On the Relocation of the RI Theater Awards

Every year, Motif throws an event called the RI Theater Awards. It’s free and open to the public, and celebrates the achievements in our local theater community. Last year, the event found itself unexpectedly venueless due to late-breaking scheduling conflicts. McVinney Auditorium, a lovely location, came to our rescue, offering the use of their space in trade (the event paid for staff and split the bar). This last-minute offer provided a great venue and propelled the event to new heights.

By sponsoring the event last year, the diocese was exhibiting all the best Christian qualities: generosity, supporting community, celebrating collaboration and allowing humans to love one another in an artistic and creative way, connecting to something larger than ourselves.

By withdrawing their support this year, I feel they are catering to the baser side of Christianity’s spectrum: the vindictive, closed-minded features of human nature that can be cultivated by organized religion when it is at its worst. “There’s an agreement over here that it’s not the right fit,” we were told by our contact.

Motif is a horizontally structured organization, and we’re used to dissent. No matter what you think of any part of the modern media, all of them have some level of openness to dissenting opinions, to agreeing to disagree. Maybe some will go down in screaming fits of undistilled rant-rancor, but they still expect to work with people who disagree with them, often on core issues.

The diocese is the structural opposite — a top-down organization in which the ultimate head can speak ex cathedra, literally conveying instructions from God (don’t misunderstand — I’m not saying the Pope has anything to do with this situation). The tolerance for dissent is very different. It’s not debate; it’s dogma.

As a magazine that prizes free speech and regularly publishes opinions that do not represent all or even a majority of our staff, we welcome dissent as a learning tool and see it as a temporary process that sometimes leads to greater consensus. It’s disappointing and a bit foreign to our thinking when it’s responded to in this way, instead of with dialogue.

I was raised Catholic and attended Christian and Catholic schools growing up; the values I learned still inform my moral priorities today. Kindness, sacrifice and compassion — and so many other crucial values that make the world a better place — come from that tradition. Certainly, it’s never been my intent, personally or as a part of Motif, to come into conflict with an organization that is fundamentally capable of so much good. But I’m also not convinced that in these matters the local Catholic leadership is representing the beliefs of their full congregation.

In internal conversations about this topic, we’ve discussed the possibility that too many things in modern theater would conflict with the church. Would a musical number from Hedwig or Rocky Horror — or Jesus Christ, Superstar — put us at odds with this venue, regardless of op-eds or homophobia? I’m sure some of these are performances that say things the bishop would rather not be said. And we’re for the free exchange of ideas — that, plus entertainment, is what theater represents at its core. It should incite the heart cells and the brain cells. Perhaps we were not “the right fit,” all along, but it strikes me as tragic that our lack of fit is for these reasons.

My belief is that decisions like this drive an artificial wedge between parts of our society that should be trying to find ways to get together, not get further apart. This stance, distancing yourself righteously from people who disagree with you, is prevalent throughout our country right now in politics, religion and other areas. It may make your bonds to some of your most fervent adherents stronger, but it increases strife and decreases basic human understanding, already in short supply.

Over the years, our organizers — Terry Shea, Kevin Broccoli and a team of people at Motif — have worked hard to make the awards event as inclusive as possible. There’s always more work to be done, but theaters of all sizes and subject matters are welcome. We gather for the community and encourage the theaters who feel they’re too big or too small or too auteur-centered to be involved in any kind of awards, or too far away or do the “wrong kind” of theater. We talk to them all, listen as much as possible, and try to get them all involved. To have an event so focused on inclusivity be excluded — at least in part because of an op-ed arguing for inclusivity — feels especially inappropriate in its twisted irony.

In just the day I’ve taken to write this, the outpouring of support has been tremendous, galvanizing and appreciated. The award show will find a new home — the show must go on! This isn’t really about the theater awards — it’s about the repercussions of speaking truth to power. And that show must go on, too!

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