Theater Director Resigns Amid Gay-Rights Ire
NEW YORK TIMES
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By JESSE McKINLEY
Published: November 12, 2008
SACRAMENTO — The artistic director of the California Musical Theater, a major nonprofit producing company here in the state’s capital, resigned on Wednesday in the face of growing outrage over his support for a ballot measure this month that outlawed same-sex marriage in California.
The artistic director, Scott Eckern, came under fire recently after it became known that he contributed $1,000 to support Proposition 8, which amended the state Constitution to recognize only male-female marriages. The measure was approved by 52 percent of California voters on Election Day. (Same-sex marriages had been performed in California since June.)
In a statement issued on Wednesday morning, Mr. Eckern said that his donation stemmed from his religious beliefs — he is a Mormon — and that he was “deeply saddened that my personal beliefs and convictions have offended others.”
His donation was brought to light by online activists angry about the measure’s success at the polls.
“I understand that my choice of supporting Proposition 8 has been the cause of many hurt feelings, maybe even betrayal,” Mr. Eckern said. “It was not my intent. I honestly had no idea that this would be the reaction.”
But the swift resignation was not met with cheers by those on either side.
Marc Shaiman, the Tony Award-winning composer (“Hairspray”), called Mr. Eckern last week and said that he would not let his work be performed in the theater. “I was uncomfortable with money made off my work being used to put discrimination in the Constitution,” Mr. Shaiman said. He added, however, that the entire episode left him “deeply troubled” because of the potential for backlash against gays who protested Mr. Eckern’s donation.
“It will not help our cause because we will be branded exactly as what we were trying to fight,” said Mr. Shaiman, who is gay. “But I do believe there comes a time when you cannot sit back and accept what I think is the most dangerous form of bigotry.”
Supporters of the marriage ban said that critics of Mr. Eckern were attacking freedom of expression, and they chastised the theater’s board for subjecting Mr. Eckern to a political litmus test.
“No matter your opinion on Prop. 8, we should all agree that it is wrong to intimidate or harass anyone for exercising their constitutional rights,” said a letter to the theater’s board president on Tuesday by Frank Schubert, campaign manager for Protect Marriage, the leading group behind the ballot measure.
For its part, the theater disavowed Mr. Eckern’s donation and issued only a brief statement on Wednesday accepting his resignation, while emphasizing that it would not “impinge on the rights of its employees to engage in political activities.” A longtime employee, Mr. Eckern had been artistic director since 2002.
The outrage over Mr. Eckern and the subsequent dismay voiced by Mr. Shaiman are the most recent evidence of the tension running through the entertainment industry since Election Day, particularly in California.
Several prominent gay entertainers have expressed anger about the vote, including the singer Melissa Etheridge, who said she would refuse to pay California state taxes because she was “not a full citizen” and called on other gay men and women to do the same.
The sense of disappointment over the vote extended to Broadway. Jeffrey Seller, a producer of the show “Avenue Q,” which is scheduled to be part of the 2008-9 season at the California Musical Theater, said he had been shocked when he heard about Mr. Eckern’s donation.
“That a man who makes his living exclusively through the musical theater could do something so hurtful to the community that forms his livelihood is a punch in the stomach,” Mr. Seller said. “He didn’t just vote for it. One thousand dollars is a lot of money for an artistic director of a nonprofit.”
Mr. Seller said that he had not considered canceling the “Avenue Q” engagement with the theater company — “We don’t break contracts” — but had spoken to members of the show’s creative team on Tuesday about voicing their displeasure with Mr. Eckern in other ways, including adding a song addressing his donation. That idea has been dropped now.
Mr. Eckern did not respond to requests for an interview made to an outside publicist and the production company, which books shows into three Sacramento theaters, including a handsome new cabaret a block from the governor’s mansion. In his statement Mr. Eckern said that he would donate $1,000 to a gay-rights group, adding that he respected gay people, including a sister who is a lesbian.
“I am loving and supportive of her and her family, and she is loving and supportive of me and my family,” said Mr. Eckern, who is married with children. “I definitely do not support any message or treatment of others that is hateful or instills fear.”
Susan Egan, a Broadway actress (“Beauty and the Beast”) who landed her first professional job at the California Musical Theater, said she had been saddened by both Mr. Eckern’s actions and her own involvement, which included posting a letter on her Facebook page supporting the idea of boycotting the theater.
“My actions have caused him harm, just as his actions caused harm to people he loved,” she said. “We’re all guilty.”
That sentiment was echoed by Mr. Shaiman, who said that some of the pain being felt among gay theater artists after passage of Proposition 8 has been self-inflicted.
“Our anger is against ourselves, too, that we were too compliant,” he said. “It was beyond our ken that this could ever happen. But we were terribly, terribly wrong.”
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