A discussion about the school's decision to cancel an event by the nationally recognized gay performance artist will be held Tuesday, Feb. 28.
Villanova University, one of the nation’s leading Catholic institutions, set off a firestorm of controversy last week with news that the school canceled a long-planned visit by Tim Miller, an award-winning, nationally recognized gay performance artist. Miller, 53, was to conduct a weeklong workshop exploring identity and cultural diversity with students and other interested members of the Villanova community. The workshop was to conclude with a performance of the participants’ work.
But on Feb. 19, Villanova President Father Peter M. Donohue canceled the event. Following an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Feb. 21, news of the cancellation spread quickly through the region’s theater community. The next day, Donohue issued a statement explaining his decision to cancel Miller’s visit, saying: “I want to be clear that this had nothing to do with Mr. Miller’s sexual orientation, and I believe it is untrue that Villanova is a homophobic community. Such a description concerns me far more than a cancellation.” Donohue added: “It is the explicit, graphic and sexual content of his performances that led to this decision ...”
But Miller, who does believe his sexual orientation was a factor in the decision, says there were never any plans for him to perform at the university and that he was “shocked by President Donohue’s grotesque mischaracterization of my performance work. I was surprised that he behaved so unethically and undermined academic freedom for the professors and students at Villanova, but the reasons he gave were bizarre and misinformed. I have performed at hundreds of universities all over the country, many of them with religious affiliation, including Catholic.”
In response to Donohue’s claim about the graphic nature of the presentation, Miller says that’s absolutely not true. “In my workshops, I use trusted theater and performance techniques to get students to find and tell their story, to claim their own value for their diverse identities and life narratives and shape that into performance.”
The decision is perplexing given Donohue’s background in theater and the school’s history of staging progressive and controversial plays. Before his tenure as the school’s president began in 2006, Donohue was chairman of the theater department for 14 years. During that time, the department won six Barrymore Awards. Three of the awards (including best overall production of a play) went to Villanova’s magnificent 1997 production of Angels in America Part II: Perestroika. Angels is a two-part (the same season the school also staged Part I: Millennium Approaches) drama focusing on a group of characters during the early years of the AIDS epidemic. At the time, Villanova was applauded for staging the Pulitzer Prize-winning play without taming any of the play’s graphic language or depiction of gay relationships, including a scene that simulates an act of anonymous gay sex in Central Park.
Former Villanova professor James J. Christy says that Donohue (who won a Barrymore Award for his direction of Villanova’s 2002 production of Chicago) was “strongly supportive” of Angels, which Christy co-directed. “Our most receptive audience was an audience of nuns and priests who worked with people dying of AIDS,” Christy recalls. “For me, it was my proudest moment at VU” when the church’s social mission and Christy’s artistic beliefs intersected.
However, Christy notes that the Cardinal Newman Society—a group that claims its public criticism of Miller led to the cancellation of his visit—“has become pretty aggressive in stirring up conservative controversy on catholic campuses, in my opinion undermining the very identity of a university as a community of open inquiry.”
Miller confirms he will be holding his workshop at Bryn Mawr (April 16-20). He’ll also conduct the workshop at the Adrienne in Center City (April 9-15).
A discussion about Villanova's decision to cancel Miller's event, "Igniting Change: Constructive Dialogue with the Villanova Community," will be held from 5:30-7 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 28. Click here for more info.