Episode 168: Putting on a play your administration doesn’t like
Sometimes you want to do a show on a tough subject matter. Sometimes your administration doesn’t want you to. In this episode, teacher Chris Evans talks about his experience producing a play on gun violence. How did he communicate with his administration? What was the response? What advice does he have for others?
Welcome to TFP – The Theatrefolk Podcast – the place to be for Drama teachers, Drama students, and Theatre educators everywhere.
I’m Lindsay Price, resident playwright for Theatrefolk.
Hello! I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening!
All right, this is Episode 168.
You can find any links to this episode in the show notes which are at Theatrefolk.com/episode168. Surprise, surprise!
Today, we are talking communication – the communication of a play to an audience that’s got some tough subject matter, all about communicating tough subject matter to both a receptive audience and a not receptive audience, and also the communication that has to happen between a teacher and their administration about doing a play with tough subject matter.
The title of this podcast is: “Putting On a Play Your Administration Doesn’t Like – How That Is Not an Impossible Situation.”
We recently published a script by Teacher Chris Evans called Clowns with Guns. It is an unflinching look at gun violence in schools. It’s one that many people were offended by when it was done, including Chris’ administration.
So, what was that experience like for Chris? How did he keep a positive communication going with his administration and with all those involved with the show?
You don’t need to hear that from me! Let’s hear it directly from Chris!
Let’s get to it and find out.
LINDSAY: I am talking to Chris Evans.
CHRIS: Hello, hello, hello!
LINDSAY: Hello, hello, hello!
Tell everybody where in the world you are.
CHRIS: I am smack dab in the middle of the state of Montana – Great Falls, Montana. We’re about 90 miles north of the capital of Helena. We are on the plains. It’s a beautiful 91 degrees and humid.
LINDSAY: All the good things!
LINDSAY: There are folks who are very attracted to 91 and humid.
CHRIS: I was born and raised in Downtown Phoenix, Arizona in July. My mother never lets me forget that.
LINDSAY: So, there’s no excuses for you – no excuses for you.
CHRIS: This is jacket weather right now, so…
LINDSAY: All right then! All right, everyone, put on your jackets and we’re going to start this. Actually, you know, put on your jackets, strap yourselves in. We’re going to have a very – I think – interesting conversation – I think – a necessary conversation for a lot of folks out there who might be in the same shoes or they’re afraid to get into the issues.
What we’re going to talk about today is doing a play that your administration might not like you to do – or, more strongly, does not want you to do.
Chris, you were in this situation.
CHRIS: Yes, I was.
Basically, the backstory in this is I was looking for a play to do at our state thespian convention which happens every February here and I can’t consistently do a theatre form play. Otherwise, the secret’s going to be out. And so, I decided to write one and I started, this was around the time that mass shootings here in America were just happening almost daily.
I was angry about it so I decided to start writing a play about what seemed to me was acceptance of these shootings happening in America. I wanted to tie it in with a class lesson on absurdity and satire. And so, the play – Clowns with Guns (A Vaudeville) – was born.
Essentially, it takes place in a circus atmosphere, with iconic characters, and a group of audience that I call the Goobers decided to come see the show and they’re happy to see the show. They’re accepting of the show.
What happens as these exhibits – the iconic characters of a cheerleader, a stoner, a bully – as they are taken out in the show, you start to see and question your own acceptance of this. Is this the new normal?
One of the things about the play that people found the strongest was the last line. One of the characters comes on and asks the emcee, “When’s the next show?” The emcee says, “Tomorrow, kid. Probably tomorrow.” That really struck a chord with a lot of people.
LINDSAY: So, we’re talking about a show that has a very strong message and a controversial one, particularly when we’re talking about the school arena. Violence – and particularly gun violence – is something that people get real antsy about, isn’t it?
CHRIS: It is, and they should get antsy about it, Lindsay.
I have situated my room in a way that the teacher that, seven years ago, when I took over, had a desk that was hidden in a corner. If somebody would have come into the room with harm on their minds, he would have never seen it.
And so, you know, I have had to adjust my room to where I can see everybody who comes into the room instantly. That’s something what? Five, seven, ten years ago, teachers didn’t have to think about. Once again, I talk about the new normal and that angers me.
Another thing is we’ve had to go through active shooter training at our school. I now know what live gunshots sound like in our school. That’s the new normal.
As an artist, I wanted to fight back in some way that I could. And so, Clowns with Guns (A Vaudeville) was born.
LINDSAY: I find it fascinating how powerful words can be and how afraid people in the school setting are afraid of words and I don’t know why. You know, I have had teachers tell me that, “Oh, we got money to do a play on bullying and we’re not allowed to show any bullying in the show because, you know, someone who is sitting in the audience would go, ‘Well, that’s a good idea! I should go do that!’” or “We can’t have guns onstage because…” “We can’t have violence onstage because…” “We can’t use that word because…”
I have a play where a teacher is giving up smoking and he talks about giving up smoking and I’ve had teachers come back and say, “We can’t say the word ‘smoking’ onstage.”
You know, when I went to school in 1983, I played Tom in The Glass Menagerie. I was allowed to smoke onstage in a high school setting. That is nowhere near what it is now.
You know, we are a very litigious society. We are a very sensitive society and, in a lot of ways, very rightfully so. But, when it comes down to material like this, one of the things that I sought out was the kids’ approval. I said, “Do you find this appropriate? Do you find this acceptable?” Every person that I showed this play to in my advanced acting class said yes.
You know, I think we forget what the students also go through. Like I wrote, you know, the students have to go through these endless lockdown drills. Like I wrote, they’re the first defense. They will know if somebody is depressed before an administer does, before a teacher does, before a parent does. The students know the reality of these situations and shielding them from it, I think, takes a little bit of trust away.
I’m not saying we should do a Tarantino film in high school. We shouldn’t do Pulp Fiction – god, no – but let’s talk about things that these kids, these students live with every single day.
Now, let’s put in the adult factor which says, “No, we can’t talk about this because, if we don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist.”
CHRIS: Well, ultimately, if it comes down to “no,” I have to follow that. I did a full disclosure in something that I wrote. I decided not to do Clowns with Guns at our school before we took it to the thespian convention because, the Spring before, there was a suicide at our school. I’m not heartless and I am sensitive to how these kids feel.
There are a group of fragile kids out there. I had a talk with an old principal of ours. I said, “I wondered when we got so fragile.” And so, I think you have to be sensitive to that.
When we did our rehearsals, I opened rehearsals to parents absolutely. I opened rehearsals to administration. One of the things about my rehearsals and one of the things this ex-principal said, “Never make it a surprise. Communicate.”
LINDSAY: Yeah, you were about to say the word “communicate” and I think that’s really key when we’re talking about subjects that are controversial or that are going to have differing points of view. I think that that phrase – “Don’t make it a surprise” – that is something to follow in this situation. I think it’s an excellent thing and I think it’s also an excellent thing to have that open dialogue with parents – to have open rehearsals. Actually, then what can happen is nobody can say they didn’t know.
CHRIS: Right, and I’ve done some pretty controversial stuff at our school.
One of the things I’ve always said, “The doors to the theatre have always been open.” I did a show – I want to say two years ago – that had live gunshots in it. Before rehearsal, I did a schoolwide email saying, “You will be hearing a track pistol fired in our auditorium. This is rehearsal for a play.” You have to cover yourself because of sensitivities.
Yeah, communicate, communicate, communicate.
That way, the administration knows and you have to give them an opportunity to say no.
LINDSAY: I’m nodding my head. You can’t see that.
CHRIS: Yeah. You know, you have to give them the opportunity. Number one, it saves strain on a principal. We just have a new principal right now and one of the reasons that I didn’t open it up to our school is I didn’t want him catching the billions of phone calls that would have probably come.
And so, when we did it in rehearsal, the day before we leave for a thespian convention, we always do seven runs of the show of whatever show we’re taking. There was an English class that caught wind of it and I invited nobody to come see this. This English class, they were rightfully warned and this English class saw it and they saw the educational value of the satire of this. They saw that this was not an entertainment. This was a wake-up call. He brought all of his classes and he said, from an educational standpoint, it opened up discussion like nothing has ever opened up discussion in his English classes before.
The principal saw it and the word he used was “offended.” Our school resource officer came and saw it and the word he used was “offended.” They were very surprised we did as well at the Montana State Thespian Convention as we did. We ultimately, here in Great Falls, do live in a very conservative town. But, as long as communication is open, as long as we give the option for kids to, you know, I don’t force anybody to be in a play but kids jumped onboard Clowns with Guns like you wouldn’t believe.
When we did it at the Montana State Thespian Convention, the same kind of reaction. The minute it was done, there was a young man who sought me out in the theatre as I’m walking down to help break down and he told me how offended his school was – that they were crying and shaking during the show. I celebrate that young man. Good.
I sit there and I really have thought about the kind of theatre that I was taught to do and this is theatre – and I tell the kids in my class – if your audience walks out apathetic, then why do it? If they walk out angry, sad, happy, humming the tunes, then you’ve won.
And so, when I factor in my anger with what seemed to be the apathy or the acceptance of these shootings along with what I could do, this show became a reality.
LINDSAY: You know what, a couple of things have struck me. Again, I’m going to hit on the word “communication” for a couple of reasons.
One, your anger with the situation certainly did not translate into, you know, you’re not forcing any kids to be in this – in your ager. You have an open communication, clearly, with your principal who felt open enough to tell you exactly what he thought.
LINDSAY: And that he trusted you because he didn’t stop you to do your show. I think that that right there is the key to all of this – that a kid felt so strongly that he came and sought you ought and gave his clear feelings and you didn’t yell at him. You didn’t say, “You’re wrong!”
CHRIS: Not in any way, shape, or form.
LINDSAY: Exactly. That I think, when we’re dealing with controversy or strong messages, when you’re doing plays that people don’t want you to do, communication just seems to be you’re not trying to – here I am, having trouble communicating – communication is the key. That’s really what’s going to perhaps make you able to do a show that is not the norm.
CHRIS: Yeah. For every person who was not happy with me at all, there were three that wanted the script right away.
There was another young lady that was sent me way. I have a very good friend who is a high school teacher about 160 miles south of here and he sent this young girl to me. She, in a very classy, rational way, wanted to know why I wrote it. I said, “As an artist, we are presented with two choices – we are presented with the choice to do nothing or do something.”
I was taught never to do nothing. I was taught to do something. And so, I did something.
Ultimately, is this going to change anything in a big picture? No, probably not. But, when I had one of my senior girls play the shooter in the show and there is a moment that I call the “excuse ballet” which was done to Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy and she’s going through all these excuses, it made her more empathetic. She saw this character crying out for help. It opened up these kids’ world.
There was a young man who was a very, very religious young man and he had a problem with one line where I was talking about two characters named Thoughts and Prayers. There was a line, I’m paraphrasing, “We sent Thoughts and Prayers.” And then, one other character says, “We didn’t do anything.” He took offense at that and I listened to him and, ultimately, I altered the line – out of respect. I always tell my students, “Look, you can come to me honestly. I don’t have to like it.” But I will listen to everything my students say.
I will communicate – let’s go back to that word – I will communicate with these students. I want the students to have a stake in what we do. The stake was as important to them as it was important to me. Ultimately, that was about our success at the thespian convention. These kids saw that this was a situation that they didn’t like either. Ultimately, our lockdowns began with you hear the speaker come on, then they blast an air-horn, and then a panicked lady goes, “This is a lockdown! This is a lockdown!”
The first ten seconds of a lockdown drill are terrifying. These kids deal with it every year – two or three lockdown drills. Are the lockdown drills necessary? Absolutely. It’s the new normal. And so, these kids walked away from this play with a different view – number one – of satire and absurdity. They saw that not everything has to be realistic.
Nobody is shot – literally shot – onstage. It is all flag guns and it was done stylistically.
There is one live gunshot in the show and it’s offstage.
They saw that not everything has to be realism. You know, you can get a point across, you can affect somebody through satire. You can affect somebody through absurdity. It was a great theatre lesson.
LINDSAY: We’re putting in our keywords here. We have communication and then I think respect is another one. Like, respecting the craft of theatre, right? That, as you just said, it was a teaching moment.
LINDSAY: It’s not just a play. It is a teaching moment – to respect the other side, to respect that people are going to disagree with your side. I think that has to go a long way. It’s interesting, you know, when people talk about theatre changing the world and it’s such a grandiose and, really, it’s a pretentious statement. “Oh, a play, a play is going to do it” except that, if you just whittle it down, like, if you look at everything in the small, like, just one person and if you made one person think…
CHRIS: Then you win.
LINDSAY: Well, that is actually changing the world because we’re moving grains of sand, right?
LINDSAY: And how easy is it to do that, right?
CHRIS: You know, I go back to one of your plays that we did before. Last time we talked, we talked about Chicken Road which was an amazingly powerful piece that forced kids who saw it to deal with grief. How do you deal with grief? Kids talked. You know, we talked to counsellors, we talked about the whole thing. How do you deal with grief?
You know, I had two girls come up who were in the hallway. They were crying and they said, “My friend tried to kill himself a while back. You made me appreciate them so much more.” Theatre can do that.
Along with all the entertainment stuff, look, I like going to a musical. One of my favorite musicals is Sound of Music. I love Sound of Music. But I also like to be challenged. A book will challenge you. Art will challenge you. If somewhere in our lesson plans, if somewhere in our daily life, if we aren’t able to challenge somebody, we don’t have to agree, we don’t have to disagree. But the ability to challenge somebody on a subject that not a lot of people talk about and do it in a way that is respectful, you know, I think theatre stays alive that way.
LINDSAY: Absolutely. We’re talking about situations where teachers do have to think about other things – like their job.
LINDSAY: So, I think that, as we wrap up here, it’s really important to hit these points home that theatre is important and that theatre can be challenging and how do we get past the fear aspect of “if I do this play, am I going to lose my job?” Well…
LINDSAY: Ask, exactly. Communicate.
CHRIS: You know, the principal we have now – and I’ve done a couple of plays where I’ve been called into the office and he said, “Look, Chris, I’m going to let you do what you do. I trust you. I need to let you know I am a very conservative man.” We did Cell Block Tango for one of our variety shows. One of the last names in there is Lipschitz and he said, “How is that spelled?” and I said, “L-I-P-S-C-H-I-T-Z.” He went, “Okay.” Our principal ultimately is protecting 1,400 students and how many hundreds of teachers.
LINDSAY: And then, all their parents.
CHRIS: And all their parents.
LINDSAY: And then, the community.
CHRIS: That’s a big job. If you take the surprise element out of that, at least they can prepare.
And then, the losing of the job, ultimately, if they say no, you’ve got to do what the boss says. You can talk about it. You can debate. But, ultimately, it’s your boss’ answer.
But the ability to communicate to find material that the kids aren’t going to find not challenging, you know, I ultimately want to challenge my students. If they aren’t challenged, then the numbers in my class go down. I’ve got a lot of kids who love walking into that Drama room because they know it’s not going to be “sit down, look at a book for an hour, and go home.” We’re going to be up, we’re going to be about, we’re going to be debating, challenging, and doing some really great theatre.
LINDSAY: Which I think is wonderful.
CHRIS: I do, too.
LINDSAY: That’s what it should be!
CHRIS: I agree.
LINDSAY: Chris, as always, it’s been a lovely conversation with you. I’m really looking forward to Clowns with Guns in the world.
CHRIS: Yeah, me too.
LINDSAY: That’s why we’re doing this, right? We are communicating. There’s no surprises about what this play is about and I think that, for everybody out there who is listening who would love to do something but just feels that it’s not in their world, set up a meeting with your principal. Have a talk. Maybe you can do one monologue, right? It all starts with it’s a grain of sand.
LINDSAY: Okay, thank you so much!
CHRIS: Thank you very much!
LINDSAY: Thank you so much, Chris.
Okay, before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.
Since we’ve been talking about this play by Chris Evans – Clowns with Guns (A Vaudeville) – I just wanted to tell you more about it. This is a brand new play, brand new to our catalogue.
It premiered at the Montana Thespian Festival in 2016 and we’re really pleased and proud that we have something like this that we can share with students. It’s not going to be for everybody. There are going to be administrations and schools that just aren’t going to be able to do this but I know that there are some who are looking for material like this and that’s why we’ve got it.
Clowns with Guns takes a theatrical and absurd look at the repeated and seemingly endless cycle of school violence. It happens, everyone is terribly upset, things continue on as normal, and it happens again.
We really want to point out that this is a mean play. The story is mean. There are guns. The play puts school shooting violence out in the open and forces us to do the same.
That is Clowns with Guns by Chris Evans.
You can have a look at sample pages at Theatrefolk.com or you can click the link in the show notes – Theatrefolk.com/episode168.
Finally, where, oh, where can you find this podcast? We post new episodes every second Tuesday at theatrefolk.com and on our Facebook page and Twitter. You can find us on youtube.com/theatrefolk and on the Stitcher app. You can subscribe to TFP on iTunes. All you have to do is search for the word “Theatrefolk.”
And that’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends. Take care.