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Yale backs off ban on weapons in plays; audience will be notified

HARTFORD, Conn. --A week after a Yale University official banned prop weapons from school plays in response to the Virginia Tech killings, the Ivy League school has reversed course and said audiences will be notified in advance of the use of fake guns, swords and knives.

The university released a statement Monday, following complaints that Yale was censoring the arts and reacting inappropriately to the April 16 massacre that left 33 people dead.

"As part of our long-standing policy regarding the use of weapons in undergraduate student theatrical productions, the use of real or facsimile weapons has been permitted on a case-by-case basis, with the approval of the dean of students' office," Helaine Klasky, director of public affairs, said in the statement.

"Effective immediately, when a weapon or facsimile is being used, the audience will be appropriately notified in advance," she said.

The issue arose last week when Dean of Student Affairs Betty Trachtenberg informed two student directors that they could not use facsimile weapons in their plays.

"Given the events of a few days ago in Virginia I question, at this time, the use of even a prop hand gun in this (or other productions). I suggest that you find another way," Trachtenberg wrote in an e-mail to Yale sophomore Leah Franqui and others on April 18.

Franqui, 19, is directing "Accidental Death of an Anarchist," which begins on Friday. The satire by Nobel Prize for literature winner Dario Fo is about a police investigation of a bank bombing in Milan, Italy.

Franqui said she had to scrap plans to rent a prop gun for a minor scene in the play.

"I don't have problems in terms of the integrity of my show," the Philadelphia resident said. "But I think it's really terrible in general. It's censoring the arts. It's a completely empty gesture."

Franqui said the scene with the gun has been rewritten to make fun of the university's ban. She said a police officer who takes another hostage and tries to grab his gun is surprised when he can't find it.

"Where's the gun, Josh," the officer asks.

"Didn't you hear? We're not allowed to have one," the other responds.

Telephone and e-mails seeking comment were left Monday with Trachtenberg and Yale President Richard Levin.

Sarah Holdren, a 21-year-old junior majoring in theater studies, directed "Red Noses" last week and learned a few hours before the play opened Thursday that weapons were not allowed.

The play, set in the Middle Ages and featuring several sword fights, tells the story of a group of clowns that brings hope to people suffering during the time of the Black Plague.

Holdren said she met with Trachtenberg before the play began and received permission to use "very fake-looking" wooden swords, instead of metal ones.

"Basically we got to use toys," said Holdren, from Greenwood, Va., about 40 minutes from Virginia Tech. "I resent much less the last-minute changes we had to make rather than the reasoning behind the decision.

"I think attempting to cover up issues of violence in the real world by censoring art is fundamentally wrong," she said. "Especially at a time like this, art and theater have the potential to help so many people and to get them through these very dark situations."

Holdren gave an opening statement to the audience before the play, criticizing Yale for its censorship and telling the crowd that "Red Noses" was about hope, joy and fellowship.

Holdren said that while she has only compassion and sympathy for the Virginia Tech community, she is protesting "the careless manner" in which Yale reacted.

She said it is appropriate that Yale has backed away from banning weapons on stage.

"I hope that this change in the policy heralds further changes and that we can get back to a relative state of artistic freedom," Holdren said.