The shutting down of a high school play at East Newton High School in Granby, Missouri last week may have set a new low in bad timing for such incidents. The show was not canceled after casting, during rehearsals, just prior to opening night or following the first performance. No, at East Newton the show was canceled roughly 10 minutes into the second act on its first night. Why? Because two parents, watching the show, demanded that their child be pulled off the stage.
The reasoning? As one of the parents claimed on Facebook, “The play consisted of extreme amounts of cursing, drug use and sexually explicit content. There was language speaking about dildos, pornography, virgins and cherry popping. A student flipped off a teacher.”
With the cast member taken from the stage, a hasty explanation of the remainder of the show was offered. The school would not permit the show to have its second performance, even if a replacement actor had been found in time.
What was the show with this offensive content? A stage adaptation of the widely-loved John Hughes coming of age film The Breakfast Club, released 32 years ago. But therein lies another problem, namely that there is no authorized stage adaptation of The Breakfast Club. The production at East Newton was a wholly homegrown affair, save for the source material itself.
It’s impossible, unless one saw the truncated performance or was involved in the production, to debate whether the material was or was not appropriate for high school production. To what degree the words or actions on the East Newton stage were simply transcribed from the screenplay and copied from the film, or were altered, amended, edited and so on, may never be widely known. The film itself was one of only two of the “golden era” John Hughes to be rated R by the MPAA (the other being Trains, Planes and Automobiles).
The drama teacher, new to the school this year, told Arts Integrity that, regarding authorship, “A local teacher edited the show.” He also acknowledged the lack of rights, writing, “We were unable to obtain rights, the show has never been released as a play. I did a lot of research and found that there is no one to obtain the rights [from]. So we did some creative donation to make it closer to legal.” Asked to explain what “creative donation” meant, he replied, “We weren’t really charging admission. We put out a suggested donation to the drama club.”
As is often the case when shows are shut down by school officials, a campaign to get it restored began quickly, with a former drama club president, now a college student, leading the charge. He rallied support on social media, instigated a lengthy Facebook chain, coined the hashtag #LetThemPlay and even shared a tweet from the school superintendent showing a senior citizen audience attending what apparently was an extra performance or dress rehearsal. He noted that there were no red flags raised about the show’s content then, only when the parents complained – and cited the fact, corroborated by the drama teacher, that all of the students involved in the show had been required to get written permission to participate in the show from their parents in advance.
Another teacher at the school posted to Facebook that she was responsible for the adaptation. She wrote on Facebook about the school principal seeing part of a performance, or possibly a rehearsal, two evenings prior to the suddenly shortened one, noting that while that presentation was also cut short, in that case by a tornado alert, the principal recommended cuts to the text in order to address content issues, which were willingly implemented.
The situation generated coverage in the local media, but as of now, there are no plans for additional performances of The Breakfast Club on or off the East Newton campus. It leaves one sympathetic to the students and even their supporters, because they were denied the opportunity to see their work come to fruition. The principal commented to the local press that with additional changes, the show might yet be brought back. But continuing on with the show would sustain the copyright violation. This is an unwinnable scenario.
The lesson here is one of failed communication all around. It’s possible to applaud the school administration for the initial impulse to trust and work with the drama teacher and his wife to come up with a good show for the students, however all of those parties failed to understand the basics of copyright and licensing, since no script was available. That shouldn’t be taken as permission to go ahead and cobble together your own adaptation, but rather to either create a wholly original work, or to legally license preexisting material. The fact that a Hollywood movie company is unlikely to discover a scofflaw adaptation in a small town (and indeed, several other “original” stage adaptations of The Breakfast Club can be found via a careful Google search) makes no difference. Neither does asking for a donation instead of charging a set admission. What happened in Granby absolutely qualifies as public performance of dramatic material.
That parents apparently signed a permission slip approving their child’s participation in a school show and then rescinded that permission mid-performance suggests that either the form didn’t indicate why permission was being sought or that the parents weren’t paying sufficient attention to that information. While it’s impossible to assess from afar how school appropriate (or not) the play was, these parents had to know that by removing their child mid-show, they were effectively ending the evening for all concerned, cast, crew and audience alike. The school’s rapid decision not to allow the second performance served to back the parents’ assessment.
There are multiple adults who shoulder blame for what happened at East Newton. In recounting this situation, names have been omitted, since everyone here has lost out in one way or another. There’s no need to provide an easy route for shaming any of the parties –though the former drama club president’s efforts were admirable, if underinformed about the full scope of the issues at hand. Local news accounts can be found for those eager to push into the details or to verify this account.
It seems more important that all of the parties involved walk away with some lessons for the future. Teachers and administrators need to learn what is and is not permitted with regarding adapting existing works or licensing scripts for performance, and they should share that understanding of responsibility with their students. That this teacher-adapted version of a screenplay was willingly adjusted according to administration requests shouldn’t in any way suggest that existing, properly licensed scripts can be edited at will by those in authority. Permission slips should make clear their purpose when utilized, to insure parents understand what they’re approving for their children, to avoid even later than eleventh hour reversals. Parents should understand how their actions for their children can have a domino effect on many other students, and consider how it affects everyone in that moment, not solely what it means to them and their child.
Finally, this should also not be an excuse to suspend or terminate the drama program at East Newton, or to subject it to undue ongoing scrutiny beyond that appropriate for any school activity, but rather prompt all concerned to make it stronger and indeed to hopefully present material that is something more than G rated. After all of the attention this generated locally, the East Newton Drama Club should be allowed to build on that awareness it in the future, all concerned should do better next time, and East Newton students should be assured they can appear in shows that speak to their own experiences, perform shows in their entirety, and bask in applause when it’s all said and done.
As for The Breakfast Club? The Blu-Ray can be purchased for under $7 online.