At SPLC, we often call attention to expression issues as they relate to student media. But the cast and crew of Trumbull High School’s spring musical demonstrated this year that free expression is a powerful tool for all students, not just journalists.
When Larissa Mark and her peers found out last August that their high school would be performing “Rent: School Edition” — an adaptation of the popular show by Jonathan Larson, which addresses issues related to sexuality, drug use and HIV/AIDS — as its spring musical, they were ecstatic. A few months later, though, Principal Mark Guarino informed students that the show would be put on hold because of concerns about its content.
Mark (a senior who’s been involved with Trumbull’s theater program throughout high school and who serves as the president of its Thespian Society) and other students channeled their disappointment into an effort to get the administration to reconsider its position. Their work paid off: The show debuted on schedule this week, running Thursday through Sunday.
The students’ campaign gained national attention, and those involved have been praised for their mature, levelheaded approach in response to initial opposition. Mark has also since been honored with an inaugural “DLDF Defender Award” from the Dramatists Legal Defense Fund for her role in reinstating the show.
We caught up with Mark (the show’s assistant director and stage manager) a few weeks ago at an after-school rehearsal to discuss the students’ approach to the campaign, what theater taught her about being a good citizen and more.
(This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)
When you were first told that you wouldn’t be allowed to perform the show, did that come as a shock to you?
LM: I think it was a shock to all of us, because none of us really saw it as being something very avant-garde or trying to make a statement — well, it was making a different kind of statement. It wasn’t a “push the buttons” kind of statement, it was more of: These are real problems that occur, and we want to explore them.
So what was your next step from there?
LM: Well, when I was in the room and I saw around 50 thespians who were devastated by being told that they wouldn’t be allowed to do this show [and] wouldn’t be allowed to talk about these issues because they were apparently considered controversial, I couldn’t just sit back and let that happen. And that was a common sentiment among most of the thespians. No one wanted to really just let it go by.
(From there, Mark said, the students circulated an online survey and a petition to gauge how Trumbull community felt about students performing the show. They also used social media spread the word about their efforts. Parents and other community members were also instrumental throughout the process, Mark said. Based on the feedback they received, the public was overwhelmingly supportive of the production.)
What was the most common kind of objection that you heard?
LM: Some people said that we were too young to do it, some said things I’d rather not repeat.
How did you then approach trying to initiate a dialogue with your administrators about this?
LM: We wanted to keep a very open policy with them. The first day when I was handing out petitions, I went up to our principal in our school commons and showed him the petition, what we were doing, so that he knew that we were just trying to gain facts and trying to see what the general opinion was — in case he wasn’t aware and had only heard one side of the argument. We weren’t trying to say, “Hey, we want our show back. Do this.” We were just trying to give him more information that could maybe ask him to at least reconsider his decision — which he was open to doing.
Along the way, what did you tell your Board of Education and others to explain why you felt strongly about the importance of performing this show?
LM: I think a common sentiment among us was that these issues weren’t considered fictional, a fantasy or a controversial topic for us. They were a reality that people are living every day in Trumbull High. There are kids who, sadly, struggle with drug addiction. There are kids who are dealing with their sexuality and their personal preferences, and while I may not know specifically a case of AIDS, there are kids who do suffer from different diseases in the school — and in the community at large. And for us it wasn’t something that we felt should go unheard.
(The campaign, Mark said, soon “got a lot bigger than we ever expected it would.” Major news outlets reported on the stalled performance, and the Dramatists’ Guild also reached out to support the production. Responding to students’ efforts, Mark said, Mr. Guarino proposed several alternatives — holding off a year, or postponing the show until later this year — but eventually, in December, he told students the show could go on in March as originally scheduled.)
To what extent do you feel like you have bonded as a cast and crew throughout this whole process?
LM: I think it was a very just incredible experience for a lot of us, and not necessarily incredible in a good way — but just how… I would say about 90 percent of us were going toward the same goal where we wanted to do this show and we felt very passionate about it. To hear kids get up, especially at the Board of Ed. meeting, and speak so much from the heart about the issues that they face and why this show was important and relevant to their lives.
This is your final high school show, how do you feel about that?
LM: Like I don’t quite want to leave yet. I know I do have to — I have to say this program has been the most life-changing thing I’ve done so far. If you saw me as a shy little freshman, you wouldn’t believe what theater has done.
Your involvement in theater and the thespian program, do you feel like it’s helped you to find a voice?
LM: Being in theater is the first time where I’ve really had to take on responsibility — not only for myself, but something larger than me. And that goes a lot into civic virtue and being an active citizen. While I might be active in this community here, eventually I’m going to want to be active in a larger one, as well. While our change might just be producing an art that can create social commentary and create a message for an audience, I think that is an idea of expression in general and of our First Amendment rights: We’re given the ability to produce material that can create change and be a part of our society. And the thespian society, without them, I never would be able to speak in public as well as I can. I never would have made the step to growing up so fast.
What was it like for you, then, to see your efforts and your peers’ efforts get such widespread national attention?
LM: We were so grateful. I say that in the plural because all of our thespian society members were shocked at how much people cared about this. As a lot of the theater professionals have told me, you hear about cases like this not having a happy ending all the time — they get the coverage, and the administration still doesn’t change their mind. But for us to have so many people support us and show that the world out there is in favor of us doing “Rent” and doesn’t think that these issues that our administration has declared are too controversial are [too controversial]… It was very hopeful to us to see that the larger community did not have an issue with it.