Hartford Drama: Who Decides Whether the Show Goes On?

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When a Maryland superintendent of schools moved this month to bar an eighth-grade class in his district from putting on a play he thought was "inappropriate," in part because a conservative parents' group might object to it, he did not anticipate that he would soon feel, as he later said, that he "had a tiger by the tail."

But students were upset, state and local teachers' unions and the American Civil Liberties Union (aclu) threatened to sue, and calls poured in from reporters across the country.

It later turned out that the parents' group the superintendent was worried about did not care whether the play was produced or not. And, after discussions with teachers, administrators, and aclu lawyers, the superintendent, Alfonso A. Roberty, reversed his decision to prohibit the student production.

But the incident has focused the attention of many teachers, administrators, and civil-liberties experts on the clash of educational and community values in school theatrics that frequently leads to an informal self-censorship by school officials--and sometimes to an overt act of censorship like that of the Harford County, Md., superintendent.

Mr. Roberty's decision involved Inherit the Wind, which is a dramatic recreation of the 1925 trial of John Scopes, the Tennessee science teacher who violated state law by teaching the theory of evolution. The aclu suit would have been launched on behalf of the two middle-school teachers, Thomas E. Berg and Virginia Huller, who had proposed to produce the play.

Most observers agree that while actions such as Mr. Roberty's are relatively rare, the question of what kinds of plays students should participate in at school is a recurring and problematic one for teachers and school officials.

Among the approximately 50,000 junior- and senior-high-school plays produced in this country every year, they say, cases of formal censorship seldom occur. Much more common, they note, are non-publicized types of censorship in which teachers either decide not to press the matter and thereby jeopardize their standing in the school or the community, or know their own community well enough to have a sense of what will and will not be allowed before they choose a play.

"You only hear about these things when the teacher is somewhat militant," said Donald A. Corathers, editor of Dramatics magazine, a publication for drama teachers and the some 35,000 American high-school drama students who are mem-bers of the International Thespian Society.

"But we feel there is not a great deal of overt censorship of plays," he said. "We also feel, though, that the community, and especially the conservative elements of a community, have a way of working their will simply by being there."

In a survey conducted for the thespian society two years ago, more than 60 percent of the drama teachers who responded said pressure from their communities and from school officials "places constraints" on the process of play selection.

Mr. Roberty's decision, for instance, was based not only on his anxiety about the reactions of parents, but also on his feeling, he said, that the play would place the eighth-grade students in the middle of the current creationism controversy.

In the end, Mr. Roberty, the teachers, and the aclu agreed to a compromise offered by an ad hoc panel of administrators, which provides for one or perhaps two performances of the play in the evening, eliminating the traditional daytime matinee for the student body.

That way, according to John C. Roemer, executive director of the Maryland aclu, "no parents will be angry because their child is forced to see it."

If the compromise had failed and the case had gone to court, there would have been little legal precedent to predict its outcome, he added. In the only other similar case to be heard in court, the banning of the play was upheld.

That case involved the play Pippin, a musical account of the life of Charlemagne's son. Last year, Jocelyn Coverdale, an English teacher in the Caesar-Rodney High School in the Camden-Wyoming area of Delaware, proposed to have students produce an "excised" version of the play, said John Williams, the Delaware lawyer who tried the case for the Delaware chapter of the aclu.

The superintendent of schools canceled the play in mid-rehearsal following a complaint by the school-board president's brother, who found the play sacrilegious and obscene.

The Delaware aclu filed suit against the district in the U.S. District Court in Wilmington last March, on the grounds that the students' and parents' federal civil rights had been violated, including their constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of speech, expression, and assembly.

The judge in the case ruled that there had been no violation, saying that the selection of a school play was similar to a curriculum decision, and that the decision was consistent with a certain "expertise" granted to educators in curriculum matters.

"The gist of this case is that play selection is part of the educational curriculum," Mr. Williams said, "and that the administration of the school has the right to set it. We took the position that plays are extra-curricular."

According to Mr. Williams, the judge used the "curriculum rationale'' to distinguish this case from the 1969 Tinker case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of students in an Iowa school district to wear black armbands to protest the Vietnam War, on the grounds that it was a constitutionally protected expression of free speech.

The aclu appealed the Pippin case in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia. That court upheld the original decision in an opinion issued Dec. 29.

The plaintiffs in the case subsequently decided not to petition for a hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court, thus ending the case.

Mr. Williams said there had been no clear precedent for the case. "There are cases dealing with removal of high-school library books, with the rights of students on newspapers and yearbooks, but high-school drama is still a hot potato."

"I would think that the Inherit the Wind case would probably [have been] a better case factually than ours," he said. "I remember that play being about as antiseptic a play as possible, no obscenity. It's more of a case of people not wanting certain views espoused."

Another case, which as yet has not gone to court but may end up there, involves another high-school drama teacher whose choice of a play was censored.

Two years ago this month, Arthur E. Smelkinson, then a drama teacher at Old Mill High School in Anne Arundel County, Md., decided to produce, at his students' suggestion, a "sanitized" version of the musical Hair.

The principal refused to approve the choice, and after what Mr. Smelkinson called a "mild appeal" to the district's curriculum review board, which also disapproved of the selection, he chose another play, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

The Old Mill Senior High School principal, Leroy G. Carter, refused to allow that play as well, partly because, as he said at the time, "There are plays available that portray an uplifting, cheerful, happy entertainment experience. All of us could use more of these. There is enough of the seamy, violent, frightening, lewd, unhappy side of life portrayed on tv, in the movie theaters, and in the newspapers and magazines and in real life."

"It was an edited version," Mr. Smelkinson said, "but he wanted me to take out the seduction scene where Billy Bibbitt loses his virginity. That was the final sticking point."

This time, Mr. Smelkinson followed a long process of formal appeals, and at each turn the principal's decision was supported--"until I appealed to the Maryland State Board of Education," Mr. Smelkinson said. "They assigned a hearing examiner who said this was basically a case of prior restraint, and that the type of evaluations Hair and Cuckoo's Nest got were purely subjective," he added.

The state-appointed examiner said Mr. Carter's criteria in banning the play were "constitutionally suspect [because they] revolve entirely around subjective taste, i.e., whether a play is 'uplifting' or 'seamy.' Such criteria give no guideposts for future behavior for students or teachers. Is King Lear depressing? Is Oedipus Rex, with its emphasis on guilt, incest, and murder, too seamy for production?"

"According to my lawyer," Mr. Smelkinson said, "nine times out of ten, school boards will adopt the findings of the hearing examiners without question. But this time they referred it to the assistant attorney general for further research." The case is now two years old.

Mr. Smelkinson, who is on leave from the school studying for a Master of Fine Arts in directing at George Washington University, made his case the subject of a 250-page thesis.

He and his lawyer are waiting for the state's assistant attorney general to reach a final decision on the case before deciding whether to take it to court. "If it does go to court, there is always the possibility of mootness because the students have graduated," he said.

Mr. Smelkinson agreed with Mr. Corathers's perception that a great number of high-school drama censorship cases go unreported.

"During the course of this, I've gotten letters from many drama teachers about censorship," said Mr. Smelkinson. "I got one letter from a teacher in Utah. They wouldn't let him do Godspell because they didn't like the idea of Jesus dressed as a clown.

"So often, principals underestimate the minds of the community," he said, commenting on the Harford case. "And even if it is something controversial, this is a public school we're dealing with here, and they're in the business of broadening choice, not narrowing it.

"It is very common that there is arbitrary censorship of high-school drama," he continued. "Most teachers accept it. Perhaps they fear for their jobs. And until a precedent is set in this area, people will have no legal point on which to base their rulings."

Conversations with people involved in high-school drama suggest that the amount of freedom junior- and senior-high-school drama teachers have to choose plays varies widely.

Joan C. Hahn, a high-school drama teacher in what she calls the "very conservative," mostly Mormon Granite school district in Salt Lake City, Utah, has a very clear idea about what plays she can do in her school.

"I know what they're going to deny," she says. "We have to really moderate the swearing. I did Mame and had to cut 99 percent of the swearing in it. We can't smoke on stage, we can't do a play that deals with homosexuality, incest, or rape.

"Godspell has never been done by a high school in the state of Utah and never will be," she adds. "Mormons are just not going to stand for Matthew being a rock-and-roller."

Like all teachers in the district, Ms. Hahn must follow a formal application procedure with every play she wants to produce. A formal review board consisting of the district's music director and the head of the language-arts curriculum reviews the proposed play and returns it. It is either approved without modification, approved with modifications attached, or rejected.

"Agnes Gooch, an unmarried pregnant girl in Mame, had to become a married pregnant girl," she says. "Or in South Pacific, one character calls another a stingy bastard. In that case you get a note saying the 'bastard' has to be taken out."

The district established the procedure two years ago, following a controversy surrounding a high-school production of Come Blow Your Horn, which was eventually canceled because of protests by several parents.

"We always had unwritten censorship," Ms. Hahn says. "Now we have written."

Although Ms. Hahn says she strongly resents that she and her principal no longer have the right to decide which plays are right for her school, she would never consider taking legal action over a play.

"I just don't want that kind of hassle," she says. "There are a lot of good plays out there you don't have any trouble with, and those other plays can be done by community theater groups and colleges."

In recent years, Ms. Hahn has produced such plays as Mame, Blithe Spirit, The Mousetrap, See How They Run, Bye Bye Birdie, Peter Pan, and Rumpelstiltskin.

"I see a lot of things at the international [Thespian] conference that I could never do," she says. "For example, you could never modify Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to where I could do it."

On the other hand, Ronald L. Kenney, a drama teacher in the Webster Groves school district outside St. Louis, can produce virtually any play he chooses, including Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which he will present at the Thespian conference in June with a cast of high-school students.

Mr. Kenney says there are no rules governing play selection in his district. He says he simply does not think about the possibility of negative community reaction.

Among the plays he has produced in recent years are Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance and Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party.

Although he is free from any censorship, Mr. Kenney says the possibility still bothers him. "There are people like that," he says, "and I've seen them drive out a lot of [teachers] over the years."

Vol. 01, Issue 18

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