When Drama Teachers Put Their Programs at Risk...

Chris Peterson

  • OnStage Founder

The Place: East Newton High School in Granby, Missouri 

Minutes into the second act of a high school production, two parents complain about the content(which included cursing, drug use and sexually explicit moments) and pull their child immediately off the stage and leave the theatre. This causes the principal to cancel the second performance of the show. Leaving the remaining cast in confusion and tears. 

Normally, reading something like this would have me up in arms, ready to light the torches for anti-censorship. But in this case, I find myself siding with the principal. Why? Because the show should never have been performed in the first place. 

So what show created all this hoopla? That would be a stage adaptation of the classic 1985 film, The Breakfast Club. 

Now before you start scrolling through Samuel French or Dramatists to get a copy of the script, don't bother, there isn't one. That's because the adaptation was written by the faculty at East Newton High School without permission from the John Hughes estate. 

Investigated by Arts Integrity, they spoke with the drama teacher at East Newton and found out,

"The drama teacher, new to the school this year, told Arts Integrity that, regarding authorship, “A local teacher edited the show.” He also acknowledged the lack of rights, writing, “We were unable to obtain rights, the show has never been released as a play. I did a lot of research and found that there is no one to obtain the rights [from]. So we did some creative donation to make it closer to legal.” Asked to explain what “creative donation” meant, he replied, “We weren’t really charging admission. We put out a suggested donation to the drama club.”

"Make it closer to legal" aren't exactly the words you want to hear from the person in charge of your theatre program. Just saying.

The fault in this situation lies with the drama teacher, Moose Leighton, for not understanding the basics of copyright and licensing. For anyone in charge of producing high school productions, knowledge in this area is a must. 

Leighton's misstep was even furthered by suggesting the optional donation to get around copyright laws. Again, if he knew what he was talking about he'd know that price of admission makes no difference here. The show would still be considered a public performance of dramatic material, which would violate copyright. 

Arts Integrity further points out, 

"Parties failed to understand the basics of copyright and licensing, since no script was available. That shouldn’t be taken as permission to go ahead and cobble together your own adaptation, but rather to either create a wholly original work, or to legally license preexisting material."

To make matters worse, last I read, the teachers and students are planning on editing the material and performing it again. Folks, the root of the problem isn't the content within the show, it's the show itself. You don't have to be a legal eagle to understand this. 

While it's easy to point the finger at Leighton for this, he's far from the first teacher to be so cavalier when it comes to copyright laws. In fact, last year, in an effort to obtain the first rights for the musical Hamilton, a teacher at the Canadian Wexford Collegiate School, staged and filmed scenes from Hamilton which is a big no-no. 

It's also not just copyright laws where teachers tend to overstep. We've seen countless productions shut down by school administrators due to mature content that was never approved in the first place. It's happened with productions like RENT and even Spamalot. I hate it when administrators pull the plug on a show, but it's also hard for me to have any sympathy for teachers that didn't get a clear go-ahead to do the material in the first place. High School theatres shouldn't be personal playgrounds for teachers to do what they want, willy-nilly. They run on tax paid funds which are often minimal. So teachers need to be meticulous when it comes to organizing productions. 

Look, the overall majority of drama teachers in this country are doing amazing things for their students and are fully qualified to lead these programs. However there are some, whose lack of knowledge in key areas can put their programs at risk and only hurt their students. 

This is a time where high school students need the arts more than ever. So we need to have teachers in place that know what they're doing. If they don't, replace them with people who do. 

Because now you have a bunch of students devastated that they can't perform a show they've worked really hard on and a student who, I'm sure, is traumatized by being yanked off stage from a show that should have never gone on in the first place.