This is a post for the School Days series, which solicits submissions from undergraduate theatermakers from around the country and beyond. This series is curated by Thea Rodgers.
There is a violent epidemic that is silently ravaging high schools across the country, and its name is censorship. An increasingly large number of high school theater departments across the United States are winding up in the news and it’s not due to rave reviews. A quick Google search reveals some shocking ignorance. Take, for example, The John Jay High School in Cross River, New York, which made headlines in 2007 after banning the use of the word “vagina” in their reading of The Vagina Monologues, or The Trumbull High School in Trumbull, Connecticut, where, just last week administrators abruptly cancelled a production of Rent weeks before it was to be staged because it was too “racy,” or—my personal favorite—The Green Valley High School in Las Vegas, where parents took the school to court over their production of The Laramie Project on account of its homosexual themes.
As I look towards the end of my senior year in high school I can’t help but think of the many times the plays I’ve worked on have had to be censored, or “cleaned up,” as some school administrators so eloquently sugarcoat. I’ve seen productions of God of Carnage, Red, and even Neil Simon’s harmless Laughter On The 23rd Floor edited to ensure that no one was “offended.”
Censorship of this kind not only focuses on nixing any swear words (because, you know, we high schoolers aren’t familiar with them) but also includes removing sexually explicit references or scenes (because, why would we want to encourage a conversation about the complexities of sex in high school?). However, while these administrators have successfully pushed their shows more toward a PG rating, they have created a far greater problem. If a high school’s production of Rent has been cancelled, that director certainly isn't going to push for a David Mamet play next season. These high school administrators are prohibiting their employees and their students from taking risks, while simultaneously sheltering them from great (and more mature) theater. These administrators, through censorship, have created a culture of bland choices that fail to fulfill any sort of educational goals.
Censorship causes theater departments to live in fear. Throughout Boston high schools it has become glaringly apparent that I am not the only student suffering from the sterilizing of high school theater. Why aren't more high schools producing David Mamet plays, or Neil LaBute, Yasmina Reza, John Logan, or Rajiv Joseph, and thereby exposing the students and the school community to new works? Because they’re too busy with Beauty and the Beast, Seussical, and The Wizard of Oz. Don’t take my word for it—indulge yourself with Playbill’s Most-Performed Plays and Musicals in High Schools.
Theater, if anything is a reflection of the modern zeitgeist and to shelter students from the “real” goings on of the world is simply illogical. High school is a tumultuous time driven by hormones, mixed with anxieties and confusion. The last thing any of us in high school can relate to is The King and I, which, might I add, couldn’t be more outdated and racist, but still we do it. High school should be a time when we push students outside their comfort zones.
To be fair, this censorship is not entirely the schools’ fault. Schools are most of the time looking out for themselves, especially private schools. All it takes is one upset parent to take to Facebook after seeing a production of The Laramie Project and pull their kid out of there; costing the school God knows how many thousands. These are kids that go home at the end of the day and engage their growing brain with “Teen Mom,” or “Teen Mom 2,” or the always enlightening “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.” Believe me, I know, I have these friends, and their parents don’t seem to mind the televised sexual abuse of women or that their son’s favorite song is “Niggas in Paris.” Now, are you trying to tell me that a Pulitzer Prize winning play like Glengarry Glenn Ross is more offensive than whatever bunk Bravo is brainwashing their audiences with? Theater allows its actors and its audience to engage with topics like sexuality and racism in more meaningful and serious ways.
The logical question now is, why? Why bother creating an uproar in high school? Why “infect” a stable community with vulgarity and maturity? Because important themes likes racism, sexism, even existentialism, that high school students battle on a daily basis, are being neglected and suppressed. And it’s because we have no forum to openly talk about them. Theater conjures up emotions like no other art form, emotions that high schoolers are often afraid and discouraged to talk about. It is the job of high schools to encourage these very conversations. Take Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park; the play tackles the issue of racism in a modern, intelligent, and humorous way. It may be vulgar, but that didn’t stop it from winning a Pulitzer Prize, and it shouldn’t stop high school theaters from producing it and reaching a broader audience.
But what is the result of all this “risk taking” and “mature theatre?” By taking on new plays school administration can appeal to a new audience. The jocks and athletes of high school are not going to want anything to do with the latest production of Guys and Dolls, but I’d bet they’d be interested in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. Rajiv Joseph’s play about the horrors of the Iraq war couldn’t be more appealing to a group of adolescent boys, while at the same time incredibly informative. By being daring and thoughtful, high schools can select shows that both engage and educate their audiences. And at the end of the day isn’t that all any parent wants their child to do at school? To actively engage their brain, discover a new piece of dramatic literature, and learn something.
It is time for high schools to stop hiding behind Rogers & Hammerstein and embrace the great new works of American theater that teenagers are so hungry for. It is time for high schools to produce plays that curse like a bloody sailor, produce plays that have drug and alcohol references, produce plays that tackle sexually explicit content, and produce plays that a high school student’s education is insufficient without; the type of education that can only come from self discovery. It is time to properly educate high school students and give them a better understanding of vulgarity and how it can be constructively used in literature, to highlight issues of characters and add thematic depth. Teach us drug awareness. Tie in a lesson on safe sex. Do Nina Raine’s Drama Desk Award winning Tribes and teach your students about Deaf culture. Hell, do The Goat, or Who is Sylvia and teach us about the dangers of bestiality. Don’t steer away from plays that tackle, “racy” or “edgy” material. Tackle them, be audacious, and make something great!