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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 10/28/2009

Should student drama productions be restricted to PG themes?

By Valerie Strauss

You would think people have better things to fight about, but across the nation people are arguing--and even going to court--over high school plays. Yes, the drama productions that high school kids stage for other high school kids.

The latest instance occurred this week at Churchill High School in Potomac, Md., when administrators abruptly cancelled a production of “Chicago” three weeks before it was to be staged because it is too racy, my colleague Nelson Hernandez reported.

Never mind that these same officials had approved the production last spring when students first asked permission.

And never mind that the play is decades old and was turned into an Academy Award-winning movie, making it impossible for anybody at the school to claim they didn’t know it was about murder and sex and other themes, that, come to think of it, run through Shakespeare’s plays too.

But I digress.

Back at the school, someone got nervous and recently presented the students with a series of changes and cuts to the script to make it more appropriate for a teen audience.

Here’s an example: the word “copulated” was changed to “be together.”

You can’t make up this stuff.

The play’s publisher apparently denied the school the right to stage the play after hearing about the changes, although I wonder how the publisher learned about them.

THEN the principal cancelled the play entirely on Monday, only to reverse herself yesterday following parent and student protests.

Sanity was restored.

But not in Las Vegas.

In that great city of virtue, parents went to court earlier this month to stop Green Valley High School from allowing students to put on two plays--“The Laramie Project” and “Rent.”

The first is a play about the beating death of a gay man, and the second, a Pulitzer Prize-winning work with gay and sexual themes--both of which are too provocative for high school students, the suit says.

“Rent’s” gay themes caused controversy earlier this year at a school in Newport Beach, Ca. And on and on.

I understand that some people are offended by certain subjects and would rather not have to see a play about them.

I never find anything about Adolph Hitler funny and therefore am not enamored with the wildly popular play “The Producers,” which, by the way, caused a stir among some parents at Georgetown Day School in Washington but was allowed to be staged, and, I’m told, was fabulous.

But I wouldn’t try to tell a bunch of kids that they shouldn’t perform it in high school when they are of an age where they are confronting these controversial subjects in their daily lives.

Kids younger than high school students hear far more racy stuff than this--with no literary value--on television and radio, in the movies, and on the Internet. Has anyone ever seen the way teens dance? It’s like a big public sex act.

The point is not that I think they should dance that way; it is, rather, that adults who think they are protecting children are delusional. And no matter how much the Supreme Court limits the rights of student speech in school, I think this kind of censorship is an assault on free speech (which, you probably know, is important to journalists).

Finally, there just has to be more important things for adults to argue over about our nation’s schools than what play students produce.

What restrictions would you put on high school productions?

By Valerie Strauss  | October 28, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Arts Education, High School  | Tags:  censorship, high school plays  
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I love this article. Yes! We are delusional. We really think we're protecting our kids. Parents and administration people just roll over for a few people who are in essence bullies. Great job.

Posted by: sctshep | October 28, 2009 7:10 PM | Report abuse

Making a PG rating will not stop the censorship. I teach English in Maryland Public Schools and have seen outrageous micro-mamagement by lawsuit leery principals everywhere I've taught.

We once had a principal edit the dialogue of Peter Pan. I don't remember what part of the play it's in exactly, but there's a point where Peter calls someone a Jackass. Our principal insisted that the wording be changed to donkey. I jokingly suggested to him that we may want to consider changing Peter's name, too as it is suggestive of something phalic. He looked at me for a moment as if seriously considering the idea.

Our school then did a production of Les Mis that was approved by the administration in advance. One of the actors, who happened to be from a strict Catholic family, failed to inform his parents of the content of the play. His father, upon seeing the play pulled him from the play the next day and demanded that the principal cancel the play outright.

To his credit, the principal did not cancel the play, but did run a disclaimer in the local newspaper and put signs in the lobby warning that the production may not be good for younger audiences.

Les Mis! Protested by Catholics! I used the events as way to teach irony to my students the next day. Oh, that and the fact that the same parent wanted to ban Farenheit 451.

The problem is not administrators, really. It's the fear that overzealous, helicoptering parents have inspired in administrators. It only takes one phone call to the central office to endanger a principal's upward mobility. It only takes one lawsuit to end it entirely.

So, please, if you're a parent that wants your child to read challenging, thought provoking literature or actually be involved the production of artistically engaging theatre, let your local boards of education hear you! Principals and Superintendents need you to be just as vocal and demanding as the narrow-minded folks who want to censor reality.

Please don't misunderstand me, if you have a problem with your child seeing or performing in any play, be it Peter pan or the Producers, by all means don't let them try out or pay to go to the show. If you want your child not to have to think about real issues that will challenge his/her moral compass, so be it.

My guess is that at some point the kids will do that on their own anyway.

Interestingly, the young man whose dad yanked him from Les Mis went on to the Air Force Academy where he was later expelled for revealing that he is gay. I guess irony can be pretty ironic sometimes.

Posted by: LarryBud | October 29, 2009 8:27 AM | Report abuse


You took the words right out of my mouth! When I was in high school, a group with no affliations with the school and no kids, tried to ban the reading of Farenheit 451. Really? Our fabulous teacher used their fliers as worksheets along with the readings we did, and then sent them back to the group with our 9th grade analysis of the dire warnings versus the book.

Posted by: Sara | October 29, 2009 9:33 AM | Report abuse

Valerie, to be this vitriolic and biased about when and how parents become involved in their children's lives seems overboard. You claim that adults should have other things to argue about. What is more important than being concerned about, and exerting influence over, the minds and hearts of our children, our teenagers?

Posted by: Zoe3 | October 29, 2009 9:34 AM | Report abuse

I remember when the school would send home a permission slip for my parents signature when they wanted something...

How hard is it to have them do it for potentially "racy" productions? First and foremost, parents SHOULD BE NOTIFIED BEFORE IT HAPPENS. Secondly, they should give permission.

Leaving it up to the school or school board is just yet another decision being taken away from the parents and given to liberal bureaucrats.

Posted by: ProveMeWrong | October 29, 2009 11:38 AM | Report abuse

When I was in high school, they couldn't show Medea (had to opt for something bland & yet somehow more "crowd pleasing" instead).

The drama coach had this discussion with parents many times; he felt they were out of touch with what their kids already knew and with how their kids could grow with more challenging subject matter. He was probably one of the better drama coaches anyone could ask for but he changed professions after 10 or 15 years because of this.

Posted by: sarahabc | October 29, 2009 11:42 AM | Report abuse

Having taught high school theatre for almost 20 years, I can only say that there is always a danger from uninformed zealots of all stripes. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is particularly fun. Left: Religion in school. Right: Blasphemy. I was usually fortunate enough to have a supportive administration, but one of my shows was canceled. The complaint on that one came from Congressman Wolfe's office. It certainly made me regret having voted for him.

Bottom line: You can't create true art without offending someone. True art moves the spirit and affects the audience. Inevitably, some will be affected by being offended. Those of my productions, which I deemed the most effective, which received the most effusive praise and accolades, were also the ones which drew the most disapprobation and complaints. The audiences were truly affected. Thank heavens!

Posted by: theatrebob | October 29, 2009 3:14 PM | Report abuse

Schools cannot and should not request parental permission for everything. School boards may be elected, but public schools are nonetheless not democracies, their every decision subject to the whim of angry and offended helicopter parents.

No wonder our kids get such poor educations; they must be bored to death by the bland pap that is the end result of filtering everything through the censorship of a few but vociferous parents.

Posted by: exerda | October 29, 2009 3:56 PM | Report abuse

A long time ago in a high school not too far away I got a part in the musical "Sweet Charity". This was 1972 and more than a few parents had issues with their daughters dressing up as harlots and performing the many suggestive dance scenes. But back then overreaching was easy to spot and the play went on to become a big hit. But what suprised me as a student on stage trying to remember my lines was what was going on backstage where a single room was used for costume changes, for everyone. That should have been what the parents cared more about as we all showed each other what we had while rushing to get into the next costume.

Later that year a student wanted to sponsor the American Nazi Party to come and give a talk. I swear! And it was approved to many a parent's shock. The sponsoring student said if you want to understand why there is an American nazi party we can only show people what they are, that there was no other way to explain it. He was jewish to boot.

So these goons in brown shirts show up acting the part and a nice looking guy stood at the podium in a suit. He then started to explain why Hitler was misunderstood, the races needed to be kept separate, etc. There were many chuckles coming from our 99.9% white school students. Then there was a question-answer session. Our token black kid kept putting up his hand but was not called on by the nazi. Finally a white kid put up his hand, was called on, then said please answer this kid's question, pointing to the black kid. His question was simple: "If you can't stand America as it is why don't you find an isolated part of America and move there?" The cheers were deafening and never stopped, forcing the Nazis to pack it in and leave.

I learned a lot that day about what kids can handle and why parents should stop worrying about how they raised their high school kids. Certainly worry about drugs, drinking, sex, etc, the stuff we know is a problem, but it will not be a high school play that sends them off on the wrong track in life.

Posted by: Fate1 | October 29, 2009 4:24 PM | Report abuse

I suppose that the bottom line in deciding what to perform is manifold. Two questions come to my mind: Does the piece showcase as much student talent as possible? Is the content of educational value at any level? The "canon" of musical theater is rich and decicidedly worthy of study for students in the dramatic arts. From the complexity of "Richard III" to the nonsense of "Seussical," challenging and diverse roles promise to enhance students' thespian caches. Thematically, largesse is best, extending depth and range of emotion as well as critical thinking and analysis of life at its best and worst--such is the stuff of drama.

To condemn a production from a moral soapbox? The Inquisition hampered many an innovative and artistic pursuit. The consideration, then, is not about language nor lewdity--need I remind that families routinely endure prime time ads about "male enhancement" or Bob Dole's erectile dysfunction? YUK!

"Chicago" needs be scrutinized as to whether or not it offers an adequate range of roles, both male and female, and whether or not it serves a worthy educational purpose in light of the plethora of productions available.

Posted by: valmain1 | October 29, 2009 7:00 PM | Report abuse

I think it's all right for parents to use their discretion and to teach their children to do the same.

Posted by: RossEmery | October 29, 2009 9:35 PM | Report abuse

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