Stevie Ray Dallimore, an actor and teacher, has run the theater program for a private boys’ school in Chattanooga for a decade, but he’s never faced a school year like this one.
A proposed production of “She Kills Monsters” at a neighboring girls’ school, which would have included his students, was rejected because of gay content, he said. “Shakespeare in Love” at the girls’ school, which would have featured his boys, was rejected for cross-dressing. His school’s production of “Three Sisters,” Chekhov’s classic, was rejected because it dealt with adultery and there were concerns that some boys might play women, as they had done in the past, he said.
School plays — long an important element of arts education and a formative experience for creative teenagers — have become the latest battleground at a time when America’s political and cultural divisions have led to an increase in book bans, conflicts over how race and sexuality are taught in America. schools, and efforts by some politicians to limit drag performances and transgender health care for children and teenagers.
For decades student productions have faced scrutiny as to whether they are age-appropriate, and more recently left-leaning. students and parents pushed back against many shows for how they portray women and people of color. The latest wave of objections comes mostly from right-wing parents and school officials.
The final act in Dallimore’s year-long drama in Chattanooga? He learned that his position at McCallie School, along with that of his counterpart at the nearby Girls Preparatory School, had been eliminated. They were invited to apply for a single new position overseeing theater in both schools; both educators are now out of a job.
“This is obviously a nationwide issue that we’re a small part of,” Dallimore said. “It’s definitely part of a larger movement – a tightly coordinated effort of politics and religion going hand in hand, banning books and trying to erase history and denigrate otherness.”
McCallie spokeswoman Jamie Baker acknowledged that the two school theater positions were eliminated so the programs could be combined but said that “to imply or assert in any way that the McCallie theater director’s contract was not renewed because of content concerns would be inaccurate.” She noted that the school has a “Judeo-Christian heritage and commitment to Christian principles,” and added, “that we would make and continue to make decisions consistent with these commitments should not be a surprise to anyone.”
Drama teachers around the country say they face increasing scrutiny of their performance choices, and that titles that were acceptable just a few years ago can no longer be staged in some districts. The Educational Theater Association released a survey of teachers last month that found 67 percent say censorship concerns are influencing their choices for the upcoming school year.
In emails and phone calls over the past several weeks, teachers and parents cited a litany of examples. From the right there were objections against homosexuality in the musical “The Prom” and the play “Almost, Maine” and other frequently staged shows; from the left there were concerns about depictions of race in “South Pacific” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and gender in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” and “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Grease.” And in individual schools there were many unexpected complaints, about the presence of bullying in “Mean Girls” and the absence of white characters in “Fences,” about the words “damn” (in “Oklahoma”) and “bastards” (in “News “) and “God” (in “The Little Mermaid”).
Challenges to school productions, teachers say, carry far more weight than they once did because of the polarized political climate and the amplifying power of social media.
“We see a lot of teachers self-censoring,” said Jennifer Katona, the executive director of the Educational Theater Association, an organization of theater teachers. “Even if it’s just a bunch of girls dressed as ‘Newsies’ boys, which wouldn’t have been a big deal a few years ago, that’s a big deal now.”
Teachers now find themselves desperately looking for titles that are somehow both relevant to today’s teenagers and unlikely to get them into trouble.
“There’s a lot of not wanting any controversy,” said Chris Hamilton, the drama director at a high school in Kennewick, Washington. Hamilton said this past year was the first time in 10 years of teaching that a play he proposed was banned by school administrators: “She Kills Monsters,” a comedy about a teenager who finds solace in Dungeons & Dragons that is the seventh most a popular school play in the country, and which features homosexual characters. “The level of scrutiny has gone up,” Hamilton said.
Around the country, in blue states as well as red ones, theater teachers say it has become increasingly difficult to find plays and musicals that will avoid the kind of criticism that, they fear, could cost them their jobs or result in reduced funding. “People lose their jobs for booking the wrong musical,” said Ralph Sevush, the executive director of business affairs at the Dramatists Guild of America.
“A polarized society is fighting the culture wars in high schools,” he added.
Stephen Gregg, a playwright who has successfully written for high school students for three decades, said he was dismayed this year when his publisher forwarded him an email seeking “major edits” to his sci-fi comedy “Crush,” seeking to replace an anecdote about a gay couple with straight and explaining, “Because we are a public school in Florida, we cannot have gay characters.”
Gregg declined the request, thinking, he said, that “you probably have gay kids in your theater program, and it sends a terrible message to them.”
Several school productions made news this year when they were canceled due to content concerns. In Duval County of Florida, production of “Indecent” was killed because of its lesbian love story. In Pennsylvania, the North Lebanon School District banned “The Addams Family”, the most popular school musical in the country, citing its dark themes.
“There’s been a very clear sequence of theater cancellations this entire school year, and it’s happening in parallel and related to the efforts to ban books,” said Jonathan Friedman, the director of free expression and education programs at PEN America. “Sometimes it affects plays in production, and sometimes it affects the approval of plays in the future. The whole climate is affected.”
Some productions overcame objections. In New Jersey, Cedar Grove High School canceled a production of “The Prom”, a musical whose protagonist is a lesbian, but then relented and staged it after public pressure. In Indiana, after Carroll High School in Fort Wayne canceled a production of “Marian, or The True Tale of Robin Hood,” which is marketed as “a gender-bending, patriarchy-shattering, hilarious new take on the classic story,” students staged it anyway at a local outdoor theater.
Autumn Gonzales, a teacher at Scappoose High School in Oregon, faced objections to a production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” a musical that features a character with two gay fathers. She stuck with it – the show was chosen by her students – and the production was allowed to continue. But she is extra cautious about next year. When her students expressed interest in “Heathers,” which has suicidal themes, she told them, “That’s not going to happen.”
“I’ve always tried to walk a middle ground,” she said.
“We’re not going to do ‘Spring Awakening,'” she said, referring to the 2006 musical about youth and sexuality. “This is just not the community for that. But I won’t deny the existence of gay people either – that’s not good for my student actors. I won’t be inflammatory for art, but I don’t shy away from deeper messages either.”
The limits, advocates say, are impacting the education of future artists and audiences.
“Students deserve to have the opportunity to be exposed to a wide variety of work, not just the safest, kindest, most familiar material,” said Howard Sherman, the executive director of New York’s Baruch Performing Arts Center, which has been tracking the issue for years
In some places, the contested plays cannot even be read: In Kansas, the school board of Lansing, responding to objections of a parentbanned high school students from reading “The Laramie Project,” a widely staged and taught play about the murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay student in Wyoming.
“Every year there have been some schools that have banned a production, but this is the first time that the play has been banned from reading,” said the play’s main author, Moisés Kaufman, whose theater company offered to send his script to anyone. A student from Lansing who asked: “I don’t want to be an alarmist, but it is alarming.”