Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Respecting Those Who Leave "Little Dog" NOT Laughing

Posted by Bruce Miller
We're two weeks into our six week run of The Little Dog Laughed. About 150 patrons thus far have decided to opt out prior to seeing Little Dog due to their concerns over content. Another 110 or so have left the theatre upset after seeing part or all of Act I.

Each of these patrons matters to me, and not just from a business point of view. I respect and value their concerns. It's vital that I remain true to my own heart, and that they remain true to theirs. But hearts can open; minds can change. Both mine and theirs.

I know not everyone in the world will ever see eye to eye. That's a good thing. I hope I will always want to hear and respect the opinions of those who disagree with me. I hope that many of those who hold opinions different from mine will nonetheless be willing to hear what I have to say.

I've written down the following thoughts and we will begin distributing them during Wednesday's performances to all those who express concerns or choose to leave the show early. I offer my thoughts here to get the word out to others who may have left Little Dog angry during the first two weeks, and may be unaware of our efforts to address their disappointment. Please spread the word.

Dear Barksdale Audience Member,

I’m writing this for those of you who are choosing to leave The Little Dog Laughed early, and/or have shared your objections with our staff during intermission. I’m honestly sorry if you’ve been offended by the play. I understand and respect your opinions. I take them to heart.

I hope you'll allow me to respond to your concerns with five bullet points. I have no expectation of changing your mind. I simply want to offer my perspective.

The first bullet point describes my spiritual motivations for selecting this play. The second outlines where I believe The Little Dog Laughed fits into theatre history. In the third, I talk about the many ways in which we have tried to advise all audience members about the content of Little Dog before they came to see the show. In the fourth I offer you several remedies to address your disappointment. The fifth details what you can expect from Barksdale Theatre in the future, as long as I remain artistic director.

1 - As I have noted for many years, I consider my job to be a calling. I honestly feel compelled to act on my faith through my work at Barksdale Theatre. Without intending to trivialize or rationalize anything, may I say that I sometimes think that Little Dog is my "woman at the well" play.

One of my favorite Bible passages is John 4: 1-42, in which Jesus encounters an outcast Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well. He knows she has been branded an “adulteress”; he knows she’s been living with a “fifth husband” to whom she’s not really married. He knows she’s become alienated from her own community to the point where her neighbors allow her to visit the well only at high noon after all the other women have returned home.

To the shock of his disciples, Jesus doesn't turn his back on this woman. He engages her in conversation (not allowed by Jewish law at the time), asks her to share a drink of water with him (an act considered so intimate that it too was forbidden by Jewish law), and then offers her not judgment, but salvation.

As I state in the Director’s Notes that are printed in the playbill, when 57% of the Virginia population voted in favor of the most stringent marriage law in the United States, outlawing even marriage-like legal contracts between unmarried couples, they turned their backs on gay men and women just as the Samaritans chose to ostracize the woman at the well. I don’t believe Virginia voters did the right thing. Following Act II, most theatregoers walk away from Little Dog questioning whether the “happy ending” that has been engineered is really happy or moral after all. When we as a community judge and exclude others because they are different, are we acting in a Christ-like manner, or are we failing each other and ourselves?

The Little Dog Laughed speaks meaningfully to me and to many others about love, compassion and inclusion, three important tenets of the religious left. I think the moral stance of the religious left is just as worthy of consideration as is the moral stance of the religious right, and vice versa. Unfortunately, those of us in the religious left tend to be shy about claiming the moral high ground. To be honest, I'm feeling fairly self conscious right now.

Nonetheless, I think The Little Dog Laughed says some important things about our world today, and says them with a sense of humor. I’m sorry if the play didn’t speak to your spirit; it speaks to mine.

2 – The Little Dog Laughed is a traditional comedy of manners—offering a satirical and purposefully shocking take on today’s language, mores and culture. It is highly regarded nationally and internationally, and was nominated for the 2007 Tony Award for Broadway’s Best Play of the Year. It is very much in keeping with plays like Moliere’s great comedy Tartuffe, which is now universally considered to be a world masterpiece. During Moliere’s lifetime, however, Tartuffe was banned by the church, decried by conservatives, and Moliere himself was roundly pilloried for having written such “filth.” Tartuffe was loved and highly praised by many of the young moderns of Paris, just as Little Dog is enjoyed and praised by many of the young professionals (and lots of non-elites and seniors too) of NYC and Richmond. By “young,” I mean adults in their 30s and 40s, an audience Barksdale (and every professional theatre) needs to cultivate in order to survive.

3 – In every mention we have made about The Little Dog Laughed since Day One, we have noted that the play told the story of two gay men, one of whom was a male prostitute. We have said that the play included nudity and ribald language. In all illustrations, we have shown two naked men in bed together. During the last three months, we have sent a content advisory to all subscribers, ticket buyers, and others on our mailing list, noting that the play included strong language and adult content. We have encouraged all newspaper coverage to indicate that this was the edgiest play in Barksdale’s recent history (Barksdale’s extended history includes many such plays), and to again make clear that the language, nudity, gay themes and adult content were vital components of the show. On our website, we’ve posted discussions of what offends an audience most, and outlined the themes and content of this play. On the Little Dog section of our website, we’ve posted a waist up photo of the two naked actors embracing each other.

In every other major city where Little Dog has played or is playing, there has been a much smaller effort to advise audience members. In most cities, nothing is done. We know this is Richmond, so we did everything we could short of going door-to-door to let our audience members know what to expect. Even so, we apparently did too little. If you were surprised by the play’s subject matter and tone, you are not alone.

4 – Before the fact and after, we have offered those who may be offended by the show’s content several remedies. Before coming to the show, over 150 subscribers read our advisories and took us up on our offer to trade in their Little Dog tickets for free tickets to Greater Tuna, our current hit comedy at Hanover Tavern, or for tickets to our upcoming productions of the great Broadway musicals Peter Pan and/or Guys and Dolls at the Empire. To the 110 or so people who missed our advisories and thus far have come to see Little Dog only to be offended and/or disappointed, we again make a similar offer in an effort to address respectfully your concerns.

a. If you were disappointed in Little Dog, you may have free tickets to Greater Tuna, pending availability. Tuna closes at Hanover Tavern on June 15. Or ...

b. You may have free tickets to the hit Broadway musical Peter Pan, produced by Theatre IV, pending availability. Peter Pan runs at the Empire Theatre from April 25 until May 18. Or ...

c. You may have free tickets to the hit Broadway musical Guys and Dolls, pending availability, to share with your friends. Guys runs at the Empire Theatre from June 13 through August 17.

To obtain your choice of free tickets, simply call Joy Ross at the Barksdale Box Office – 282-2620.

5 – I’ve served as artistic director of Barksdale Theatre since July 2001. During the last seven seasons, I’ve selected and produced 44 plays and musicals, one of which was The Little Dog Laughed. I’m proud of each selection, for different reasons. This roster of 44 productions is indicative of what you can expect from Barksdale in the future.

Will Barksdale produce another play in the next seven years that is as edgy as The Little Dog Laughed? Yes, I expect we will. For every person who has had the integrity to communicate with me regarding their objections to Little Dog, there have been at least two others who have communicated to thank me and let me know how much they loved the production.

Will we do 43 other plays in the next seven years that offer a broad perspective of world theatre, including shows like Doubt, Mame, The Member of the Wedding, The Full Monty, To Kill a Mockingbird, Crowns, Moonlight and Magnolias, The 1940s Radio Hour, Cyrano de Bergerac, The Lark, The Brooklyn Boy, Annie Get Your Gun, Drawer Boy, Intimate Apparel, Anything Goes, The Crucible, James Joyce's The Dead, The Laramie Project, The Little Foxes, Proof (insert your favorite Barksdale show here)? Yes, we will. Our goal always has been and always will be to offer an eclectic roster of plays and musicals, not a steady diet of only one type of show. I believe most patrons support our broad-based mission to bring you “the great comedies, dramas and musicals, past, present and future.”

I sincerely appreciate and respect your sharing your objections with us. If you would like to communicate with me directly, I encourage you to do so. I can be reached via email, by phone at (804) 783-1688 ext 13 (this will take you to my assistant, Janine Serresseque), or by land mail at Bruce Miller, Barksdale Theatre, 114 W. Broad Street, Richmond, VA 23220.

I always look forward to hearing from you. I also always appreciate your support of Barksdale Theatre, Richmond’s leading professional stage company.

Bruce Miller
Artistic Director, Barksdale Theatre


Anonymous said...


What a well written and thought out piece. I am sorry we live in a world where such things have to be stated so explicitly. Prior to becoming an AD myself, I would have said tell all the naysayers to go to Hell...but I understand the way the world works now and I think you have answered every possible objection. I wish you well, I wish the run of LDL well and I appreciate all you do for Barksdale Theatre. BTW, I kept some of the hate mail I got when we did Gross Indecency there in 2000. I am sorry to see not much has changed...

Rick St. Peter

Michael V. said...


Although I shared the following sentiment with you in an email last week, I'm compelled to reiterate:

For what little value my opinion may hold – Bravo for choosing a show that engages any kind of public discourse; whether sparking rhetoric or thoughtful debate, you provide a catalyst for people to communicate and hopefully look within themselves. In so doing our society is improved, and theatre in our modern world continues as a true art form, elevated above mere entertainment that only serves to "titillate."

During my tenure as a staff member for both Theatre IV and Barksdale Theatre, there were shows I loved and some not so much, but I respected the artistic integrity behind each decision and was proud of the quality of every production. And I also know the great pains that have always been taken to make sure that everyone was aware of potentially offensive material, for staff & patrons alike. Although it is hard to predict what each patron will find objectionable, when each utterance of a four-lettered word or epithet is counted and included with a listing of potentially objectionabley themes and "risque" behavior so that each patron can be informed, I think you have made a good faith effort to be as transparent about the material presented as possible.

For those and their ilk that choose to live in ignorance, may the scales someday fall from their eyes.

Best regards,


Chuck said...

I have already commented about my reasons for wishing to avoid this play, and I thank you for the ways you anticipated the reaction of your patrons and the remedies provided. I have chosen to see Greater Tuna even though I saw it earlier at another venue. It's worth seeing again! And it is much preferred by me in lieu of watching a story about immoral people in immoral situations. I applaud those who left and provided a clear indication of their disapproval of the subject matter. Perhaps we do not change your attitude, but, hopefully, the effect on revenues will do so.

I'd like to comment on your blog, Mr. Miller. In your first bullet, you talk about John 4:1-42. It is true that Jesus offers salvation to all including the woman at the well. Jesus pointed out that she was a sinner, having had 5 husbands and now living with one not her husband. I think that between the lines He was also saying to her to repent. But the woman, like all of us, including homosexuals, is a human being for whom Christ died. All have temptations, and their call is to overcome those temptations and to unite themselves to Christ. "According to the teachings of the Church, men and women with homosexual tendencies must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. They are called, like other Christians, to live the virtue of chastity. The homosexual inclination is, however, objectively disordered and homosexual practices are sins gravely contrary to chastity." From "Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions between Homosexual Persons" (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). If we are talking about a possible union that leads to marriage between the parties, we simply cannot condone it. The reality of the situation is that marriage is only possible between a man and a woman since they are only capable of joining with each other in a permanent union that brings new life into the world. Two men or two women are simply not capable of this, and it is not fair to them, or to society as a whole, to pretend otherwise. If a marriage union is not possible or the intended goal, then the "hooking up" of the persons is obviously immoral, and, in most environs, illegal. And that addresses why the "religious left" cannot claim any moral high ground when defending practicing homosexuals. There is a ditty that I have heard that goes like this "Right is right when nobody is right and
Wrong is wrong when everybody is wrong." And, it refers to the values you live by, your moral code. Where I live, in the US, we have such a code in the Christian religion on which we were founded and on our Constitution and our laws. Now I happen to believe that Jesus will forgive our sins if we turn to Him, but we must still pay the price, a punishment in purgatory. But St. Paul was much harsher in his letter to the Corinthians (see 1 Cor. 6:9-11) where he condemns practicing homosexuals to not inheriting the kingdom of God. However, he says for those who change their ways, they can be justified. But in your play, there seems to be no repentance, and thus, the whole experience is immoral, and it puts these men in grave danger of losing their eternal life with Jesus. And, those who condone and encourage such acts are aiding and abeting, so they probably will suffer the same fate.

The play, as others you and the "artistic" community have produced is edgy. But why do we need to be edgy to attract viewers? What ever happened to our using the theater as an escape to get away from reality for a change? I look forward to "Greater Tuna" to regain that experience. Thanks for the opportunity to do so.

Jody Strickler said...

Over and over in the last several years, I have found myself marveling that Richmond is fortunate enough to be the home of Barksdale Theatre. The professionalism of the productions is very important to me, but by far, the thing that repeatedly wins my heart is the artistic integrity that is so often in evidence.
Thanks once again.
Jody Smith Strickler