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

Exercise: The Fast Track to Script Memorization

Erin Fossa

OnStage North Carolina Columnist

Doing theatre in my late 20’s is much more complicated than it was in college. Rather than having several hours a day to memorize lines like I did back then, I’m lucky if I get an hour. Between motherhood, potty training, housework, running errands, going to the gym, church, cooking dinner and (oh yeah) my work-from-home day job, I might be able to find an hour or so to actually sit down alone… but I usually fall asleep the minute I open the script. 

My rehearsals for Steel Magnolias start in a little over a month and it’s time to kick memorization into gear. Steel Magnolias is an extremely dialogue heavy show. Like a good little actress, I want to show up memorized so I can concentrate on blocking and character work during the rehearsal period. But I simply do not have the time for repetition, and quiet concentration sends me straight into sleepy land… sweet, sweet sleepy land… 

Anyway, I decided to try a technique for memorization that worked well during my college days. But before I put it into practice, I did some research to see if there was any scientific merit to my experience. Sure enough, science backed up my theory better than I could have hoped. 

My theory is this: Memorizing lines while exercising significantly increases the productivity of your time. 

I call it the “memorization fast track”. Because it appeared to me that if I worked on my lines while on the elliptical or even the treadmill, I was able to absorb so much more than if I just sat down to read. And it’s true, the brain is much more active during exercise than at any other time, even times of deep concentration! This image from the University of Illinois shows a brain scan that illustrates this difference: 

Exercise has so many benefits, particularly to us as performers. Core strength is the foundation for proper breathing, supported singing and speaking, and strong movement on stage. And now, I’m finding an amazing connection to our work off stage as well. When you increase the amount of oxygen to the brain (which is what happens during exercise), your brain will actually create new brain cells in the hippocampus, which is the area involved in learning and memory.  

So how do you do this practically? Well obviously you have to pick the right exercise. Exercises that elevate your heart rate such as the elliptical, the treadmill, the stationary bike, or even jumping jacks and jump squats will all do this for you. Put your script out in front of you to glance at and alternate between reading and reciting from memory. Using this technique, I’ve been able to absorb up to an entire act in one 30 minute period. 

If you don’t have access to exercise machines and aren’t particularly fond of gym memberships, try exercising and then memorizing immediately afterwards while many parts of your brain are still active. Go for a run or even a brisk walk and then pick up your script while you’re cooling down. Do an exercise video on mute and recite your monologue while you follow along. Do whatever you can to elevate your heart rate while intentionally memorizing your dialogue and I guarantee you’ll be able to recall those words so easily on stage. 

I could harp on the importance of daily exercise for so many reasons, but this one is both practical and beneficial to your health. Trust me, once you get a taste of those endorphins, you’ll want to exercise even when you’re not memorizing a script. Combined with good nutrition and adequate sleep, you may never find yourself asking, “What’s my line?!” again. 




Klein, Sarah. This is What Happens to Your Body When You Exercise. The Huffington         Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/04/body-on-exercise-what-            happens-infographic_n_3838293.html

Widrich, Leo. What Happens to Our Brain During Exercise (and Why it Makes Us
    Happy). Life Hacker. August 27, 2012. http://lifehacker.com/5938216/what-