Ripped From The Headlines: Lessons you can learn from school shows in the news

March 27, 2013

I noticed a trend on my facebook feed from actors, and a little further googling revealed these 10 interesting news stories:

Surely there are lessons to be learned from these unfortunate situations:

March 1994, Middle School Production of Peter Pan Canceled citing its insensitivity to Native Americans

May 2005, Samuel French Shuts down an all-girl production of Grease

February 2008, 3 High School Productions of Rent canceled amid content concerns

July 2008, Wilmette Park production of Ragtime shut down over language and content concerns.

March 2011 High School Production of Tommy canceled because production couldn’t get it together on schedule

September 2011 PA High School production of Kismet canceled over middle eastern themes and muslim characters

October 2012 Students lobby against school’s choice to Nix the musical Rent

December 2012, High School Drama instructor in Ohio forced to resign following controversy over canceled production of Legally Blonde

January 2013, Utah High School Cancels Production of All Shook Up because Elvis’s lyrics are too racy

February 2013, Black students protest a school production of the Wiz which has no African American Leads

March 2013, Protests in Connecticut over High School Sweeney Todd Production in aftermath of shootings

March 2013, Community Group discusses appropriateness of same production of Sweeney Todd in aftermath of shootings

March 2013, Student expelled from school after fight with director during production of Annie

March 2013, School production of Spring Awakening actually plans forums to discuss topics related to their production

Musicals are a strange cultural phenomenon. They are generally written for a savvy East Coast audience of jaded New Yorkers and out-of-town tourists, but after they close in New York, they take on another life out in the rest of the world, where they often meet a different set of performers and a very different audience. New Yorkers are not easily offended, but they are very easily bored. The rest of the country is often fairly easily offended and doesn’t particularly want to see their children acting out scenarios calculated to titillate an audience of bored Manhattan hipsters and New Jersey housewives.

The school musical is actually quite an old phenomenon, but when it began, it was quite different than it is today. If I’m not mistaken, the school musical was originally an operetta, sometimes G&S, but just as often some minor English or translated European operetta, in the old style, or something written specifically for educational performance. As such, these forerunners to the school musical of today were heavy on the music and light on the drama, and run by somebody in the music end of things. Today your school director is likely to come at it from the drama angle, is often an English or Social Studies teacher very familiar with cutting edge cultural ideas, who also feels the need to stay current by¬† programming shows which appeal to kids or have some kind of cultural currency; something which wasn’t on the radar of school directors a hundred years ago.

Shoe-horning these new, edgy shows into schools that lie on the fault lines of cultural clashes is a recipe for controversy and argument. For the directors and the students, defending the new shows is a matter of freedom of expression. Often the ideas in the show represent points of view and ways of looking at the world they care very deeply about. For more conservative parents, the rejection of these shows is an attempt to protect strongly held cultural values, to preserve as long as possible the innocence of their children, and in some cases to push back against what they see as a bulwark of immorality in the culture. The administration is caught in-between, having to answer to parents, teachers, students, and their superiors, and wanting to avoid being the subject of an unflattering news item.

For a nuanced perspective on the issue, I urge you to read this interesting exploration of some of the facets of this phenomenon from schooltheatre.org, an excellent resource for anyone who cares about educational theatre.

What’s clear in most of these cases is that communication, collaboration, support and trust have broken down or don’t exist between the administrators of these schools and the teachers who are running the productions and choosing the shows. I know of local school districts where the Musical gets the full support of the administration, who are aware that the creative staff plans to do challenging and potentially controversial material. The creative staff can count on that support. I also know of local districts where the superintendent and sometimes the principals do not even attend the school musicals of their award winning district. I also know of districts where the entire creative staff of the musical is composed of outside contractors who have no other contact with the school and are paid from a student activities budget. These people not only don’t have the true support of administrators, they haven’t even met any.

For Administrators there are lessons here:

1) Unless you implicitly trust your staff (and are willing to go to bat for their choices), better to be a part of the process in the beginning than to come in late in the game and play catch-up. If your staff asks you what you think about their choice of a show, do your homework, read the script and listen to the soundtrack. You owe that to them, to the students, and to the parents.

2) If you’re hiring outsiders who don’t normally work in your school, you must properly vet them. You don’t want shouters and screamers directing shows, and you ultimately want people involved who are invested in the lives of the kids and the life of the school. This is not just a matter of your basic criminal background check. It’s a matter of checking references and asking questions.

3) Your teachers know when you’ve got their backs and when you’re throwing them under the bus. This may seem to you like a very small part of the life of your school, or even a headache in your already overcrowded schedule, but for the people involved in the production it represents a colossal amount of work, and when an administrator is quick to take sides against them, it feels like a terrible betrayal.

4) For Pete’s sake take a night to go and see the production. Better yet, offer to say a few words of appreciation before or after the show. These are small things that make a huge difference and will help your credibility if you have to deliver hard news or have a difficult conversation.

For Directors and other people involved in school productions:

1) Know the culture of your community and your school and take that into account as you choose a show. Some places can handle difficult material unflinchingly. Others will look askance at even mainstream shows. Walk in with your eyes open, and be sensitive to the fact that not everyone shares your outlook.

2) Run show decisions across the desk of your administrators and keep track of the interactions. If anything happens, it’s nice to be able to tell your administrator that you brought these issues up with them and that they gave you the go-ahead.

3) If you’re doing a particularly thorny piece , take a lesson from some of the schools mentioned in these stories, and plan sessions to discuss the ideas with parents, students, and community members in an honest and open manner.

4) Ask yourself why you’re anxious to program this show. Is it about the kids or about your ego?

5) Don’t program shows that you have to alter drastically to fit your school.

6) Plan the rehearsal schedules of ambitious shows rigorously. That story about Tommy up above here is a shame.

7) If there are racial issues involved in casting, try to be aware of them in advance, and where appropriate, announce your intention in the audition materials to cast with or without regard to the race or ethnicity of the characters, whichever the case may be.

8) Keep your rehearsals positive. Your school director may have been a screamer, and you may think you have to yell and carry on to get the kids to do what you want, but in reality, when it gets to that point, you’ve generally made a wrong turn somewhere. In that story where that kid pushed his director and got expelled, I guarantee there was plenty of blame to go around.

I think it’s worth mentioning that when a production gets canceled, it’s the students that lose.

Let’s work hard to present quality work with our students that both challenges and honors the students and communities we love.


One comment

  1. For the record, I know that not every story listed above involves a school production. I think the issues are similar enough to bear inspection, though.

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