Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Stage Left Theatre cancels production of ‘The Pillowman’ over ‘problematic’ portrayal of mental disability

Jeremy Whittington is the artistic director of Stage Left Theater.

Pointing to the play’s “problematic” portrayal of mental disability, Stage Left Theater has canceled its production of “The Pillowman” a few months before its premiere.

In a Facebook post announcing the move, Stage Left artistic director Jeremy Whittington said continuing the production would not further the progressive nonprofit’s mission to “embrace, support, and amplify voices in our community that have been marginalized, brutalized, and relegated to the outskirts of society,” such as Spokane’s “neurodivergent siblings and our friends with traumatic brain injuries.”

Neurodivergence describes those with differences in brain functioning such as autism, dyslexia or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

The play originally premiered in 2003, written by British-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh and played on Broadway and the West End. Since then, McDonagh has gone on to become a film screenwriter and director, most notably for last year’s Oscar-nominated “The Banshees of Inisherin.”

Set in a dystopian police state, “The Pillowman” follows two brothers who are suspected in the investigation into a string of child murders. One brother suffered severe abuse as a child, resulting in a traumatic brain injury. Once this character is discovered to be the murderer, the other brother kills him in his sleep.

In the Facebook post, Whittington cited the play’s repeated use of a slur targeted at those with mental disabilities and the “stereotypical trope of the neurotypical savior” as evidence of the play’s problematic nature.

In an interview, Whittington said he picked the play for the theater’s 10th season because its “edgy” nature appealed to Stage Left’s sensibilities. But as they prepared to hold auditions for the play in mid-August, the theatre company received messages from community members who believed the play’s depiction of a mentally disabled serial killer perpetuates harmful stereotypes.

“There was such an overwhelming response to the visceralness of what happens in the play and how it’s handled that we felt … that this play was going to cause more harm to our siblings in the neurodivergent community than it would to uplift a story in the arts community,” he said.

Whittington added the play’s selection was made before Stage Left established a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee to assist in the play selection process, along with other duties.

DEI Committee chair Alana Shepherd said other duties of the committee include reviewing all the policies and procedures at the theater, “from auditions to play selection to just day-to-day production happenings.” They also “serve as a conduit for any misgivings or complaints within a production.”

Dahveed Bullis, who was slated to direct “The Pillowman,” fully supports Stage Left canceling the production.

“If our community is telling us this play is going to cause us a little more harm than it will good, then the decision’s pretty simple,” Bullis said.

Instead of “The Pillowman,” Stage Left will produce “Minimum Wage,” directed by Bullis and also written by him. The play had previously received a workshop by Stage Left and had been on the company’s shortlist for a future season.

According to Bullis, the play is set in Spokane and explores the lives of minimum-wage workers in the fast-food industry.

“It’s a story about the people folks only want to think about three minutes at a time unless they mess up their order,” Bullis said of his play. “And, you know, I spent a lot of years working in that world. So it’s kind of a love letter to my people.”

“Minimum Wage” will be performed Oct. 6 through Oct. 22. Those who purchased tickets to “The Pillowman” can either keep their tickets to this new production or receive a refund.

Announcement of the cancellation prompted a mixed response online – with some praising Stage left’s sensitivity and others concerned by the precedent of censoring plays with controversial subject matter.

“I admire the hell out of what y’all are doing at Stage Left. And if a play uses language that is hurtful just for the sake of shock value, then of course don’t produce it. But I don’t believe that’s what Pillowman is. And I worry that we’re throwing out the baby with the bathwater here,” wrote Gonzaga theatre lecturer Blake Anthony Edwards in a Facebook comment.

“I say this as a staunch liberal, but I worry about this kind of progressive navel-gazing and its effect on the future of American Theatre.”

Edwards also noted they had acted in a recent Stage Left production that used the same slur targeting those with mental disabilities.

Whittington admitted many will disagree with his decision to cancel the play, and he shares many of the same concerns about censorship.

“You know, I get it. I never want to censor something artistic. And certainly there’s room for this expression. Stage Left just isn’t the time and place for this particular play at this moment.”

Stage Left is planning to produce “The Pillowman” as a reading workshop so the public can “listen to the words of the play, and then have an open discussion about what it means.”

According to Whittington, this more thoughtful approach will avoid the harm a full production might have caused.

“If we invite people from both sides who walk in aware of the aspects of the play that are up for debate or discussion, that is a much different atmosphere, environment and mood than a full production you can either come see or not.”