Pittsburgh Community Theatre Shuts Down Production of "Big Fish" Over Depiction of Gay Parents


Outrage has erupted in Pittsburgh, PA related to the cancellation of a community theatre production of "Big Fish" due to a dispute between the creative team and producers over the inclusion of staging that would have featured gay male parents. 

For the upcoming production of the Andrew Lippa musical, during the number, "Stranger", the director wanted to include a gay male couple with a child among the ensemble interacting with Will while he's reflecting on being a future father. While the producers "compromised" with the director at first to allow the depicted couple, when the director wanted to include additional staging, producers balked. The dispute between the creative and producing teams led the director to resign from the production, followed by multiple cast members. 

Due to the fact that opening night was less than a month away and what the producers called a "campaign to disparage" their reputation, they decided to cancel the entire production. 

The producers released the following statement on their Facebook page

It is with deep sadness that Palisade Playhouse announces a decision to halt production of the upcoming musical “Big Fish”.

The decision to cancel “Big Fish” comes on the heels of a dispute between the director and co-founding producers over how to proactively insert representation of an LGBT+ family despite the fact that the script did not include any reference to the LGBT+ community.

In an effort to show genuine acceptance and welcome all, an initial compromise had been made upfront to include two gay fathers holding a baby and walking across stage as part of a scene with a bustling park setting. The direction shifted with blocking and scene direction that would have created an additional moment of reflection between the lead character and the gay parents during an emotionally charged song about the feelings of becoming a father for the first time. This added moment of focus created question about whether the director’s addition would convey a message about gay marriage in a way that would be seen as inclusive to some but exclusive to others.

Bobby Steggert as Will Bloom performing "Stranger" in the Broadway musical, 'Big Fish'

Bobby Steggert as Will Bloom performing "Stranger" in the Broadway musical, 'Big Fish'

As a result of the dispute, the director resigned and some cast members followed, creating a divide between the producers, directors, cast and crew, and igniting a fiery discussion on social media in the days following. Additionally, a campaign to disparage the reputation of the Playhouse emerged, and it soon became clear that working in harmony to produce the show on time and within budget would no longer be possible. Without the ability to move forward as planned, the Playhouse will face a significant financial loss and face the possibility of closing permanently.

Since its founding in July 2016, people of all different walks of life and with diverse views and beliefs have existed harmoniously and cooperatively within the Playhouse. Throughout this time, the Playhouse successfully produced a variety of family-friendly musicals, a host of choir concerts and events, and was fully immersed in the current 2018 season of shows, concerts and events. All shows were produced and planned with the intention to be welcoming to all, regardless of personal beliefs and views. Many people in the area had happily received the benefit of these offerings.

Palisade Playhouse’s founders grieve with those who feel hurt by this decision, but also grieve because of the intolerance and the spite with which they were treated as well. Palisade Playhouse remains true to its founding ideals, and for that reason, Palisade maintains the need as an organization to maintain a level of neutrality on this issue and many other issues, so that all people may feel welcome.

While I'm sure that producers were most likely trying not to rock the boat too much within their (as they describe it)"family friendly" theatre community, their stance that this moment would have been "exclusive" to some audience members is misguided. While they might have been worried about this brief moment highlighting a gay couple, they seem to have forgotten that the entire show is about a heterosexual family. So if any audience members felt left out, they would be assured that the remaining 99.99% of the musical pertained to them. It would seem that the producer's statement of how they respect all beliefs is a bit contradictory. 

While I don't know what the exact staging was, from what I can tell, it wasn't something that would have violated licensing agreements or something that would offend Andrew Lippa himself. 

But to understand why the producers might have an issue with the inclusion of gay parents onstage, you would have to look at the producers themselves. Palisades Playhouse was founded by Matt and Michelle Belliston. The couple, who are Mormons, told local papers that came up with the idea for a theatre during a trip near Washington D.C. "They took time to “pray and see what God wanted us to do,” said Michelle Belliston. The idea emerged: “Maybe we should start a community theater."

While it's unknown if this played a role in the decision to not include gay parents onstage, it's worth pointing out that Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' opposes gay marriage and parenting.

The fact that the Belliston's occupy an old Presbyterian church is a bit ironic since the Presbyterian Church is currently the only Presbyterian Denomination in the United States that allow same-sex marriage and ordains openly LGBT members in committed relationships as teaching elders, and ruling elders.

Needless to say, the reaction on social media has been fiery. Many have called out the theatre for being "bigoted" and have called for the theatre's closing while others are defending the couple stating that it's within the producer's right to decide how they want their shows designed.

UPDATE: 5/17/18: In a statement provided to BroadwayWorld, the two creators of the show, John August and Andrew Lippa, stated the following:

"This week we learned that an upcoming production of BIG FISH at the Palisade Playhouse in Pittsburgh has been canceled over a disagreement between the director and the theatre. Specifically, the director planned to include a same-sex couple as part of the background action during the song "Stranger."

In defending their decision, the theatre argues that, "the script did not include any reference to the LGBT+ community." That's correct; nowhere in the script does it say that any character is gay or lesbian or trans. But nor does it say they aren't. A director's decision to signal that two silent characters are same-sex parents isn't changing the text. It's providing context and framing. It's directing.

BIG FISH is a musical about parenthood, family and love. These are shared experiences of all human beings.

The theatre continues: "This added moment of focus created questions about whether the director's addition would convey a message about gay marriage in a way that would be seen as inclusive to some but exclusive to others."

Which feels another way of saying, "We didn't want to risk offending anyone."

And look, we get it. BIG FISH has been produced hundreds of times in the U.S. in part because it's so family-friendly and unlikely to offend. There's no sex or violence. In some cases, we will allow for words to be changed or omitted. We do this because we want as many people as possible to get to experience it - both as an audience and as part of a production.

But "family-friendly" shouldn't mean ignoring reality. Let's remember that in America there are all kinds of families, including ones with two dads, two moms, people of all gender identity, color and creed. Family-friendly is something bigger than it once was.

This notion of "thinking bigger" is something Big Fish's hero Edward Bloom would certainly endorse. After all, his friends include a giant, a witch and a werewolf.

When we see #bigfishmusical videos on Instagram of high schools doing Be The Hero, it reminds us that the show we wrote inevitably changes with every production, every player, every choice. That's theater. It exists only because people come together to put on a show.

We're sorry the show won't go on at Palisade Playhouse, but look forward to working with the director and company to find a new home for their production."

-John August and Andrew Lippa