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Sacramento theater director who donated to Prop. 8 faced storm of criticism

November 12, 2008 |  2:41 pm

Scott EckernScott Eckern, the Sacramento theater director whose political donation in support of California's Prop. 8 ban on same-sex marriage has become a lightning rod in the debate over gay rights, resigned today. He said he wanted to protect the California Musical Theatre, his artistic home since 1984, from further controversy.

Word of Eckern's $1,000 donation -- publicly reported under state elections law -- spread rapidly on the Internet late last week, and Eckern drew criticism from some prominent stage artists, including Tony Award-winning composer Marc Shaiman ("Hairspray") and Jeff Whitty, the "Avenue Q" librettist, who wrote on his whitless.com website about his thoughts on how to deal with the fact that "Avenue Q" would be opening at California Musical Theatre in March.

Actress Susan Egan, whose Broadway credits include Sally Bowles in "Cabaret" and the original Belle in "Beauty and the Beast," also passed the word in the theater community. In an e-mail, she said had known and worked with Eckern since 1993 and had been "floored" to learn of his support for Prop. 8, terming it "hypocritical at best and, more likely, distressingly prejudiced."

In Sacramento, Kellie Randle, a partner in a local public relations company, launched a website aimed at supporting Eckern's free speech rights and countering what the site describes as "bullying, intimidation and threats" by out-voted foes of Prop. 8.

"I am disappointed that my personal convictions have cost me the opportunity to do what I love the most," Eckern, the nonprofit stage company's artistic director since 2003, said in a written statement released today by a manager from Randle's firm. Eckern did not return calls Tuesday and Wednesday. In his statement, he said he decided to resign "after prayerful consideration." He apologized "for any harm or injury" taken from his support of Prop. 8, but also affirmed his right "to act upon my belief that the traditional definition of marriage should be preserved."

"This is a highly emotional issue and the accusations that have been made against me are simply not true," he added.

Eckern -- who wrote that he has a lesbian sister who is in a domestic partnership -- said he would donate $1,000 to the Human Rights Campaign, which advocates equal rights for gays and lesbians. By resigning, he said he hoped to "help the healing in the local theatergoing and creative community."

The director's biography, which apparently had been removed Wednesday from the California Musical Theatre's website, said he holds an undergraduate dramatic arts degree from UC Santa Barbara and a master's in acting from Brigham Young University, and that he's had teaching posts at the University of the Pacific, Sacramento State University and American River College.  As a theater artist, Eckern said, "I have not imposed my beliefs onto any of the works" he oversaw, "but have sought to [allow] the truths found in the storytelling to speak for themselves."

Richard Lewis, executive producer of California Musical Theatre, said there was no pressure on Eckern to resign. "The board did not even hint at the idea that I needed to suggest to Scott" that he give up his job, Lewis said Wednesday. Eckern's duties included casting, hiring and day-to-day oversight of a 7-show summer musical festival and a say in choosing the touring Broadway musicals CMT also presents. Lewis said he spoke regularly with Eckern after the controversy broke out, and talked with him Wednesday after Eckern had announced his resignation by e-mail.

Lewis said he was sure the artistic director had made up his mind and did not try to persuade him to reconsider. "I had made it crystal clear to him... I was there for him whatever way he wanted to go with this."

In an interview Tuesday, the L.A.-based Shaiman, who also works as a film composer, said he spoke to Eckern after learning he'd donated to the gay marriage ban. CMT had presented Shaiman's "Hairspray" twice -- in 2004 as a touring show, and in its own production last August. "He certainly sounded like a gentle man," Shaiman said. "He basically gave me that thing we're just sick of hearing: `These are my religious beliefs, but it's nothing personal.'... I just told him I'm disgusted at that use of money that came in some way from a show I created."

-- Mike Boehm

Photo: Scott Eckern. Credit: Charr Crail

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