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Inappropriately 'Blonde' for High School Musical?

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When I think about controversial shows that meet resistance in high schools, Legally Blonde hasn't made my list. I've previously pondered where the new high school musicals may (or may not) be coming from; I inserted myself into a controversy over a threatened production of August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come And Gone (by letter to the school board and by blog); I've read of numerous productions of Rent, even the sanitized "school edition," being vetoed in secondary schools. But honestly, Elle Woods wasn't someone I ever thought could be any kind of threat. Of course, I was also incredulous when a Pennsylvania high school canceled a production of Kismet over its "Muslim" content.

While a production of Legally Blonde at Loveland High School in Loveland, Ohio took place as planned, the teacher who was staging the production says that as a result of her efforts, she was given an ultimatum of resigning or being fired. While I may not be the musical's biggest fan, it seems to me that a show with a message of moving beyond one's external appearance to achieve your full potential and appreciating the potential in others has a pretty good message overall. Even if that message comes wrapped in a vehicle with a paean to capturing one's desired through a time-honored chest thrust known as the "bend and snap" and a key moment in the show turns on the question of whether a character is gay, or merely European, it's not a particularly incendiary show.

My initial information on the situation in Loveland came from a video report from WLWT TV, a local station, and a text report accompanying it; the two contain different aspects of the story. However, they both present the view of teacher Sonja Hansen and the ultimatum she says she faced after the production was over. In contrast to the many stories I read about conflict over high school shows, this one is unique in my experience, since the alleged action came after the production, not while it was in rehearsal, or during its run. I tweeted a link to the story several times over the weekend, and my stats reveal there was significant interest.

I respect the right of school officials to exert their prerogative over the content of material staged on their premises, but it is incumbent upon them to do so prior to auditions or rehearsals, let alone production. If a school administration wishes to have a say over the selection of plays or musicals, it needs to make that policy known to the faculty responsible for drama classes or drama club and have that dialogue in advance. To let a production commence and then pull the rug out is deeply unfair; to punish a teacher after the fact is unconscionable.

The reports from WLWT only contains footage of Ms. Hansen and a couple of seemingly random students; no administrators appear, although the reporter says that, according to the school district, no action has been taken against Ms. Hansen. But reportedly auditions for the school's next, unnamed show have been "put on hold."

I emailed the school's principal, Christopher Kloesz, regarding the situation with Ms. Hansen, and he responded this morning, explaining, "there are numerous factors related to a personnel matter that has now become rather public. Because this is a personnel matter, and out of respect for Mrs. Hansen, there is not much else I can say."

Additionally, the school district provided the following prepared statement on the status of the high school's drama program:

Regarding the situation with the Loveland Schools drama program, auditions were postponed for the Loveland High School spring drama performance; that was the announcement made this week to our students. The administrative team is taking a look at the drama program and evaluating the situation with the goal to act in the best interest of our students and school community. While the school does not comment on conversations between our administrative team and personnel, the school will confirm that no action has been taken in regards to the employment of our drama director.

When I inserted myself into the situation over Joe Turner, I had the benefit of having known August Wilson, knowing the play well from having seen its premiere very near the school in question, and having worked professionally in theater in the state where the conflict had arisen. I also had the added heft of my position as executive director of the American Theatre Wing. In this case, I have no particular connection to the area or the show, or the weight of a prestigious organization behind me. Just the same, I'm bringing this incident to light, since there are undoubtedly so many others that I may hear nothing about.

If school procedures were violated by Ms. Hansen in the process of putting on Legally Blonde, it would be helpful for the students and the local community if the district or the school were able to shed more light on the subject. By not doing so -- though admittedly personnel policy often precludes any such disclosure -- we are left only with the evidence at hand. It suggests retribution after the fact against a teacher who simply wanted to put on a fun show with her kids -- even though the school says no action has been taken. And, of course, we are also left with rumor.

To many, including school officials, the school play or musical is probably pretty low on their list of priorities. But to the students for whom this activity is so essential, as it was to me once upon a time, it is deserving of attention and forethought, as well as appreciation and respect for the teachers who build drama programs. Because the Loveland story is not a rare one, with drama programs nationally at risk from funding cuts and from questions of appropriate content, I hope it comes to a fair and clear resolution that respects everyone involved. But most important, I hope the outcome does nothing to limit the Loveland students' opportunity to participate in theater. Whatever the true circumstances of the current conflict, the drama program must be sustained. The arts in our schools cannot be disposable, even when they may present challenges.