David Hillman started the fall semester as both a classics instructor and a custodian at St. Mary’s University in Winona, Minn.
Now he’s lost both jobs. All, he says, because of a clash over a campus production of the play “Medea” and some phallus-shaped props.
In October, administrators decided that the props were too graphic for the private Catholic university and banned them from the production.
Hillman, 44, who was hired to translate the ancient tragedy, said he was fired after protesting what he saw as censorship and an attack on artistic freedom.
The university denied the accusation, saying only that they parted ways after Hillman was accused of sexual harassment.
Either way, the drama is now playing out like a Greek tragedy on a national stage, thanks to a front-page story Friday on the website Inside Higher Ed, headlined: “Fired over a phallus?”
The story focused on the use of fascina, phallus-shaped objects from Roman mythology, which cast members point at the audience in one part of the play.
University spokeswoman Stacia Vogel insists that the faux phalluses had nothing to do with Hillman’s departure.
“The university can confirm that the claims were unrelated to the content or props of the play,” she said. School officials also released a written statement, saying, “Dr. David Hillman was not rehired as an adjunct faculty member and the reasons were not over issues of phalluses in the play. His employment as a custodian was terminated at the conclusion of a work rules violation investigation.”
But Hillman and Judy Myers, a theater professor who directed the four-night campus production of “Medea” in November, say the timing suggests otherwise.
“We’ve never been censored in our department before,” said Myers. In this case, she said, she believes that administrators overreacted and that Hillman is paying the price.
Translating a classic
Hillman, who has a Ph.D. in the classics from the University of Wisconsin, said he started teaching Greek and Latin at St. Mary’s three years ago. He started working weekends as a custodian in August, he said, to supplement his salary as an adjunct instructor.
Around the same time, the theater department hired him to write a translation of “Medea,” the mythical tale of a woman who avenges her husband’s betrayal by killing their children.
A month before opening night, an administrator raised the first concerns about the props, according to Myers. “He told us that they were obscene; we couldn’t use them,” she said.
She protested that the foam props wouldn’t look quite so phallic under stage lights, but administrators held their ground. Shortly before the play opened, Hillman confronted the administrators at a meeting with the cast and crew, who wanted answers about the decision against the props, she said. “He was very vocal,” she said. “It was perceived as being aggressive.”
“I knew at this point, honestly, that I was going to lose my job,” Hillman said.
The play eventually went on, with modified props “that looked like a weird key,” said Myers.
This month, Hillman said he learned that he wouldn’t be hired to teach any classes next semester and that he was being terminated as a custodian.
Safety or censorship?
Vogel said privacy laws limited what she could say publicly. “I can tell you there were complaints from students that were investigated by the university unrelated to the play and its content,” she said. “They were complaints from students about their interactions with him.”
Hillman, though, said he was told that someone complained about the way he coached students in rehearsals, including the use of whips, snakes and sexual imagery that was part of the script.
“All of the allegations were about the play,” he said. “It’s like they sifted through anything they could possibly manufacture into a case.”
The university says it simply followed procedures. Hillman, though, hopes his story sends a different message. “That a group of students was stopped, was censored, and that for a brief moment, those students were able to see the value of free speech and, really, what free speech is all about.”