What is the purpose of putting on shows in high school? Is it educational? Recreational? Is it community relations? Is it a family activity?
I've always thought that high school theatre was for the benefit of the students putting on the show - for the education, the team-building, the exploration of talent and so on. That parents, siblings, relatives, friends and neighbors come to see these productions - whether academic in origin or extracurricular - is a byproduct, not a purpose. Although, to be fair, in many schools, the drama programs have to be self-supporting, so a certain amount of general audience development may be necessary, which can mean throwing a wide net.
Nonetheless, the recent cancelation of a high school production of The Laramie Project in Ottumwa, Iowa caught me by surprise. Not because I'm unfamiliar with educational administrators being uncomfortable with Laramie, but because the principal there has said "the play is too adult for a high school production but it does preach a great message." If the message is great, where's the problem? What makes it too adult? That it's about a murder? Murder is in movies, books, plays, and TV shows consumed by much younger kids. Is it that the murder victim was gay? Sadly, homophobia remains everywhere, but it's worth noting that marriage equality has been the law in Iowa since 2009.
According to reports in The Ottumwa Courier, Heartland Connection and the Associated Press, both the principal and superintendent are pleased that arrangements have been made for the production to be done by the students elsewhere in the community. So why exactly don't they want it in their own backyard or, more accurately, auditorium?
The reason cited is because they feel what the school offers should be family entertainment for all ages, and that the admirable but adult themes of Laramie don't fit that criteria. So the question is whether this is a long-standing, publicly stated policy, or one introduced only to block the production of this particular play, which is taken from verbatim accounts of the death of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming more than a decade ago.
I spoke with Moisés Kaufman, the artistic director of Tectonic Theatre Project, the company that created The Laramie Project and its companion piece The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later, since he has the best perspective on the play's production history. Referring to Laramie as one of the most produced plays in America - professionally, amateur, college and high school - Kaufman acknowledged that productions are also challenged or canceled with some regularity, saying it happens in high schools two or three times annually. Based on my general awareness of theatre news nationally, I was surprised: I thought it was more frequent, but the play's popularity in high schools is confirmed by Dramatics magazine.
"Invariably," Kaufman observed about cancelations of Laramie, "it has the opposite effect of what the administration is trying to do - it emboldens the students to be artists and social activists. Students realize that art is an incredible weapon and they have a responsibility and opportunity that comes from being an art maker."
Kaufman said that, comparable to the figures often associated with marriage equality issue, there's a big divide in the thinking between people over 50 and those under 50. "Students very ready for this conversation, they're living it," said Kaufman. "It's adults who are having a hard time with it." Describing the typical conflict over high school productions of Laramie, Kaufman said, "First, it's a disconnect in ideology and preparedness to deal with contemporary ideas, and secondly, that they're listening to outside voices that have nothing to do with the education of the students."
In Ottumwa, if the administration freely acknowledges the value of the piece and expresses support for the students doing it, but off school grounds, it seems that what's at stake is a fear of outside pressure, an avoidance of potential challenges, with "family friendly" as a smokescreen for conflict avoidance. It's a shame that the administration can't back up their own sentiments and advocate for Laramie within the school, rather than harboring school resources and insulating themselves from any personal and professional risk instead of standing up for what they believe in. What kind of example and lesson is that?
The assertion that high school shows should be for all ages is not a new argument to me; I heard it voiced at a Board of Education meeting at my alma mater, Amity High School in Woodbridge CT, when a handful of community members registered their displeasure with a pending production of Sweeney Todd. It suggests that because so many parents and administrators were raised on the anodyne - albeit wonderful and classic - musicals of the 40s, 50s and 60s, that those shows remain exemplars of the only appropriate repertoire.
I think that perspective is deeply flawed. Would we choose to teach students from textbooks that were written with 1960s sensibility? Would we protect our athletes with the insufficient equipment of that era, or even from the 80s? Would literature and music be comparably circumscribed? I doubt it, especially in any district that wants to prepare students educationally, socially and emotionally for the world they'll soon face, out from under the protective wings of parents and schools. High school theatre may still be thought of by many as a charming and even quaint activity for kids, and an easily expendable one at that, but it can instill great lessons and even save lives, if the students are permitted to engage with the full range of dramatic work, be it classic, new or even original.
The lessons of The Laramie Project are obvious to anyone who knows the piece or even just the facts surrounding Matthew Shepard's death. High school teachers and administrators should be proud that students want to perform it and should be proud to have it, and other socially conscious, emotionally charged works on their stages.
As someone who had to make do in high school with Don't Drink The Water and Bye Bye Birdie, I admire and envy every student who has had the chance to engage with material as challenging and important as The Laramie Project and other equally important, thoughtful and moving pieces of theatre. And if some pre-teens have to miss seeing their big siblings in a show, well surely that's not the only time they haven't been allowed to tag along. What's done in their elementary or middle school is for them, and what's done in high school is for bigger kids - and for every adult in town. Maybe there's still time for Ottumwa High School to teach the right lesson.
* * *
Hear me discuss more more about the issues facing high school theatre across the country in this new podcast from the Reduced Shakespeare Company.