With the school year starting, a slate of plays are slated for production and with them the inevitable controversies around production will emerge. We’re not just talking about the drama of auditions, casting, and the rehearsal process. Rather, the shows themselves can lend themselves to controversy when put on children ages 13-18. The traditional model of propriety for theatre endeavors in middle and high school has to do with plausible deniability. I believe that it’s time to rethink the ways in which we choose and/or censor school theatre.
One of the most ubiquitous titles in high school theatre is Grease. It has been performed so often, that many might consider it to be a piece of Americana or a rite of passage for young performers. I have long railed against this association and yet it persists. This show, while admittedly fun and high-spirited with catchy songs and group numbers, sends all of the wrong messages to young performers and to young audience; it preaches conformity and lack of ambition beyond the endgame of “snagging a man.” It is certainly within the realm of belief to assume that Danny and Sandy, the leads of the musical, will end up as Brenda and Eddie from Billy Joel’s narrative song “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.”
Oklahoma!, a similarly popular musical, is also often performed by educational theatre programs without much thought to some implied and explicit content. The antagonist, Jud, is mistreated and maligned for behaviors regularly exhibited by the protagonist, Curly, and the comedic relief, Will Parker. The last act of the musical (spoilers) concludes with Curly killing Jud and being acquitted by an impromptu court in order that he might ride off into the sunset with his new bride. Jud’s behavior, while reprehensible, is not grounds for his murder and the lack of consequences for Curly makes a pretty strong statement. There’s also the problem of Ali Hakim, the only character of color coming off as a lecherous older man.
However, we are often not encouraged to think about these things within the context of youth theatre. This is why the seemingly most important criteria for censorship center on surface issues such as profanity and sexual language or situations.
Take two musicals about high school students: Grease and Spring Awakening. The former certainly has less explicit language and less superficially objectionable content. Spring Awakening, however, is often produced with nudity and graphic sexuality. However, the messages a performer takes away from Grease are terrible compared to what would be gleaned from a production of Spring Awakening. The latter musical provides its audience a cautionary tale of the consequences of imposed ignorance and conformity on a group of teenagers. In fact, one might consider Spring Awakening to be the anti-Grease.
That won’t stop administrations from censoring the musical or others that present issues that affect adolescents and their communities. I personally have fought censorship decisions on plays from Brighton Beach Memoirs to The Crucible and Animal Farm. Brighton Beach Memoirs includes a discussion about masturbation between two brothers. The latter two were deemed too politically provocative even though they were taught as literature in the respective schools’ English programs.
It is as if the performance itself somehow manifests these issues and gives them life, when the opposite is true. Brighton Beach Memoirs does not make adolescents masturbate any more than The Crucible turns them into witches or Animal Farm makes them Stalinist pigs. If we continue to enforce a taboo on these issues in an educational context, we will reinforce a notion that they are verboten and send youth to far less reliable and regulated resources for their information.
Educational theatre can provide a powerful starting point for dialogue within an institution and its constituent community. Instead, the norm is to insist on a false sense of normality and/or to engage student in irrelevant performative endeavors. How many of us have sat through productions of students playing middle aged characters in dramatic conflict that is superficially appropriate, but completely ungermane to the lives and worldview of the young actors?
There are other ways in which an educational institution can find compromise between student needs and audience expectations. Some of the rights-granting organizations such as Musical Theatre International (MTI) have worked with authors to create editions of their work that are more appropriate for middle and high school. In the former case, there are “Junior” versions of certain shows with materials designed to make production easier and the show itself shorter so that a school group can tackle it handily.
There are also “school editions,” which are more closely associated with high school productions and serves several purposes; to shorten some shows, as is the case with Les Miserables School Edition, to make them more appropriate to a given audience such as for Avenue Q School Edition, and to put the music into keys better suited to adolescent voices. In these instances, the changes are made with authorial consent and are done with a level of expertise and skill. In some cases, such as Avenue Q School Edition and Rent School Edition, I am concerned that the level of changes necessary to make the shows “acceptable” would negate the impact of the work. In the case of Les Miserables School Edition and Sweeney Todd School Edition, I believe the changes have tightened the script and adjusted the music in such a way that the content and themes are still communicated. They may even be more powerful because the purpose of the changes has been to clarify the work.
It comes down to us to be advocates for the youth theatre in our communities. If there are issues of censorship or poor production choices being made, speak up and fight for the right of youth to confront issues that are important to them on stage. These issues might make adults uncomfortable, but that is better than allowing these problems to go undiscussed and undiagnosed, leading to more complicated and potentially catastrophic issues down the road.
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