News Column

Theater group booted out of performing arts center

June 26, 2014

By Alan Burke, The Salem News, Beverly, Mass.

June 26--IPSWICH -- For Moonlight Productions, the show won't go on. At least not at Ipswich High School'sPerforming Arts Center this summer.

The theater group, which provides a venue for child performers, has used the facility during the past two summers. But director J.T. Turner said that in May, he was informed by Superintendent William Hart that the group won't be allowed back this summer to mount "Honk," a story based on "The Ugly Duckling."

The ban stems "from a series of problems last year when Moonlight used the PAC facilities," Hart said.

Hart cited a decision to move an 8,000-pound, $80,000 Steinway grand piano, an extremely sensitive instrument donated by a school supporter, from the stage to the orchestra pit.

"That was a strong reflection of poor judgment," he said. And he wonders why Turner, with his extensive theater experience -- he was even the drama director at the middle school for a time -- made such a decision.

In addition, Hart said, "Some very significant damage was done in one of the bathrooms." He blames poor supervision of the young performers for this lapse. The town's investment in school facilities is a public trust, he said. "We don't take that responsibility lightly."

Hart expressed disappointment that this matter has been made public. But he acknowledged that the outpouring of support for Moonlight Productions coming in his direction has been impressive in "the way people have spoken about the positive impact." At the same time, he stressed that the decision to ban the production this summer wasn't meant to be permanent.

Rather, suspending the right to use the PAC was a way to impress upon the group the seriousness of the problems they created. Further, he said, he told Turner, "I'll talk to you next year." In fact, he hopes to talk even sooner and is in the process of setting up a meeting on Friday.

For his part, Turner said that there were no guidelines and no one telling the group that they could not move the piano. Nor was he cautioned about the piano, even while he worked at the school.

"We promised we would never move it again," he said, noting that the group paid $500 to have the piano professionally returned to its place.

The complaints about a lack of supervision of the kids are more recent, he said. A fourth-grader painting theatrical backdrops had asked to use the toilet. He took his brush with him and splattered paint everywhere, Turner said.

"The boy's mother marched him back to the school," Turner said. "He was made to apologize to the janitor. Then, the boy and his mother cleaned up all the paint."

Criticism is coming because the issue of the piano, which wasn't damaged, seems so petty, Turner said. "They just plain look foolish. ... They have to make stuff up."

Turner said he received no warnings prior to being denied the use of the facility. He disputes the right of the school department to bar his group. "It's a public facility" built on promises that there would be access for others, he said. "You can't arbitrarily close it down."

Alternate locations are hard to find. The gym at Town Hall, for example, is inadequate with bleachers that cannot accommodate many elderly and disabled people.

The nonprofit Moonlight Productions operates on a budget of roughly $20,000 per year, Turner said. A professional actor, he estimates his personal earnings from the summer project at roughly $800. Up to 38 families are involved.

"Our group changes people's lives," he said. Kids who are bullied often find salvation in the performing arts, he noted. "Thousands of kids have worked with us."

On learning that his group was banned, Turner said he sent several emails to the superintendent before finally meeting with him face to face. He was told that the school department won't revisit the issue. "They're so dug-in. And so obstinate. The most I can do is make a loud noise," he said.

Alan Burke can be reached at


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Source: Salem News (MA)

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