By Cassidy Keenan
I was in rehearsal. It was my sophomore year of high school, and we were all eagerly preparing for our upcoming performance of Bye Bye Birdie. The new cast gathered in one room to do our first readthrough. Our director looked very cautious.
We had our scripts open and ready to go, but we had to endure a lecture first.
“Just so you know,” the director told us delicately, “my assistant director and I have not finished going through the script yet. But there’s no need for you to worry. We will be taking several lines out before we get to final performances. If you come across something that seems more…inappropriate, it will probably not make the final cut.”
This proved to be true. Bye Bye Birdie is probably one of the most family-friendly shows to exist in print. However, any story involving wild teenage hormones will inevitably cause concern at conservative suburban high schools. By the final production, several particularly sensitive lines had been removed from the script. Either that, or they were replaced with the utmost propriety. For example, my own character had an impassioned moment where she screams, “Let’s have an orgy!” Before I could even get the words out, the directors had emphatically swapped it out for a far tamer, “Let’s have a party.”
This is but one example of censorship in theater.
What is Censorship?
Censorship is an issue that has become more and more relevant in the past several years. Thespians, parents, directors, administrators, conservatives, and free-spirits have all weighed in. Censorship means suppressing or altering an original work due to its allegedly being harmful, obscene, or politically unacceptable. The debate centers around whether or not this is acceptable.
There is no direct evidence that censorship is occurring more than it used to. However, it is indisputable that the conversation is becoming more prevalent. An article published by the American Theater communications group states, “There’s no quantitative study that indicates the policing of what’s performed is any greater than it was 10, 25 or 50 years ago. Everything is anecdotal. But the Internet has made it easier for reports to spread beyond individual communities and for news-aggregation sites uncover and accelerate the dissemination of such stories.”
The heart of the censorship debate centers around young actors in particular. Middle and high school students are often censored due to pressure from either parents or the administration. It is most often a question of morality. Authority figures try to determine what content is appropriate to expose to younger audiences and actors.
The Educational Theater Association recently published a list of plays that have either been challenged or banned in American middle and high schools. Some of the reasons for the shows’ prohibition included: references to illicit substances such as drugs or alcohol, the portrayal of characters who were members of the LGBTQ community, explicit or sexual content, and more.
Some of the reasons listed were very specific. For example, one play was prohibited in 2007 due to an NAACP complaint that it had a racially insensitive title. Another play, a production of Godspell at a high school, was not allowed to be performed because several administrators found it to be “a breach of church-state separation.”
However, other reasons listed were more vague and open-ended. Plays have been banned for being “too racy” or simply for promoting generally “immoral behavior.”
Still, more shows were challenged or prohibited because administrators worried about influencing students or encouraging certain behaviors. For example, one production of The Tender Yellow Sky was canceled in 2008 because “School officials said they were concerned that the play’s exploration of teenage suicide might cause some students to consider killing themselves.”
There is enormous opposition from those who do not approve of censorship. Some consider it a free speech issue, a violation of constitutional rights. Others think that it is incredibly damaging to the integrity of the artist or playwright. Plays are written the way they are written, they argue. If someone chooses to perform that play, they must perform it in its entirety.
An editorial in the Washington Post referenced a keynote speech to the Florida Association for Theatre Education. The speaker remarked that “students have the chance to tell stories that engage with what is difficult in the world…[and] it…makes them better people and better citizens, with knowledge, gifts, and understanding that will be of value to them whatever they may be in life.
“When you look at it that way,” the article continued, “the arena of school theater is one of the safest, edifying places to explore social issues that tread on uncomfortable territory.”
Theatrical performance challenges social norms. It pushes boundaries and explores the human condition more deeply. Unfortunately, the human condition is one that is often uncomfortable and messy, and this is where the tension lies. The question remains: how and when should young theater-makers begin this world of exploration, and how far they should be encouraged to go?