Stevie Ray Dallimore, an actor and teacher, had been running the theater program for a private boys’ school in Chattanooga for a decade, but he never faced a school year like this one.
A proposed production of “She Kills Monsters” at a neighboring girls’ school that would have included his students was rejected for gay content, he said. A “Shakespeare in Love” at the girls’ school that would have featured his boys was rejected because of cross-dressing. His school’s production of “Three Sisters,” the Chekhov classic, was rejected because it deals with adultery and there were concerns that some boys might play women, as they had in the past, he said.
School plays — long an important element of arts education and a formative experience for creative adolescents — have become the latest battleground at a moment when America’s political and cultural divisions have led to a spike in book bans, conflicts over how race and sexuality are taught in schools, and efforts by some politicians to restrict drag performances and transgender health care for children and teenagers.
For decades student productions have faced scrutiny over whether they are age-appropriate, and more recently left-leaning students and parents have pushed back against many shows over how they portray women and people of color. The latest wave of objections is coming largely from right-leaning parents and school officials.
The final act in Dallimore’s yearlong drama in Chattanooga? He learned that his position at McCallie School, along with that of his counterpart at the nearby Girls Preparatory School, was being eliminated. They were invited to apply for a single new position overseeing theater at both schools; both educators are now out of the jobs.
“This is obviously a countrywide issue that we are a small part of,” Dallimore said. “It’s definitely part of a bigger movement — a strongly concerted effort of politics and religion going hand in hand, banning books and trying to erase history and villainizing otherness.”
A McCallie spokeswoman, Jamie Baker, acknowledged that the two school theater positions had been eliminated so the programs could be combined but said that “implying or asserting in any way that the contract of McCallie’s theater director 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 and will continue to make decisions aligned with these commitments should be no surprise to anyone.”
Drama teachers around the country say they are facing growing scrutiny of their show selections, 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 that 67 percent say censorship concerns are influencing their selections for the upcoming school year.
In emails and phone calls over the last several weeks, teachers and parents cited a litany of examples. From the right there have been objections to homosexuality in the musical “The Prom” and the play “Almost, Maine” and other oft-staged shows; from the left there have been 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 at individual schools there have been any number of 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 “Newsies”) 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’re seeing 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 would not have been a big deal a few years ago, that’s now a big deal.”
Teachers now find themselves desperately looking for titles that are somehow both relevant to today’s teenagers and unlikely to land them in trouble.
“There’s a lot of not wanting any controversy of any kind,” said Chris Hamilton, the drama director at a high school in Kennewick, Wash. 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 popular school play in the country, and which features gay characters. “The level of scrutiny has grown,” Hamilton said.
Around the country, in blue states as well as red, theater teachers say it has become increasingly difficult to find plays and musicals that will escape the kind of criticism that, they fear, could cost them their jobs or result in a cutback in funding. “People are losing 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 out the culture wars in high schools,” he added.
Stephen Gregg, a playwright who has successfully been writing for high school students for three decades, said he was startled this year when his publishing house forwarded him an email seeking “major edits” to his science fiction comedy “Crush,” seeking to replace an anecdote about a gay couple with a straight one and explaining, “As we are a public school in Florida, we can’t have gay characters.”
Gregg turned down 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 over content concerns. In Florida’s Duval County, a production of “Indecent” was killed because of its lesbian love story. In Pennsylvania, the North Lebanon School District barred “The Addams Family,” the most popular school musical in the country, citing its dark themes.
“There was a very clear streak of theater cancellations this whole school year, and it is happening in parallel to, 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 impacted.”
Some productions have overcome 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-smashing, hilarious new take on the classic tale,” students staged it anyway at a local outdoor theater.
Autumn Gonzales, a teacher at Scappoose High School in Oregon, faced objections over a production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” a musical that has a character with two gay dads. She stuck with it — the show had been chosen by her students — and the production was allowed to proceed. But she is being extra cautious about next year. When her students expressed an interest in “Heathers,” which has suicide themes, she told them, “That is not going to happen.”
“I’ve always tried to go for a middle ground,” she said.
“We’re not going to do ‘Spring Awakening,’” she said, referring to the 2006 musical about young people and sexuality. “This just isn’t the community for that. But I’m also not going to deny the existence of gay people — that’s not any good for my student actors. I’m not going to be inflammatory for art’s sake, but I’m also not going to shy away from deeper messages.”
The constraints, advocates say, are having an effect on the education of future artists and audience members.
“Students deserve to have the opportunity to be exposed to a wide variety of work, not only the safest, most benign, most family-friendly material,” said Howard Sherman, the managing director of New York’s Baruch Performing Arts Center, who has been tracking the issue for years.
In some areas, the contested plays cannot even be read: In Kansas, the Lansing school board, responding to objections from a parent, barred 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 a few schools that have banned a production, but this is the first time the play has been banned from being read,” said the play’s lead author, Moisés Kaufman, whose theater company offered to send its script to any Lansing student who asked. “I don’t want to be an alarmist, but it is alarming.”