In theatre, artists are taught from a young age to express themselves and to make a statement with their work.
Freedom of speech and expression, although basic human rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, are specifically reinforced by those in any given theatre community. However, all too often in high school theatre, administrators attempt to limit this freedom of expression by censoring the material that is put out by theatre departments.
If the recent NBC TV show "Rise" was any indicator, high school theatre teachers are no strangers to opposition from administrators and their communities alike when it comes to performing the more "risqué" shows. In "Rise," a high school English teacher takes over his school's failing theatre program, canceling their production of the fading "Grease" and replacing it with the newer and exciting "Spring Awakening." The censorship displayed by administrators in school districts across the country is not only a disservice to the community at large but to the artists that these programs are charged with nurturing.
It is apparent that in recent years, high school theatre programs have experienced numerous obstacles, specifically when it comes to their show selection. While shows like "Grease" are staples of American musical theatre and provide fantastic showcases for student's talents, they also normalize negative messages concerning sexism and abusive relationships through several undertones presented.
Grease- You're the one that I want [HQ+lyrics] www.youtube.com
Newer, contemporary shows such as "Spring Awakening" also present these negative messages but make it clear to the audience that it is not normal and should never be. By giving students the opportunity to perform in these progressive shows, they are being given a voice to express themselves.
The Dark I Know Well www.youtube.com
Often, the more progressive shows have contemporary themes that better relate to students of the current generation. If students are able to feel represented by the characters that they are portraying, they will be better able to communicate what the show is intending to say. Not to mention, by producing shows that have contemporary themes, students from other interests and walks of life might be more convinced to give theatre a try. The more diverse a theatre program is, the more that different and unique perspectives are being shared. Despite the numerous obstacles facing high schools and their theatre programs, there is almost always a rebuttal that can be used.
However, time after time, shows like "Grease" are chosen to be put on by schools despite the numerous arguments not to. The "buzz" and popularity surrounding the Golden Age musicals such as "Grease" and "Bye Bye Birdie" is certainly enough to sell out numerous performances. These musicals and their storylines (usually about the "ideal" American family, the all-American football player and his cheerleader girlfriend, etc.) appeal to the majority of theatre-goers: white, heterosexual, upper-middle-class families. However, if these musicals are the only ones presented, then a plateau will be reached and there will be no room for new and exciting ideas to be brought to the table.
The fear with producing shows like "Spring Awakening" is that the content (which has storylines consisting of parental abuse, homosexuality, rape, abortion, etc.) will encourage the kids participating in the production to pursue these lifestyles. Likewise, producing "Grease" and "Bye Bye Birdie" can also encourage unhealthy mindsets and habits such as changing everything about a female's appearance to "get the guy," glorifying the "perfect" female body, or encouraging a hypermasculine persona for young men. Many of the shows in the Golden Age catalog (that are routinely suggested by high schools) subconsciously resort youth back to a rather backward way of thinking.
Grease - Summer Nights HD www.youtube.com
High schools and their administrators worry about the backlash a theatrical production can receive from the surrounding community; however, these topics and themes are already alive and well in their schools through various mediums. In English curriculums, novels such as "The Great Gatsby," "To Kill a Mockingbird," and "The Crucible" offer a wide range of content including rape, murder, spousal abuse, racism, and other unfavorable material. For administrators and communities to allow one artistic medium and censor another is a major disservice to the students involved. In general, censorship, regardless of the reasoning involved, does more harm than good whenever students and growing minds are involved.
Expression through theatrical means can only continue at the high school level if their administrators allow their students the means to do so. Censoring theatre at any level due to a fear of the unknown or possible backlash does more harm than good. For administrators to take away the ability of high school theatre teachers to decide what is appropriate for their students to perform is a major disservice. The lessons that exist in shows that feature controversial storylines can be so impactful in a young person's life. By limiting this freedom of exploration, a learning opportunity is being taken away from young people. One day, these young people will grow up and be the leaders of our community. They will be the ones making decisions and leading the conversation.
Censoring freedom of expression even in the smallest of ways will no doubt have a profound effect on not only the theatre of today but the theatre of tomorrow.