Howard Sherman, former executive director of the American Theatre Wing who is now a business consultant, writer, and passionate advocate for educational theatre, summed up an April 2 hearing on a school play cancellation in Plaistow, New Hampshire in a tweet.
“How does a high school show get canceled over complaints about content, and then no one comes forward to voice complaints?” he wrote.
Administrators in New Hampshire’s Timberlane School District had scheduled the hearing to provide for community comment on their decision to cancel the scheduled 2015 production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd at Timberlane Regional High School. Of the dozens of speakers among the 150 people who attended the hearing, only the administrators supported the cancellation. Their position: the musical is “too dark” and unsuitable for family audiences.
Laura Lingar, a senior at Timberlane, responded to that argument in a way that might have been enlightening to school officials about what students learn in theatre. She’s planning to train as a firefighter when she graduates and is already enrolled in an EMT class. She recently worked her first shift in the field, and she said her school theatre experiences helped her get through a hard night.
“Those lessons I learned from The Laramie Project and Elephant Man and Our Town… they helped me read between my patients’ lines, and what they were trying to tell me. It helped me understand their stories. And if we had just done little plays that everyone understands, where we sing and dance and make people happy, I would only have seen happy things and I would only understand happy people. And the field I’m going into isn’t always happy.”
To her teachers and friends in the school’s theatre program, she said, “every time I save a life for the rest of my life, you’re going to be the ones behind me, and I cannot thank you enough, because that’s on you.”
Educational Theatre Association Executive Director Julie Woffington submitted a comment to the school district by email, introducing the Statement on Free Expression in School Theatre issued jointly by EdTA, AATE, and ATHE in 2008. She encouraged the administration to measure its actions in the Sweeney case against the standards set forth in the white paper, and to consider whether “they have in fact been undertaken with a sound artistic or educational purpose.”
School district officials promised a final decision on the fate of the production within a few days.