Dean of COPA cancels show ‘Adding Machine’

Students gather in emotional ‘town hall’ setting to voice concerns

Written By Jordyn Hronec, Editor-Elect

Artistic Director and Dean of the Conservatory of Performing Arts (COPA,) Stephen Breese held a “town hall” meeting on Nov. 21 for theater students regarding concerns about the production of “Adding Machine: A Musical.” 

Following Breese’s opening remarks, a multitude of students took the floor to express their feelings, discomfort and experiences regarding the racism, homophobia and sexism that is portrayed in the show.

The discussion was scheduled to take place in the Highmark Theater from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., but ended up lasting until 8:30 p.m. The setting of the meeting was also the setting where the show “Adding Machine: A Musical” was set to take place. In the theater, all seats were occupied, with some students sitting on the floor around the perimeter of the show space. 

“There have been so many conversations around this,” Mia Sterbini, a junior acting major, said during the meeting. “There have been so many suggestions from students, so many students of color, black students specifically, have been putting their experiences and their trauma on the line to try and teach an administration which should have had this training before, but now I feel like we’re kind of just reiterating the same things over and over again and nothing is getting done.”

The show “Adding Machine: A Musical” features lines and songs containing racial slurs as well as misogynistic ideas. The director of the COPA production, Tlaloc Rivas, was present at the meeting. In a previous interview with The Globe, Rivas described what he referred to as an “Action Plan for Traumatic Content” – something that students at the meeting claimed had not been effective enough. 

“This play was written during the Bush years and was a statement against the mindlessness of America entering into a senseless war,” Rivas said. “The words that appear in one particular case are interwoven with the patriotic theme, which was meant to be tied into this fervor of patriotism, that was part of ‘you’re either with the U.S. or against the U.S.’…I think it’s really interesting that people call it the racist moment of the play, when I actually think it’s the American moment.”

Rivas went on the say that the words used in the show are similar to instances where a racist remark may be made and “we don’t say anything.” 

In response, the students present expressed their dissatisfaction with the way that the material was being presented, stating that in their opinion, it was not clear enough that the show was “mocking” the characters expressing racist sentiments. Students were also concerned about the lack of trigger warnings given to students during the audition process, as well as on marketing materials.

Several students, including sophomore musical theater major Pablo Uribasterra, requested to know who was in charge of selecting the Playhouse season this year. Breese, who was hired as the Dean of COPA over the summer and began his tenure after the season was selected, revealed that the decision was ultimately that of the artistic director at the time of the selection. The previous artistic director was Ronald Allan-Lindblom, who left the position during the second semester of the 2018-19 school year. 

Uribasterra also asked why the president of the university, Paul Hennigan, was not present at the meeting. Breese stated that he could not speak on the president’s behalf. Some students stated that President Hennigan had explicitly stated his love for “Adding Machine” to them in private conversation.

In addition to a large crowd of students, the entire cast and crew of “Adding Machine: A Musical” were present at the meeting, with several members expressing their own discomfort for having to do the show.

According to the COPA handbook, students in the conservatory who are on scholarship must not only audition for every production, but must accept all roles that they are assigned, or else they could be removed from the program. Students requested the removal of this requirement. 

During the meeting, several students, including junior musical theater major, Nia Bourne, requested that the show be cancelled. 

“You don’t have to do this,” Bourne said, speaking directly to the cast and crew. “You can say no. The school can’t take away all of your scholarships.”

This call to action preceded the cast and crew‘s request for the show’s cancellation. 

“I did not sign up for this,” Kahlil Cabble, a sophomore musical theater major and cast member, said. “I did not sign up to have my anxiety on display. It’s not okay that up until this point, I have had to numb myself to all of this.”

“As someone who has put my creative talent and skills into this show, put it in stock, cut it, burn it,” Vivienne Fairfax, a junior theater arts major who helped create costumes for the show, said. “My creative talent will be used elsewhere.”

Following student concerns, multiple COPA faculty members expressed their belief that the show should not be put on by the conservatory, citing the trauma inflicted upon the students involved. This was applauded by the crowd. 

Camille Rolla, who is a part-time COPA faculty member and was working on the show, then stood up to announce that she was “stepping out” of the piece, prompting the cast and crew of the show to join her in an emotional embrace.

“I have heard you, and I have seen things that I never could’ve imagined from this dialogue,” Breese said. “I do not see a way that this production can go forward.”

This announcement was met with a standing ovation, though according to Rivas and Breese, the move will have “legal ramifications” as the rights to the show were purchased from Samuel French Inc. under the agreement that the show would be produced by the conservatory. 

However, the attention was then turned to the show “Parade,” which is another production that is scheduled to be put on by the conservatory that also includes racially insensitive material, with students requesting that it be cancelled as well.

In response, Breese stated that he could not yet make that decision, but that “the discussion will begin tonight.”

“Look at what we can do when we stand together,” Bourne said, addressing the crowd at the meeting’s close. “We have won this battle today, and it has been long and hard, but we cannot be complacent because we have won.”

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Mia Sterbini said the last quote, “Look at what we can do…” It was instead said by Nia Bourne.