By Kate Yeoman
On April 6, Western Washington University theatre faculty and staff said they will continue as planned with a production of the play “No Exit” in response to a student petition asking the department to reevaluate their choice.
“I am thankful for any kind of response at all,” said Katie Ginther, a third-year theater student who created the petition.
“No Exit” was originally written in 1943. In the petition, students said “[the play’s] surface level holds problematic themes, and as members of this department, we have the time and resources to delve into the deeper meaning of this play. Audience members in our community, however, don’t have the same time and resources that we have been gifted, so they are left to retain that surface level.”
Of the three main characters in “No Exit,” Estelle, a female character, spends most of the play begging a man for attention and is written as a shallow female stereotype. Inez, a lesbian character in the play, lusts after Estelle and makes unwelcomed advances that perpetuate the ideals of a predatory lesbian character, according to the petition.
“Although all artists and audiences may hold opinions about the effectiveness of any piece of dramatic art,” said the theatre department's response. “We do not believe that a production of ‘No Exit’ would be hurtful or repressive to the extent that it merits being removed from our season.”
The department also said “No Exit” does not meet the standards to be considered harmful.
“I found the back and forth conversation between the students and the faculty and staff real informative. It was a respectful conversation on both sides,” said Kit Spicer, the dean of Western’s College of Fine and Performing Arts.
The typical decision-making process for choosing what plays are shown in an upcoming season is at a departmental level.
The response also mentioned that in the 2022-2023 season, a student representative will be elected to join the faculty for the decision-making process.
Dr. Stephanie Westcott, who holds a Ph.D. in gender history said, “I would say that queer or not, the ability to engage intellectually, with portrayals [shown in “No Exit”] is a particular privilege, that it requires a having some sort of ability to distance yourself from that kind of portrayal.”
The department’s response said this way of thinking is a dangerous underestimation of the curiosity and intelligence of the community and its audience.
“There is also the fact that just because a particular community sees [the queer stereotypes shown in “No Exit”] as stereotypes that should be engaged with intellectually or academically doesn't mean that there aren't other communities who are interacting with them,” Dr. Westcott said. “Wanting to use them in the same way that people use them, [and] have always used them to justify discrimination and to justify bias.”
Ginther’s petition suggested alternative plays that the department could put on.
The response to these alternatives from the department was that the demands of the petition are not uniformly applied and that many of the suggestions are guilty of similar offenses as "No Exit" is.
The petition also provided suggestions for content warnings and providing a panel after the show to discuss the harmful stereotypes.
The theatre department agrees with the content warnings and will do a scheduled “talk-back session” where the audience can “expand upon the themes of the play,” but they will not make the session mandatory as the petition suggested.
“I respect the views of the department,” Ginther said. “I’m looking forward to next year and what that brings!”
Kate Yeoman is a third-year at Western and a reporter for The Front. Kate’s work includes campus-related news and can be reached at email@example.com.