After a weekend of national media coverage and student outcry, administrators decided Monday to rescind the ban on stage weapons that was enacted in the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre.
Last week, Dean of Student Affairs Betty Trachtenberg told several students that realistic-looking stage weapons would no longer be permitted in Yale theatrical productions. Amid concerns that the restriction was inhibiting free speech, a group of administrators decided Monday to overturn the policy, Yale spokeswoman Helaine Klasky said. In the future, Yale will require that audiences be warned before performances that include scenes with fake weapons, she said.
Trachtenberg had originally intended to ban all stage weapons, but was persuaded that obviously fake weapons should be permitted, Sarah Holdren ’08 told the News last Thursday. Holdren directed this weekend’s production of “Red Noses,” which was forced to use wooden swords instead of more realistic props. The restriction also affected the opera “Orpheus in the Underworld,” which used balloon swords in place of its real-looking stage weapons.
News of the University’s reversal was only released when a reporter from the Associated Press called Klasky on Monday evening to ask about the original restriction. Students have not yet been officially informed of the change in policy, Klasky said.
Administrators, including Yale President Richard Levin, weighed in on the decision to overturn the ban after it became apparent that it concerned issues of free speech, Levin said. Although the administration will not censor future shows, he said, the Dean of Student Affairs still has the authority to regulate student productions.
“The fundamental consideration was trading off artistic freedom of expression against concern about the potential emotional precariousness of audiences during the week of a mass murder,” he said. “There was a different approach which hadn’t been considered at the time, and the approach would be not to censor the show but warn the audience.”
But Holdren said she asked Trachtenberg on Thursday to consider allowing the use of realistic-looking weapons if the staff included a warning before each show. At the time, Trachtenberg found that alternative unacceptable, Holdren said. She said that although the change comes too late to affect her show, which ended its run on Saturday, she is glad the administration has considered the issue more carefully.
“Obviously professional theater companies do shows with weapons all of the time and it’s up to the audience’s discretion whether or not to watch,” she said.
Trachtenberg declined to comment Tuesday night about the reversal of her decision, but over the weekend she told the News that student criticism of the stage weapons ban had been exaggerated.
“I think people should start thinking about other people rather than trying to feel sorry for themselves and thinking that the administration is trying to thwart their creativity,” Trachtenberg said. “They’re not using their own intelligence. … We have to think of the people who might be affected by seeing real-life weapons.”
Dustin Cho ’08, chair of the Yale chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said “knee jerk” reactions are common after national tragedies, but that such limitations on free speech inhibit any meaningful dialogue. Generally Yale is very good at protecting free speech, he said.
“It’s quite a stretch to say that substituting realistic-looking prop swords with wooden ones showed more sensitivity to the shooting victims,” he said. “This was a grave mistake, but I’m glad they took care of it immediately.”
Trachtenberg, who has served as Dean of Student Affairs for 20 years, announced in November that she is stepping down at the end of the academic year.