Teachers ask us all the time for ‘cuts.’ Since we deal with schools, we’re pretty flexible when it comes to some things such as language. But it really makes me crazy when administrators censors topics that are clearly important to expose students to. How do they expect students to learn, to make decisions, to become human?
Censorship wins when we are silent. When we begin to self-censor ourselves. I am re-posting an email from fellow writer Jonathan Dorf which he originally posted on the plays and playwrights listserve about his recent experience in Missouri. He encourages any and all to spread the post far and wide.
I’m saddened to report that the production of Thank You for Flushing My Head in the Toilet and other rarely used expressions and Now You See Me, my plays about bullying and school violence, respectively, has been cancelled less than a month before opening at Smithton Middle School in Columbia, Missouri.
The story was first reported on Sunday, February 9 in the Columbia Missourian, the University of Missouri daily newspaper. A more informative (and closer to the truth) story then ran Tuesday, February 12, in the Columbia Daily Tribune.
The school’s stated reason for not allowing the production to continue, as you’ll read in the Tribune article: the plays were too metaphorical for middle school students to grasp their “message.” What’s puzzling is that both plays, which illustrate the need to reach out and create community, have been consistently used as part of prevention programs nationwide, and such programs have often included students of this age. Further, the teacher, Debbie Baldwin, had prepared pre and post-show programs, including discussions with me (yes, I was supposed to visit for a week) and a crisis counselor, to help the students process the material.
Now You See Me, a highly theatrical, seriocomic look at what causes students to resort to violence, was commissioned and developed by the Choate Rosemary Hall Summer Arts Conservatory (CT), where it was performed by a mixed group of middle and high school students. It went on to premiere at Oak Park High School in Kansas City (MO) and has since had numerous productions at middle and high schools, including a New York production by City Lights Youth Theatre (another cast of middle and high school students) on a double bill with William Mastrosimone’s celebrated play, Bang Bang, You’re Dead!. There, Bill and I participated in a panel discussion about teen violence prevention with the plays’ director and professors from Columbia and Harvard, moderated by Dan Abrams of MSNBC. City Lights later used the play, which is published by Brooklyn Publishers (Odessa, TX), for violence prevention at underserved middle schools in the Bronx.
Thank You for Flushing… follows a pair of bullied students who stand at the crossroads-to save themselves, will they be forced to become bullies? Published by Playscripts, it has, in the 15 months since it premiered at the Springfield Academy of Arts and Academics (Springfield, OR; directed by Michael Fisher, who directed the premiere of Bang Bang, You’re Dead! as well), already been produced 20 times across the United States and Canada, with many more productions slated to take place later in the year. Said Troy Herbort, who directed the Socorro High School (El Paso, TX) production, “In my 17 years of teaching, I have rarely found a script that has touched the cast, crew, student and adult audience in such a profound way. Upon our first reading of the play, our company stated that it was a play that we had to produce. My students felt like they needed to do this for their school.”
Thank You for Flushing… has its own website where prospective productions can find support in the form of a study guide prepared by Hagerty High School (Oviedo, FL) students under the supervision of teacher Michelle Backel, anti-bullying resource links, notes and photos from past productions, testimonials and more. Middle school productions are upcoming, and many of the play’s high school productions have gone out of their way to bus in audiences of middle school students or tour the play to them, using the play as a jumping-off point for discussions about bullying and violence. Among those planning a middle school tour is a high school in Omaha, where months ago a troubled young man opened fire in a shopping mall.
I have been in touch with the Dramatists Guild of America–as you’ll see from reading the second article, which interviews Guild executive director of business affairs Ralph Sevush and me, among others–and I’m hopeful that the Guild will shine a bright light on this.
Censorship is greatly disturbing for many reasons, but it’s particularly disappointing in a case like this. Bullying and violence in schools are major problems (the irony here is that censorship is a form of bullying), and not talking about them isn’t going to make them go away. On the other hand, having that discussion always creates an opportunity for positive change.