The St. Olaf Muse Project’s production of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” was one of several campus events that was scheduled to take place on Saturday, April 29, when hundreds of students gathered in Buntrock Commons for a stand-in protest that lasted through the night. Unlike many of the other planned events, however, the Muse Project opted not to cancel their performance in Rolvaag 525.
At 6:46 p.m., 14 minutes before the show was scheduled to begin, the group posted on its Facebook page that their performance would start 10 minutes late and advised audiences to enter the library through the outside doors to avoid the protest’s blockade in Buntrock.
The post received mostly negative feedback, with several users giving it an “angry” reaction and condemning the decision in the comments section.
Despite continuing on with the performance, the directors of the play, Holly Ness ’19 and Jacqueline Radke ’18 had hoped to still express solidarity with the protest.
“We started preparing for the show on Saturday around 5 p.m. and posted the [A Collective for Change On the Hill’s] demands outside of the door, making announcements before, during and after to our audience about the movement to push them towards contacting administration,” Ness said. “Our audience of around 40 people consisted mostly of adults and senior citizens who would not have joined the protest, would not have originally been on campus to see the protest and might have had more pull with the administration.”
However, this decision did not have the full support of the show’s cast.
“My opinion that I shared with my cast pretty much immediately when we found out the protest was happening was that we should cancel the show. That was my opinion the entire time,” actor Erica Hoops ’18 said. “There was a lot of contention among the cast about going on with it. But in the end, it wasn’t really our decision. That’s not to excuse the fact that we went on with the performance.”
As the announcement that Muse had decided to continue their play was shared to the protesters in Buntrock, small groups of students arrived at the performance venue to quietly speak to Ness and Radke, unbeknownst to the audience. Most of these protesters left the show in peace and returned to Buntrock after speaking with the directors.
Eventually protester Krysta Wetzel ’18 announced over a loudspeaker in Buntrock that they were going to shut down the performance and needed some people to come with them. A group of about two dozen headed to the Rolvaag classroom.
“Immediately before, when we heard that the play was still going on, my first reaction was frustration and anger. A very knee-jerk thing,” Wetzel said. “But on the way I remembered those folks that I know who are a part of the Muse Project, so while I was with a bunch of angry [and] frustrated folks, I addressed them saying we weren’t going there to attack or condemn but to inform. So we went, and we interrupted.”
“I did brace the cast before the performance and say: ‘If this gets big, I expect our performance to be interrupted.’” Hoops said. “And I know that scared … pretty much the entire cast, but I was like, ‘Don’t worry about it. If it happens, it happens. Just prepare yourself because I bet it’s going to happen.’ Then it did.”
Ness and Radke announced that the show would be stopping at least temporarily, and then two theater majors who had been at the protest entered ahead of the larger group to calm the audience and the actors, and to brace them for the size of the group that was about to enter. Upon entering the room, Wetzel was out of breath and sat down on a chair onstage. A member of the audience tossed them a bottle of water.
“I spoke, mainly to the audience, about what has been going on and that currently we were halting things throughout the building in protest of campus-wide events,” Wetzel said.
“I didn’t think it was disrespectful or wrong. I thought it was completely necessary that they come in,” Hoops said.
However, Wetzel’s speech to the audience was cut short when Assistant Professor of Theater Michelle Cowan Gibbs rushed into the space. Gibbs immediately confronted the protesters, urging them to leave and allow the performance to continue.
“The cast and crew of ‘Much Ado’ handled themselves very well when student protesters arrived at the performance space. It was a very tense situation. I don’t think many of them have ever experienced anything like Saturday evening. However, the student protesters were very reasonable and understanding that the production needed to continue. They wanted to encourage everyone, audience members too, to support the stand-in,” Gibbs said.
“I was asked, tearfully [by Gibbs], to let them continue the play to the end, and that they were with us. We agreed, telling everyone that we would still be in the building if they wanted to join afterwards. Many cast members I saw in the room were teary-eyed, and I received [and] gave hugs to many of them in show of support for one another,” Wetzel said. “After we returned, I announced to the crowd that we addressed the Muse Project and the audience, and that they would be going on with the play.”
“When Professor Gibbs asked them to let let us finish, while I appreciated the sentiment of that, I do think that we should have stopped the show,” Hoops said. “I appreciate that the protesters let us finish and that Professor Gibbs was trying to advocate for us to be able to finish our performance, but I personally disagree with it and I think we should have respected the protest more than our performance – which I know is not the feeling of all my cast mates or all of the crew. But I definitely think that it was inappropriate for us to go on with the performance.”
After the play ended, the cast and crew of “Much Ado” headed to Buntrock to join the demonstration and donated their leftover food from the show to feed other protesters who had been there for hours.
The next day, the Muse Project announced on its Facebook page that it would be postponing both Sunday performances of “Much Ado” until May 7.
“I know that many people were not happy with our decision to complete the show, and if
we had a better understanding of the situation at the time, things would have been different,” Ness said. “We are incredibly sorry for any negative impact our decisions have had. We had only the best intentions in mind at the time and deeply regret if our choices have come across as passivity or silence, that is the last thing that we ever wanted to stand for.”
“I would like to say that everyone in the cast and production team of Much Ado About Nothing stands in solidarity with students of color and deeply cares about the safety of our friends and colleagues. It wasn’t our intent to distract or disrespect the movement and our peers,” actor Samantha Noonan ’17 said.
“Part of me hurt to interrupt something they worked so hard to put on, and part of me hurt that things could still go on when I felt my daily life could not go on as scheduled, so I was very conflicted about the whole thing,” Wetzel said. “But I felt love and support from my high school English teacher, who came from Chicago to see the play, as she gave me a thumbs up from the audience when I addressed the room and later messaged me about how proud she was of me, as well as from the cast members in seeing them after the play and in Tomson yesterday.”
“At the end of the day, I am so proud of both protesters and performers. Everyone really stepped up and handled themselves with empathy and support,” Gibbs said.