A Festival Is ‘Uncensored’ No More After Pulling a Work About Gender
Since its 2007 founding, the Frigid Fringe Festival in New York has selected the plays it produces randomly, like many other fringe festivals around the world that aim to highlight voices from outside the theatrical establishment. It boasted that it was both “unjuried,” since it did not rely on gatekeeping panels, and “uncensored.”
But that changed this past fall, when Frigid decided for the first time that it would not stage one of the productions it had chosen. A staffer at the festival had red-flagged the work, “Poems on Gender,” after its author, David Lee Morgan, submitted a blurb drawn from the show that began: “There are two sexes, male and female.” Further investigation led organizers to conclude that it “featured material we deem to be anti-trans.”
In canceling its production of “Poems on Gender,” Frigid announced that it would stop calling itself “uncensored,” and that it would reserve the right to withdraw future plays. “Our commitment to freedom of expression does not obligate us to lend our efforts to platform what we consider to be hate speech, or even just very offensive and hurtful speech,” it said in a news release. It added, “In this case we choose to just say no.”
The festival was “uncensored” no longer, becoming the latest example of a wider rebalancing in the worlds of culture, publishing and academia, as many institutions that once emphasized freedom of expression and artistic license have curbed speech that they deem hateful or offensive to members of marginalized groups.
Morgan, a busker and spoken-word poet based in London who performs “Poems on Gender” as a recited monologue, said in an interview that he did not expect Frigid to tolerate absolutely everything. “If I were presenting a recruiting film for the Ku Klux Klan,” he said, “I’d be astounded if they’d be fine with putting it on.”
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But he disputed that his show, which he performed last year at the prominent Edinburgh Festival Fringe, was deserving of censorship. “Is it reactionary?” he said. “Is it anti-trans? Is it bigotry to say there are two sexes, male and female?”
Erez Ziv, a founder of Frigid New York and its managing artistic director, said he could not ask his increasingly diverse staff, which includes several transgender and nonbinary people, to be part of a production that denied their realities. The Frigid Fringe Festival, which will run in February and March, supplies shows with theatrical space and publicity, and tech and front-of-house workers. Productions keep all box office revenue. (Frigid relies on grants and small fees from the productions.)
“In November, I boastfully said to an entire room full of fringe producers in North America that I would allow a show to happen no matter what,” Ziv said. “But then it happened: We actually got a show that I just couldn’t ask my staff to work.”
“I support free speech,” he added. “I think all speech should be legally protected, but not all speech should be platformed.”
Before deciding, Ziv, who never reads production scripts for Frigid, viewed several online videos of Morgan performing other works. He also consulted a colleague: the co-artistic director at Frigid, Jimmy Lovett, partly because Lovett is trans.
Lovett said that some of Morgan’s online performances of related works were “very minimizing of our experiences” and framed transition-related surgery and other medical care as “damaging to the body rather than necessary and healthy for the individual.”
In sometimes elliptical language, “Poems on Gender” raises questions about how some people define their genders (“You tell me I can’t be your friend/Unless I believe you are a real woman/I can’t do that”) and about transition-related medical care (“You took a rainbow and forged it into a knife”).
Morgan, who grew up in Washington State, describes himself as left-wing and feminist and said that “Poems on Gender” was partly inspired by conversations with trans friends from the spoken-word poetry scene. “I’m looking at people I have a lot of respect and unity with, and then seeing where we disagree,” he said, noting that he believes some of the friendships have ended because of his views.
Frigid’s evolution away from its stage-anything ethos is striking, because the festival exists precisely to ensure that even unusual or outré works get a chance to go up in New York City.
Fringe festivals share a mandate to elevate edgier voices. The concept originated when troupes that were not invited to the first Edinburgh International Festival in 1947 put on a counter-festival, which a journalist later described as “round the fringe of official festival drama.” They have earned a reputation for giving opportunities to new talent: the hit Broadway musical “Six,” about the wives of Henry VIII, was written by college students and was one of the 3,398 shows the Edinburgh Festival Fringe put on in 2017.
Xela Batchelder, a veteran fringe producer who studied fringe festivals for her Ph.D. dissertation, said that generally “the audience is the curator,” and that it would be a challenge for festivals to begin deciding which works to stage and which to rule out. “It’s going to be very hard for the arts organizations and the artists trying to figure out how to work through all this,” she said.
The fringe model has been tested in recent years. The Chicago Fringe Festival, which like Frigid selected works entirely by lottery, faced backlash in 2017 for staging “A Virtuous Pedophile.” (Its author, Sean Neely, said the play did not advocate pedophilia.) The outcry was “very detrimental” to the festival, said Anne Cauley, its executive director at the time, and the festival’s largest foundation sponsor declined to renew its support the next year. The festival ceased after 2018.
The Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals, whose guiding principles call for convening no juries for selecting plays and allowing no interference with artistic content, added a new plank in 2017 that said, “Festivals will promote and model inclusivity, diversity and multiculturalism.”
A spokeswoman for the association, Michele Gallant, said that Frigid, which is one of its members, had still abided by the principle that says “festival producers do not interfere with the artistic content of each performance,” because it had not altered the show — but simply pulled it entirely.
Morgan still hopes to take “Poems on Gender” to other fringe festivals.
He won the Canadian association’s lottery in November, which gives him entry to fringe festivals next summer in the cities of Victoria and Vancouver, in British Columbia. The Vancouver Fringe declined to comment, and an official at the Victoria Fringe did not respond to a request for comment.