Two high schools ban plays featuring homosexual themes

Two high schools have barred students from performing plays about teen homosexuality on school grounds, deeming the content and language of the scripts “inappropriate” for a student audience.

Granby High School in Norfolk, Va., and Sleepy Hollow High School in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., have acted on administrative concerns that the student-produced plays were in conflict with school policies, forcing students at both schools to seek outside venues in which to stage their performances. Although Sleepy Hollow students were allowed to perform an edited version of their play after they had already performed it in an off-campus location, the Granby play is currently being presented at a local theater and is not likely to be invited back to campus, officials say.

Granby theater teacher Bruce Hanson said while he appreciated the school’s careful consideration of the play, he felt “disappointed” that the school board ruled against allowing the performance of a homosexual theme in the original musical “Pet Sounds.”

“For a while it looked like it wasn’t going to be an issue,” Hanson said. “But when you’re living in the Bible belt, it’s difficult to be surprised.”

The musical was developed by the students under Hanson’s direction and is based on the students’ personal experiences. The performance centers on a character named Nigel who questions his sexuality and is subsequently “outed” by a fellow student, Hanson said. The musical also includes an insinuation of a kiss between two male performers.

Mike Spencer, the Norfolk School District’s chief operations officer, said the district consulted with curriculum specialists and legal counsel to ensure that the school was not infringing on the students’ free speech rights by refusing them access to the school performance space. Spencer said the musical’s references to sexuality and race “may not be appropriate for an audience in a public school setting.”

Adam Pidirotto, 15, who stars as the lead character in the play, said although he appreciates his school’s efforts to protect him and his peers from the backlash of critics, he does not think the content of the play is objectionable because it has already been “sugar-coated.”

“It’s presented in an innocent, coming-of-age way,” he said. “It’s not racy.”

While Pidirotto said he wishes he could have performed to a school audience, he said he was grateful that Granby did not issue a full-scale crackdown on the play, as the school still allowed them to use campus facilities for rehearsals and use the school’s stage props for their off-campus performance.

The premiere of “Pet Sounds” at a local theater June 8 was sold out and the musical has been receiving a warm response from the community, students said. Weekend performances at the theater will run through June 23.

For the Sleepy Hollow High School administration, the primary concern with the student production of “The Laramie Project” — a play based on the reaction to the 1998 murder of 19-year-old gay man Matthew Shepard — was its use of profanity.

Student members of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, a student organization, who pushed for its production at school, received notice from the administration that the expletives in the script violated the protocol for a school-sponsored event. Students were permitted to perform the play after they edited out the expletives.

Carol Conklin, principal of Sleepy Hollow High School, said it was “purely language” that made the play objectionable. She said the school would “certainly not be embarrassed” to allow the performance of the play without the profanity.

Although Conklin said she does not think the play’s overall content was changed by “small modifications,” a student involved in the production told The New York Times that the student performers were concerned about maintaining the integrity of the play’s message.

The unedited version of The Laramie Project was performed at a local theater May 23, although students were asked to indicate that the show was unaffiliated with the school.

On June 7 and June 9, the edited version of the play was performed in the evening at the school district’s elementary school because the high school auditorium is under construction.

By Judy Wang, SPLC staff writer