by Max Brantley
I wrote yesterday about concerns by supporters of the theater program at Arkansas Tech following closure of the program's workshop space over fire safety concerns several weeks ago. Important equipment is locked up there and no alternative space has yet been arranged
University officials met on the situation Monday and issued a news release afterward that said officials are working together to find a solution for students to continue their work. It said the university is committed to a fine arts program, but it seems to lay the blame for the current situation on the program's rejection of an administration plan for a new "black box" theater 10 years ago. Seems strange to bring that up, unless you know some of the old tensions between the administration and drama at Tech. Was there really only one solution 10 years ago and the alternative nothing?
The university administration's plans to seek a review of the program. The pains taken to note the small number of students affected — 30 theater majors — seem evidence of an ongoing animus by the administration. (In fact, there are perhaps two dozen more people minoring in the program and a number of speech students who depend on the program for a number of their required courses.) Fact is, drama alums contend, there was never a meaningful discussion about new theater facilities 10 years ago.
His bottom line in a telephone interview: "I want to emphasize one thing and one thing only — for me this is about safety. It is not about anything else." Read on for much more. He also provided a slide show of the workshop. (Louis Welcher, a retired university professor who lives in Russellville and is a friend of the Tech theater, has also contributed since I first posted this interview with Brown a testimonial to its leader, Ardith Morris.)
Brown said the issue arose because he happened to walk by the theater workspace last summer and was alarmed by what he saw. He mentioned arc welding tools near flammable materials and vast amounts of "clutter." He said he asked for an outside evaluation, from the fire department, because he knew his own criticism would not be received well given past controversies.
"It’s a dangerous situation," he said. "We’ve got numerous violations. They were not committed by anyone in administration. This is their management. They’re not willing to accept responsibility. I'm willing to help if I can. They want to use me as stifling freedom of expression."
He said, "I don't care what kind of play they can put on. They can do 'Oh! Calcutta!' I just want it to be safe."
Brown insisted he'd made a legitimate proposal to allot money for a new theater workshop 10 years ago, but the faculty (it currently consists of two full-time teachers) found it unacceptable. "They wanted a full-blown performing arts center. They'd settle for nothing less. I moved on. I had money to spend. I built a new visual arts center."
Brown commented that "nobody else on campus has let a lab get into the appalling condition that one is in."
He emphasized again the small number of majors — 30 — for two faculty members, though he acknowledged theater minors and other students who must take courses in the department. He said he believed theater should be a part of the institution and he was committed, within limited space available, to finding an alternative to the closed space and to retrieval of equipment there.
Does he have confidence in the faculty? "I didn’t select them. They’ve got tenure. I’d like to have confidence in them. But what I’ve seen has made me ask some pretty deep questions. How could responsible people let a situation like this go for so long?" So far, the faculty has not spoken publicly, though former students have had plenty to say.
Brown believes criticism of him has been "orchestrated." Hard feelings clearly linger over the issue of his directive to not use a real gun (Clarification: a starter pistol firing blanks) during a Sondheim play a few years ago, an issue that brought the ACLU into play. "That was a safety issue, too," he said. "I tried to fix it. I took it on the chin."
This time, he said, he's decided to speak out. "I don't want to be in the faculty's business," he said.
"But the student body comes first." He noted that Tech trains teachers. "If we put people in public schools who think that this is proper operating procedure, we’ve committed a failure."
He said architects, the Department of Higher Education and others will be reviewing the situation and the department. That, he said, is "not a threat, but the responsible thing to do." Brown points to the report on safety conditions and photos that documented the inspection.