Will It Sell?

by Howard Sherman

In the seven years since I, rather accidentally, began advocating on behalf of academic productions, at both the high school and college level, that have faced censorship, these four phrases above have been among those that recur with almost startling regularity. When these caveats are recounted to me, by educators and students who seek to fight against censorship, I do my best not to chuckle at these “greatest hits” in the censor’s repertoire, but I do make clear that this is hardly the first time I’ve heard such arguments. This was the case with August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone in Connecticut in 2011, with Sweeney Todd in New Hampshire in 2014, and with the musical Ragtime in New Jersey in 2017, to name but three examples.

There is another phrase that regularly crops up, but it is seemingly a less overt obstacle to those facing opposition to show choices for the first time.
“We don’t think it will sell, and you need to make your income budget.”

That’s the sort of phrase one might imagine hearing spoken at the professional level, at a company less attuned to art than to the box office. But it is another type of insidious objection meant to quash academic shows that are in some way perceived of as challenging, controversial, or adult. This is how teachers often come to understand that there are certain types of shows that they shouldn’t even propose, let alone actually produce.

“Will it sell?” plays upon the reality that academic theatre often does have to make income goals. A university drama production may need to generate income to underwrite some portion of the overall production budget, and that may rely on attracting audiences not just from the campus community but from the general public, especially when producing in a large space at a campus performing arts center, as opposed to a small studio space. In high schools, it is not uncommon to find that the drama productions have to be self-sustaining, with the entire budget coming from sponsorships, program ads, and, yes, ticket sales.

While I acknowledge the economic realities faced by all arts endeavors and by publicly funded school systems across all disciplines, the brandishing of ticket sales over educational experience strikes me as wrong-headed. That it can be used to exert control over the choices of shows or to rationalize the clearly prohibited tampering with scripts yields a situation which not only teaches the wrong lessons about the primacy of text and the protections of copyright, but condones unethical and even illegal acts. The unauthorized neutering of texts to meet some arbitrarily determined community standard is censorship.

To frame the conversation about how to make choices for academic productions, I first asked myself, and now often ask students, administrators and parents, what should be, in my estimation, an easily answered question: “Who is school theatre for?” While it is no longer surprising to me, most proceed to fumble for an answer.

Consequently, I suggest that school theatre is for, first and foremost, the students involved in a production, whether it be part of a curriculum or solely an extracurricular pursuit. Whether on stage or off, the focus must be on serving the growth and experiences of the students. Ideally, the audience in an educational setting should be secondary – and even then, it is the student audience that comes next, before all others. Relatives, parents of non-participating students, the public at large, even the creative expression of theatre faculty or outside professionals working on the shows – all should be subordinate to what best serves the students.

At times, this is met with the counter-argument: “Professional theatre has to be concerned with ticket sales, so they may as well start learning about it now.” ‘They’ in this case refers to the students.

As a former marketer, general manager, and executive director of producing theatres, I know perfectly well that ticket sales are an essential part of professional theatre. But I also know that in the best theatres, the most respected theatres, a central task on the administrative side is to find audiences and patrons who want to support quality work, artistically valuable work, and that the work shouldn’t be designed simply to cater to the broadest, most common denominator audience. Yes, some seasons may be balanced between the familiar and the new, the intellectually rigorous with the dazzlingly fun, but everyone in that situation is being paid to sustain a going concern, and devoting their full professional efforts towards sustaining diverse seasons, at institutional theatres at least, which make up the majority of new productions in the US each year.

The imaginative, experiential and educational lives of students simply cannot be proscribed by an essentially commercial imperative, lest their learnings be too narrow. At the same time, the implied threat of a financial shortfall cannot be used to limit the pedagogical scope of theatre educators and advisors. If academic theatre is perpetually neutered to avoid any possible complaint, and indeed whenever it is required to be largely or entirely self-funded, then education is compromised. Certainly at the college level, and even at the high school level, schools have the responsibility to afford their students an opportunity to engage with the breadth of the theatrical canon, not just reading the work in the relative “safety” of literature classes, but on their feet, in rehearsal and in actual production.

None of this is meant to suggest that there aren’t high school and college programs which provide the broadest and best experiences for their students; there are many and they are to be applauded. Rather this mini-manifesto is meant to serve as a tool for those educators who want to advocate for doing the very best by their theatrically minded students, but need a framework through which they and their allies can make the case for shows that aren't just topically safe and immediately familiar and popular.

As it happens, one school that was particularly successful in expanding the repertoire is Harry S. Truman High School in Levittown, Pennsylvania. As chronicled in the book Drama High by journalist Michael Sokolove, teacher Lou Volpe successfully built a drama program during his 45-year tenure that, in its final years, produced such works as Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s Good Boys and True and the musical Spring Awakening, both of which explore issues of sexuality. Far from being censured, Volpe was acclaimed and his traditions continues today. Beginning in March, a new television series, Rise, inspired by the Truman High drama program, will make its debut on NBC. Even fictionalized, the series may represent the highest profile public statement on how school drama can succeed both creatively and within its community with so-called challenging work.

Even if many, and in all likelihood, most, of the students who participate in high school and college theatre don’t pursue a career focused on the stage, they’ll have a grounding in a diverse repertoire, and have learned that theatre is not and never should be just comedies, the most iconic and familiar dramas, and light musicals. That will make them more educated people and ultimately better ticket buying audiences with the widest variety of tastes. And that’s essential to the future of theatre.