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Controversial High School Theatre Productions

Our upcoming production of Sheri Wilner's Kingdom City focuses on a controversial high school production of The Crucible. A New York director's production of the Arthur Miller classic will involve racy material, students kissing, and more acts considered to be lewd by many in the conservative Midwestern town, leadng to a local youth minister threatening to cancel the production. Inspired by true events, we thought it might be interesting to take a look back at some other theatre productions that have been censored over the years.

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Grease and The Crucible - Fulton High School

The story that served as inspiration for Kingdom City! After a fall production of the musical Grease offended some locals in the small, conservative town of Fulton, Missouri, the school's spring production of Arthur Miller's The Crucible was preemptively cancelled and replaced with a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Drama teacher Wendy DeVore had edited the script to Grease, removing profanity and references to weed and underage drinking wherever should could specifically to avoid this problem, even advertising the production as being PG-13. But, a month later, the district superintendent received letters complaining that the production glorified, "immoral behavior veiled behind the excuse of acting out a play."

Superintendent Mark Enderle had approved Grease without reading it, and to avoid further problems with the community, Enderle cancelled the planned production The Crucible. Enderle said that, though he wasn't entirely comfortable with this decision, "I can't do anything about what's already happened, but do I want to spend the spring saying, 'Yeah, we crossed the line again'?" Students and teachers all offered thoughts on why exactly the play, which is studied by juniors at the high school in class, was cancelled: that it featured death, that it didn't portray a positive time in the history of American Christianity. While Enderle acknowledged that the replacement show, A Midsummer Night's Dream was "not a totally vanilla play," it would likely be better received than a show that was described online as the story of "[a] 17th century Salem woman [accusing] an ex-lover's wife of witchery."

For more info, click here to read the New York Times article that inspired Kingdom City.

Legally Blonde - Loveland High School

In a case that made national headlines, in 2012 a local choreographer and director was fired over her production of Legally Blonde: the Musical. Sonja Hansen, a local dancer and choreographer, had worked at Loveland High School before, choreographing Beauty and the Beast and directing Seussical and Grease at the high school before. Though the school board and administration had approved the show earlier in the year, and failed to observe rehearsals, they approached Hansen halfway through the show's run, citing problems including "bootie-bounce dance moves" the use of profane and offensive words and moments in the show, such as the word "skank" and the song "There Right There!" (known colloquially as 'Gay or European'), and the depiction of a champagne party (Loveland has a zero-tolerance alcohol policy). Though the students were allowed to finish the run, which was well-received by the community, Hansen's employment with the school was terminated, with the district superintendent citing miscommunication between the board and Hansen as chief reason for the split.

You can click here for more info on this case!

Bang Bang You're Dead and Godspell - Buckeye Trail High School

This high school in Ohio saw two of it's planned productions for the year preemptively cancelled, the first being William Mastrosimone's Bang Bang You're Dead. Written with the Spanish River Drama Department in Boca Raton, FL, and based on the actual shootings that occurred in Oregon's Thurston High School in 1998, the play is designed to open a dialogue about serious violence in high schools; Mastrosimone has said that the play is "to be performed by kids, for kids,” and there are no rights charges, so schools can do the show for free. But, students and parents' pleas that the show opens a worthwhile discussion was not enough to overturn the Buckeye Trail's Board of Education, which cited a zero-tolerance policy for violence as the reason.

The second production cancelled might be surprising to some: Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak's musical Godspell. While many assume that most cancelled or censored art pieces come from culturally and religiously conservative places, in this case school administrators for the public district felt the show would be “a breach of church-state separation.” However, based on a YouTube playlist, it appears that Buckeye Trail High School was eventually allowed to perform Godspell a few years after its cancellation.

You can click here for more info on this case!

Blithe Spirit - South Walton High School

In Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, a high school production of Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit was challenged by locals. The play tells the story of a socialite and writer who tries conduction a seance with a medium to gather material for his next novel. But, instead of material, he brings to the real world the ghost of his first wife, who then spends the play haunting his new wife and disrupting the marriage. Locals complained that the play would “encourage exploration of witchcraft and the occult.” Though it turned out that none of the complainants actually had children in the school district, school district policy still mandated that the show be evaluated. Eventually, the show was edited and moved off-campus, with a production of Harvey also taking its place.

The Laramie Project - Ottumwa High School

In 2013, a production of the Moises Kaufman & the Tectonic Theatre Project's The Laramie Project in Ottumwa, Iowa was cancelled by the high school's principal. The piece is an in-depth look at the hate-based murder of gay teenager Matthew Sheppard, and due to the material has seen many uphill battles in youth productions. In this case, the Ottumwa administration felt that the dark subject matter was "too adult" for high school students to perform. Additionally, since "the focus of our Ottumwa High School productions to be for the entire family,” says the district superintendent, this material would be inappropriate for younger audience members. Luckily, the show would go on, as the production moved off-campus for its run, and featured the high school's students in their intended production.

For more info on this specific case, you can just click here!

Rent - Multiple Schools

Though Rent is among the most well known musicals of the past few decades, dozens of performances in places like Newport Beach (CA), Bridgeport (WV), Red Wing (MN), and suburban Dallas (TX) have been cancelled, with almost every case citing the language in the piece as well as the material being generally inappropriate for high-school age students (though in Newport Beach, the principal of Corona del Mar High School apparently cited the show's handling of “prostitution and homosexuality”). But, the show is well-loved enough and considered important enough that many cancelled productions of the musical have been restored after successful campaigns by locals, students, and parents, such as in Trumbull, Connecticut. Plus, there is now a School Edition of the musical, with edited language and songs, available for licensing.

And for more info on our production of Sheri Wilner's Kingdom City, just click here!

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