Say No to Censoring Theatre in Schools
Anthony J. Piccione
This week, controversy erupted in the town of Enfield, Connecticut, when the local Board of Education announced that Enfield High School’s upcoming production of American Idiot had been cancelled, on the basis that the hit musical based on the classic Green Day album was – as superintendent Jeffrey Schumman put it - “dividing our kids”. This decision received more attention when Billie Joe Armstrong heard the news and criticized the decision himself, saying that “it would be a shame if these high schoolers were shut down over some of the content that may be challenging for some of the audience.”
These kinds of reactions to the decision are absolutely justified. However, this is far from the first time in which such school productions have been cancelled due to their controversial content. Here in Connecticut alone, Trumbull was another local town that received widespread criticism from the theatre community, when they made their decision to cancel a high school production of Rent. For this reason, I believe it is worth talking more about this topic, and why decisions such as the one made by the Enfield Board of Education should not be made again in the future, as it is part of a broader problem of theatre – and art in general, for that matter – being censored in schools.
Let’s start with the rationale offered by the Board of Education that the decision to cancel the production was “so we can get maximum participation”, rather than anything to do with issues of censorship. However, it’s worth noting that the small group of people that had previously expressed opposition to this production largely seemed to consist of parents rather than students, as the school’s Drama Club had previously done quite a bit of advertising for this production prior to this decision, indicating that there was already some degree of participation in the Drama Club that was related to this production. So if the concerns were whether or not students would agree to participate in the production – which, at their age, they would most likely do regardless of the opinions of their parents – than why wasn’t it the Drama Club that chose to cancel the production, as opposed to the Board of Education?
If students did not want to participate in the show for their own reasons, there are no reasons that I know of that those students would be forced to participate in that production. For that matter, if anyone didn’t want to attend the production – just as it is for any other theatre program – then they do not have to do so, if they choose not to go. However, just as those individuals should not be forced to participate in such a production if they choose not to, the people who choose to do so shouldn’t be robbed of their opportunity to either watch or perform in it on the basis that it is controversial.
Furthermore, many of the ideas and themes that are part of shows such as American Idiot – much of which are very relevant to knowing and understanding the post-9/11 world that we live in – are things that students will inevitably be exposed to at some point or another as they go on in their lives. It is not as if banning shows from schools will do anything to prevent that. So since kids are supposedly in school so they can learn about important subjects, shouldn’t they be learning about them through school rather than elsewhere?
Most importantly, it is worth asking: What does it say about schools in America if certain types of art – including musical productions – are being prohibited in schools on the basis that small groups of people disagree with its content? Where do you draw the line, in terms of what shows should not be allowed to be produced in schools? For that matter, should the same rules also be applied to what books, films or paintings should be shown in schools? This decision is already an atrocious example of an education system that is censoring certain ideas in the arts, and indeed, it does seem to be part of a larger culture where small groups of overly sensitive people have too much power over events such as these.
So I hope that the Board of Education in Enfield ultimately reverses the decision it has made (if it hasn’t already, by the time this column is published) and that the students over at Enfield High have the chance to produce American Idiot, which now has received plenty of free publicity due to this whole controversy. However, it is my hope that stories such as this will become far less frequent in the future, as more people go out and learn themselves about the negative consequences that censoring theatre in schools can have. For now, I can only hope…
Update on 2-2-16: After speaking with a faculty member in the Enfield School District - who has asked not to be publicly identified in this column - it is now clear that the decision to cancel this production of American Idiot was primarily that of staff members at Enfield High School, rather than the Superintendent and the Enfield Board of Education.
Nonetheless, given the pressure from those opposed to the production that led to this decision in the first place, it remains clear that this is a prime example of how censorship is being inflicted on theatre and art, especially in school settings. I hope that in the future, those in charge of such schools and their theatre programs will not be prone to making such decisions as to what should or shouldn't be shown to students.
This column was written by Anthony J. Piccione: Student, playwright, actor, poet and blogger currently based in Connecticut. To learn more about Anthony and his work, please visit his personal blog at www.anthonyjpiccione.tumblr.com. Also, be sure to like him on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AnthonyJPiccione.OfficialPage), follow him on Twitter (@A_J_Piccione) and view his work on the New Play Exchange (www.newplayexchange.org/users/903/anthony-j-piccione