you hosted the Senator and some TV cameras?

When asked what benefits hosting the Town Hall would have for WSU, their Director of Campus Communication Tricia Oliver said,

Rather than think about this as an “either/or” scenario, Westfield State was working through “win-win” solutions that would allow for both events to take place on campus—for the April 13 live televised event and the series of spring musical performances scheduled to begin on April 18.”

Remember their “win-win” for the theater department was to completely uproot their production, dismantling their sets using hired movers, and force the theater group to change to a smaller venue. Who wins in this scenario besides the WSU administration?

WSU had options- they were approached on April 2 regarding the Town Hall meeting. WSU could have opted to not hold the event so close to “Urinetown”, have MSNBC work around the existing sets and use the existing lights or respectfully decline to host at all. Tell them your students, your current students and their projects, their passions mean more to you than anything else. If the end result of this meeting was supposed to be a win for higher education (as stated in the President’s response) than your goal should never have been about anything else besides your students and their needs. Respect the MONTHS of teamwork, leadership and planning that went into “Urinetown” vs. the few days’ work you gave.

It’s fitting that “Urinetown” is the show in the center of all this. The irony of a show featuring a big, heartless corporation in charge holding the little guys hostage isn’t lost. Let’s stick it to the corporation that is the administration at Westfield State University and sell out “Urinetown”. Their show runs from April 18- April 21 with tickets available here, http://www.westfield.ma.edu/events/view/”Urinetown”-the-musical. If you can’t go in person, show the theater department some love with a tax-deductible donation to their theater, or art, or music department. Use this form, https://www.westfieldalumni.org/make-a-gift/donate and click “other” under “Please choose your gift designation” then write in- theater, art, music, or whatever you’d like.