UT Department

“And Then Came Tango”, a play written for second-and-third-grade audiences, which I am the composer and music director for, is based on the true story of Roy and Silo, two male penguins in the Central Park Zoo who formed a pair bond, built a nest together, raised an egg of their own and hatched Tango, a healthy baby penguin. The piece uses dance, music, dialogue and pedagogy to guide young audiences through a tender issue in a controlled, engaging way that focuses on student voices.

Work on “Tango” began about two years ago, and this semester the UT Department of Theatre and Dance planned to perform the show at 10 Austin Independent School District elementary schools as part of the 2012 Theatre for Young Audiences tour.

That plan fell through Monday night.

We had anticipated controversy, so the production team spent last semester organizing the tour with AISD. The content of the play was made known to AISD administrators in a transparent way. Thumbs-up were given. If there were problems with the play, then would have been the right time for administrators make it known.

Still, after the first show at Lee Elementary on Oct. 16, the tour was put on hold when school administrators, particularly Lee Elementary’s principal, expressed concern that the play contained themes of “sex and sexuality.” The tour was immediately stopped to allow for review by AISD principals and administrators.

While many in AISD supported the play, the district’s leaders became consumed by gridlock, throwing into doubt the possibility of a resolution.

With four cancelled performances, unresponsive AISD representatives and a semester quickly slipping away, the Theatre and Dance faculty needed to ensure that the UT theatre students in the production still had a chance to tour. They made the tough call to cancel the remaining AISD shows and focus on finding private schools, charter schools and non-AISD schools that would have us.

I can see why human sexuality would be a bad thing to put in front of second-graders. Sexual education begins (at the earliest) in fifth grade in Texas. But LGBT families aren’t a human sexuality topic. You can’t simply avoid talking about a particular minority in schools because you’re afraid it’s too controversial. Just ask any AISD student with two moms or a gay uncle. Seeing a non-traditional family in a place where queer voices are completely unrepresented would have made an important impact on students’ ability to communicate with one another about the evolving 21st-century family. Missing the opportunity to make that kind of impact is what upsets me most about the tour’s cancellation.

Suppression of dialogue about LGBT families in public elementary schools isn’t just heteronormative. It’s outright homophobic. It tells LGBT parents that there isn’t a place at the table for them or their kids — not until fifth grade, anyhow.

And “Tango” is at its core about families, not sexuality. It includes single-parent households, like the one our protagonist Lily comes from, as well as two-parent heterosexual families, like other penguin pairs in the play. And, yes, two-parent LGBT families, like Roy and Silo’s. The implication that “And Then Came Tango” is too risque for second-graders in a city like Austin, Texas, illustrates just how important it is that we get this play into public schools to do our part to stop homophobia.

This controversy isn’t about sex or sexuality; it’s about fear — election-year fears, fear of parental backlash, anxiety over the possibility of lost jobs in the school district’s administration. These fears ultimately led to a pocket veto and tacit censorship by the leadership of AISD. Here’s hoping that the next crack they get at expressing tolerance and accepting new realities goes better. Until then, the penguins of “Tango” will tour elsewhere.

But we sure ruffled some feathers, didn’t we?

Marbach is composer and music director for “And Then Came Tango.”

The UT Department of Theatre and Dance set quite the scene Friday. The commotion didn’t come from the opening of a new play or the excitement of a casting call, but rather from the appearance of who many consider to be the greatest living actress of our time, Meryl Streep.

The audience roared when Streep stepped onto the stage of the humble Payne Theatre, jumping from their seats and bursting into enthusiastic applause. Appearing at UT as the most nominated actress in the history of film, Meryl Streep received a standing ovation, the highest sign of respect in the theater world, simply by walking onstage.
“[Today] is a day 10 years in the making, and a true test to the power of nagging,” said theater professor Fran Dorn.

Dorn, Streep’s longtime friend from Yale University, introduced her to a crowd of over 400 people from all aspects of the UT theatre world. The stage seemed set to open a play, adorned with a comfy armchair, a quaint circular rug, and a small hardwood table framed with a vase full of bright flowers.
“I’m in the theater department,” Streep said, her eyes twinkling, “I feel at home.”

The line of people to get into “A Conversation With Meryl Streep,” an audience-based Q-and-A forum, began to form at around 12 p.m. The air was abuzz with excitement, filled with bright eyes, smiles and breathless anticipation. First-year theater student Jonathan Mathews was one student in a crowd of about 40 early birds, waiting impatiently for the clock to strike 2:30.

“The things I’ve seen her in, she just blows my mind in her style of acting and the way she presents her characters,” Mathews said, “I think even though she is a woman actor I can learn a lot from her, from her style and techniques and the incredible ability she has in front of the camera and on the stage.”
The Department of Theatre and Dance finalized Streep’s visit last week.

Department head Lucien Douglas was astonished at the announcement of Streep’s visit.

“I said, ‘Who?’” Douglas said with a laugh. “We’re one of the biggest theater programs in the country, and any opportunity to build bridges with the professional world is absolutely wonderful.”

With a little over a week’s notice, Dorn and the department announced the event to its 400 theater and dance students. The impact was immediate, and the “Oh my god!” exclamations rang throughout the Winship Drama Building. Deemed “A Conversation With Meryl Streep,” the free event opened exclusively to theater and dance students and faculty members.

Dorn organized the event in hopes of inspiring students to persevere in the difficult theater industry, a business teeming with low job opportunities. Dorn said she hoped students would understand that Streep was a human being aside from being a movie star, someone who started where everyone else did and had her own problems and struggles in her career.
“I don’t consider myself the greatest living anything,” Streep said. “If I were in school, I’d be greeting this opportunity with a healthy dose of skepticism. A student [needs] to look for something that feels true instead of being handed wisdom.”

In her discussion, Streep acknowledged the rigid and unfair standards of the industry she has thrived in, such as the pressure on actors to keep a certain weight and to acquiesce to society’s standards of beauty. While an actress of Streep’s caliber seems to have been born for the stage, she humbly said that she, too, faced all the challenges that UT students face today.

“I go back and forth all the time, even right now,” Streep said with a laugh. “When I was in graduate school, I was in my third year towards a [Master’s in Fine Arts] in drama and acting, and I decided to take the law boards because I thought that maybe I wanted to be an environmental lawyer, [but] I slept through the test.”

Streep majored in theater and dance at Yale in 1972. As part of their liberal arts program, Streep said she had the chance to learn a little bit about everything, something she noted would be “unfashionable” today with the current focus on specific career path education. Despite her lack of particularity, Streep said her experience helped her understand the world and become a better person.

Aside from speaking to the Department of Theatre and Dance, Streep also went to lunch with the MFA graduate students before the event. MFA graduate student Amanda Morish called the experience “magical” and “humbling,” going on to express multiple levels of gratitude to Fran Dorn and the University of Texas.

“We love UT, and Fran is amazing. This visit is such a gift for us as actors because [Streep] is so inspirational and so amazing at what she does,” Morish said. “She’s one of kind, and to be able to learn from someone like that and be in their space is just a privilege. I feel very blessed.”

On the Payne Theatre stage, Streep was in her element. With a series of hand gestures and dynamic voice changes, she had the audience hanging on to her every word. She answered students’ questions in a thoughtful, humble and generous tone, completely unafraid of revealing that she had once stuffed her bra to get a role or admitting that she sometimes forgot her lines on purpose to soothe the anxieties of nervous actors.

Streep also took the audience on a journey through her college experience, describing a professor that wore English riding boots and took his crop to class. She prompted waves of laughter with the tale of her first emotional theater performance, in which she imagined she was the most famous actress in the world announcing her retirement, unable to continue working because she had hit the elderly age of 45.

With only an hour-and-a-half of conversation, Streep had inspired a burning hope in the hearts of everyone in the department.

“It just makes you wonder,” said senior Cat Hardy, “Fran Dorn went to school with her, and we’re going to school now. Who are we going to school with that we’re going to have come back and speak when we’re older? Maybe it will be one of us.”