When incidences of high school theatre censorship arise, the point at which they occur, and when that breaks out beyond school walls, can be central to efforts to reverse the decision. At other times, one finds webpages like the one above, from Danville Area High School in Pennsylvania in late January.
The recent debate in Cherry Hill NJ over Ragtime is an excellent case in point. The decision by the school administration to alter all “offensive” language in the play, without permission from the licensing house or the authors, arose while the show was in rehearsals, six weeks before performances were to begin. The school publicly announced its plan to alter the play’s text, to placate those who objected to words within it, which if enacted would have caused the school to lose the rights to perform the show at all. A broad lobbying effort ensued to make the case that Ragtime was much more than the handful of slurs that are essential to the work, and advance its message of acceptance and inclusion. It had sufficient time to have an effect, echoing other such efforts in recent years in Plaistow NH over Sweeney Todd and Trumbull CT over Rent. Ragtime opens in one week.
But even as the initial decision adverse to Ragtime was being reversed, productions in Fresno CA and Danville PA were irrevocably ended, with school officials forcing a student-directed production of Sartre’s No Exit to end after the first of its three performances, and the school edition of Avenue Q canceled in favor of James and the Giant Peach, to be performed in April.
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Homophobia was cited as the cause of the cancellation of No Exit in Clovis CA, at Buchanan High School in late January. Jared Serpa, the student directing the show as his senior project, as part of the school’s drama program known as Bear Stage, made the charge in an online video, citing a complaint by a member of the audience at the first performance and a conversation he had with a faculty member which specifically identified the gay character as being problematic, should a parent bring a young child and have to explain why one woman was trying to kiss another. The remaining performances were immediately shut down.
“Talk with your children about reality,” urged Serpa in his video. “Don’t put them in this bubble and darkness … because you couldn’t find the courage to talk to your own child about the fact that people are different.”
Speaking to The Fresno Bee, Clovis Unified spokesperson Kelly Avants denied the charge of homophobia, saying “We own the fact that it should never have even been approved as a senior production in the first place. Being a K-12 institution, the expectation of our drama programs is that every production they do is to be age-appropriate content.”
After conversations between Serpa and the school, subsequent to the canceled performances, they reached what was described as a mutual decision not to go forward with the show on or off campus. Serpa described it as letting the show “peacefully die,” in a second Twitter video. Serpa cited the pressure the situation was putting on his cast, comprised primarily of students who were not seniors, and his intent to use the money raised for No Exit to be the seed money for an independent theatre company that could tackle, in his words, “gritty art, gritty theatre.”
A joint statement, credited to both Clovis Unified School District and the No Exit Team, yet reading very much as an institutional statement, said in part:
In the case of the Jean-Paul Sartre play No Exit, the show’s language; dark themes of hopelessness, hell and mutual torment/torture; conversations about the murder of an infant, being shot in the chest nine times and infidelity; and multiple sexual advances and requests made by the characters all add up to content that as a whole we do not believe is appropriate for a high school audience.
It would be expected that the school administration would have reviewed the show’s content and, long prior to opening night, asked the senior student to select a different show with more age-appropriate content. Unfortunately, the content was not fully known to the administration until the first production. It was at that time that a determination was made that the show could not “go on” given the mature themes and content more appropriate for a college or community audience. One indicator of the mature nature of No Exit’s content is the fact that the play only appears in our curriculum in the college-level Advanced Placement Senior English course. This is a course that requires parent notification of the reading lists and provides an opt out option should a parent want alternate content for their student.
In the past, we have had multiple productions that featured characters or storylines that included LGBT or Q characters. That alone would not be a reason for us to stop a show.
But while No Exit was silenced, it did not go unremarked upon. Writing in the Bee, Donald Munro said of No Exit:
It is a bleak, brilliant, existential torture-rack of a play that shakes you out of your daily stupor of denying mortality and makes you ponder life’s gaping and unconquerable questions.
Which makes it perfect for older high school students just itching to dive into murky philosophical waters.
But don’t worry. Clovis Unified is keeping us safe from a classic drama written in 1944.
The one other piece of news coverage appeared, somewhat inexplicably, in The New York Daily News, recapping much of what the Bee initially reported, but bringing the situation to ore national attention. Indeed, Serpa cited the national focus as part of the pressure surrounding the production that led him to abandon his plans for an off-campus production, ending what he had originally described as a four-year quest to stage No Exit. Consequently, after a single performance, No Exit was trapped in its own eternal existential hell, remembered only by those who managed to catch that first performance before the hammer came down.
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While No Exit managed one performance, officials at Danville Area High School In Pennsylvania canceled Avenue Q shortly after the cast had been announced. The school superintendent Cheryl Latorre told the Daily Item, “It is the school version, but there is a lot of foul language in it and things that are so controversial. Not that that isn’t the real world. It’s just not the time for the program here. I just don’t think it’s something our little ones should attend.”
She went on to say, ““I just don’t feel it’s a fit for us at this time. We want a production to fill the auditorium.”
John Brady, the drama advisor who was to stage Avenue Q, quit his position as a result of the decision. The school’s other drama advisor will direct the replacement production. Reporting in the Daily Item indicates that Brady did receive approval for the show, which was withdrawn once school administrators subsequently read the script.
One student, commenting to the Daily Item, suggested that the school’s decision was a case of wanting to avoid controversy, as fundraising is in process for a new $12 million school auditorium. An editorial in the Daily Item, while acknowledging that the decision was being made later in the process than is advisable, sided with the school.
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So what exactly might be found objectionable in these plays?
Before the joint statement was issued, Kelly Avants from Clovis Unified described No Exit, which is part of the school Advanced Placement curriculum, to TV station ABC 30 as follows:
“There’s language. There are themes of child murder. There are themes of people getting shot multiple times. There’s a great deal of sexual content from a number of different perspectives.”
Yes, No Exit has dark themes, but it is neither graphic nor salacious. Any play set in hell, and considering the implications of eternity there, must engage with the sins that sent people down. Yes, the school edition of Avenue Q is at times suggestive, but the show’s fully transgressive nature has been dialed back significantly. It retains just enough so that it remains a parody of Sesame Street rather than a replica of it for slightly older audiences.
The school edition of Avenue Q, has been almost entirely stripped of the “foul language” invoked by Danville superintendent Latorre. Of the words that remain, the only phrases which presumably might trouble educators are “gonorrhea,” “undescended testicle,” “sucks,” “skanky,” “ass” and “crappy.” Some songs are gone entirely – such as “You Can Be As Loud As the Hell You Want” and “My Girlfriend Who Lives in Canada” – while Trekkie Monster’s “The Internet is for Porn” has been recast as “My Social Life is Online.” Mrs. Thistletwat in now Mrs. Butz. The characters do consume alcohol and sleep together, but the latter is entirely offstage.
However, contrary to Latorre’s statement, Avenue Q is not the real world. The puppets should be a tip-off. It’s about how young people adjust to the real world. It’s about growing up. Also, by saying she wanted the production to fill the auditorium, was she making a judgment about how well a show would sell, as opposed to its value to the students? The motivations seem muddled.
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In the school edition of Avenue Q, Rod remains a closeted gay puppet, and the terms “gay,” “queer” and “homosexual” remain part of the script. Certainly none of those latter terms should be considered as in any way offensive in this day and age, unless deployed somehow as epithets. In No Exit, one of the four characters is a lesbian, though that word doesn’t appear in the text (at least in 1946 Stuart Gilbert translation consulted for this article). In examining the fates of both the Clovis and Danville productions, it’s hard not to notice that both of these canceled shows contain gay characters – even though the statement from CUSD assured the public that “LGBT or Q” characters had been portrayed in the past on their stage. The Bear Stage No Exit included cross gender casting, with a female student in a role written as a man; that student self-identified as being part of the LGBTQ community.
Another similarity between the two cases is the rhetoric used for justifying the termination of the shows. In Danville, the superintendent said, “I just don’t think it’s something our little ones should attend.” In Clovis, the spokesperson gave the rationale that, “Being a K-12 institution, the expectation of our drama programs is that every production they do is to be age-appropriate content.”
In the latter case, the reasoning is obfuscation, since most public school districts cover both elementary and secondary education. But Buchanan High School is for grades 9-12, with students of an age where the school edition of Avenue Q is equivalent to network TV comedies and PG or PG-13 movies. It is not a frontier schoolhouse with a single classroom that teaches students of all ages.
The invocation of little ones and kindergartners reveals an all too common rationale: that high school theatre must be entirely family friendly, that it must remain benign and inoffensive in order to serve as a community relations, rather than an educational tool for the students participating. The idea that high school presentations should be acceptable for primary schoolers is infantilizing.
As it happens, it’s very likely that young children might miss the residual innuendo in the school edition of Avenue Q. They surely wouldn’t even understand the implications of No Exit, and indeed might be bored by it. But those shouldn’t be reasons for denying students in their mid-teens the opportunity to work on popular, current work (even in a tamed form) or intellectually rigorous pieces that they may well be studying in their classrooms if they are engaged and excited by them. That Clovis requires parental consent for advanced placement students to study No Exit is evidence of how risk averse schools have become. That same overcaution is demonstrated by the fact that the school board in Danville had to vote to approve of James and the Giant Peach.
There’s no question that the discipline, commitment, teamwork and talent required for theatre is at the core of every production, regardless of the content of the work. But walling off a vast amounts of the repertoire from high school theatre in order to avoid any thorny issues or marginally strong language, lest absolutely anyone object, serves to erase any intellectual rigor from the students’ experience, whether curricular or extracurricular.
In addition, making the choice of school plays subject to the approval of superintendents and school boards will likely serve to insure that only the safest, middle of the road shows can be done, denying drama teachers and their immediate supervisors the right to make decisions best suited for their students, who are certainly not children and may well flourish even more fully when facing a challenge. But that challenge should come from the material they are allowed to enact, not from arbiters who, under the guise of protecting students and appealing to the most people possible, deny student opportunity in order to protect themselves.