High School Theater: What’s Appropriate and Who Decides?

Erin Fossa 

  • OnStage North Carolina Columnist

While I have never had the opportunity to teach theater at the high school level, I have several friends who currently do. Yesterday, I asked one of them a question. What is the one thing you want to rant about most as a high school theater teacher? She responded without hesitation as though this had been brooding within her for quite sometime… 

Her biggest frustration as a high school drama teacher was not the students or lack of budget or anything I would have guessed. It was the fact that so many of the shows she wanted to produce were deemed “inappropriate” by the principal. For example, she is dying to do Grease and her students are too! However, the idea was rejected due to the “inappropriate content” of the show. I thought about the themes in Grease - high school stereotypes, young love, teen pregnancy - all of which have been addressed on Glee and Saved by the Bell and every other show that has been popular with teenagers. The idea of this show being rejected for being “inappropriate” seemed ridiculous to me, but it prompted a very interesting question: What shows are truly inappropriate for high schoolers and who gets to decide? 

In that particular principal’s defense, he or she will probably be the one receiving the backlash of emails from unhappy parents who also feel the show is not appropriate for their sons and daughters. So, I can understand the hesitation. However, this type of overruling implies that the drama teacher does not have the best interest of her students in mind as she is choosing shows. My friend felt very insulted at her principal’s response which seemed to put her experience and judgement into question. 

My thoughts on this subject are this: If a literature teacher can expose her students to books like To Kill a Mockingbird which deals with subjects like racism and rape, or have the students read Macbeth where the subject matter includes murder and witchcraft, why can’t a theater teacher allow her students to perform Grease? After all, the musical is about high schoolers! 

There is grim content everywhere in a high schooler’s curriculum - from history to art. There is also redemption, hope, and inspiration. Very few plays are void of themes dealing with the darker side of humanity. Should a high school drama teacher be limited to only the handful that are? How does that educate students about storytelling on stage? Teenagers deal with very difficult things every day - pressure to succeed, pressure from friends, bullying, troubles at home - why should we shy away from musicals that tell their stories? Aren’t they a way of telling kids that someone out there knows how you feel? 

Madeleine L’Engle wrote a quote that I love. In her book A Ring of Endless Light, she writes, “Maybe you have to know the darkness before you can appreciate the light.” 

It is my personal opinion that a high school drama teacher should be hired with the understanding that he or she has appropriate judgement to choose shows for the season. Needing approval for those choices by a principal or the board of education or anyone else implies that the teacher can’t explain the subject matter to the students or the audience. But as educated instructors, we’ve been taught to consider our performers and our audience when choosing shows. And in turn, we are prepared to be responsible for the feedback, both good and bad. We should be prepared to deal with the consequences of our decisions. Answering to someone higher on the educational totem poll implies that we’re unable to do so. 

Obviously, I do believe there is a line that shouldn’t be crossed; not all plays and musicals are appropriate for high schoolers. But classic musicals like Grease are, in my opinion, exactly what high schoolers should be performing. Wholesome stories with a bit of scandal thrown in to create drama. 

Photo: Lake Highlands High School Fine Arts Department