Social Issues in Theater Education Probed in New Study

By Erik W. Robelen — December 14, 2012 6 min read
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Theater can be a powerful way for young people to explore difficult social and political issues, but what happens when school administrators or some vocal parents disapprove of a play chosen by a high school drama department? Oftentimes, the pushback leads to scrapping the production altogether or making changes, either to the script or how it’s performed, according to a new national study on the state of theater education.

In a separate blog post, I provide the big picture on the new study on theater education. But I wanted to dive more deeply here into questions of handling touchy social issues in theater, and tussles around freedom of expression and censorship. I’ll also provide the top 10 most popular plays among high schools today. (OK, since you’re probably dying to know, here’s a teaser: A few luminaries make the list, including works by Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, and Oscar Wilde, plus the contemporary play, “The Laramie Project,” inspired by the 1998 murder of a gay University of Wyoming student in Laramie, Wyo.)

Nineteen percent of theater teachers in public high schools who responded to the survey indicated that a play they had selected for production had been challenged before. The three most frequently challenged? “The Laramie Project,” “Urinetown,” and “Rent.” Themes of sexual identity are central to the first and third, the report notes, while the very title Urinetown (a satirical play that targets capitalism and corporate greed, among other things) “may be sufficient grounds for challenge in many communities.”

So, what happened? The most common result, reported by 38 percent of teachers, was that the play simply was not produced. In 17 percent of cases, the play was produced, but only after changing the script. In 11 percent of cases, the play was produced as written, but other changes to the presentation were made to allay concerns. Only one-third of teachers said the script was produced as originally intended.

James Palmarini, the director of educational policy at the Theatre Education Association, which co-sponsored the study with Utah State University, cautioned that these data likely fail to tell the whole story when it comes to censorship.

“What the survey does not say is how often do teachers simply not ‘go there,’ that they make conservative choices rather than face any kind of community or administrative challenge,” he said. “We don’t know that, but I suspect the numbers are quite high.”

This is borne out by another line of questioning in the survey, where theater teachers were asked about the factors they consider in choosing a play to perform publicly. The top two factors cited by theater educators were “available student talent” and “quality of script.” A full 80 percent identified these as “very important.” The survey examined 12 factors in all.

However, most theater teachers also take into account whether school administrators or the public will support their selections, the data indicate. In all, 77 percent said “approval of school administration” was either “very important” or “somewhat important.” And 82 percent said “likely approval by community members” was very or somewhat important.

Palmarini notes that theater educators oftentimes place safe bets. He points to the list of full-length plays most commonly produced in a set of American high schools recently surveyed as “very conservative and quite static.”

Here’s the top ten most-produced plays for 2011-12 from that survey, conducted each year by Dramatics, a monthly magazine for high school theater teachers and students published by the Educational Theatre Association. (This is NOT a nationally representative sample, but still gives a flavor, based on data from 600 theater programs in high schools affiliated with the International Thespian Society.)

  • “Almost, Maine” (John Cariani)
  • “Twelve Angry Men” (or Twelve Angry Jurors, as some schools call it) (Reginald Rose)
  • “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (William Shakespeare)
  • “Our Town” (Thornton Wilder)
  • “You Can’t Take It With You” (George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart)
  • “The Crucible” (Arthur Miller)
  • “Noises Off” (Michael Frayn)
  • “Arsenic and Old Lace” (Joseph Kesselring)
  • “The Importance of Being Earnest” (Oscar Wilde) and
  • “The Laramie Project” (Moises Kaufman/Tectonic Theater Project

The larger study on the state of theater education probes the handling of social issues and freedom-of-expression questions in other ways. School administrators were asked, for example, to describe their anticipated level of support for plays focusing on specific social issues.

The topic sparking the most concern was abortion. This was the only instance where a majority of school administrators said they would either “not support” or “prevent production of” a play, with 23 percent indicating the latter. Sexually transmitted illness was another theme that gave some administrators heartburn, with 38 percent saying they would attempt to prevent such a production. And one-third said they would either block or not support plays about sexual identity.

On the flip side, plays addressing bullying and multiculturalism topped the list for administrator support. Other top contenders were plays that tackle drunk driving or drug/alcohol abuse.

But Palmarini told me there aren’t always a lot of high-quality plays written on subjects that might appeal most to school administrators.

“There is big interest in bullying, drug abuse, drunk driving,” he said, “but a great many of those plays are very didactic and not very good theater. They are kind of blunt instruments.” He adds, “The characters are simply talking points, they’re not really characters.”

Generating Dialogue

That said, Palmarini is a big fan of “The Laramie Project,” which he calls “an absolute perfect example of theater as a tool to generate dialogue.” The play is about the reaction to the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, who was beaten and left to die, tied to a fence post. His killing was widely denounced as a hate crime. The play draws on hundreds of interviews conducted by the theater company with Laramie residents, as well as published news reports.

Palmarini cautioned that theater educators face a variety of pressures in selecting plays to produce. For one, the bottom line of drawing in the ticket-paying public is important. More than two-thirds of theater educators identified the potential for profit or large audiences as either somewhat or very important.

This issue can be tricky for more than one reason. For instance, Palmarini said this may spur theater educators to give their star thespian the lead in play after play, even if this may not be in the best interests of all students.

“Just like a professional theater, they are making decisions that will draw the broadest possible audience,” he said. “This is supposed to be education, but it’s a tightrope wire that theater educators walk between, ‘Do I cast the same young woman from last year as the lead in “South Pacific” because she’s the best one, when I should make another choice because it’s someone else’s turn?’ ”

Survey data for the study was based on responses from about 10 percent of some 13,000 public high schools invited to participate. The research project was led by Matt Omasta, an assistant professor in the Caine College of the Arts at Utah State University.

I’ll close by returning to the “top 10" list from the Dramatics survey, this time highlighting the 10 musicals most commonly produced in 2011-12:

  • “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast”
  • “Grease”
  • “The Wizard of Oz”
  • “Hairspray”
  • “Into the Woods”
  • “Footloose”
  • “Guys and Dolls”
  • “Seussical”
  • “The Drowsy Chaperone”
  • “Anything Goes”
  • “Little Shop of Horrors”
  • “The Music Man”
  • “Once Upon a Mattress”

OK, maybe most of these aren’t exactly daring theater, but I’ll always have a soft spot myself for “Grease.” And what ever happened to “West Side Story”?

Photo: Kyle Hercliff, left, and Chris Kivel construct a fence from posts in 2004, on the set of the St. Clair High School production of The Laramie Project at the school in East China, Mich. Tony Pitts/Times Herald/AP-File

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.