Blog / 2011 / Institutional Backing and Artistic Vision

May 31, 2011

I was just 17 years old when I learned that I wanted to be a freelancer. For life.

I was attending Jesuit High School here in Portland, and I was very involved in the theater program. That year, Jesus Christ Superstar was slated to show, and there was some speculation among students as to who would be cast in the title role. Certainly there were a handful of strong male singers among us, but no one student particularly stood out as a perfect fit for the superstar.

When the cast list was posted with a female student in the role of Jesus, we were excited. The choice made sense, and it wasn’t the first time that a young woman had played a man at in JHS’s theater—there were, in fact, many other male roles being filled by females in that same production.

The school’s administration were not as pleased with the choice. They immediately forced a re-casting of the show, a move that spurred national news coverage of the debacle and much debate over what was artistically appropriate in a high school theater program at a Catholic school.

self-portrait by Gwenn Seemel
Gwenn Seemel
Sympathetic Magic (Be a Good Role Model)
2010
acrylic on canvas
17 x 13 inches

In the confusion, several key issues failed to be addressed. Equality lost out to a church that’s never been much for it, and no adult talked about how the best person for the job is often not chosen regardless of sex, race, or sexual orientation. It seemed that the issue of just what this situation would teach the students was not thought through at all.

The woman who had been cast in the role of Jesus was switched with the young man who had been cast in the role of Pontius Pilate—a poetic gesture that, at the time, had me convinced that the directors of the theater program had this all planned from the beginning.

A decade and some later, I see the situation differently. I still see a lot of careless adults doing irresponsible things, but I also see how formative Jesus Christ Superstar was to the adult that I became.

I live in society, just like I did twelve years ago and just like the theater directors, school administrators, and church leaders did. I benefit greatly from this arrangement, but I give up certain freedoms in order to obtain these advantages—things like walking around naked, doing physical harm to others, and being allowed to keep all the money I earn. For the most part, the things I give up aren’t too much of a price to pay. What’s more, if I weren’t living in society, I’m doubtful that I would even make art since art is about communication and therefore requires a social context. I depend on society and I contribute to it.

That said, I’m still a freelancer. I have fewer rules to follow and fewer people to please than artists and others who work for institutions. And if I wasn’t already predisposed to live an independent life, Jesuit’s Jesus Christ Superstar made sure that the noncomformist change-maker in me would express herself strongly.

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