Follow this with me, will you?
"The plays bothered a lot of us," says a school superintendent, referring to works presented by a high school drama group. "The plays had references to sex and drinking." In one instance, a male student reportedly doffed his pants, revealing shorts.
Subsequently, the school system, citing an influx of students (reports a news article) announces that all drama classes are terminated, with the superintendent saying (as paraphrased in the article), "The school can no longer afford to offer the classes as enrollment grows."
Did everyone notice the sudden turn in there?
This is no hypothetical, but a scenario played out at the high school in Everett MA and reported by The Boston Globe. While the school superintendent, Frederick Foresteire, wraps himself in the protective shroud of marshaling resources in challenging economic times (unquestionably a legitimate concern in every public school in the country), targeting a drama program for eradication after registering his personal disapproval of said program smacks of retribution.
The article seems riddled with mixed messages. If there has been the demand for multiple sections of drama up until now, how does increased enrollment warrant elimination of a course of study? It is impossible to determine from the article whether any other academic area was treated comparably, though that would seem germane.
If the school has been content to have a single teacher take responsibility for drama education for six years, why does the superintendent note that "there will not be four or five sections taught by one teacher" if drama classes return in the future? Supposedly this action is not in response to the teacher's qualifications to teach drama. One teacher with expertise would seem the economically and pedagogically prudent solution down the line, full or part-time.
And while a school system is well within its rights to post teachers based upon need, why would Everett High's principal make the decision to reassign the drama teacher (who also teaches science) to a K through 8 school? If the high school's enrollment is an issue, sending teachers elsewhere wouldn't seem to solve the problem (unless this was some sort of trade) and this teacher could certainly go back to more science courses. And surely where that teacher was sent to address the district's needs wasn't the principal's decision, but that of someone higher up, with a more global view. Like, say, a superintendent.
While drama will remain at Everett High as an extracurricular activity, the article also notes that the school's new principal, Erick Naumann, "will have more authority over the drama club," and the drama coach "will have to submit a description of props and, if possible, stage directions, at least two months in advance."
Does anyone still think this situation has anything to do with budgets?
In the past, I've acknowledged that schools and school districts have the right to decide what material is appropriate for their drama groups, academic or extracurricular, but I believe those decisions should be made in the best interests of the students, not the school system. I lobby for the widest range of material possible, but I admit am not charged with the creation of educational standards. When content issues arise, it is usually because administrators have paid scant attention to drama courses or clubs for years and only take an interest when something of "questionable" propriety is brought to their attention, often late in the game, or because of personal biases by administrators. But prop lists? Stage directions? At least two months in advance? That smacks of Big Brother and is impractical if not impossible, as anyone with a basic understanding of how theatre is made would know. It would be interesting to learn by what criteria such a submission would be either challenged or approved.
Also pertinent at Everett High is that some of the "offending" material that drew Mr. Foresteire's ire was written by the students. Well, you know what? If kids are writing about their lives, topics like sex and alcohol are going to come up. Hiding them from view only serves to deny the opportunity for dialogue and learning -- and it's censorship of the students' voices in an educational setting. Will Mr. Naumann also be determining which student essays and stories may be read aloud in English classes in his school? I doubt it. But I bet original student dramas won't soon be seen again in those parts, so long as they need to be approved every step along the way, killing any possibility of creativity, spontaneity or truth.
When high school theatre initiatives are threatened or cut, attention to the issue is predominantly local and discrete, as if each was unique and only of interest to the specific school and town. That the Globe wrote about the situation in Everett is commendable, though it appears to have emanated from a local news bureau; read online, it's impossible to discern whether it was in a regional edition or in the full run of the print version. The Everett High School drama decision deserves even more attention and investigation, as inconsistencies abound.
Even though the final verdict will occur every time at the local level when school arts programs are threatened over content, funding or both, these challenges to drama and indeed all of the arts need to be taken up nationally in each and every case as ongoing evidence of a continuing trend. That's why as a Connecticut native and a New York resident, I'm worried about what has taken place in Everett MA, because I know it's not an isolated incident. It's just another in a long line of school administrations afraid to allow students to grapple with and learn about the world through art, under the guise of protecting them. Perhaps it's even something more.
Oh, and by the way Mr. Foresteire: I dropped trou onstage, revealing boxer shorts, in a high school production back in 1977. The offensive material? Neil Simon's The Odd Couple.
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Click here to sign a petition in support of the restoration of drama education at Everett High School.