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'Bent' Defunded in St. Louis

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When legislators and theatre companies butt heads, it's usually the theatre company that finishes second. Here recently—in a morass of mishaps and a great amount of backing and filling, blushing and going, "Aw, shucks!"—an anonymous Missouri state legislator and the Missouri Arts Council forced a small St. Louis theatre company to detour state funds away from Martin Sherman's "Bent" to its other productions.

The episode involves St. Louis' newest professional theatre company, HotHouse, which offers contemporary plays in a downtown space across the street from the shoe factory where Tennessee Williams worked as a young man.

The company received $2,250 from the Missouri Arts Council for its 2000-01 season of four plays: "Cat on a Hot Tim Roof," "Popcorn," "What the Butler Saw," and "Bent." Marty Stanberry is the company's artistic director; Donna M. Parrone is managing director.

No one wants to take responsibility for talking to anyone else, but somehow, the state legislator learned about "Bent," and the fact that it had a homosexual as hero. It also might have, depending on the director, some male nudity.

One or the other, or both, offended the legislator, whose anonymity is being protected by the Missouri Arts Council. Beverly Strohmeyer, acting executive director, refuses to identify the lawmaker, or to talk about much of anything else relating to the skirmish. The legislator apparently also wanted to look into John Guare's "Six Degrees of Separation," performed at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis nearly 10 years ago, a play that also featured a homosexual and had a moment of male nudity.

HotHouse was told to keep the MAC money, but to use it on the other productions, and the company added a disclaimer to its pre-season mailer, noting, "Due to the controversial subject matter of 'Bent,' Missouri Arts Council funding is not available for this production."

That sentence caught the eye of Judith Newmark, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch theatre critic, who wrote a column asking:

"Controversial? What would the two sides of the controversy be? Pro-Nazi and anti-Nazi? Killing gays or not killing gays?" She also commented, "The state of Missouri is going to make sure it does not sponsor art that might offend Nazis."

Sherman's play was performed here in 1982 by the no-longer-active Theatre Project Company, staged at Washington University's Edison Theatre and directed by Fontaine Syer. No one objected.

"Bent" was a Tony nominee for best play in 1980 and won the Dramatists Guild's Hull-Warriner Award. It's been produced in 35 countries, been adapted by Sherman for a movie version, and was even turned into a ballet in Brazil.

HotHouse, again proving the truth of the old "banned in Boston" theory, had capacity crowds for its opening weekend of "Cat."

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