UPDATE: Decisions are made by those who show up, so the Dramatists Guild congratulates the Cardinal High School community of Middlefield, Ohio for raising a fuss over the cancellation of their school’s planned production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, we applaud the authors for agreeing to change a few “damns” to “darns,” and we are grateful to the school board for their flexibility in reconsidering their position in response to these efforts. Most of all, we celebrate and support the students who are now working on a rescheduled production of this wonderful show, and to them we say: “Break a leg!”
The Guild encourages anyone facing a similar situation in their own community to reach out to us at www.dramatistsguild.com, or contact the Dramatists Legal Defense Fund directly at www.thedldf.org.
The Dramatists Guild of America vehemently objects to and is appalled by the recent cancellations of the play Indecent, originally scheduled for production at Douglas Anderson School of Performing Arts in Jacksonville, Florida, and the musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which was just cancelled by Cardinal High School administrators in Middlefield, Ohio.
The Dramatists Legal Defense Fund, a non-profit organization created by the Dramatists Guild, has already joined other groups in a joint statement objecting to the Indecent cancellation. Paula Vogel’s play tells the story of the 1923 Broadway production of the Yiddish drama God of Vengeance, which resulted in the arrest and conviction of its producer and cast on obscenity charges due in part to its lesbian love story.
The irony of a school censoring Indecent, a play about censoring a play, would simply be a cause for eye-rolling were it not so insidious. Principal Tina Wilson announced the cancellation on the day that rehearsals were scheduled to start, stating that the school had made a “closer review” of the play’s “mature content” and decided that Chekhov’s The Seagull was “better suited for a school production.” Wilson offered no explanation as to why such a closer review was undertaken, or why she reached the conclusion that Indecent was inappropriate, or why The Seagull, which deals with themes of sexual desire and infidelity and concludes with a suicide, was a more appropriate substitute for their school. The school district superintendent Diana Greene did not identify the dialogue which she referred to as inappropriate, did not acknowledge the fact that authors often permit changes to dialogue for school productions, and did not distinguish this play from the recent productions of Chicago and Rent performed at the school, with such plays having similarly mature themes and sexual content no less explicit than that appearing in Indecent.
The school and the district have denied that Florida’s recently implemented Parental Rights in Education Act (the “Don’t Say Gay” law) had anything to do with the cancellation. To the extent that the production was an extra-curricular activity and therefore not subject to the law’s specific restrictions on class curricula, that may be the case. But the law endorses a restrictive view of education that has created a chilling effect on free expression beyond the law’s statutory limitations. It has certainly done so with regard to the banning of books, where litigation is in process to challenge the statute.
But in addition to this attack on the First Amendment, there is something else at work in Florida. At a time when antisemitism is on the rise, the school’s cancellation of a Jewish-themed play about the historical impact of another Jewish-themed play, with both plays written by Jewish playwrights and featuring a romantic relationship between two Jewish women, has dark implications. This is particularly troubling in a community where it is alleged that a group called the Goyim Defense League may be responsible for "Kanye West was right" banners that appeared at a local school sporting event this past fall. Also, a parent asserted that rocks with hate literature are being dumped in driveways of Jewish residents in the area, including her own.
But, whether the school fears attacks by antisemites, objections from homophobic parents, or both, the result is the same. They are legitimizing bigotry while denying their students and their community access to a piece of art that raises some of the most important issues of our day, issues that are of particular importance to teenagers trying to find their own identities and survive in a time of hatred and divisiveness.
As for Spelling Bee, the Tony-winning musical by Rachel Sheinkin and Bill Finn is among the most frequently produced shows in schools across the country, but an Ohio school found a reason to cancel their production of it anyway. The kids were already well into rehearsal when a concerned parent wrote to the school board to complain, despite the fact that an edited school version was being used, one that had already been produced by other schools in their region. The administration bent to outside pressure from a parent who claimed the show was “vulgar,” that it referenced Jesus, and it included a character with two dads. The school board’s actions, as with Indecent, were fear-based and reactive, and will have similarly dire consequences.
Both schools have shirked their responsibility to educate and foster the free exchange of ideas. They are also allowing the most vulnerable kids in their care to be marginalized. Rather than expanding the conversation by allowing the plays to go forward (they could, for example, host community discussions on these issues, to provide greater context for the productions), they are normalizing censorship, modeling it for their students as acceptable, and demonstrating to the oppressive factions in their communities that these pressure tactics work.
This is the 100th anniversary of God of Vengeance and it is frustrating to see that we are still confronting the same issues as a society, not just in Florida, but all across the country, as the Ohio cancellation further demonstrates. Every day, more and more examples come to light. Teachers and librarians are losing jobs, even facing criminal penalties, for having the wrong books in their classrooms or scheduling the wrong shows for production.
But students, parents, and teachers across the country are starting to resist. Certainly, the Anderson students are not going down without a fight. (View one student’s response here.) So, if schools think they will avoid controversy by placating the most reactionary elements of their communities, they have already failed.
The Guild has been supporting playwright Paula Vogel and the Anderson students as they explore ways to get Indecent rescheduled. Unfortunately, it has been reported that there is a fear of reprisal if the production proceeds. We would not suggest that the students do anything that they feel would put them in physical danger, but what a sad commentary on their community that they have a reason to feel this way.
The students could, instead, present a performance online, or in another locale, or in some other way that would allow them to experience this story for themselves without putting them in jeopardy. The Guild and its legal defense fund, the DLDF, would like to help them in that endeavor, should they give us the opportunity to do so. We also invite other artists, students, teachers, and parents to resist similar occasions of censorship in their own communities, like the one at Cardinal High School where there will be another school board meeting on February 8 where people can respond to the Spelling Bee cancellation. If you stand up, we will stand with you, because the only alternative is silent compliance…and that’s no option at all.
The Show Must Go On: A Toolkit for Organizing Against Theatre Censorship in Public Schools
Dramatic Changes: A Toolkit for Producing Stage Works on College Campuses in Turbulent Times
Resources for Theatre Educators