Muscatine Community College theater instructor Alyssa Oltmanns believes the college’s decision to halt production of a controversial adaptation of “Peanuts” is censorship.
Oltmanns’ dean, Jeremy Pickard, said he had “concerns” about the play “Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead,” a 2004 re-imagining of the comic strip characters as teens. The dark comedy, performed in theaters across the country, has sexual themes, a gay Charlie Brown — called CB — and the rabies death of a certain beloved beagle.
“The ‘Dog Sees God’ play you are advertising has not been approved as a play at MCC,” Pickard, who is dean of instruction, wrote Oltmanns in a Sept. 4 email. “Please select another play and have it approved.”
When Oltmanns asked why Pickard wouldn’t approve the play, he wrote Sept. 6: “Dog Sees God has not been approved due to the same concerns we discussed previously.”
MCC President Naomi DeWinter sent Oltmanns an email Sept. 15 saying she made the decision to suspend the fall play because the campus is largely closed to the public during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Oltmanns had proposed producing the play through Zoom, with actors performing remotely and MCC selling “tickets” to access the recorded performance. But DeWinter said “we are unable to support a virtual performance at this time, as we don’t have the available technical staff to ensure it runs smoothly.”
There’s no mention in that email about any content concerns raised by Pickard. When The Gazette asked Eastern Iowa Community Colleges, of which MCC is one of three public schools, why the play had been canceled, the institution sent this statement:
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“Muscatine Community College regularly reviews all college activities presented to the public and reserves the right to determine their appropriateness based on a number of factors including, but not limited to, cost, technical requirements and content,” spokesman Alan Campbell wrote. “Upon considerable consideration the production in question was determined to be one with which the college chose not to proceed.”
MCC students in 2013 accused administrators there of trying to stifle free speech after an investigation of a story published by the campus newspaper, the Calumet. The Student Press Law Center, a national group, said the probe seemed like a “witch hunt” targeting the paper’s faculty adviser after the Calumet published a story questioning how the Student Senate chose a student of the month.
Play inspires director
Oltmanns, who joined the MCC faculty in 2018, said she chose “Dog Sees God” because when she first read the play in 2015 it struck her as true-to-life and inspiring.
“It conveyed the teen experience so realistically, without tap-dancing around any issues,” said Oltmanns, who is part of the LGBTQ community. “It felt like my teen self was being recognized in the play.”
Having grown up reading the “Peanuts” comic strip by Charles Schulz, Oltmanns loved the continuation of the characters in “Dog Sees God” and thought the MCC audience would love it, too.
Her students performed scenes from “Dog Sees God” at a faculty luncheon last spring, after which Pickard initially raised his concerns, Oltmanns said.
“He said he worried that ‘if you do this play, I’ll get phone calls to my office because this isn’t the “Peanuts” they are used to’,” she said.
At the time, Oltmanns said she understood his concerns but she didn’t think Pickard would censor the play. One of her past productions, the “Little Miss Sunshine” musical adaptation, which starts with the grandfather snorting cocaine and features a song with an opening line of “have sex,” was praised by staff, including Pickard, she said.
Pickard did not responded to a phone message and text seeking comment for this article.
“Dog Sees God” has been performed at many other college campuses, including the University of Kansas, Penn State University, Western Kentucky University and the University of Colorado.
Free speech advocates call for reversal
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a national nonpartisan nonprofit organization focused on defending freedom of speech, due process and academic freedom on college campuses, called on the college to “immediately reinstate” the play.
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“Citing public health in canceling a virtual theatre production after the dean of instruction raised concerns about the script’s content is naked pretext to censorship, violating MCC and EICC’s obligations under the First Amendment,” wrote the foundation’s program officer, Lindsie Rank, in an eight-page letter sent Friday.
ACLU of Iowa Executive Director Mark Stringer said if MCC canceled “Dog Sees God” because of its artistic content, “that would be a problem.”
“A public community college cannot censor artistic endeavors which are protected under the First Amendment,” Stringer wrote in an email to The Gazette.
“In a free society, each and every individual has the right to decide what art or entertainment he or she wants — or does not want — to receive or create. Once you allow the government to censor someone else, you cede to it the power to censor you, or something you like. Freedom of expression for ourselves requires freedom of expression for others. It is at the very heart of our democracy.”
Oltmanns is moving forward with the play as a community theater performance benefiting Clock Inc, an LGBT+ community center in the Quad Cities. The play will be recorded through Zoom with broadcasts at 8 p.m. Nov. 20 and 21.
“This situation at the school with the play being canceled brings further light to ‘we need this play more than ever’,” Oltmanns said. “I don’t want my students feeling like they were in the wrong in any way.”
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