INDIANA, ARKANSAS: With the debate this past week about so-called “religious freedom” bills in Indiana and Arkansas, major theatres in those states spoke out against the laws, which were both revised on Thursday in the face of nationwide uproar.
In Indiana, Gov. Mike Pence last week signed into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which he said was designed to prevent the government from infringing on a person’s religious rights. Though a similar federal law is on the books and some 20 states have their own version of the law, Indiana’s was immediately criticized as anti-gay, since it went beyond other versions of the law to define religious beliefs broadly enough that they could be used to discriminate against LGBT individuals and couples. A number of politicians, celebrities and companies in the state and nationwide immediately announced their opposition to the bill, and many cancelled travel and business plans with the state in protest.
The theatre community also got in on the backlash, with a Care2 petition calling for Actors Equity Association to boycott Indiana gaining more than 1,000 signatures. Indiana Repertory Theatre told American Theatre it had already faced some negative impact.
“The Indiana Repertory Theatre is already witnessing the harmful effects of reactions to Indiana’s newly passed RFRA legislation, as theatre practitioners cancel reservations to attend a national conference we are hosting [Write Now, May 3–6], and fellow theatre producers and artists from around the country threaten to boycott our work,” said a statement released by the theatre’s executive leadership earlier this week, urging the governor to amend the law.
On Thursday, Indiana lawmakers passed a series of changes that clarified that the law could not be used to discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and Pence signed the revision. But there was no word at presstime on whether Care2’s petition, or the cancellation of plans regarding IRT’s April conference, had been reversed.
In Arkansas, a similar bill passed the legislative houses, but Gov. Asa Hutchinson demanded amendments before signing. On Monday, Arkansas Repertory Theatre artistic director Robert Hupp released the following statement, before Hutchinson had announced his objections:
“Arkansas Repertory Theatre stands in strong opposition to HB1228, the ‘religious conscience’ bill currently winding its way through our state government. We condemn any act that condones bigotry or discrimination of any kind. We believe HB 1228 is bad for our state and bad for our organization. Our state should look forward with optimism and hope, not backwards with anger and fear. This bill discourages the best and the brightest among us, in the arts and in commerce, from creating and living in our wonderful state. We, as a state, are better than this bill.
“HB1228 is like a Greek tragedy…a terrible tragedy unfolding before our eyes where we, the chorus, appear helpless to alter the course of events,” Hupp continued. “We all think we know how it will end. But the final act hasn’t been written yet. As we lift our voice of opposition, we recognize that great plays, great works of art, have the power to surprise us. Gov. Hutchinson, surprise us. Give this farce, this tragedy, a happy ending. #VetoHB1228,” said Hupp, who also participated in a rally organized by the Human Rights Campaign on Tuesday on the steps of the State Capital on Tuesday.
On Thursday, the Arkansas legislature voted for a new version of the bill that more closely mirrors the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act and Gov. Hutchinson signed it.
The news was met with approval from Hupp, who said, “The Governor clearly heard the diverse voices that spoke out against the bill, especially against the backdrop of everything that happened in Indiana. Although we still have a long way to go, this was a very positive step for equality in Arkansas.”
As for Janet Allen, executive artistic director of Indiana Repertory Theatre, the fight is not over yet. “While we are relieved that Governor Pence finally listened to the outcry and amended Indiana’s RFRA law to support protective ordinances already in place in most Indiana cities including our home in Indianapolis, we must be ever vigilant as art makers against the voices of marginalization,” she told American Theatre.
So far IRT has not received any news from the artists who cancelled their reservations to IRT’s upcoming conference Write Now, a new play development event focused on theatre for young audiences. But the lower number of attendees hasn’t dampened Allen’s enthusiasm for the event, which is a collaboration with Childsplay in Arizona.
“I think I think boycotting arts organizations in moments like these is quite counterproductive as it is the compelling voice of art that is needed most in these tumultuous moments,” she said. “We will alter some of [Write Now’s] content to focus on these recent events as only artists can, by creating a platform for substantive conversation—we invite people to come lend their voices. Indiana is not characterized by any one voice or misbegotten law. There is a vibrant community of inclusion in Indiana.”