Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Curmie Contenders: Censorious Asshat Edition

It just wouldn’t be Curmie season without a couple of examples of idiot administrators shutting down high school theatre productions, then lying about why they did so. As it happens, the two cases Curmie knows about both involve shows that have been done by my university’s School of Theatre in recent years. Curmie reminds you that he lives in a part of the country that routinely re-elects Loony Louie Gohmert without serious opposition, if that gives you an idea of how conservative things are around these parts.

True, we’re talking about a university instead of a high school, but as far as I know there wasn’t as much as a murmur of dissent about either of these plays. The shows in question: Spamalot, the popular musical based loosely on the movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” and in fact written by Python Eric Idle, cancelled at South Williamsport Jr/Sr High School in northern Pennsylvania, and John Cariani’s Almost, Maine, which, according to the most recent information I can find (2010), is most-produced high school play in the country cancelled in Maiden, North Carolina.

In both cases, the censorious asshats (h/t to Ken at Popehat for the term) claim they’re worried about the tender sensibilities of audiences and performers alike. But those whose productions were shut down see it differently: in both Pennsylvania and North Carolina, students and faculty are pretty certain that the real problem is that one thing the plays have in common, apart from their popularity with production companies and audiences alike, is that they explicitly acknowledge that gay people exist, and even that they sometimes fall in love.

Spamalot features a production number coming-out party for a now flamboyantly gay Lancelot, who had saved a damsel in distress who turned out not to be a damsel; the pair marry in the end, with one of the grooms singing “find your male” when everyone else in the the show’s anthem sings “find your Grail.” Almost, Maine has one scene (of nine), “They Fell,” in which two male characters literally fall (as in being unable to stand) for each other. Both scenes are comic and cute. But they do suggest that gay people are… um… people. Oh, the humanity! Think of the children!

The other thing the two shows have in common is that the rights-holders are remarkably willing to accommodate school productions. The North Carolina production had already announced their plans to cut a scene that suggested imminent (heterosexual) sex, apparently with the approval of the playwright and/or rights-holder. The company controlling production rights to Spamalot is amazingly willing to help schools produce their show. There’s even an explanatory webpage, replete with everything from alternate staging suggestions to milder expletives to what to do if you feel compelled to cut the snarkily anti-Semitic “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway.” (This latter song and the accompanying stereotyping ought to be more problematic to censors than any homosexual motif; needless to say, it’s never mentioned.) In other words, all that claptrap about “sexually-explicit overtones and multiple sexual innuendos that are not aligned with our mission and educational objectives” nonsense: window dressing.

And let’s not go down the road followed by both administrations that high school plays have to be “appropriate and educationally sound for students of all ages.” That was Maiden High’s Rob Bliss, for those of you keeping score at home, but it doesn't matter. South Williamsport Superintendent Mark Stamm read from the same script: “We want our performances to be appropriate for the student performers and audiences so that anyone participating or watching can enjoy all aspects of the show.”

To which I say, with all due respect, “horseshit.” High school plays ought to be appropriate for the performers, but directors and student actors ought to be under no obligation to pander to the least common denominator of their audiences unless a particular production is specifically intended for children. Think about the second most-produced high school play: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Fairies, forbidden love, a whole lot of sex jokes in the mechanicals’ performance (I know this in part from having played an Egeus/Philostrate conflation; part of my job in Act V was to laugh at all the dirty stuff so the audience would be alerted to the jokes), a variation on the theme of bestiality… and why do you think Oberon was so interested in that Indian Boy, after all? Fact is, pick any show and if you look hard enough, you’ll find something to complain about.

Here’s Curmie from just under two years ago:
Carousel is one of the creepiest plays ever; Henry Higgins—our hero—is a condescending, sexist, erm… sphincter in My Fair Lady (far more so than his Shavian predecessor in Pygmalion); Godspell requires a conflation of John the Baptist and Judas; all the heroes of West Side Story are gang members; the best songs in Jesus Christ, Superstar go to Mary Magdalene and Herod; the title character in Sweet Charity never strays far from her origins as a prostitute in the Fellini film on which the musical is based; “Hernando’s Hideaway” from The Pajama Game (done right, at least) drips with sexuality; Luther Billis cross-dresses in South Pacific, and extra-marital sex is taken as a given (albeit never made explicit). Need I go on?
And that’s just the musicals. These plays were shut down because of gay subject matter and anyone with an IQ above room temperature knows it.

What the cancellations have in common is that both shows were approved by the appropriate administrators before they were axed for reasons aptly described by arts administrator and blogger Howard Sherman as “the school administration caving in to their own worst instincts and to outside pressure, even though the source of the pressure managed to remain under the radar.” [Sherman was writing specifically about Almost, Maine, but he could just as easily have been describing Spamalot.] Almost, Maine was, in fact, already in rehearsal before administrative cold feet trumped all reason.

Be it noted that the Principal in South Williamsport, one Jesse Smith, Mark Stamm, and school board President John J. Engel Jr. proclaimed that homosexual themes in Spamalot were not the real reason for the cancellation, and the show had not actually been approved before its cancellation. They were, to coin a phrase, lying. Gentle Reader, if you’ll follow this link, you’ll find several documents. Among them: a copy of an e-mail from Smith that reads in part, “I am uncomfortable with Spamalot and its homosexual theme…”, another that says “I have some concerns such as a guy sending another guy a message on girl’s underwear [when does that happen?] and a gay wedding being performed,” and a photocopy of a check for $1935 signed by Smith.

Curmie may remind you of his lay status when it comes to matters of law or science, but this one is in his wheelhouse. You don’t write a check for that amount of money if you’re just considering a script. You’ve decided. And if you subsequently claim you hadn’t, you’re lying. And you’re busted. The fact is, just like virtually every other moronic principal who caves to the slightest bit of pressure instead of standing up for free expression (not to mention your staff and your students), you just couldn’t be bothered to do your job. So you approved a show you regret approving. And you’re willing to blame anyone but yourself. You do have the advantage that your boss has no more integrity as either educator or person than you do, so you probably won’t even get your sorry ass kicked out the door for your inane and dishonest behavior. More’s the pity.

(Curmie is also a big fan of the phrase “WNEP/WBRE were contacted anomalously…” in an e-mail from Stamm to, presumably, the school board. Note to school administrators: a typo here and there might be inevitable. Malapropisms, however, make you look like an even bigger idiot than your censorious asshatitude does.)

The directors in question seem to have done everything right. If anything, they were a little too solicitous in terms of getting permission forms from parents before allowing students to audition, and so on. They made copies of the scripts available to their respective administrations prior to announcing the show. But the principals didn’t read the plays before approving them and apparently didn’t read them well before nixing them again.

There is, to be sure, an upside to all this. Almost, Maine will in fact open in a couple weeks in a nearby town, with a cast comprised of Maiden High School students and a couple of recent alums. A kickstarter campaign raised nearly twice the goal amount of $1000 in less than a day; the campaign ultimately netted some $6605 from 289 backers (including a few bucks from Curmie).

The downside is that there was apparently no replacement show chosen at Maiden High School. That would be, probably, because all the talent was committed to doing the show they’d already agreed to do. There might just be hope for this younger generation, after all.

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