The censorship and study of LGBTQ+ representation in High School Theatre
by: Matt Denney
While the study of theatre has progressed in many high schools across the country, we must now pose the question of content and quality. LGBTQ+ groups have been ostracized and censored in an increased amount in previous years. The censorship of High School Theatre content has hindered the further improvement of the students’ holistic worldview which has been a continued priority in Modern American Education. Bringing new meaning to the 14th amendment by studying what equal access to education really means in today’s culture. Through this historical cross-gender study along with the psychological aspects of media and its influence on children, we start to see how society has and will continue to change the High School Theatre setting.
Theater has been a pivotal element in our society for many centuries. Post 1950, we began to encompass this idea of Artistic Expression and that theatre has become a representation of the society. To understand theatre holistically, we must not only understand the past, but also the present and future. Many students begin to study theatre at a young age. Coming from a Theatre Education background, the question that is argued the most is: “what is acceptable to teach in a high school setting?” Yes, it is important to teach the pragmatic history of the theatre, but if we only teach what has been done in the past, and not study what is currently being done, how can we begin to move forward in the Theatre Education World? In recent years, there have been many High School Theatre Programs cut due to budgeting and strict guidelines about what “should” be accepted into the community and culture of the school system. We often see many discussions between educators about how often they have to jump through hoops just to teach the material they want to teach to the students ranging from character development techniques to pantomime/theatricality of performance. Many of the Shakesperian plays studied dealing with heavy topics such as the LGBTQ+ community and transgender characters are taken for a comedic effect. However, with these more recent publications of plays, and schools wanting to perform them, censorship has increased, and there are many plays and performances being cancelled due to the nature of their content. While we continue to progress with Theatre Education, there is also a progression in censorship of LGBTQ+ on the High School Theatre Stage.
The earliest plays we see gender being played with in text is in the form of crossdressing. The history of crossdressing spans back to Early Modern England when it became common for many characters to crossdress and “mess” with the gender spectrum. Jane Howard discusses this in her essay Crossdressing, The Theatre, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England. Howard describes a gender struggle of what exactly it is, and if it is for a comedic use in the Theatre. Howard notes that “In comic form we see this in The Merry Wives of Windsor when Falstaff assumes the clothes of the Wise Woman of Brainford and is roundly beaten by the misogynistic Ford” (Howard, 1988). This has been the commonality with gender onstage for many years, the thought process in the previous decade has been that it has all been for comedic effect, and it doesn’t actually mean anything less than a cheap laugh. Howard then brings up the point that women are not held to the same standard as men are. In Early Modern England, Women would only crossdress if their character is to be portrayed as dominant or masculine. Although cross-dressed women would be portrayed like this, the audience in England would not suspend their disbelief, thus creating this di-transitive mindset of the two crossdressing genders. It became common for men to crossdress as women in performance, and that stigma and mindset has continued on to the millennial generation.
There have been many Theatres and High Schools beginning to challenge this concept with various new productions that allow directors flexibility with the show. Since High School Theatre’s are struggling to find an appropriate number of males for shows, many of them have been required to have the girls play male roles and challenge the stereotype of just men crossdressing as women. The problem then arises in romance plays with two main lovers. Heteronormativity is the idea that heterosexuality is the only normal and natural expression of sexuality (Merriam-Webster, 2018). This plays a major role in many TV, film, media, and Theatre because we begin to have a mindset that everyone unless asked is explicitly straight, and does not identify with the LGBTQ+ community. With the norm being that everyone is heterosexual until proven otherwise, it is often taken as a negative when a character in a play comes out as LGBTQ+. Paula Ressler touches on this in her essay: Challenging Normative Sexual and Gender Identity Beliefs through Romeo and Juliet where Ressler discusses recent adaptations of Romeo and Juliet in the classroom:
“For LGBTQ students, there is little to take their place. Because the story of Romeo and Juliet, although a tragic one, is viewed as a model, perhaps even the height of youthful romantic love, classrooms in which the play is studied often become the sites of unprovoked homophobic banter. The way it is taught idealizes heterosexuality, and those young people who are either not attracted to the opposite sex or those whose interests are not yet visibly heterosexual may easily become targets of teasing and gay-baiting” (Ressler, 2004).
Those who identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community do not have a place or representation in education. Specifically in Romeo and Juliet, it is very uncommon to see a production or discussion happen around same-gendered star-crossed lovers. In Ressler’s study, she lead a discussion and literary analysis study on Romeo and Juliet looking at all of the sexual innuendos and comparing the original text to the ones that were used in the textbooks in class. Ressler when discussing the characters said that “these young characters make and the societal pressures placed on them because of gender” (Ressler, 2004). The pressure to conform and fit into this mold of the Montagues and Capulets. A big part of Romeo and Juliet is gender and the interpretation to what a star-crossed lover is. In many productions featuring a romantic story arc, it is normal for people to just assume that it is going to be about a guy and a girl, because that is what we see often.
As Theatre Educators, we often see ourselves trying to fit into this mold of what will be acceptable within our community of students, educators, and parents. However, the LGBTQ+ students have no representation in this area or an outlet to express themselves freely. Jennifer Chapman addresses this problem from an educational perspective, saying that “by resisting and refusing to acknowledge non-heterosexual individuals and play choices, textbooks and scene study, high school theatre and education teaches students to actively ignore those identity positions in their world view” (Chapman, 2016). This quote sums up a lot of the basis of my research and findings, it basically reiterates the thought of a Cultural Worldview within our own society, and that what we teach our students creates a difference. In America, we have to wonder if we are providing equal representation of all identities that exist within our society and schools. Kenneth Cushner and Averil McClelland define this discuss this on their discussion on worldview in terms of other societies and mention that“Although the sources of cultural identity (e.g., race, language, sexuality) are universal and appear in all societies, the socializing agents (family, media, and so forth) that transmit them vary considerably from one society to another.” (Cushner & McClelland, 2009). Since the representation is not equal within our schools, as we have noted several times. This brings up our next problem of censorship at the High School level.
On a list supplied by the Educational Theatre Association (EDTA) of recently banned or challenged plays, there were several plays that are consistently banned from many High School Theatre Programs, many of them having to deal with some form of homophobia, same-sex touching, “Homophobic Behavior”, or Mental Health. One of the plays that is consistently cancelled is a play entitled “Almost, Maine” by John Cariani, in which it calls for a scene with two men who literally fall for each other, in the script it states after certain lines, the characters fall down closer to each other and when they get close enough to each other, the lights fade down and blackout. There is no mention of touching or holding each other, but many schools decide to cancel these productions, through EDTA’s data, we see that there were 10 cancelled productions in the past 4 years. This is also the case with a play entitled The Laramie Project by Moises Kaufman which also deals with a homosexual character. In Sara Simons’ article, Teaching Tolerance Without Pushing the Envelope, Sara Simons produces this show, and encourages teachers to follow suit, but warns that “teachers and schools utilizing this play should pair The Laramie Project with activities that examine systemic oppression and counternarratives that explore the positive aspects of being queer” (Simons, 2015). Simons makes an interesting point stating that there are many powerful narratives of queer individuals, but none of them are leading a happy and healthy life many of them are repressed and are usually paired with another mental health instability. Simons finishes touching on censorship by stating that plays should not be censored, if there is a violent or challenging portion of the play, Simons encourages a discussion to be had with the audience, administration, or students who may be challenging your play, and mediating the arguments before they begin. There are plenty of diversity classroom activities that are able to be utilized for teachers around the country. If censorship occurs, there is a learning opportunity.
This misrepresentation then creates a bullying stigma to performing arts students who identify with the LGBTQ+ community. In 2016, a study was done at local high schools in the United States by Kenneth Elpus & Bruce Carter that polled theatre and Music Students, and collected data on bullying and cyberbullying associated with the performing arts programs around the country. Their study found that:
“theatre students were 41% more likely to be victimized by any in-person bullying behavior than were students who did not participate in music ensembles or school theatre, with male music and theatre students facing an additional 20% risk of victimization beyond the risk faced by female music and theatre students… that the risk for male music and theatre students was 69% greater than the risk for non-arts students” (Elpus & Carter, 2016).
With the high risk of bullying surrounding this area of education, we have to wonder what we can do as Educators. Education is meant to be about equality and equity for every child and student that steps foot into our class, if there are many studies supporting that performing arts students are bullied more than non-arts students, why is there nothing being done to help this? Elpus & Carter address this again stating that “Anti-bullying research has shown that classroom-level supports — that is, using class time to specifically address bullying, build social-emotional competencies, improve communication, and suggest bullying response actions — are effective at reducing bullying and victimization” (Elpus & Carter, 2016). We must begin at the School Counselor level, and having a discussion that they know that it is a problem to be addressed rather than ignoring the problem as a whole. By taking time out of the class to be discussing this research and findings with the students at the very beginning could change and save lives. The authors recommended a three tiered system such as high-risk, low-risk, and average with check-ins with the students every month. The data that was shared is also steadily increasing as many more students are entering our schools, and that they in the future would like to poll more students in hopes of updating their data yearly. A case study done by Gilberte Arriaza & Alice Wagner following an elementary school and parent engagement following Ms. Riva’s attempts to unite the community and talk about issues like this to get the communities input on what their beliefs are, and to validate their feelings towards a certain subject.”As part of Ms. Rivas’s attempts to close the social distance between the community and the school, she established both formal and informal structures for both groups to congregate, meet each other, and talk” (Arriaza & Wagner, 2012). Nothing can change or progress without the process of communication.
Censorship and LGBTQ+ have a long history together not only in the Theatre, but also in History. Crossdressing in the Theatre has a history in Early Modern England, and that stigma that in the Theatre, it is normal to crossdress as another gender has continued, and we are consistently struggling with accurate representations of Queer individuals. Through many studies, we see that LGBTQ+ individuals have little to no representation not only in the Theatre, but Education in general. Yes, we are creating new works that showcase these characters, but they are constantly becoming censored or cancelled due to the nature of their content. How are we able to improve if we must censor what artistic expression is to our children. We are not having the discussions needed for these productions to happen.