NEW YORK , NY, April 4, 2007 – Edward Albee, Christopher Durang, John Weidman, Marsha Norman, Doug Wright, John Guare, John Patrick Shanley and many other prominent members of the Dramatists Guild joined the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) and other free speech advocates to oppose the banning of a student play about Iraq in Wilton, CT. The groups have urged Superintendent Gary Richards to allow the play entitled Voices in Conflict to be performed. The play was cancelled by the Wilton High School principal due to questions of political balance and context. According to the Superintendent’s recent press release, the school objects to the students’ use of media sources and personal letters and the fact that the students themselves play the roles of the soldiers whose lives they aim to portray.
“While school officials have considerable discretion in controlling school-sponsored activity, there are limits when it comes to suppressing non-disruptive political expression, as the Supreme Court recognized nearly 40 years ago in upholding the right of students to wear black armbands to protest the Vietnam war in Tinker v. DesMoines – a view that was at the time highly controversial,” says NCAC Executive Director Joan Bertin. A copy of the letter is included below.
The letter below from NCAC was also signed by the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the American Civil Liberties Union of CT, the Dramatists Guild, Free Expression Policy Project, People For the American Way Foundation Northeast Regional Office, the Feminists for Free Expression, and the Youth Advisory Board of the Youth Free Expression Network.
For further information, contact:
Svetlana Mintcheva, National Coalition Against Censorship, (212) 807-6222, ext. 33
Claire Karpen, National Coalition Against Censorship, (212) 807-6222, ext. 22
Dr. Gary Richards
Superintendent of Schools
Wilton Public Schools
395 Danbury Rd
Wilton , CT 06897
Dear Superintendent Gary Richards,
We write to express concern about Principal Canty’s decision to ban the performance of the student play, Voices in Conflict, at Wilton High School. We understand that the production has been stopped due to questions about “political balance” and context, and because you are concerned that “the play can be upsetting to our student, parent, and community audience.” As expressed in your recent statement, the school objects to the students’ use of media sources and personal letters and the fact that the students themselves play the roles of the soldiers whose lives they aim to portray.
The decision to “extend the educational dialogue” appears reasonable but is suspect if the purpose or effect of the process is to suppress students’ views. Indeed, the very attempt to “work with the students to complete a script that fully addresses [your] concerns” reveals an intent to control content, presumably to create a production that arouses no controversy.
However, as the Supreme Court has observed on many occasions, “ public educators must accommodate some student expression even if it offends them or offers views or values that contradict those the school wishes to inculcate." ( Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier , 1989). While school officials have considerable discretion in controlling school-sponsored activity, there are limits when it comes to suppressing non-disruptive political expression, as the Supreme Court recognized nearly 40 years ago in upholding the right of students to wear black armbands to protest the Vietnam war – a view that was at the time highly controversial. ( Tinker v. Des Moines School District, 1969 .)
Moreover, taking control over the student production is questionable educationally, and as a matter of basic fairness. Voices in Conflict is the result of a documentary theatre project that was approved at the outset as a valid part of the curriculum. The students proceeded under the supervision of a qualified theatre arts teacher and produced an original work that is a creative interpretation of complex and sensitive issues.
The dramatization of existing “found text” from various media, books and letters is a practice standard among documentary theatre creators. Plays such as The Laramie Project , My Name is Rachel Corrie , The Exonerated and Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom have all taken text from real interviews, letters, and emails and dramatized them to critical acclaim. In all these cases, much like with documentary filmmaking, the creators have cut and edited this text to create a dramatic narrative and a point of view.
Likewise, it is customary for documentary theatre performers to act out the text as characters. The idea that student performers should appear as “readers” instead of “directly acting the part of the soldiers” is both detrimental to the educational purpose of writing and performing an original work and inconsistent with the very nature of theatre itself. Requiring students to merely read texts aloud, without acting in character, compromises the dramatic integrity of the production.
Furthermore, presenting this material in a dramatic context provides students with an engaging, educational experience. By studying and portraying characters, students learn to explore and embody perspectives and life experiences outside of their own. For an audience, productions of this nature can make the material more potent and vivid. At its best, theatre deeply moves audiences to think about the complexities of human experience.
It is true that some of the material addressed in the play may be sensitive to some viewers, and you are rightly concerned about addressing their possible discomfort. But this is not an unusual consideration in theatrical productions, and is normally addressed by a disclaimer in the playbill, a sign at the box office, or an announcement at the production warning viewers of the sensitive nature of the material. Anyone who does not wish to confront the material does not have to see the show.
In our experience, controversies of this sort are best handled by enriching the conversation, not restricting it. We suggest that you host a “talk-back” after the performance so the audience can ask questions and perhaps hear from experts on free speech, theatre, and politics. We also suggest that you continue to explore ways for students to express their points of view through the school newspaper, classroom projects, assemblies, etc. This allows for a continued community conversation in response to the play without silencing the actors’ voices.
Finally, we understand you are concerned that the play might be perceived as a reflection of the school’s position on the Iraq war. Again, this is easily remedied with a disclaimer in the program noting that the school does not endorse or share all the views presented in the play. However, by controlling the play’s content, you would accurately be perceived as endorsing the views it expressed.
We urge you to encourage student creativity and civic engagement, and to teach students the skills to discuss opposing views respectfully. You cannot accomplish these critical educational goals – the goals that inspire the First Amendment – by substituting your words for theirs and papering over real issues on which they disagree. We urge you to allow the students to perform their play in school and un-edited by the administration.
If we can be of any further assistance, please do not hesitate to call us: (212) 807-6222, ext. 15.
Executive Director, NCAC
Roger C. Vann
Executive Director, ACLU of CT
President, American Booksellers For Freedom of Expression (ABFFE)
Free Expression Policy Project
Andrew Stengel, Executive Director
People For the American Way Foundation Northeast Regional Office
Suzanne A. Delaney
Managing Director, Feminists for Free Expression
Members of the Youth Advisory Board
Youth Free Expression Network, a project of NCAC
Award-winning playwrights, composers, lyricists and librettists of the Dramatists Guild:
John Patrick Shanley
David Henry Hwang
Frank D. Gilroy
Links to news and commentary online:
» Paul Rieckhoff, "Censorship in America"
» Read coverage and commentary from ConnecticutBlog