What's Age Appropriate?
Tuesday, March 17, 2015
Posted by: Katharine Chin
By Laura Brueckner
By now, many us have read about Trumbull High School in Connecticut, whose principal, Marc Guarino, tried to cancel the spring 2014 production of Rent over what he called the "sensitive material" that the musical contains. Never mind that the version being used was the school edition of the script, which publisher Musical Theatre International has scrubbed up specifically for teens by eliminating profanities and the racy song "Contact," which features highly sexualized choreography and vocalizations.
Brittani McBride (at table), Kreona Turner, Robert Cornn and Nia Lundkvist in Oakland School for the Arts' 2013 production of
A Raisin in the Sun. Photo: Jennifer Duff.
And we've heard about how the Trumbull High School Thespian Society, led by level-headed student president Larissa Mark, protested, petitioned (gathering 1,500 signatures) and launched a social media campaign that spread across the nation (as of this writing, the Trumbull for Rent page on Facebook has 7,502 "likes") to reinstate the Tony and Pulitzer Award–winning musical at the school. After encountering mounting public pressure (including a letter from the Dramatists Guild of America and an invitation from Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT, to host the show), Guarino finally met with Mark and other THSTS members to discuss what it would take to get the musical back on its feet. They ultimately agreed that the school would provide additional educational support to give students context for Rent's "controversial" content—which, in the stripped-down version, is limited to same-sex relationships, drug use and HIV infection—including sessions with a drug intervention specialist, student support staff, teachers and the Anti-Defamation League. And the show went on.
This story presents theatre-makers with several pieces of great, hopeful news. Certainly the fact that adult theatre professionals allied themselves with the students by offering up alternate venues is remarkable and praiseworthy. Even more heartening is the incredible maturity students modeled in how they pursued the matter with school administration: avoiding a doubtless tempting but counterproductive "Rentbellion" and, instead, fostering dialogue both within the student body and with the larger community. Best of all, everyone, students and administrators alike, agreed that the solution was more conversation and education around the issues the play raises.
Gauging the appropriateness of performance content is an ongoing challenge for theatre educators, however, whether the material is an outside script under consideration or a piece of student-generated work. Given that our basic model for drama is driven by conflict, and that people are differently sensitive to different kinds of content depending on geographic area, age, religion and a hundred other factors, finding and staging an interesting play that's guaranteed to offend no one is nearly impossible. Moreover, there are no state mandates banning specific language or situations from theatre classrooms or productions, so teachers and directors working in schools must make the best decisions they can, based on their knowledge of their students and the community. And, as in the case of Trumbull High, those decisions are often called into question, by administrators or jittery parents. As Howard Sherman, former executive director of the American Theatre Wing (the Tony Awards people) notes on his blog, hesherman.com, numerous schools—high schools, mostly, but even some colleges—have canceled or threatened with cancellation productions of Spamalot; Almost, Maine; Legally Blonde and more.
This puts instructors in a tight spot. Teens involved in theatre, in both onstage and offstage roles, are not just exploring where their talents and passions might lead them in terms of their careers. They're also exploring pretty much every other facet of human existence, including who they are as artists and human beings, and what it means to be alive, all at once. Their educators, especially at schools focused on the arts, face the massive responsibility to choose performance material that honors their life experiences and sensitivities but also develops their artistic skills, their analytical capabilities, and their understanding of a complex world that already seeks to woo, deceive, control, excite and exploit them. In fact, the very existence of artifacts like Rent: School Edition and similar editions of other popular shows (Sweeney Todd and Les Mis also come in school editions) points to the complicated considerations awaiting anyone who makes theatre with and for young people: how does an educator handle intellectually sound and artistically exciting work that also contains "adult" or "controversial" content?
Rachel Fink, director of Berkeley Rep School of Theatre, acknowledges the dilemma with student-created work, which can sometimes push boundaries. "While you want [the students] to learn, and you want them to be really challenged by the work that they're doing," she says, "they're still minors who are underage, and we want to protect them a little bit." Berkeley Rep's School of Theatre offers a summer playwriting course, for example, during which students can write literally whatever they want for their assignments. If the work is to be shared, however, the teacher reviews its content first.
"If the language is earned, they can swear," Fink says. "We haven't had to deal with any nudity—and my concern about that [would be] more about: 'Are we putting the actors in a position where they can succeed, or are we doing something that is unnecessary and gratuitous in terms of their experience? It's less an issue of censorship and more that we want to be sensitive to who the other kids are in the room. We've had students who are dealing with mental health issues, with issues of poverty, with themselves or their friends [considering] suicide, of eating disorders—there's a lot that is not immediately disclosed. You don't know what people are bringing to the table. And with something that's as personal and potentially vulnerable as writing, we want to be really protective of everyone's space, but give them space to express themselves as well."
It's also common for Berkeley Rep School of Theatre students to attend the theatre's "Teen Nights," which fall on the first preview for every show. For $10, the company provides teens with dinner, a ticket to the show, and a preshow chat with one of the artists involved. Some teens catch every single show on Berkeley Rep's main stage during a given season—which can include some challenging material.
"We do not edit or censor the theatre that we take them to," says Fink. "We view it as the way that they are developing their own theatrical vocabulary. How do you do it responsibly? You have conversations about it. On our way there, we're talking about what we're seeing, and then we're having conversations about it afterward. And," Fink adds, "they can handle these plays more than most adults I see in the audience." The result of this kind of full-frontal exposure to adult theatre seems unilaterally positive: "When teens do this over the course of their four years in high school," Fink says, "it develops them into pretty sophisticated theatergoers." And who wouldn't welcome more of those in the Bay Area?
But Fink distinguishes between a teen being an audience member watching challenging material and being a student acting in it or writing it, especially for an audience of his or her peers. In the latter case, she says, there are hot topics that warrant special handling.
"It's all the normal things you would expect," she says. "Love and sexuality, having a voice, feeling like they belong, being accepted, finding their way. It's not necessarily 'provocative' stuff. It's really about, 'Where is my place in the world?' 'How can I make my mark in the world?' 'And I need you—"you" being the whole adult world—to see and recognize me for who I am.' So, we're teaching skills, but we're also giving them a space where they can feel like they can express themselves, where they will be heard and witnessed. We need to create a space where they can experiment but they can experiment safely."
Michael Berry-Berlinski, chair of the theatre department at the audition-based, conservatory-style Oakland School for the Arts (OSA), agrees that educators have a responsibility to balance artistic exploration and sensitivity to individual circumstances. An unusual turn of events around a student-created project headed to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival brought that message home, loud and clear, a year and a half ago: "The students did a piece called Signs of Our Occupy that got quite a bit of attention here in the Bay Area," Berry-Berlinski says. "It was kind of Vagina Monologues-esque, in that it was a series of monologues written and performed by our students. And each monologue, three to four minutes long, was based upon a picket sign that was found at the Occupy Movement. It was very powerful, because [the students] had to identify with the picket sign, and then write their piece based on that."
What happened as the project developed, however, was unexpected and dismaying. "It came kind of out of left field," Berry-Berlinski says. "We had 14 actors, 13 of which were very, very pro-Occupy—and one who was very pro-police, whose father is a sergeant in the OPD [Oakland Police Department]. That brought up many personal reflections and commentary about the whole movement, and racism, and oppression. And it got really, really ugly, quite quickly into that process."
Student actors in Maxim Gorky's The Lower Depths, Ruth Asawa School of the Arts Drama Studio, Spring 2012.
Photo: Larry Rosenberg
The solution, Berry-Berlinski decided, was to reexamine the work with the students as a team. "We really had to pause and look at the angle from which we were presenting this piece as a whole," he says. "We ended up revising and altering a couple of the approaches from the side of the Occupy folks. I'd thought for a while that it was going to be something that we were not going to be able to bounce back from, because the anger, and the issues, and the parental involvement was so intense. The kids and the faculty and the parents really overcame a lot of obstacles with that show to be able to make that work, but it was quite a struggle."
But even this unlooked-for unpleasantness, he believes, provided valuable learning for the students involved about the necessity and value of honoring the perspectives of others, even (and especially) people with whom they may not agree. And it seems doubtful that that would've been the case if everything had gone flawlessly—what matters more, in cases like this, is how educators teach the way through conflicts.
"What I really try to get them to understand," Berry-Berlinski says, "is that 99.9% of the time that [there's something] they don't agree with, don't like, aren't gonna listen to, aren't gonna do, et cetera, it's because they are in that moment very much in touch with that which they don't like or understand or accept about who they are. And so I have them see that commonality."
Berry-Berlinski has long been linking the difficult issues in the plays he directs to larger life lessons. He says, "Seven years ago, I walked in the door [to run the OSA theatre department], and five weeks later they were opening the first show of their season, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. And I told Donn Harris, our executive director, 'The show's been cast, you've already picked the season, which I can understand; and I'm just going to let you know, I'm not going to water this down. We're not going to censor this, we're going to deliver the text as it's written."
He knew that the resulting production would be a bit of a shock to some. "At that time," says Berry-Berlinski, "[we had] a community and an audience that was used to a particular form of theatre, and Cuckoo's Nest certainly didn't fall within that. For me, I saw the opportunity for students to learn about censorship, to learn about freedom of speech, to learn about what it is to be an artist and to work within the confines of environment that may go very much against who you are individually, morally or internally."
How did he prepare the OSA community? Through open dialogue with stakeholders. "Certainly with parents and guardians of these students," Berry-Berlinski says, "who [were] inner-city Oakland youth at the time, [who] came from a pretty substantial religious angle, it was challenging. But it was all transparency. It was about the value of what the students were learning, about what's appropriate language and conversation, and how do we apply that in the classroom, and then how that shifts the moment you walk into the larger world of the school, and the even larger world of the community."
As of this writing, OSA is preparing to present Rent as its musical for the year—and not the school edition, either. "I don't do any 'high school' versions of anything," Berry-Berlinski says. "The program is based on what I know of the ability and the discipline of our students, and they rise to that." At the same time, don't expect to see the standard Broadway version of Rent; as in the school edition (recently performed at Berkeley Playhouse), the song "Contact" has been cut. "For me," says Berry-Berlinski, "[the song] doesn't advance the story, and it is not something that, as an educator and as an artist, I'm comfortable watching a sixth-, seventh- or eighth-grader view in an educational setting, much less perform."
But even this decision wasn't made in a vacuum. Instead, Berry-Berlinski involved the student cast in discussions about the artistic choices that faced them. "I don't just jump into a rehearsal process," he says. "I spend a week and a half to two weeks doing dramaturgy and table reads. Of course, there are many themes and ideas around a particular play; and [the students and I] pick out two or three or four that we really want to focus in on, and the students have an active role in telling that story. So they are, from day one, heavily involved in understanding how they arrive at a decision, and what their choices will lead to. It's really about examining the issues, talking about what we're going to do overall thematically with the show, and why we're keeping pieces in and why we're not."
That effort to create dialogue pays off all year long, not just during the performances. "It's a two-way street," says Berry-Berlinski. "I trust students will rise to the occasion and do that work, and the parents and administration trust that I'm leading the students in a way that empowers them, educates them, expands their ideals as artists. I think the best example of that is when I came to Donn two and a half years ago, and said, 'I'm going to produce Equus next year.' He sort of sits back in his chair and says, 'Of course you are.' You know? 'Of course you're going to produce Equus.'"
Of the play, which is widely regarded as a masterpiece and contains nudity and sexual content, Berry-Berlinski says, "We were able to stage it in a responsible way that would allow us to still do the things we needed to do. And it all had to do with trust and an understanding from a parent group that knew what we were doing with that piece, and why it was so valuable for the students."
| Speak Like This [the prayer play] at Berkeley Rep School of the Arts Teen One-Acts Festival, 2011. Photo: Cheshire Isaacs
Phillip Rayher, director of the theatre program at San Francisco's Ruth Asawa School of the Arts (SOTA), also usually directs the department's annual mainstage production. Like OSA, the school selects by audition, and the training is conservatory-style; all of the curriculum is required, including three years of playwriting. And, as at Berkeley Rep School of Theatre, SOTA students just beginning to write plays sometimes employ obscene language and depict sexual or other adult situations. Rayher recalls, "We used to say, 'We do not want to curtail your voice, so write whatever you feel, write whatever you think,' It's like improv. For improv, the whole rule had always been early on, 'Don't censor.' And we ended up with tons of swearing."
Over time, however, Rayher feels that this permissiveness helps students progress more rapidly toward truly mature writing. "You're going to be in a closed classroom with people just swearing their heads off," he says, "saying all kinds of sexual [things]—and then growing out of it, saying, 'Well, it's not fun anymore. It's just dumb.' They had to do it so that they knew it wasn't important. Then we end up saying, 'OK, now it's time to do the writing for the audience.'"
For the year-end performances of student plays, Rayher observes, profanity isn't a problem. "The thing we really had to cut was too much teenage angst," he says. "It was just driving us and the audience crazy. So they're only allowed one teenage angst play in the evening. We put a stop to it, but we also helped them grow out of it; it's like half and half."
In terms of the scripts the department produces, Rayher actually feels a duty to choose challenging material, partially because of the current landscape of American theatre. "There's a list put out by the Educational Theatre Association of the top 10 plays done every year," he says, "and that list hasn't changed since 1940. The schools are doing I Remember Mama. And you go, 'My god, they're still doing that?"
In contrast, SOTA students have performed Nickel and Dimed by Joan Holden of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, as well as Hair (sans drug song and nudity), the daring and dark Marat/Sade, and Lower Depths by Russian master Maxim Gorky. "I have to take plays that I know I can cast and stretch these guys a little bit," Rayher says. "[Some people say,] 'Oh my god, Lower Depths is so depressing,' but it's a production that the kids will probably never do again. This is probably the only time they're going to do this. We're the last bastion of being able to do some of those things."
Fink, Berry-Berlinski and Rayher all credit the freedom their students enjoy to one thing: open communication about the school's goals before there's a crisis. Fink can't remember an occasion where parents or students voiced concern about a performance's content: "I don't have any specific examples, I think because we have so many conversations with our teaching staff about it ahead of time," she says. And at both OSA and SOTA, communication with parents about educational content begins before a student has even enrolled. "We address this in the beginning of the audition process," says Berry-Berlinski. "It would be silly to say that we don't ever have any questions that come up, but I would say 96 to 97 percent of our parents are coming to OSA['s] theatre program for that very reason—because it gives the kids the opportunity for that exploration, that understanding, to be able to explore issues that are relevant to them."
"We've been very, very lucky," says Rayher. "I have them come to a meeting at the beginning of the year where we pretty much lay out everything we do, and what we're training for, and all of that. After that, they really don't ask."
Laura Brueckner is digital content manager of Theatre Bay Area. She holds a Ph.D. in dramaturgy from UC San Diego. She also serves as resident dramaturg for Crowded Fire Theater and as a residency producer for HowlRound.