Where Angels Fear to Tread

When Kilgore College staged a gay play, administrators learned there were limits to a liberal education in East Texas

Although the cities of Kilgore and Longview expressed reservations after county commissioners took back their pledge, neither has plans to withdraw its grants. Kilgore's money will be parceled out in quarterly installments throughout 2000 if the festival remains in the city, said mayor Joe Parker. Holda is finishing up a proposal to the Longview city commission that will determine how the city dispenses funds to the festival in February.

After losing the county money, Caldwell sent a chain letter to every friend and colleague he had in the arts, a missive that soon found its way to the media. Reporters from all over the country called. The commissioners' decision was publicized and criticized in The Nation, Backstage and The Chronicle of Higher Education, among many others. Individuals sent checks to help make up the $50,000 loss. One check from a New York City woman was for $1,000. The Dramatists Guild of America, the nation's largest organization for playwrights, told Caldwell last week it plans to send the festival a check for $10,000.

Caldwell said he has received scads of letters from such major institutions as Yale, Harvard, the University of Southern California and the University of California at Los Angeles. He has also heard from prominent university drama heads and Shakespeare festival directors in Oregon, Dallas, Alabama, Utah and Canada. Texas Christian University sent Caldwell proceeds from its December student play. Alley Theatre artistic director Gregory Boyd sent a letter of protest to Gregg County commissioners, saying, "The [Texas Shakespeare Festival] represents the very best of what the arts seek to achieve." And Texas Monthly awarded the commissioners a Bum Steer Award in January.

This spring David Wiley, Kilgore College development director, will supervise a fund-raising effort to begin a permanent endowment for the festival. Holda hopes to raise $5 million so that the festival can be self-sufficient. The plan sounds unrealistic to Caldwell. Raising that much money will be difficult, he believes, particularly given the recent controversy.

But Holda remains optimistic -- maybe a little foolishly, he says -- and believes the festival will remain in Kilgore. Caldwell isn't so sure Kilgore is the best place for it. "I think central Texas, with its larger population and less conservative attitudes, may be a more nourishing environment," he says.

If Caldwell could leave Kilgore College and start fresh, he would. "Under these current circumstances, I would definitely go. The guaranteed future of the festival is elsewhere," he said.

For the first time in Caldwell's career, the 57-year-old theater veteran feels hemmed in. It's not just about politicians and preachers indirectly influencing artistic decisions. It's also about Kilgore College's new notification policy, which has the potential to screen student productions. This kind of narrow, bureaucratic thinking runs counter to his personal philosophies on art and teaching at a college level. "You can't expose students to worlds they're not familiar with and restrict yourself to reflect the community you're in," he says.

The dustup in Kilgore has steeled Caldwell's resolve, though. "This controversy, more than anything in my life, has proven the power of theater and reminded me of its real purpose, the reason it exists. It's all so clear to me at this time in my life. I have to [leave if necessary] and go do what my calling is."

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