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ASU Professor William Reber Resigns as Lyric Opera Theatre Director Following Controversial Rent Performance

The controversial performance of a scene from Rent took place at ASU Gammage.
The controversial performance of a scene from Rent took place at ASU Gammage.
Wars via Wikimedia Commons

Longtime ASU music professor William Reber has resigned as the director of the university's Lyric Opera Theatre following a controversial presentation of a scene from Rent to high school students attending the Arizona All-State High School Music Festival, which ran from April 10 through 12.

Parents of the students complained to ASU after Lyric Opera Theatre performed "La Vie Bohème" at Gammage Auditorium without warning the audience that the piece would contain sexual themes.

A statement on the matter from the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts was issued April 23 and signed by Reber and School of Music interim director Heather Landes. It reads: "This incident was important enough to the school and its relationship with the Arizona community that Dr. Reber felt he needed to accept responsibility, and he has chosen to use this as a teaching opportunity for his students about the role and responsibility of an arts leader, not just to the organization he leads but also to the community at large."

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Reber will continue working as a professor at the School of Music. He has been a member of ASU's faculty since 1991.

The Herberger statement explains that "an internal communication breakdown" resulted in the presentation of the age-innappropriate material.

"The concert program contained no warning about the content that was presented nor was an announcement made from the stage giving the audience an opportunity to opt out of that portion of the event," it reads.

As part of its 50th anniversary season, Lyric Opera Theatre is staging Rent, a Tony-winning musical about young creatives in New York dealing with HIV and AIDS, through Sunday, April 27.

Reber has not responded to requests for comment as of this writing.

Community members have weighed in on the situation, with some calling Reber's choice to resign admirable and others accusing Herberger of censorship.

A change.org petition titled "Dr. William Reber is not to blame for the recent 'risque' performance and should not 'take responsibility' (Landes P5) as an 'Arts Leader'" was created in response to Reber's resignation. It has garnered at least 2,500 signatures as of this writing.

The petition, organized by Phoenix Theatre actor Evan Tyler Wilson, says, "Dr. William Reber deserves his position reinstated in full and ASU should take steps to ensure that those not interested in experiencing live theatre be educated on the "risks" of being an audience member."

Herberger's statement on Reber's resignation includes a response to the petition.

"This petition contained many inaccuracies, the most significant of which are that Dr. Reber has resigned from Arizona State University and the implication the university is engaged in arts censorship," it reads. "Dr. Reber made the decision to step down from his administrative role as director of the Lyric Opera Theatre program voluntarily, and we respect his decision. He remains a faculty member of the ASU School of Music; where he has served the students of ASU for more than 23 years and will continue to do so. Our school and our students have greatly benefited, and will continue to greatly benefit, from his creative spirit, his commitment and his love and passion for music."

Nearly Naked Theatre creative director Damon Dering took to Nearly Naked's Facebook group page to share the petition and encourage others to sign it. He wrote, "The typical staging of LA VIE BOHEME is not IN ANY WAY pornographic. RENT won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Tony Award for Best Musical, and is a staple in the American Theatre cannon. And kids can see everything in La Vie Boheme the second they turn on the television or log onto the internet. Punishing a man who was NOT directly involved with demotion from department head is like curing dandruff by decapitation!"

Dering writes, "We cannot teach our young artists to be fearful. And we cannot punish their teachers for teaching them the true meaning of theatre."

ASU School of Music faculty member David Schildkret also took to Facebook to share his take on the matter and address the petition. He wrote that the excerpt from Rent included explicit language and highly suggestive staging, adding that it was inappropriate for 14-year-olds and about a quarter of those high schoolers left the auditorium during the performance.

"This is not about a few offended parents," Schildkret writes. "It is about the responsibility of artists to know their audience. It is about what we were trying to present to students and teachers at All-State. The question is not whether RENT itself is problematic. The question is whether this was the suitable occasion for this particular performance."

He adds that this performance damaged the School of Music and the work it's done to involve local schools.

Schildkret goes on: "If in fact the university had caved to a few cranky parents, I would sign the petition in capital letters. But people were legitimately and justifiably offended at an occasion that was meant to be anything but offensive. That is their right."

Herberger's statement has a similar contention. "Leadership in the arts requires both artistic vision and difficult work. It also requires the willingness to take responsibility for how that work is presented and communicated."

Schildkret closes his statement by saying that he admires Reber for taking responsibility and acknowledging that better choices should have been made.

"I deeply admire Bill for this," he writes. "He is a model for all of us. By all means, send him letters of affection, thanks, and support: he deserves them. But don't dishonor him by trivializing his very courageous and noble actions."

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