In defense of censorship
A couple of months ago, reader Devon Roberts—a high school student—wrote the following in response to my post about what high school playwrights should be writing.
Theatre has always been shocking and provocative. Theatre tends to show stuff that society likes to hide and I love that about theatre and I feel like that gets squashed in many high schools. People writing plays for high school is fine but it shouldn't keep the playwright from writing freely. The minute you take something that is raw and real and dress it up to make it socially acceptable you lose the art of it. The beauty of it becomes cheap and filtered. In a perfect world high schools could do whatever play they want but I know that would never happen but the point is if you are writing for high school don’t filter for high school because we high schoolers deal with a lot. Our lives aren’t censored. In many cases we NEED that deep dark material to learn and to grow as actors and people. If you want an illustration of this look at Spring Awakening. We don’t live censored lives, so why should our plays be?
Devon’s comment brings up more issues than I can tackle in one post. But let’s start with the question of censorship.
EdTA and the University of Utah have just completed a survey of the state of high school theatre (the full results of which will be reported in this fall’s Teaching Theatre.)
One of the findings: about a fifth of theatre teachers have experienced an administrative or community challenge to a play choice in the past two years, and two-thirds of them dropped or changed the show.
One in five.
That’s enormous, and I’m guessing that these schools aren’t trying to produce Hair.
But Devon’s rhetorical question—why should high school plays be censored—has one obvious answer:
High school plays are put on for family audiences, and I don’t mean the generic “family” that’s used to describe those audiences that attend animated films. I mean the families of the participants. Nine times out of ten the audience for a high school production includes the brothers and sisters, parents and grandparents of the cast and crew.
Many of the siblings who attend will be younger than the performers. Is it reasonable to expect parents to get a babysitter in order to attend?
There’s also a lateral component to being a high school audience member that doesn’t exist in adult theatre. It’s likely that a lot of the audience knows each other.
It can’t be fun to stand in line to buy a Rice Krispie treat when your daughter is the girl who just finished simulating copulation in front of your Rotary Club.
I think there's a second, subtler issue as well.
High school actors seem younger than they actually are because they’re trying to seem older.
Half the actors are playing characters two to five times their age. Often, they’re pretending to be in situations that no fifteen-year-old has experienced. And they’re doing it imperfectly because their skill level is lower than that of their professional peers.
The fourteen-year-old mature enough to babysit your two kids doesn’t show her best self when she stands in front of a painted castle wall, washing imaginary blood off her hands and lamenting the deaths she’s caused.
In fact, the situation infantilizes her.
There’s a part of our brains that sees sixteen-year-old actors as playing dress up, so it’s more shocking when they curse onstage than it is in real life.
My natural writing style is pontification but I confess I’m stymied by Devon’s questions and would welcome hearing both opinions and experiences.
I’d love to hear to hear from you if you’ve had a show objected to.
Or better yet, if you’ve been the one objecting.