“What’s the deal with all this high school theatre?”
That’s the kind of comment—spoken, written or tweeted—I’ve been getting regularly over the past four years since I began writing about instances of censorship of theatre in American high schools (and, on occasion, colleges). To be fair to those who may be skeptical about the extent of the problem, I myself have been surprised by the volume and variety of issues raised over the content of shows being done—and, in some cases, ultimately not being done—in school-sponsored theatre.
But between writing about these incidents, and directly involving myself as an advocate in some of them, I’ve come to believe that what’s taking place in our high schools and on our campuses has a very direct connection to what is happening (and will be happening) on professional stages.
So here are nine common questions that have arisen as my advocacy has increased, and some answers—although, as every attempt at censorship is different, there aren’t any absolute answers.
1. Why is there so much more censorship of high school theatre these days? There’s no quantitative study that indicates the policing of what’s performed is any greater than it was 10, 25 or 50 years ago. Everything is anecdotal. But the Internet has made it easier for reports to spread beyond individual communities and for news-aggregation sites uncover and accelerate the dissemination of such stories. It only takes one report in a small-town paper these days to bring an incident to national attention; that was a rarity in the print-only era.
2. Isn’t this just a reflection of our polarized national politics?
School theatre censorship doesn’t necessarily follow the red state/blue state binary division, because the impulse can arise from any constituency. While efforts to quash depictions of LGBTQ life—as with Almost, Maine in Maiden, N.C., or Spamalot in South Williamsport, Pa.—may be coming from political constituencies galvanized against the spread of marriage equality, or from certain faith communities which share that opposition, that’s hardly the only source. Opposition to Sweeney Todd, both muted (in Orange, Conn.) and explicit (in Plaistow, N.H.) was driven by concern about the portrayal of violence in an era of school shootings and rising suicide rates, while Joe Turner’s Come and Gone was challenged by a black superintendent over August Wilson’s use of the “n-word.”
3. What’s the real impact of school theatre on the professional community?
The Broadway League pegs attendance at Broadway’s 40 theatres in the neighborhood of 13 million admissions a year and touring shows at 14 million a year. TCG’s Theatre Facts reports resident and touring attendance of 11 million. That totals a professional universe of 38 million admissions.
Based on figures provided to me by half a dozen licensing houses, there are at minimum 37,500 shows done in high school theatres annually, and conservatively guesstimating three performances of each in 600 seat theatres at 75-percent capacity, that’s more than 50 million attendees. In both samples, the numbers don’t represent the total activity, but high school theatre’s audience impact is undeniable, both as a revenue stream for authors and as a means of reaching audiences who might not see any other theatre at all.
4. Does it really matter what shows kids get to do in high school?
While there are valuable aspects to making theatre that apply no matter what the play choice may be, many schools view their productions as community relations, frequently citing that they want to appeal to audiences “from 8 to 80.” While the vast majority of students in the shows, and their friends who come to see them, will never become arts professionals, they are the potential next generation of audiences and donors for professional companies. If they are raised on a diet of Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz (both currently very popular in the high school repertoire), how can we expect more challenging work , new work, or socially conscious work to sustain itself 20 years on?
5. Are school administrators fostering an environment in which censorship flourishes?
I’m unwilling to accept the idea that our schools are run by people who fundamentally want to limit what students can learn—or perform. But they are operating within a political structure topped by an elected board of education, and can be subject to political pressure that often makes the path of least resistance—altering text or changing a selected show, in most cases—the expedient way to go. Unless an administrator (or a teacher, for that matter) is independently wealthy, they can’t necessarily afford to risk their job fighting for the school play that may have challenging content. That said, students at Newman University rebelled against administration-dictated text changes, reverting to the script as written for the latter two of their four performances of Legally Blonde in November.
6. Isn’t this a free speech issue?
In a word, no. Schools have the right and responsibility to determine what is appropriate activity and speech under their control, and just because students are exposed to all manner of content in the media and even in their day-to-day lives doesn’t mean that schools can or must permit it, either in classrooms or performance. That The Crucible is in countless high school curriculums does not necessarily prevent it from being censored as a performance piece, despite the seeming double standard.
The same stringent oversight that affects school theatre is also often directed at school newspapers and media. However, while some school systems attempt to control all student speech, it is a First Amendment violation to infringe on student speech to the media about their dissatisfaction with the actions of a school, including censorship. Drama teachers, who are best equipped to make the cases for the shows they choose, are usually prevented from doing so by employment agreements which prohibit them from discussing school matters without the express approval of the administration, typically the superintendent.
7. Don’t shows get edited all the time in schools for content?
In all likelihood, shows are constantly being nipped and tucked by teachers and administrators to conform to their perception of “community standards,” whether it’s the occasional profanity or entire songs. But that doesn’t make it right, and it is censorship. Aside from violating copyright laws and the licensing contracts signed for the right to the show, it sets a terrible example for students by suggesting that authors’ work can be altered at will, undermining the rights of the artists who created the work.
Some writers and composers have authorized school editions or junior versions of their shows for the school market to recognize frequent concerns and to keep from denying students the opportunity to explore their shows. But the rights must lie with the authors, not each and every school. If that isn’t made clear early on, how can we expect to fight censorship anywhere?
8. When a show is canceled and then successfully restored through a public campaign, is that winning the battle and then losing the war?
That’s a genuine concern of mine—that once there’s a public battle over theatrical content, the school will thereafter clamp down even harder and apply greater scrutiny forever after to drama programs, academic or extracurricular. At the Educational Theatre Association’s national conference this past summer, one attendee asked the others if there were shows that they believed would be great for their students but which they couldn’t even raise as possibilities. Every single teacher in the room raised his or her hand. So the incidents that become public—ones in which a show is announced, then has approval rescinded—are the tip of the iceberg. Drama teachers and directors are already having their choices limited, often by self-censorship. There’s much more work to be done, but if blatant examples don’t come to light, it may never be possible to galvanize support for school theatre that challenges students to do great work and great works.
9. Can professional artists and companies make any difference when incidents of censorship arise?
Local theatres—professional, community and academic—make superb allies in fighting against censorship. Institutions and individuals within communities that are respected for their art occupy a position from which to speak out forcefully and effectively for school theatre programs. Whether it’s a nearby artistic director or a one-time resident who has gone on to a professional career, they bring a history and authority that will speak to both the local populace and the media. The vocal support of the Yale School of Drama and Yale Rep with the aforementioned Joe Turner, and of Goodspeed Musicals and Hartford Stage in the case of Rent in Trumbull, Conn., were key factors in the ultimately successful efforts toward restoring those shows to production.
In closing: The first time I inserted myself into a school theatre censorship debate in 2011, I assumed it was a one-off. I did not realize at the time that I had found a cause. Each time an incident comes to a conclusion, regardless of whether the outcome was, from my point of view, positive or negative, I think that surely the message is getting out there and this will be the last time. But then comes the phone call, the e-mail, the tweet, from someone I’ve never met and possibly never will, saying that a show is threatened or has just been shut down. And I begin my introductory speech, which is unfortunately well-honed at this point.
“This is no longer about education,” I say, “this is no longer about art. This is now a political campaign.” And off we go.
Howard Sherman is senior strategy consultant at the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts and was executive director of the American Theatre Wing and O’Neill Theatre Center. He is the U.S. correspondent for London’s The Stage.