In the fall, Benzie Central High School in Michigan was planning to do a theater production of a play about love and loss titled “Almost, Maine” by John Cariani, which contains mature content. When the school board got wind of it, the play was put on hold, according to WPBN/WGTU, its content apparently too controversial for a student stage.
That’s hardly the only play that has been deemed too controversial for schools to perform. The Educational Theater Association has a list here of some plays that have been banned or challenged in schools in recent years, including:
Spamalot, by Eric Idle and John du Prez, based on a screenplay by Monty Python. In July 2014, the drama director at South Williamsport (Pennsylvania) Area Junior/Senior High School went public regarding the cancellation of a planned production of Spamalot, saying that the school’s principal had nixed it due to gay content. The school administration challenged her, but after internal emails were revealed in August 2014 under Right-to-Know laws, it was clear that “homosexual themes” were the cause. Four weeks later, the drama director was fired.
Sweeney Todd, by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler. In March 2014 in Plaistow, New Hampshire, the Timberlane Area School District superintendent canceled a production of Sweeney Todd. After efforts by students and parents, and broad support at a school meeting called to discuss the issue, the show was restored and rescheduled for production in May 2015.
The Laramie Project, by Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theatre Project. Multiple challenges and cancellations, most recently in June 2013 in Ottumwa, Iowa. Ottumwa High School’s planned production of The Laramie Project was canceled by the principal, who said “the play is too adult for a high school production but it does preach a great message.” It was subsequently produced by the students at a venue off school grounds. In June 2013, the superintendent of schools in Everett, Massachusetts eliminated all academic drama programs at the school, citing content in student written plays presented earlier in the year. His objections included references to sex and drinking, and one actor dropping his pants to reveal underwear.
Here is a thoughtful post on a play staged at the author’s daughter’s school, Princeton Day School in New Jersey. It was written by Sarah Maraniss Vander Schaaff, a freelance writer who has penned some extraordinary pieces for The Washington Post.
She wrote this about her struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, and this piece about how obsessive-compulsive disorder affected the life of one young man and his struggles to get through school. In another post for this blog, she wrote about a mother who realized that her young son — who threw a computer at his teacher in second grade — was mentally ill and the help she got him and other children. And she wrote why the only charter school in Princeton had become a flash point. Here’s her latest piece.
By Sarah Maraniss Vander Schaaff
You could argue that the purpose of high school theater, as with all theater, is to connect us with the human condition. But once you get past the esoteric parts about the meaning of life and morality, the human condition gets messy and uncomfortable.
Do we really have time for that at school?
I asked myself this when I read the description of the fall play, “Girls Like That,” at my daughter’s school. The plot was ripped from the headlines. Or from every parent’s nightmare:
“When a naked photograph of schoolgirl Scarlett goes viral, rumours spread across smartphones like wildfire and her reputation becomes toxic, threatening to shatter the fragile unity of the girls she has grown up with. But how long can Scarlett remain silent? And why isn’t it the same for boys?”
My instinct was to turn and run.
We are not seeing this, I said to myself. Why are they even doing this play?
Sure, “Girls Like That,” by the Canadian-British playwright Evan Placey, won Best Play for Young Audiences at the 2015 Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Awards, and excerpts were performed in Parliament. I still wanted to run.
My reaction surprised me because when it comes to preaching the value of theater in school and beyond, I am the choir. I was a drama kid in high school. I majored in theater in college and went on to graduate school for an MFA. I’ve done stints teaching theater in public and independent schools and now, as a writer, I moonlight for “Broadway World,” reviewing plays in Princeton, N.J.
For the first time, I realized how the impulse to censor or shut down a high school production could grow from the seemingly good and parental intention to protect young people from uncomfortable or offensive territory. But what was I afraid of? The play? Or the offstage realities it portrayed? To find out, I’d have to face this ethical dilemma with more information.
The first thing I did was read the script.
The opening scene included a barrage of insults including “slut,” “skank,” “sket,” and “ho.”
The second thing I did was finish the script.
It was brilliant, sensitive, honest, nuanced and innovative. It wasn’t only about a “naked photo” that went viral; it was about friendships and empathy, feminism and societal pressure. I disagreed with parts, which is not the same as disagreeing with its integrity. It had strong integrity, an important fact because we make a bargain when we sit in the audience that we will yield authority to the artists creating the production. That can be a terrifying notion when a play addresses topics that we don’t all agree on or for which there are no simple answers, or if it deals with sex or sexuality.
But whose interests should school theater serve?
Howard Sherman, director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at The New School College of Performing Arts School of Drama and a national advocate against the censorship of school theater, has a brilliant way of looking at school theater that outlines what he describes as a shift of hierarchy.
First, he says, school theater is for the students who chose to do school theater.
Second, it is for other students in the school.
Third, it is for the parents of those who participate.
Fourth, it is for siblings and extended family.
Fifth, it is for the community at large.
He describes these groups as concentric circles, and they may sound obvious. Until, he says, “programs face any type of crisis.”
Let’s apply Sherman’s hierarchy to my scenario. My daughter goes to an independent K-12 school which makes this even more appropriate, given the range of ages and expectations of students and parents.
As a member of the community at large, I am in the fifth circle of importance. My daughter, a seventh-grader, is technically in the second circle as a student not involved with the production. To be fair, she is also a few months shy of the “recommended age” to see this show, which was listed as 13.
If I had known about Sherman’s hierarchy before I read the description of the play, maybe I’d have been better able to say: “Wow. This is great. What a timely and relevant play for these high schoolers to perform. My choice to take my seventh grader to the show has nothing to do with the larger mission of school theater for the performers. We can stay home and watch “Cupcake Wars,” and I won’t mutter a thing about the choice.”
The truth is, my reaction shouldn’t even matter. What matters is that the director of the drama department, Stan Cahill, and the school administration made the play happen. In the bigger picture of school theater, this is an essential point, especially as we are desperately looking for ways to increase empathy, creativity, and find the antidote to the anxiety and disconnection felt by so many young people.
And it’s significant that this play addresses sexting and its consequences, as Jeff Temple’s 2015 article, “A Primer on Teen Sexting” in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry makes abundantly clear, sexting is here to stay and may be observed in greater rates among younger adolescents.
I spoke with Cahill about doing this play, and from a technical point of view, it met a lot of requirements any high school drama teacher looks for in a selection. It could support a big cast, it had roles for girls, the staging was flexible. And it met another requirement, a phrase Sherman used that Cahill adopted as a motto. School theater “can be more.” Kids should have a voice in art.
“These are things that are on your mind,” he told the cast and crew, as they dissected the play’s themes and saw parallels with their own experiences. “So, we can do something about that and put that on stage.”
The girls in the cast felt empowered, he said. “They felt like their voices are being heard,” he said.
In the school hallways, the cast and crew were more inclined to be upstanders, standing up when something “was not cool.” And the production prompted more discussions between students and faculty advisers, creating not a watershed moment, but what Cahill called “questions and conversations.”
Jay P. Greene, a professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas, studied the effects of seeing live theater on students. One of the interesting elements he and his colleagues measured was the ability to infer what other people or thinking or feeling using a test called Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET.) They also measured tolerance, using questions such as, “Plays critical of America should not be allowed to be performed in our community,” and, “People who disagree with my point of view bother me.”
Compared with the control group, students who saw live productions had increased tolerance and recognition of other people’s thoughts and emotions. Even watching movies did not produce the same benefits as experiencing live performance.
Whether they are seeing theater or making it, however, students in high school drama programs today have fewer opportunities to take on contemporary social issues than they did when I was a student. A large survey of drama teachers in 1991 and 2012 by the Educational Theatre Association shows a movement away from controversial subjects such as abortion, divorce, drug and alcohol abuse, drunken driving, multiculturalism, sexual identity, STIs, pregnancy, teen suicide, and violence in both coursework and productions.
The topic of teen suicide, for example, was reportedly addressed at rates of 43 percent (coursework) and 36 percent (productions) in 1991 but dropped to 24 percent (coursework) and 19 percent (productions) in 2012.
Bullying and end of life issues, however, gained traction, appearing for the first time on the more recent survey. Perhaps, there will be more high school productions of “Girls Like That” in the United States in the years to come.
If it comes your way, will you support it?
The more fundamental question is if it will even make the shortlist of proposed titles. Take a look at the list that NPR ED created of the most frequently performed high school plays and musicals. One argument for the selection of these “safe choices” is that drama departments need to sell tickets with popular shows to keep their budgets. In that sense, even if you’re in the fifth circle of importance, your support of controversial plays matters.
The word at my daughter’s school was “scaffolding,” or “framework” to provide context. Cahill took time throughout the rehearsal process to engage the cast and crew in discussions, adding insights from the playwright and from books on the culture of “the curated digital life.”
I went to the show twice.
First, I went alone, digesting the play and performance though my own eyes, and eagerly awaiting the talkback with Monica Lewinsky, a proponent of “upstander” behavior. Lewinsky provided a bridge through time and technology to the more fundamental issue of public shaming. Cahill told me the play presented a learning curve for adults and a recognition and admission that “here is what is really happening” in the lives of teenagers. Lewinsky’s open discussion of her life in the days and months after the Starr Report went online completed that circle. The “human condition” does not need a smartphone.
I saw the show a second time with my seventh-grade daughter and experienced the play through her eyes and through the questions she asked me when we got home.
All this scaffolding seems like a privilege, and, to be sure, independent school programs may have an easier time garnering outside support.
But it’s not uncommon to see professionals and stars step up to help schools facing censorship or pushback, as Brian Stokes Mitchell did with a recent production of “Ragtime” at Cherry Hill High School East in New Jersey. Or Howard Sherman did in 2011 when he was executive director of American Theatre Wing and heard about a canceled production of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” at a local arts school.
As for the fall play at Princeton Day School, Cahill said it became more than just another production.
“The audience and the cast and the community are still having discussions about it,” he said. Another staff member observed the production has galvanized students to want to talk about serious issues.
Sherman gave a rallying keynote speech to the Florida Association for Theatre Education in October, saying if students “have the chance to tell stories that engage with what is difficult in the world, indeed with what may be wrong in the world, alongside telling stories that bring joy and entertainment into the world, then their work in theater makes them better actors, writers, directors, designers and technicians. But it also makes them better people and better citizens, with knowledge, gifts and understanding that will be of value to them whatever they may be in life.”
When you look at it that way, the arena of school theater is one of the safest, edifying places to explore social issues that tread on uncomfortable territory.
No need to run.
(NOTE: A picture of students with Monica Lewinsky that appeared earlier has been removed because it is not clear who took it.)