Gagged and gutted; Backdoor Playhouse closed for the spring season

The Backdoor Playhouse on January 26th, 2024, It is home to many showcases and student talents. This semester the theatre program has closed its doors and many students are left stunned by the action. PHOTO BY BRIAN CARPENTER

By Bee Goodman, Managing Editor

Many are left with heavy hearts and worries as the Backdoor Playhouse abruptly closes. The former Facilities Director James Alder addressed a telling message to students and staff. 

Prior to the pandemic, the Backdoor Playhouse hosted numerous shows with gleaming success and followed into more recent shows such as the hit 2022 musical “Crawlspace,” debuting at Tech, and the 2023 show of “Carrie: The Musical,” which is one of the highest-grossing shows the program has seen in decades. 

There is no doubt of the program’s success. But a recent email sent out to some students and other Playhouse affiliates, reveals some possible reasons behind the closure. 

Former facilities manager James Alder sent an email to many recipients that includes many students and faculty, in the email he states why he believed the theater program has been forced to cancel its Spring 2024 showcase. Alder states, “I promise that in this message I will not treat you the way some administrators have been, as children who need to be shielded from the truth.”

Alder claims that the Dean of Fine Arts, Dr. Jennifer Shank, has purposely misled students to think that the closure cites the former technical director Bob Cardana’s departure. Alder’s message continues to explain a multitude of issues that have caused the abrupt dismissal in the fine arts college. 

“I went to a socially distanced Q&A with President Oldham. While there, I interrogated him in front of everyone present regarding hazard pay for the RAs who were essentially overseeing the sick wards that their dorms had become. Also, I asked him whether he was going to offer a reimbursement to students after he unilaterally reappropriated funds from Centerstage -The cultural events fund which YOU pay for directly with a surcharge tacked onto your tuition.- The president was visibly upset by this confrontation.” 

Additionally during this time, Matthew Melton, a non-traditional student, returned to campus and began volunteering with the Backdoor Playhouse. Melton is said to have caused many disturbances among the program, Alder confesses, “He repeatedly offered students Kentucky Gentlemen bourbon. I still have a bottle that I confiscated from him at the time.”

 Melton was also said to have forced a non-consensual kiss onto a student stagehand, as well as causing many to feel uncomfortable in his presence at the time. Melton is still attending classes at the playhouse as a theatre education major. 

In the fall of 2022 a video circulated online of a drag performance at the Playhouse featuring a child attending with their parents, giving cash to an on-stage, fully clothed performer, which caused national backlash. University President Phil Oldham stated on social media that he found the ordeal “deeply disturbing.”

Alder recounts the event saying, “He placed a target on their backs at the very moment when the most odious, reactionary psychopaths were harassing them with threats of violence. Instead of protecting them from the abuse, the administration made the rules for organizing student events more onerous and prohibitive.” 

Soon after the video was posted, an off campus charity drag brunch was met with protestors, where a separate group of protestors had shown up waving a Nazi flag. The event caused fear and hysteria on campus that made many students feel unsafe to attend classes and university events.

“In an attempt to rein us in, it was announced that the theater faculty and staff would be resituated out of the ‘overly permissive and mismanaged’ English Department and into the School of Music — out of the College of Arts and Sciences and into the College of Fine Arts.”

The transfer of the program subsequently led to an internal audit that found the university had committed gross wage theft against Alder for a sum of nearly $30,000, an amount that he added that was larger than his annual salary. Alder also suggests that incident was only a fraction of the university’s neglect of the theater department for years. 

Alder had sent an email to Dean Shank regarding her posts on social media that featured her personal vacations and asked, “How many european vacations will you get to go on before I get a raise?” He went on to an admission of his own fault that led to the calling for his termination which he states that Mark Creter, professor of theater and Artistic Director of the Playhouse, advocated for Alder, which granted him a hearing that Alder states many students walked with him to attend, “…for which I will always be grateful.” 

Alder was placed on a three month suspension. During his absence Ryan Steele, a Tech alum who has regularly worked in the Cookeville theater community, received many accusations of pushing drug use onto students and requesting sex from them, which Alder claims mirrors the behavior of Melton that led to his removal from the Playhouse at the time. 

According to Alder these complaints were never addressed with him or the Artistic Director Mark Creter. Alder also states in his email that Jojo McCaig, a 2023 graduate who was a long time student at the Playhouse, was inappropriately using program resources under Melton’s production that caused numerous conflicts with scheduling the auditorium space for use and lacked an regard to the other directors. 

After trying to clear things with Melton and McCaig, Alder says they put effort into smearing the reputation of Creter and himself, stating that they had “knowingly unleashed a ‘sex predator and drug-peddler’ (quoting Melton and McCaig’s allegation of Steele) onto our innocent, vulnerable students. This is vicious slander.” Alder states that he will allow Steele to defend himself but is confident that he is not the character that had been portrayed.

Alder also addresses students directly about their right to self-expression and plausible conflicts to come with students’ ability to graduate on time stating they stripped, “Mark of his ability to direct on campus, they’ve fired me, and they have canceled a slew of classes, which will affect your ability to graduate on time, contrary to Jennifer Shank’s low-effort lies.”

One remark that Alder makes several times throughout his message is the fear faculty have about speaking out on the issue. He states that Creter and the new Facilities director Emma Waltenbaugh “are being gagged and threatened… and cannot express themselves regarding this issue.”

Dean Shank relayed that because of an ongoing investigation she can not offer any comments at this time. There are currently plans for the Playhouse’s return for the Fall 2024 semester. The continuation of shows has many students, staff, and community members eagerly awaiting for the doors to reopen.