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Community theater in Pittsburgh cancels musical over focus on gay family

| Thursday, May 17, 2018, 9:39 a.m.
The Palisade Playhouse is located in a former Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh's Greenfield neighborhood.
Palisade Playhouse/Facebook
The Palisade Playhouse is located in a former Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh's Greenfield neighborhood.

A community theater in Pittsburgh's Greenfield neighborhood has canceled its production of the musical "Big Fish" after the director and several cast members quit over how to include a gay family in the background of a song.

The Palisade Playhouse had been working on "Big Fish" for a run starting June 15, but announced on Facebook a month before opening that it was halting the production.

"The decision to cancel 'Big Fish' comes on the heels of a dispute between the director and co-founding producers over how to proactively insert representation of an LGBT+ family despite the fact that the script did not include any reference to the LGBT+ community," read the May 15 announcement.

Based on a Daniel Wallace novel and also adapted into a 2003 movie featuring Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney, the musical follows Will Bloom's efforts to untangle truth from fiction in his largely absent father's fantastical re-tellings of his life.

According to the post, the producers had agreed to let the director, Nik Nemec, include a family with two fathers walking across the stage in the background during a number where Will Bloom sings about the emotions of becoming a father for the first time. But when Nemec changed the blocking of the scene so that Will focused more on the gay couple, the producers balked over whether it "created a question about whether the director's addition would convey a message about gay marriage that would be seen as inclusive to some but exclusive to others."

As a result, Nemec and several cast members walked out of the production on May 8, and negative reviews of the theater and its producers' approach started flooding their Facebook page that day.

"It soon became clear that working in harmony to produce the show on time and within budget would no longer be possible," read the Facebook post.

The Playhouse was founded by Matt and Michelle Belliston in a former Presbyterian church. Their bios on the theater's webpage note that Michelle was "frustrated that so many shows are inappropriate for children" and wanted Palisade to be a place for "shows that the whole family can enjoy together."

Michelle Belliston confirmed in an email that Nemec had quit the production over "artist discrepancies" but declined to comment further on the conflict, noting that the Bellistons were planning to release an "op-ed" Friday.

"Palisade Playhouse's founders grieve with those who feel hurt by this decision, but also grieve because of the intolerance and the spite with which they were treated as well," they wrote on Facebook. "Palisade Playhouse remains true to its founding ideals, and for that reason, Palisade maintains the need as an organization to maintain a level of neutrality on this issue and many other issues, so that all people may feel welcome."

Nemec did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724 836 6660, or on Twitter @msantoni.

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