High School Culture Wars

Kevin M. Mitchell • Training • October 1, 2014

North Farmington Hills production of the musical Carrie had buckets of blood, but it focused more on the social and emotional affects of bullying, as opposed to being a gorefest.

North Farmington Hills production of the musical Carrie had buckets of blood, but it focused more on the social and emotional affects of bullying, as opposed to being a gorefest.

How three schools dealt with administrators stepping in to halt productions

The show must go on? When high school administrators and school board members don’t like the theatre director’s choice … maybe not. 

When a high school production gets cancelled, or is under threat to be, there are two for-sures: the teachers and students are shocked and surprised; and the action tends to draw media attention. SD spoke with three high school theatre directors in such a situation, and while they had three different outcomes, there are common threads to their experience: they all came out of the controversy stronger, wiser and proven correct that talented kids can handle mature, challenging material.

Carrie at North Farmington Hills High School, Mich.

“Ours was a compelling story, complete with controversy, which ended with our most successful production ever,” says Dean Cobb. Dean, who with his wife, Sue, has a long rich history of successful shows in North Farmington Hills, a suburb of Detroit. They chose to put on the musical Carrie this spring, thinking little about it beyond their excitement of being the first high school in the Midwest to put on this new work. 

“We felt that the show was written wonderfully, and would be good for our kids to do,” Sue said. The musical differs quite a bit from the gore-fest movie, and is more about the effects of bullying than the supernatural. “By the time they see Carrie so pleased to be at the prom, followed by the way she is treated, they are feeling awful for her. Audience members were crying.”

But it almost didn’t happen. As work on the show started production, the Cobbs heard “smatterings” of concerns, and immediately let it be known they would meet with anyone who wanted to talk about it. The heat escalated when a small group of parents from the school district went to school board meetings and voiced their disapproval, pointing to some lyrics that were sexual (“getting laid”) and light drug references (“weed”). Dean rebutted their concerns at one school board meeting. “In my two minutes, I spoke about the last song (“What Does It Cost to Be Kind”) and mentioned some important thematic aspects of the show. I did say we’d never ‘make’ a kid say anything he or she was uncomfortable saying … though I’d never change the words, just give that [offending] line to another student.”

They left that board meeting not only wondering if the show would go on but if it was worth fighting for. They had their answer when the drama group got together and they voted to keep going with the production. It ended in an emotional, applause-filled meeting. “When they decided that they weren’t going to shut it down, it was one of the neatest moments of my career,” Dean says.

The story was picked up local TV stations and newspapers from San Francisco to Miami. In the media onslaught, the Cobbs got concerned when reporters were calling kids in the cast directly. “We told the parents that unless the kids are 18, direct those calls to us.”

Meanwhile, to keep the production on track, the kids stepped into the fray. They grabbed onto the lyric phrase, “What does it cost to be kind?” and put it on wristbands. It became a rallying cry and that, with the Cobbs continuing to meeting with anyone with any concerns, kept the production on track.

“We don’t do a show unless kids can learn something from it,” Dean says, an educator for four decades. “We’re proud that North Farmington has taken the big steps to prevent bullying in the school. This production made everyone more award of the ramifications of bullying.”

“We feel that Carrie has its place in high school, and could be a viable addition to any high school theatre season,” adds Sue.

 “You may have some bumps along the way, but the message at the end is so dramatic and compelling that we believe it’s worthwhile,” finishes Dean. 

Ed Bartow and Pauline Weah in the Ottumwa High School production of The Laramie Project

Ed Bartow and Pauline Weah in the Ottumwa High School production of The Laramie Project

The Laramie Project at Ottumwa High School, Iowa

Natalie Saunders was stunned when she got the word that Ottumwa High School Principal Mark Hanson cancelled her planned production of The Laramie Project because he said it was “too adult.” That decision was supported by Superintendent Davis Eidahl, who is on record as saying he wanted “the focus of our Ottumwa High School productions to be for the entire family.” 

Saunders, a drama teacher, has taught there for 15 years and had put on plenty of challenging productions, all with nary an eyebrow raised. 

“I just think people [who objected] didn’t know what the play was about—maybe they thought there’d be ‘gay kissing’ or contain a graphic [murder] scene.”

Saunders says she typically announces the next school year’s productions at the end of the previous one. In October, she started preparing for auditions, when the new principal got wind of it and expressed concern. Soon after that, he told her it was cancelled.

At the time this controversy erupted, Saunders happened to have been recently put in charge of the Iowa High School Speech Coaches Convention, and was traveling a lot. She looked to friend and technical director Dale Bonner, and the two quickly formed their own theatre company so the production could go forward off campus. The production included high school students but also local adults from the community theatre community.

“It is just funny to think about how we turned the school saying ‘no’ into a positive,” she says. “I was disappointed I couldn’t do it at my own school, but the recognition has been great. And we now have more people going to school board meetings now!”

Despite all the media attention (The Matthew Sheppard Foundation got involved too) and passage of time, Saunders says she still doesn’t know the exact details of how the play came to be controversial. “I wasn’t initially given a reason,” she says of the cancellation. No one came to her with script in hand pointing to specific scenes or dialog that were objectionable. Also as far as she can tell, not a single parent objected, certainly none of the drama club. “Everything [negative] I got was from the administration—nothing from my kids, or their parents. And I don’t know if anyone on the board ever read the script or not.”

After the production, she had more than one parent come up to her and say, “Wow—this should have been done at the school.” 

She now has to fill out a form of what her school year’s productions will be.

The Trumbull High School company of RENT in “La Vie Bohème. “

The Trumbull High School company of RENT in “La Vie Bohème. “

Rent at Trumbull High School, Conn. 

English/Drama Teacher Jessica Spillane was entering her 16th year of directing productions for Trumbull when she looked into putting on the “school edition” of Rent. That someone would question if it were appropriate was not something she ever considered as a possibility. But then came the end of October—a month away from auditions. That’s when the principal, Marc Guarino, who was new to the school, first expressed concerns. “I provided information about the show, a copy of the script, and all work we had done relating to our vision of the production,” Spillane says (math teacher Shannon Bolan was the producer). Two weeks later Guarino put the production on hold indefinitely, saying that the material was too controversial and sensitive.

The language in the school version of Rent is considerably toned down, so that wasn’t the issue—but the themes of drug use, AIDS and homosexual relationships are maintained. Since drugs and AIDS are routinely addressed in the school’s ninth grade health class Spillane wondered if it was the homosexual relationships that were causing concern. 

Spillane called a drama club meeting with Guarino, and they announced the show was not going on. The students were stunned and emotional. The meeting stretched to two hours as the students tried to understand. And “when the meeting was over, the students weren’t ready to let it go,” Spillane says. 

It could be a legitimate concern that student playing one of the gay characters in the play could be bullied—but not by someone more familiar with the maturity of the students (there’s a Gay/Straight Student Alliance on campus) or the accepting nature of the community. In fact, news of the show’s cancellation did not fit well with the community who did not like being portrayed as narrow-minded. 

Then there was Larissa Mark. Mark, a senior, was president of the school’s Thespian Society at the time, and was assistant director/stage manager for the production. She became the de-facto leader, and made the concerted effort to make voices heard. (She would receive the first ever DLDF Defender Award from the Dramatists Legal Defense Fund for her efforts.) 

Mark’s “Rent-bellion” to reverse that decision gained support of fellow students, parents, town officials and national organizations. “There was no drama or temper-tantrums,” Spillane says. “Everything was organized, calm and respectful as she made a concerted effort to make [the kids’] voices heard.” Soon Mark was being interviewed in print and television media, including the New York Times. “In all those conversations she was respectful and credible. She’s an amazing kid, and all the other students were at her side equally respectfully. It never descended into being an angry mob.”

Guarino relented and the production went on, though it was up in January instead of the originally planned December.

“The production turned out great,” Spillane says. And there was certainly an upside to the publicity: Family members and friends of Rent composer Jonathan Larson came out to see it, as did Howard Sherman, former executive director of the American Theatre Wing and a staunch anti-censorship advocate.

Spillane’s take-away? “It definitely made me realize that administrations need to have an understanding of the objectives of a theatre program,” she says. 

Who Is This For?

In all three situations, the student’s emotional bond with each other was made stronger by the controversy. “These kids did not want to leave each other,” Sue Cobb said. “I’ve never felt so close to another cast.”

Also in all three situations, the critics said, “but what about the younger children who typically come to our productions?” Spillane sums up her response for the directors: “Who are we really doing this for? Those who come see the show or the kids involved with the production? The kids come first and the audience comes after, because it’s about the learning experience. Challenging material offers amazing rewards for the students.”

Saunder’s agrees: “It’s not just our purpose to entertain the community—my job is to educate the kids. The audience is a bonus.” And she finishes with one last piece of advice for people considering “edgy” works. 

“Based on the length of time I’ve been a director and the high quality reputation we have for productions, and some of the other ‘edgy’ productions we have done, I wasn’t expecting a ‘hey you can’t do that,’” Saunders says. “So just make sure as a director you have a strong rationale for what you’re doing, and be ready to fight for it.” 

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