In the last two decades direct censorship of theater has waned. Arrests of actors and theater employees involved in allegedly “obscene” productions such as May West’s plays in the 1920s and Richard Schechner’s Dionysus in 69 or Kenneth Tynan’s Oh! Calcutta! in the 1960s and 70s are, for the most part, a distant memory. Yet, on the high school stage – which also happens to be the largest theatrical stage in the U.S. today—the spirits of 19th century censorship czar Anthony Comstock and his late 20th century follower, Charles Keating, still reign supreme. Students’ first encounters with high school theater productions are likely to be also their first encounters with censorship. In the recent past:

  • High schools in Washington State, Oregon and Illinois cancelled Moises Kaufman’s The Laramie Project.
  • In Iowa The Laramie Project was staged on only after all profanity was removed.
  • A student play about lesbians, which won a major award in Charlotte, N.C., was banned from the stage.
  • The common words for “anal aperture” and “a bull’s excrement” were cut from a stage adaptation of Footloose in Michigan (the euphemisms above come from local press reports).
  • “Hell” and “damn” were excised from All My Sons in Oregon.
  • A Missouri high school faced protests over a production of Grease even though it had considerably tamed down the original. The ensuing fear of controversy led to the cancellation of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.
  • A high school production of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men was cancelled in Georgia because of the “use of racial slurs.”
  • “Racial slurs” were also the reason for the cancellation of a staging of To Kill a Mockingbird in Indiana.
  • In Nevada a black social studies teacher was reassigned over a play about African-American history to be staged during Black History Month. The play, co-written by the teacher, contained references to the KKK and the repeated use of a racial epithet.
  • A group sued an Illinois school to stop the production of Fuggedaboudit: A Little Mobster Comedy, because it “stereotyped Italian Americans.”
  • William Mastrosimone’s Bang, Bang, You’re Dead – a play specifically intended to help students deal with the issue of school violence – was banned in schools from Texas to Ohio.

Few principals are prepared to stand up to community protests over a controversial play. The repeated cancellations have had a demoralizing and chilling effect on drama teachers. Some of them resign; others just decide to stick with The Sound of Music.

What’s worse, decisions are quite arbitrary and unpredictable. An Indiana high school, for instance, cancelled a much toned-down version of Bat Boy, a play frequently produced in high schools, replacing it with Godspell – which, in its turn, was banned at an Ohio school because of church-state separation concerns. The following year the principal of that same Indiana school nixed Urinetown in favor of Cabaret. Refusing to believe that a high school principal would ban a play based on its title alone, we are still wondering about the rationale for this decision…

High school theater is the crucible where future audiences are formed. For millions of young people the high school stage is their first real encounter with the medium, and for some it will be the only one. In fact, there are more than a few adults, for whom high school productions provide their sole exposure to live theater. Yet, in numerous communities, high school drama never gets more sophisticated than the PG fare at the local Cineplex.

Raising a generation that is used to serious theater – that has both the attention span and the tolerance to handle new and even upsetting ideas – is key to the future freedom of theater as a whole. Unless both future audiences and financial backers become convinced that tackling controversial issues is theater’s very mission, that theater should not only entertain but also sometimes disturb and provoke, we are going to see more and more venues shy away from material that might spark protests.

The threat to cut public or private funding has already become a more efficient way to stifle ideas that challenge conventional morality or political orthodoxies than police action was in the 1920s and 1960s. Disturbingly, this trend finds only weak resistance—public opinion is, for the most part, supportive of the power of the purse; and influential mainstream art institutions, governed by their need to find the common denominator that would attract large audiences, do little to change the situation.

The push and pull of the history of government arts funding provides a cautionary tale: every time Congress has voted to fund artistic creativity, those opposed to public funding for “luxuries” like the arts have seized on politically controversial material as evidence against it. This tactic has been consistently successful. In the late 1930s, the Federal Theater Project was a surrounded by constant controversy until Congress managed to terminate its brief existence; in the 1990s the work of a handful of NEA-supported artists was brutally attacked until the agency shifted its mission from supporting edgy and innovative art to the safe ground of educational programming. The lesson: stay away from controversial art. It has proved to be a hard lesson to unlearn.

Big-ticket productions, which do attract wider audiences and should have more financial independence, are so fearful of alienating the box office that they rarely venture into controversial territory. Smaller theaters with their respectively smaller audiences can only survive with the help of private and public sponsors – can they afford to alienate them? In too many cases, the answer is no.

As much as this phenomenon has been documented on the national stage, it is a lesson that has been well-learned at the local level too. Not only have school administrators, like museum curators, come to expect that anything even slightly provocative will yield complaints, but members of the public have also come to learn that the “heckler’s veto” – where one person’s complaint succeeds in getting a work removed – actually works.

Among the industrial countries, the United States is unique for its extremely low public funding for the arts. A less well-known fact is that Europe’s public arts funding is tied to a consistent and long term commitment to arts education. It is high school art, music and drama classes that train sophisticated audiences, which then make possible adventurous art forms. Censorship of high school theater productions, which rarely occurs in a vacuum and usually reflects an attitude towards other forms of artistic expression, has wide socio-cultural repercussions. Tolerating high school censorship of theater creates the conditions for the marginalization of all serious art.

What is to be done?

Controversies that affect the high school stage signal larger trends. For example, public schools generally deal poorly with sexuality in any form or format, whether it is gay or straight, marital or not, appearing in books, art, plays, films, video games or music. Racial sensitivities are especially difficult to navigate. Ironically, controversies around racial representation affect not just racist rants (which were purged from public places long ago) but also anti-racist novels, films or plays, which dare address sensitive points of American history. And in the last few years, the school censorship scene has become sensitive to a new trigger – violence. When a student faces criminal charges for a poem because it includes imagined violent acts you know that schools are in a state of panic.

In censorship debates, we constantly hear that certain material is “inappropriate” for children or that the representation of particular behavior like smoking or drug use “condones” it. Often this is a projection of adult fears and fantasies, rather than any realistic notion of the possible effects of art and performance. Still, evoking the need to protect children (i.e. keep them ignorant) stops any rational discussion dead in it tracks. The effect is felt, not only in schools, but also in libraries, museums, theater and film production.

As theater censorship in high school is not an isolated phenomenon, opposition to it should operate on multiple levels: supporting drama teachers in individual instances when their pedagogical choices are unreasonably censored and working to create an environment where sexuality, race, violence and religion can be addressed in the school setting. The latter requires a long-term plan of action and education involving not only parents, teachers and school officials, but also local and national cultural institutions.

At NCAC we have been working for 33 years to connect the dots and see censorship in its various disguises for what it is. Whether it dons the noble role of protecting children, respecting minorities, honoring veterans, or upholding public morals, censorship is and remains the suppression of ideas. We welcome the Dramatists Guild as our newest partner in fighting those social forces that work to limit what we can see, say, or even imagine.