Theater & dance

Artistic director caught in storm over nude scene at Boston Children’s Theatre

A nude scene in a recent production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’’ at Boston Children's Theatre is at the center of a controversy.
Burgess Clark
A nude scene in a recent production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’’ at Boston Children's Theatre is at the center of a controversy.

A brief nude scene during a Boston Children’s Theatre production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’’ has landed the company’s executive artistic director in professional limbo after what he calls an attempt at censorship by two “overreactionary ninnies’’ on the theater’s board of directors.

Burgess Clark, who has tried to broaden the definition of children’s theater with bold programming choices during his nine-year stewardship, told the Globe Friday that he has been laid off from his post, though that may be only temporary — one twist in a convoluted and disputed sequence of events.

There was additional fallout from the imbroglio Friday night, as staff members at the Children’s Theatre sent a letter to the board’s executive committee and to executive director Toby Schine announcing that they had begun a work stoppage.

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“This ongoing and unresolved impasse between the Board and company leadership has been so disruptive to the daily operations of BCT that we no longer feel like we are able to fulfill the responsibilities of our positions,’’ the staffers wrote. Meanwhile, a petition by BCT students was circulating on social media, including Facebook, demanding Clark’s reinstatement.

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Clark says that just before the final few performances of “Cuckoo’s Nest’’ last week, the two board members demanded, through an intermediary, that he delete the scene, in which a 21-year-old actor was seen naked for about 25 seconds. Clark, who directed the production, refused, viewing it as unacceptable interference with artistic prerogatives.

“Censorship is a much larger issue than one organization,’’ Clark said. “If I lose my job, it was worth it.’’

However, Peggy Barresi, one of the objecting board members identified by Clark, denied the assertion the board was engaged in censorship.

“Several Board members, including me, questioned why a decision to use nudity, a potentially controversial decision for a children’s theatre, was not brought to the Board for discussion,’’ Barresi said by e-mail. “The objection was about not following due process. There was never a dictate from the Board to censor the nudity.’’

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Clark insists that there was such an attempt, relayed to him indirectly. He says that board member Nicole Gakidis made the demand of executive director Schine, speaking for herself and Barresi. Gakidis did not respond to a phone message and e-mail Friday.

A children’s theater may seem like an unlikely arena for the eruption of this particular kind of controversy. But while BCT presents shows like “The Velveteen Rabbit’’ and “Miss Nelson is Missing!,’’ Clark and Schine have also prided themselves on broadening the theater’s mission by staging productions like the world premiere of “Reflections of a Rock Lobster,’’ Clark’s play about the legal fight by a gay Rhode Island high school student to bring a male date to his prom, and a wrenching production of “The Diary of Anne Frank.’’

As for the current controversy, Clark maintains that his production of “Cuckoo’s Nest’’ was true to “the way the play was meant to be performed.’’

At issue is a scene in Dale Wasserman’s stage adaptation of Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel that depicts a confrontational showdown in a psychiatric institution between two fierce antagonists: rebellious Randle Patrick McMurphy, played at BCT by Sam Mulcahy, a third-year student at Northeastern University, and the tyrannical Nurse Ratched, portrayed by 18-year-old Tyngsborough High School senior Teresa Gelsomini.

In the scene, according to Clark, Nurse Ratched spies McMurphy wearing a towel and says to him: “Get out of that towel at once.’’ McMurphy replies “Certainly,’’ and drops the towel.

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Both Clark and Schine said Friday that audiences had plenty of advance warning of the nudity, including signs on the entrance to the theater, a mention of the nudity in preshow speeches, and alerts in the playbill and on the BCT website. The theater did not allow patrons 14 and under into the show without being accompanied by a parent or guardian. Clark said there were some in the audience, accompanied by an adult, in the 10-to-12-year-old range.

‘Censorship is a much larger issue than one organization. If I lose my job, it was worth it.’

The age range of the cast was 15-25, Clark said.

Mulcahy said that before last Friday’s performance, Clark told the cast that “some members of the board were all in a huff’’ about the nudity. “It started to feel very ironic,’’ said Mulcahy. “It started to feel like we in the cast were McMurphy, and those on the board were Nurse Ratched.’’

Clark said he was so angry at what he insists were demands to cut the scene that he began writing his resignation letter last Saturday, between the matinee and the evening performance. Then, according to Clark, BCT executive director Schine presented him with an unusual suggestion: that Clark be laid off. Clark said by e-mail Friday evening that “it was a stop-gap to keep me from resigning, giving (board chairman Hank Miller) time to garner a united front on the Board. It hasn’t seem(ed) to have worked. At present, they have not reinstated me.’’

However, Miller, the board chairman, who consented to answer questions from the Globe only by e-mail, said that the BCT board “did not fire or let go Burgess Clark. The BCT board did not censor our artistic staff. While there is some difference of opinion over the appropriateness of nudity at Boston Children’s Theatre shows we are working constructively to come to mutual agreement between the executive staff and the board.’’

Clark said he finds the entire episode baffling. Noting that “Cuckoo’s Nest’’ did well at the box office and that there were standing ovations after each performance, he said dryly: “I’ve never been punished like this for such a success.’’

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com