Jan, 26, 2005 - Shakespeare's "MacBeth" is "too violent for children today." Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" "contains homosexuality."
Plato's "Republic" is considered "un-Christian" and Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter" is "a filthy book."
These are just some of the objections the National Council of Teacher's of English have collected over the years regarding books that are deemed classics to many. In fact, challenges to what is taught in America's public schools and calls for censorship are not a new subject for most educators.
In December, Ironwood Ridge High School became the most recent local school that had to deal with this issue. The school's administration decided, after viewing a number of scenes from the student-directed "Cannibal! The Musical," to halt the production, saying a some parents objected to the play's content. The officials said, in making their decision, that the standards of the community had to be weighed against the values of the play.
In the meantime, the students involved with the production say they've gotten no explanation as to why the play was canceled and believe adapting, directing, designing and acting in the play, based on an historic event of the first American conviction for cannibalism, would have provided a unique learning experience. Instead, the students have gotten a lesson in the rights of free speech granted to students, or perhaps the lack thereof.
But a recent turn of events has IRHS sophomore Zach Singer, the play's director, saying he has learned some additional lessons from the experience with "Cannibal!" and the reaction by some parents and administrators.
"I learned that, no matter what, I can't give up on myself, I won't give up on myself," he said. When he found out "Cannibal!" would not be performed at IRHS, Singer admits it packed a hard blow, at first.
"But then, I said 'No, I have to find a way to do this," he said, adding that overcoming obstacles and learning to look at something seemingly negative and find a way to make it positive is an invaluable lesson, even if it was not part of a school lesson plan. He said those lessons will be invaluable to him as he pursues a career in the tough world of film making.
His determination paid off earlier this week when Singer found out the parents of one of the "Cannibal!" cast members came up with a way to help the musical get to the stage.
"Basically, this is my dream come true," said Singer after finding out the news that Oksana Sparks agreed to underwrite the play's production through the Matlou Fund.
Oksana Sparks is the mother of Royce Sparks, who plays the prosecuting attorney in "Cannibal!" She also is co-owner, with her husband Eric Sparks, of the Matlou Ranch, in Botswana, Africa. The family works to help children suffering from HIV/AIDS in Africa and agreed to finance the play if all the proceeds are donated to the Matlou Fund to be used specifically in a Botswana village, Lentswe Mority, to bring aid to the children there. In Botswana, thousands die each year from AIDS, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and many children are left sick and orphaned.
"It's a win-win kind of a deal," Oksana Sparks said of her agreement with the students. "We are supporting our son in his endeavor and we are supporting the theater. But from the kids standpoint, they get to be humanitarians. They get to step up and be citizens of the world. And the children in Botswana will see that 'I am in Botswana and I am important enough that someone is doing something for me."
"It's the ultimate example of something giving the perception of being negative, but it opens doors. It's a terrific thing."
Royce Sparks will now be aiding Singer in the search for a venue. The two are looking at theaters on and around the University of Arizona campus and hope to have the location nailed down by week's end. Singer said they will get right back to work on the production and will likely perform the show in late April or early June, taking May off for final exams.
"We will draw a younger crowd there," said Royce Sparks. "This is a fun musical, it's not Les Miserables."
Royce Sparks said he is happy his family is able to step up to help the students not only support the arts but to help this cause.
"It's a really great thing we are able to do," he said. "It will create a better feeling around the show."
The students in the case of "Cannibal!" were able to find support for their art outside of the school, but each year, other artistic undertakings are stopped because of objections to which no one finds a solution.
The issue of to teach or not to teach certain plays, books and other material has been a subject of debate for decades in public schools and has spurred groups such as NCTE to develop its own guidelines to help teachers choose what to teach, and then defend their choices. Schools often have their own guidelines, usually dictated by state and national standards required to be learned by all students.
The Tucson area has had several high profile instances of public objections to high school theater productions in years past.
Most recently, a production of the "Laramie Project" at Rincon/University High School in the Tucson Unified School District drew out both supporters and objectors because of the play's plot, which follows the real life story of Matthew Shepard, a gay college-aged student, who's murder in Laramie, Wyo. in 1998 was deemed a hate crime.
In the case of this project, the show went on.
In 1992, a Flowing Wells production of "The Shadow Box," the 1977 Pulitzer Prize winning play by Michael Cristofer about life and death in a hospice, was shut down after complaints about the play's language and homosexual themes. The drama teacher responsible for choosing the play, Carol Marlow, was fired for failing to remove profanities from the script. A number of high profile celebrities, including Christopher Reeve, came to town to support the play and the teacher, and produced the show at an off-campus venue. A group supporting the rights of free speech, People for the American Way, also came to town to host a forum facilitating discussion on the topic of censorship.
These past situations, coupled with the personal experiences and beliefs of local drama teachers influence how plays are chosen for high schoolers in the area today.
Carolyn Seidl, head of the drama department of Canyon del Oro High School, has spent 27 years with the school in the department. She said she has never had a problem with parents or administrators objecting to her choices.
"I guess I have a different philosophy," she said. "I try to be very sensitive to the community while providing a source of entertainment."
She said she tends to stay away from controversial subjects and has "never used my stage as a political venue."
Some of the plays she has produced in recent years include "The Music Man," "The Diary of Anne Frank," and "Rumors."
Many of the plays performed from the CDO stage are done again and again. Seidl has developed a repertoire of more than 100 plays from which to choose and said it helps her to run the program efficiently.
"I've done the "Man Who Came to Dinner" so many times I can't count them," she said. A play is not done more often than every four or five years so that each class can graduate without having repeated the same material.
The program is tied directly to the classroom and the two different production classes taught at the school, and is viewed by Seidl as "educational theater." She said most of her students are not taking the class because they have an interest in pursing theater as a career, but rather as an elective, and so she uses the class to teach public speaking, communication and other skills that will be useful to them no matter what career path they choose.
She avoids contemporary plays for two reasons: they often have small casts, meaning few students can participate, and are sometimes controversial, with modern day themes involving sex and drugs and other subjects that could be objected to.
"There are some things I could not do here," she said. For example, while she personally enjoys the Neil Simon play "Brighton Beach Memoirs," she said the sexual innuendo in the script would not go over at CDO.
"I wouldn't think my kids are ready for it," she said.
When Seidl talks about "the community" she said she is talking about the values of parents and students.
"You don't have to have kids swear on stage to get a lot out of a (theater) program," she said.
She said she can remember only one parent complaint in her years at CDO, which came after a reader's theater performance of "The Brick and the Rose." A character with a few lines in the script was a prostitute, and she later received a letter objecting to having a high school student play a character with that kind of lifestyle.
There are no written policies that guide Seidl's decision, she said, but being tuned in to her community has helped her avoid controversy.
The National Council of Teacher's of English, and other teacher organizations, issue guidelines for educators who use print or nonprint materials in their curriculum.
According to NCTE, "teachers often must use materials that, while potentially controversial, need to be examined so students can confront the stereotyping, propagandizing, and editorial gatekeeping so prevalent in the media. Such study allows students to discover that nonprint media works are construction of reality, have commercial, ideological, and value-laden messages, and employ aesthetic form."
The guidelines also caution teachers to prepare for introducing these materials into the classroom by knowing what the community's values are and being aware of the types of media to which students are regularly exposed outside the school.
Providing context for non print media and knowing how that material fits in with the school's educational purpose also are important factors to consider, according to NCTE.
Terry Erb, director of the drama program at Catalina Foothills High School, said he also does not have written guidelines outlining how to choose a play and that he often pushes the envelope for a variety of reasons including keeping his audience, himself and his students interested in what is happening on the school's stage.
"The administration just trusts the judgment of myself and the technical director," he said.
Erb's choices, like Seidl's, have a lot to do with the "talent pool," meaning the students interested in being a part of the production. As with many high school programs, one of the goals is getting as many of students on stage as possible.
"We look at what we think we can reasonably get off the ground," he said, which also includes the size of sets, kinds of costumes and other technical aspects involved.
Erb has been with the district's program for five years and comes from a "semiprofessional" background where he often worked with adult actors.
Catalina Foothills does seven shows each year, including a summer musical, so he also tries to choose plays that interest him personally and keep him engaged during the nine weeks or so in which he is totally involved in the play.
The school has put on shows with contemporary themes, and Erb said the response from the public has been positive.
The school performed "A Few Good Men" a few years ago and even more recently put on "Cabaret," the second time in the school's history the musical hit the Foothills' stage. The show, which portrays the Kit Kat Klub, in pre-World War II Berlin, includes themes of sex and violence, but Erb said the way in which it was presented made people think.
"We got a lot of kudos for that," Erb said. "People said they were glad we continue to bring this up as a horrible moment in history."
At Foothills high school, the audience consists largely of parents and students, but also gets a number of people who may live nearby, or just be in town for a while, and are interested in an evening of theater. Erb is proud the theater program has developed a reputation for doing a good job, not just for a high school, but for theater in general.
Erb said it is hard to predict what kind of subject will rub someone the wrong way.
For example, he once received a heated letter from a parent after she saw a performance of the musical, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum."
Erb described it a "total farce, not to be taken seriously," however, this parent wasn't laughing over what she felt was a portrayal that cast women in a bad light
"The letter said, 'Of all the musicals to choose from, why choose this?'"
But Erb defends his choices.
"The last time I checked, all musicals are based on conflict," he said, running down a list of well-known musicals that could be objected to by someone.
In the case of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," Erb discussed the response with the principal and they decided not to respond to the criticism.
However, in other cases, Erb said he has made changes based on parent concern.
"I admit, I sometimes step over the line," he said, and there are some things he believes should not be tackled by the school.
For example, while he thinks "Angels in America," an award-winning play that deals with, among other things, the rapid spread of AIDS through the homosexual community in the 1980s, is great, he does not think it is appropriate for a high school.
"Let's face it, I am living in a city where a teacher lost her job over a play," he said, referring to former Flowing Wells teacher, Marlow.
"That's a legitimate concern for me," Erb said.
While he has not been the position of having to stop a production because of public outcry, he considered staging the "Laramie Project" at the school not too long ago, and was told by the administration before he even got started that it was not a good choice for Catalina Foothills.
Todd Jaeger, associate superintendent and legal counsel in Amphitheater Schools, said he has heard about instances of controversy in nearby district's, including Flowing Wells and Catalina Foothills, but said issues of controversy and censorship "have really not been too much of an issue" in Amphi.
He said he is not aware of any other situation in the district's history that is similar to the situation at IRHS and "Cannibal! The Musical", and believes that issue has now been resolved.
While the Amphi district also does not have a policy in place to guide teacher choices, similar policies regarding how to handle controversial materials in the library can be applied, he said.
According to the school's Web site, every student in the Amphitheater district has rights when it comes to studying controversial issues, which include the right to study any issue which, "at maturity," the student could begin to have an opinion, the right to access all relevant information, the right to study under competent instruction and the right to form and express individual opinions on those issues without thereby jeopardizing relations with the teacher or the school.