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Inclusion Of Gay Characters In Local 'Big Fish' Production Leads To Play’s Cancellation

The exterior of the Palisade Playhouse in Greenfield.

A director's decision to include a fictional gay couple in a local production of the play "Big Fish" -- roles that were not specifically LGBTQ in the script -- has led to the show's cancellation.

It was announced in a Facebook statement from the theater. 

The Palisade Playhouse in Greenfield was set to host nine shows of "Big Fish" the musical in June. But one month after tickets went on sale, the theater canceled the production, citing a disagreement between the playhouse's co-founders and the musical's director over a scene featuring gay characters. 

The theater company describes it is as a dispute "over how to proactively insert representation of an LGBT+ family despite the fact that the script did not include any reference to the LGBT+ community." 

"Big Fish," based on the 1998 book and 2003 film of the same name, is a musical about fatherhood, in which a father and son grapple with their fractured relationship. 

During a song called "Stranger," set on a busy day in Central Park, a main character reckons with the news that he's going to be a father. Palisade director Nic Nemec had choreographed the scene so that the main character gestures to two gay fathers walking past holding a baby.

Originally, the director and theatre co-founders agreed that the fathers with the baby could be present in the background, but disagreed once the scene was changed to include a "moment of focus" on the gay characters. 

The theater's statement offers a vague explanation for this dissection of opinion, saying the director's focus on the minor characters could be seen as "inclusive to some but exclusive to others." The playhouse did not respond to 90.5 WESA's requests for comment.

The director, as well as some members of the cast and crew, resigned as a result, prompting the show's cancellation. 

Creators of the original Broadway production of "Big Fish" released a statement to the website Broadway World. "Nowhere in the script does it say that any character is gay or lesbian or trans. But nor does it say they aren't," wrote co-creators John August and Andrew Lippa. "A director's decision to signal that two silent characters are same-sex parents isn't changing the text. It's providing context and framing. It's directing."The duo went on to say, "But 'family-friendly' shouldn't mean ignoring reality. Let's remember that in America there are all kinds of families, including ones with two dads, two moms, people of all gender identity, color and creed. Family-friendly is something bigger than it once was."


The creators also noted that they're working with the director and the cast and crew to find a new venue for Pittsburgh's production of "Big Fish."
According to the Palisade Playhouse's post, a "fiery discussion" ensued on social media, in addition to what the playhouse calls a campaign against them. 

"It soon became clear that working in harmony to produce the show on time and within budget would no longer be possible," the post reads. "Without the ability to move forward as planned, the Playhouse will face a significant financial loss and face the possibility of closing permanently."

Facebook comments responding to the playhouse's post varied, with people supporting its owners and criticizing the decision over featuring gay characters. 

"This makes breaks my heart for several reasons. I hope this is just a set back and you will be able to stay open. You guys have done such good for the community," read one comment.

"Because the actor looked at the gay dads, you thought that it was too much?" read another. 

The Palisade Playhouse was founded in 2016 by Matt and Michelle Belliston, who are Mormon. They told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that they were inspired to found a "family friendly" theater on a trip to a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints temple. The theater operates out of an old Presbyterian Church. On its website, the Palisade Playhouse says it caters to all walks of life. 

There's no word about whether tickets already purchased will be refunded, and the ticket sale page is still active on the Palisade Playhouse website.

UPDATED: 4:42 p.m. on Thursday, May 17, 2018 to include a statement from the original creators of "Big Fish" the musical. 

Adelina Lancianese is the assistant producer for the NPR Story Lab, a creative studio that fosters newsroom experimentation and incubates new podcasts. At the Story Lab, Lancianese works primarily on investigative, long-form projects, and also helps organize the annual Story Lab Workshop for the development of new independent and Member station podcasts.