Open Forum

Questions re: The Foreigner

  • 1.  Questions re: The Foreigner

    Posted 07-28-2018 10:04

    I planned to direct The Foreigner next year. I was not overly concerned about the Ku Klux Klan in the plot, viewing them as historical antagonists similar to the Nazis in Cabaret and The Sound of Music. Then I happened upon some articles about New Prague High School in Minnesota. The school was forced to cancel their presentation of The Foreigner the week before the show opened after a student posted a photo of their actors in KKK costumes on social media with the caption "I think you're gonna want to come to the spring play . . ." Students and community members were offended and canceling the show seemed to be the only acceptable option. It was acknowledged that the social media posting of students in Klan regalia was the primary issue. The principal explained that students and adults "are uncomfortable with that part of history."

    My question: Has anyone else had difficulty in their community regarding The Foreigner or is this an isolated incident? What advance preparations did you make with students, parents, and / or administration? Searching this forum, I found a recent post by John Perry: ". . . right now, having the KKK on stage makes me extremely uncomfortable no matter how you play it."

    Larry Shue wrote in the production notes ". . . let there be no such thing as 'comedy villains' here. Our malefactors must be, within the style of the play, the real thing -- obsessive, cunning, and dangerous. They will be funny but only if they first make us recoil." I see this aspect of the play as an opportunity for conversation about bigotry and hatred. The connection to the current political climate regarding "foreigners" is not lost on me. My second thoughts include "Is this the best time to present this play?" I can argue that question either way!

    I can build a case with administration but I am pondering the best way to approach them before I pay royalties and build a fishing lodge and Klan costumes. Sometimes I follow the adage, "It's better to ask forgiveness than permission". Our school does not have a precedent requiring the director to get approval of her plays and I don't want to establish one. However, in this case a proactive approach may be best.  

    I welcome your input and advice!

    Betsie Wotherspoon

    Fairfield High School

    Fairfield, Iowa

    Confidentiality Statement: This message is intended only for the use of the Addressee and may contain information that is PRIVILEGED and CONFIDENTIAL. If you are not the intended recipient, dissemination of this communication is prohibited. If you have received this communication in error, please erase all copies of the message and its attachments and notify the sender immediately. Thank you.

  • 2.  RE: Questions re: The Foreigner

    Posted 07-28-2018 10:30
    I like The Foreigner but I find the fact that it is a play the deals with the KKK and has no parts for black actors a barrier to producing it. If you make one of the characters black it throws the play off and makes it an entirely different play. And I would never produce a play where my black actors couldn't participate. And do you want to be a part of a play where, even in jest, the KKK is presented on stage? Even though I like the play I think it's a play that has been left behind in the #blacklivesmatter era. And for good reason. Have you looked at The Nerd?​

    John Perry
    Retired Theatre Teacher

  • 3.  RE: Questions re: The Foreigner

    Posted 07-29-2018 05:17

    I find that more than anything, Principals just really hate surprises. So I don't know that you need to ask permission to much as to make him/ her aware of the potential risk and what you've done to mitigate that risk. The teacher who had the problem with the students posting pictures of themselves on social media has probably learned a valuable lesson about monitoring his programs social media presence. All my students know that they need permission to take photos or videos during rehearsals or performances and all those photos or videos need to be approved by me before going public. This also prevents us from breaking copy-write infringements and from using the images of students without their permission. 

    Also, when I have anything in a show that might be controversial (especially if used out of context) i keep it under lock and key. This not only applies to things like firearms (the last thing you want is a picture on social media of one student aiming a gun at another, even if it is a scene from the play) but to alcohol bottles, prop cigarettes and many costume pieces. I directed Anne Frank some years ago. The last thing I wanted was students wearing their Nazi uniforms around the school. Those students should never had access to their Klan costumes outside of dress rehearsal, and certainly shouldn't have been wearing them in an unauthorized photo shoot. 

    As to diversity in the casting, it would obviously be inappropriate to cast your two Klansmen as black actors, but I did see a wonderful community theater production of The Foreigner a few years ago where both Froggy and Betty were played by black actors and it worked great. In Betty's case it actually made the show seem more representative of rural Georgia and it was fun to see a black (and British) Froggy as an action hero who blows up the Klansmen. I don't see why Charlie couldn't be black as well. Any time you are producing a show that deals with race or is set in a time and place where racial divisions are prominent to the culture, you need to be sensitive in your casting. I too as a high school would never want to produce a show that might exclude a certain group of students because of their race. That doesn't mean we can't explore opportunities for racial diversity however in the casting of classic old plays. 

    John Monteverde
    Drama Teacher
    Pittsfield High School
    Pittsfield, MA

  • 4.  RE: Questions re: The Foreigner

    Posted 07-29-2018 13:12
    The first production I ever saw of The Foreigner (was it in Muncie?) had a black actor in the title role. I have directed it recently with a mixed race cast.
    The Klan only appears (in robes) very briefly at the end.
    Don't be afraid to talk to your admin about the play in advance. I somehow managed to teach drama for four decades without being required to get scripts pre-approved. (Most principals really don't want more stuff to read)
    This is a legitimately touchy topic. The Klan is not an ancient organization. It is still active.
    If your admin is unsure about The Foreigner, do The Nerd. Then keep The Foreigner in your back pocket for some future slot.

    Billy Houck
    Theatre Teacher, Retired
    Northern California Thespian Representative
    Carmichael, CA

  • 5.  RE: Questions re: The Foreigner

    Posted 07-29-2018 14:33
    I passionately disagree that the play is irrelevant, just having seen a brilliant production at the Utah Shakespeare Festival.  While true that the play does not really explore African-American issues, it does explore bigotry against people from other countries, which has also been in the news lately. One of the characters justifies his prejudice on the grounds that he is trying to "make America moral again." Just because it doesn't explore every issue surrounding the KKK, it really nails what it explores.

    On the other hand, I had a principal spike my idea to direct the play for the very similar reasons to those you state.  I even offered your exact Sound of Music defense.

    I think the right way forward is to have a very frank discussion with your principal about the material, the costumes, and how will you will talk to the community about it.  Be clear that you will avoid serious mistakes like sending out pictures of kids in robes.  Hopefully, s/he will support you!

    Joshua Brady
    Menifee CA

  • 6.  RE: Questions re: The Foreigner

    Posted 07-30-2018 10:39
    I love THE FOREIGNER but have relegated it to the plays we will never do at my school.

    We have a very diverse population at my school and the inclusion of the Klan in the play seems to cross a line for me and my school. As someone else mentioned, the Klan is still very much alive and not yet in the dustbin of history.; Further, i agree that the inclusion of Black actors into the play stretches it out of shape.

    There was a fine production of this play at ITF a number of years ago. This production included a Black actor as one of the Klansman who was revealed only at the curtain call for comic effect which seemed to me to subvert the playwright's intent.

    Mark A. Zimmerman,

    Theatre Director
    Akron School for the Arts
    Firestone Community Learning Center
    470 Castle Blvd
    Akron, Ohio 44313

    Troupe 5570

  • 7.  RE: Questions re: The Foreigner

    Posted 07-31-2018 12:41
    Great discussion ya'll.

    Given the question about choosing shows to do - I would repeat the old adage: "Know your audience"  For me that phrase has become more complicated as I have grown-up.  So, who are our audiences then?
    #1 the students are my first audience - they get to spend the most time with me (gosh, lucky) and are inclined to learn the most from our experience together.
    #2 The audience that buys tickets and sits in the dark room with us (mostly parents and friends, but sometimes other students and community folks).
    #3 Administration and the rest of the school that I am a part of (the drama program and I are a small part of what forms/changes the school culture) that is an important responsibility.

    I loved every part of doing the Foreigner a few years back, but each teacher/director needs to assess their own students needs, opinions, and experience. Then their own needs... and on down the lists of audience folks and what everyone might like dislike, learn and so forth.

    I was surprised that s/o was actually angry at me and the show for having Klansmen on stage... but that person also didn't stay to see the klansmen (spoiler alert) get arrested in the end, but it didn't matter to that person by then, because they had left already.

    I feel like we all work so hard each season to get people to come and see what we are doing, it is a shame to chase off more than a handful on any given season.

    If u know the show read on for my reference/pun... Losing audience just makes me wanna say,  "Ahh Fahwaark!"

    [Drama] [Dan]
    [Drama Teacher/Director]
    [Dublin Coffman HS]
    [Dublin] [Ohio]

  • 8.  RE: Questions re: The Foreigner

    Posted 07-31-2018 13:54
    Hello all,

    I agree with the "Know your audience" remark. But on a side note with the way the world has become over sensitized, its hard to do any shows today without someone finding something critical to remark about.

    Crit Fisher
    Lighting/Sound Designer
    New Albany High School

  • 9.  RE: Questions re: The Foreigner

    Posted 11-12-2019 10:42
    Here's a new spin on this play. My former college cancelled the performance the night of Dress Rehearsal, after approving the production almost a year in advance and selling production credits to raise money for the school. Now the administration is trying to put the rabbit back in the hat, and its looking mighty sloppy...

    Skip Middleton
    Boca Raton FL

  • 10.  RE: Questions re: The Foreigner

    Posted 11-12-2019 12:15
    Hi Betsie,

    We did The Foreigner a number of years ago and it went off without a hitch.  However, with the current feelings running through the country, I would give the principal a copy of the script and set a time to discuss the play with them.  In the production I reminded the students that a character is always the character. A racist character doesn't become racist only in a moment, but is a racist through out the play. This attitude should color his actions and interactions all the time. While the KKK characters show up in hoods and sheets only at the end, and they are dangerous and scary, there are moments during the play where you can show them to be buffoonish and pathetic. Our Charlies were hispanic and middle eastern ((double cast)) and the Froggy was from India.  They worked great together and perhaps added to the story.  Our district has had a history, in rears past, and in some areas, of racist/KKK behavior and still we did not have a problem with the play.   If parts of the play make some in the audience uncomfortable, the problem lies with them not with the play or the production.  The play is based on history, and while it may not always be pretty, it does offer an opportunity to reflect on where we were, on where we are now, and how much more we need to do.

    I wish you the best on the production of this play.  I still think it's a great piece and can be a bit shocking and quite funny.



    Mack Dugger
    Glendale CA

  • 11.  RE: Questions re: The Foreigner

    Posted 11-13-2019 08:05
    Hi all,
    I was surprised to see my question re: The Foreigner pop up again, more than a year after I first posted it.

    I'll take this opportunity to share how things ended up in August 2018. I spoke to the principal and activities director about The Foreigner. The principal strongly cautioned me and the AD outrightly told me not to do it. I am native Californian and a transplant to this midwest community. I realized that I didn't truly understand the culture of my new home, even though I've lived here for more than 20 years. I could have pushed back and won -- but I chose not to do that.

    So, two weeks before auditions for the fall show I thrashed around for a new script. I remembered seeing All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten years ago and contacted the director. She still had all her scripts. I borrowed them, and went ahead with Kindergarten. The director may choose to go with the straight play or mini-musical option. There are more than 30 vignettes and the director is free to select her own set for her production.

    It was a wonderful experience. I put everyone who auditioned into the mini-musical version. My most experienced students had challenging parts to hone their skills and the beginners had opportunity to gain experience.

    Thanks to all who responded to me in the forum or through email. I continue to be instructed and enlightened by the collective wisdom of this group!
    Betsie Wotherspoon
    Fairfield High School
    Fairfield, Iowa

    Elizabeth Wotherspoon
    FHS Drama Director
    Fairfield Community School District
    Fairfield IA