Censorship takes the stage: Topical plays draw criticism from officials

At first, sure, the students of Trumbull High School were disappointed when their principal told them they couldn’t perform “Rent: School Edition,” an adaptation of the popular show by Jonathan Larson, which addresses issues related to sexuality, drug use and HIV/AIDS.

But they didn’t waste much time wallowing. Instead, they worked together to address Principal Mark Guarino’s concerns about the community’s reception to the show’s content.

They circulated a petition, created a survey and otherwise tried to engage in respectful, well-reasoned dialogue with school officials (who were open to listening). The students wanted to be able to gather data about their community, said Thespian Society President Larissa Mark, so that they could show their administrators that Trumbull was ready to embrace the themes of the performance.

Their efforts earned them national recognition — Mark has since been honored with an inaugural “DLDF Defender Award” from the Dramatists Legal Defense Fund — but more importantly, they earned back their show. The performance went on as scheduled at the end of March.

For the students involved, protesting the potential cancellation was about more than protecting their ability to perform a popular musical.

“You can’t really censor something that happens,” lead actress Emily Ruchalski said, explaining that her peers at Trumbull grapple with some of the themes that were deemed controversial (sexuality, drug use and so on) at school every day. “And what better way to format a discussion about it than putting it on stage and expressing yourself through that?”

Ruchalski and Casey Walsh (who played Maureen and Joanne, respectively) said the show provided a vehicle through which to address real-world issues.

“You can’t brush the truth under the rug, you can’t always just do the musical because there’s a happy ending because tragedy does happen — things go wrong, and that’s what ‘Rent’ shows,” Walsh said. “It shows that you can take the negatives and make it a positive, and it just really is a sort of healing show in a way that it shows you can overcome even the most depressing of times.”

That goes for Mark, too, who said the lessons she’s learned through her school’s theater program transcend the stage. Her role in the Thespian Society and related activities taught her to take responsibility for something larger than herself and showed her how to be “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,” Mark said. “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.”

Those who watched the campaign at Trumbull unfold said students embodied the meaning of civic engagement. The students put into practice the very lessons their educators had been teaching them all along, Director Jessica Spillane said.

“I think it would have been very easy for anyone to fall into a place of saying, ‘We want this … Why can’t we have it?’” Spillane said. “They were wise in looking at: What are the objections, what do we need to address in order to allay fears?”

Spillane, who’s taught at Trumbull High School for 17 years and directed musicals for 16, said she actually tends to be somewhat conservative in her show choices. From the beginning, she and others weighing the options approached “Rent: School Edition” with the question: Can we do this?

“We certainly read the script as people who have taught in the community for very long time, who have lived in community and lived in the town as well,” Spillane said. “There was no question of the community here being supportive of putting on the production.”

Public reception aside, she said, “Rent” still seemed like an ideal choice: “It’s one that speaks to me, and one that I’ve taken hundreds of students to see on field trips.” And from the beginning, even before concerns about its content were raised, she had plans to incorporate added educational supplements — specifically, a project that would allow students to research the history and context of the musical for a “teaching facility” to be staged in the lobby on the nights of the show.

With that, she decided to proceed as she always had: without running it by administrators first. This year, though, Guarino was coming in as a new principal and reached out to her with questions about the show before issuing the initial cancellation, she said. Leading up to that decision, Spillane said she passed along thorough documentation of her vision for the show and educational supplements — before eventually being told that the show would have to be put on hold. (Guarino did not respond requests for comment.)

The students took the lead from there — eventually, with the help of some outside supporters. Ralph Sevush, the executive director of the Dramatists Guild (overseeing business and legal affairs), reached out in a December letter to Guarino. He said he doesn’t pretend to believe that his organization’s outreach was responsible for the administration’s change of heart — but he said it was important for the national group to show its support for the students working hard to defend their rights.

“What we were most grateful for was that there was a woman like Larissa Mark who took the initiative to fight this fight on the ground and to do so in an effective, mature way that actually achieves her goal,” Sevush said.

“Ultimately, it has nothing to do with art,” Sevush said. In mounting their defense of the show, he said, students learned how to resolve conflicts and how to gather the courage to stand up for their beliefs — skills that are “invaluable in any circumstance, in any profession, in any walk of life,” he said.

“That’s about being a citizen,” he said. “It’s not about being an artist or singer or dancer or actor, it’s about being a citizen in democracy.”

Censorship, even invisible, dampens plans elsewhere

Trumbull was a success story. Elsewhere, the show doesn’t always go on.

Svetlana Mincheva, the director of programs for the National Coalition Against Censorship, keeps close watch on censorship in the arts and says she hears of about three student shows, on average, per year that are threatened because of content. That estimate is hardly representative, she notes.

“I would dare to think that there’s probably more going on,” she said.

In some cases, “the theater teacher going to the principal suggesting the play gets the idea nipped in the bud before rehearsals and before it’s put on the schedule,” she explained.

“This type of self-censorship does not become visible,” Mincheva said.

Howard Sherman, an arts administrator and self-described “theater pundit” with an extensive background in the field, keeps close watch on student censorship issues — among other arts-related topics — on his blog. In 2011, he spoke out against a school’s hesitance to allow production of an August Wilson play for fear of racial epithets used in its text. He later did the same in cases involving censorship of productions of “Legally Blonde,” “The Laramie Project” and others.

His background as a press agent is particularly valuable, he thinks, in showing those who might be facing adversity within their theater program how they fit into a larger picture.

“When these events occur, too often the people who are most affected feel they have no agency, they don’t know what to do and they think it’s an isolated incident,” Sherman said. “Making it larger than the specifics of just their town, helping them to understand that this is unfortunately something that goes on through country and they can learn from others’ experiences, is very helpful.”

In doing so, Sherman has established himself as an important ally for students in such situations. His posts about the situation at Trumbull High School helped the issue to garner national attention, which put additional pressure on administrators to allow the show to go on as scheduled. (He also has pointed out, repeatedly, the dangers of “solving” a censorship threat by altering a text to, for example, appease community standards — which could in some cases violate copyright.)

In a post defending students in the case involving the August Wilson show, he wrote: “I do not advocate this type of work because of its potentially problematic language or content, but because of its larger ideas which belong in the classroom, at our dinner tables, and in our daily lives. We cannot allow the simplistic, sound-bite, lowest common denominator offerings that pass for entertainment become the standard, lest idiocracy become first prescient, then prevalent. Let’s keep firing metaphoric fastballs at students and let them struggle to hit them back, because it is in that struggle in which they learn the most.”

Often, Sherman said, he hears from students or teachers involved in the theater program who are worried about the fate of a given show. But he said he’d be just as “delighted” to hear from administrators or school board officials who might have concerns about a proposed show.

He’s also hopeful that the library of cases he’s helped to call attention to might serve as a kind of network of resources and other potential allies to students facing future threats to their shows.

Learning about the successes of other students who’ve tackled tough subject matter with grace, he said, might empower others to try to talk about trying subject material they might otherwise have avoided.

“If there can be a network of knowledge and people who understand going forward that people can help, you can always make the case and know that you did your best,” Sherman said.

Another cancellation, another call to action

The same week the students of “Rent” were about to take the stage, another group of students — just a few hours north, at Timberlane Regional High School — were grappling with news of a pending show cancellation of their own.

There, students had been told that they could not perform “Sweeney Todd” the following year because of concerns about its content. The show, a widely acclaimed adaptation by Stephen Sondheim, has a reputation for violence: Its main character is a barber who murders his clients and then passes their bodies along to be made into meat pies.

Almost immediately, students took their dissent online — creating a Facebook page to discuss their reaction to the decision and their plans to respond. But the page was swiftly shut down at the request of school administrators because of a single post that administrators found objectionable.

The students found an ally in Randall Mikkelsen, a community member and the parent of a former Timberlane student, who had been following the developments surrounding the show. News that the students’ Facebook page was shut down “got [his] First Amendment blood roiling,” so he stepped in to set up a replacement page to serve as a new space for discussion. A page that’s organized by an adult in the community, he reasoned, would be harder for the administration to shut down altogether.

Within days, the Facebook forum ballooned in size and reach. Surveys were passed around, students and community members compiled a list of grievances regarding the show’s cancellation, support poured in from all over — even Trumbull.

Spillane, in a note to the school superintendent Earl Metzler and principal Don Woodworth that she also shared on the Facebook page, urged administrators to support the show and offered to discuss the supplementary projects she oversaw in connection with Trumbull’s musical.

“The aim of art has always been to create discomfort and unrest so that we not become complacent or deluded or jaded. Have faith that your young people, like ours here in Trumbull, can usher the community into a place it did not think it could go,” she wrote. “This is what we want as educators and as citizens who will one day depend on them to lead us.”

At one point, Meryl Streep — yes, that Meryl Streep — was even asked to weigh in on the show cancellation. When asked about the issue during a visit to a Massachusetts-area university, Streep confessed that she hadn’t heard of the controversy, according to a report in The Eagle-Tribune. Still, she said, “Let the kids do the play.”

Sherman, as ever, was quick to get involved with the campaign to address the cancellation. For better or worse, he was becoming quite the veteran censorship crisis communicator — and in this case, he was an integral part of the effort toward reinstatement.

He drove four hours to attend a school forum organized in response to the outcry, arriving in time for a separate meeting with the superintendent and spent time meeting with students to provide advice on how best to present their message to school officials at the meeting.

In April, about 250 people gathered at the school to discuss the issue. Sherman, students and others spoke out in favor of the performance — no one spoke up against it, Mikkelsen said.

One of the students who spoke at the meeting, a senior named Laura Lingar, told the room that she wasn’t planning to pursue theater — instead, she was a paramedic, training to be a firefighter. As part of her EMT training, she recently had her first experience working in the field — a difficult night, she said, but one she credits her theater experience.

The moments when she and her peers were forced to step back and analyze the lines in a show, paying close attention to the characters’ needs and feelings and motivations, equipped her to better connect with patients dealing with adversity.

“If we’d just done little plays that everyone understands, where we sing and we dance and we make people happy, I would have only seen happy people and I would only understand happy things. And the field I’m going into isn’t always happy,” Lingar told the forum in her speech, a video of which was shared with the Facebook group. In the speech, she praised theater director Eric Constantineau.

“And I cannot thank Mr. C and the Timberlane players enough for being the reason every time I save a life the rest of my life, they’re going to be the ones behind me.”

The following week, the students were told that they could proceed with the show. In a video message, Metzler thanked a handful of school officials and Mikkelsen for their roles in the process.

But he also made a point to note the “overwhelming display of support for the arts” and the respectful, professional conviction evidenced by the students who spoke out at the forum.

And here, as with Trumbull, the Timberlane students didn’t have to step on stage to realize the power of their voice.