Last weekend in Connecticut, Trumbull High School’s Thespian Society presented their fall play. On Monday afternoon, instead of a scheduled informational session for those planning to audition for the spring musical, Rent (the school edition), a full meeting of the Thespian Society was called. At that meeting, the school’s principal informed the students that Rent was cancelled.
Describing the meeting, Trumbull High Thespian Society president Larissa Mark said, “There were a lot of tears from the kids because Rent is so precious to so many of us.” As to how the principal explained his decision, Mark said, “I can’t say I know the reason, because it’s still unclear to so many of us.”
Now at this point, you might imagine this is going to be another story about an authoritarian, puritanical school administration squashing the dreams of helpless students. And that’s where you’d be wrong.
On Monday evening, after completing other commitments, Mark got organized and began to organize her peers. Having seen a raft of comments on social media while she was otherwise engaged, many carrying the phrase “Rentbellion,” she recommended a more measured tone. “I didn’t think ‘Rentbellion’ was going to help our case. We had to create an organized response. I said that students should speak with their parents about this and not act brashly.
“On Tuesday morning, “ Mark continued, “I helped organize a bunch of students with petitions to go around. In the course of two days, we collected 1,516 signatures, which is about two-thirds of our school. On Wednesday, I handed [the principal] the original copies of the signature sheets and surveys we’d done to the Trumbull community. We had asked whether people would support Rent and gave them a chance to make comments. We got over 400 responses and an almost overwhelming number of yesses.”
Mark also created a “Trumbull for Rent” Facebook page (which has over 4000 likes as I write), wrote a letter to the local Patch site (where another student was quoted anonymously), was interviewed by the Trumbull Times and Connecticut magazine and, by Wednesday evening (the night before Thanksgiving, mind you), had spoken with the local ABC and CBS affiliates. This is an impressive campaign even by professional standards, all marshaled by a 17 year old high school senior.
To the students, everything happened suddenly on Monday, but in fact there had been behind the scenes discussions going on since late October. Jessica Spillane, a 17-year-veteran of the high school, the English Department Chair, and English and drama teacher and director of the Thespian troupe and the spring musical, said her first conversation with principal Marc Guarino had occurred, spontaneously, on October 23, when they happened to run into one another. By Spillane’s account, Guarino said, “I just heard yesterday that we were doing Rent as the musical. Did we ever talk about this?” Spillane said she replied, “I don’t know but we announced in August. It’s been on our website since then. It had been announced through daily announcements for two weeks at the beginning of the school year. I said that it’s the school edition.” She said the selection of shows has always been autonomous, not requiring prior approval.
“Should I be worried?” Guarino asked, according to Spillane. She replied, “Absolutely not. We’ve got nothing but support. If there are any questions, I’ll handle them.” Spillane says that two weeks later, Guarino met with her to say that the plans to do Rent were “on hold.” Spillane provided him with the script, her conceptual plans for the production, and information on productions at other area high schools, including Amity Regional in Woodbridge and Greenwich High School, as well as the Fairfield Teen Theatre. She also gave him many of the books she had been using as research.
Subsequently, Guarino told Spillane that he had met with his assistant principals and the president of the Parent-Student-Teacher Association. He said he needed to speak with the superintendent. On November 20, Guarino told Spillane he could not support going forward with the production. In an appeal to the superintendent, Spillane was informed that he was backing the principal’s decision. Spillane made the decision to delay informing the students until after the fall play finished over the weekend.
Did Spillane inspire Mark’s campaign? “I told the kids that we [referring to herself and other Thespian advisors] needed to take a step back and not be seen as puppetmasters. The kids said ‘if we’re going to be heard, we need to be rational, respectful, organized and articulate’.”
So where does this all stand?
The first two days of Mark’s campaign resulted in Principal Guarino informing Spillane that he was reconsidering his decision and that he would be speaking with the superintendent when school resumes Monday. Yesterday, Mark said, “We just want to keep people as active as possible because we don’t want to lose any steam over the weekend.”
Now it’s worth noting that Principal Guarino is new at Trumbull High this year. It’s also important to note that he’s not been issuing edicts from on high – after informing the students of the cancellation, he remained with them for an hour to talk about his choice. He is obviously not trying to make this adversarial, and is open to further discussion. No doubt the tone set by the students played a role in this, along with their effective outreach.
I am reminded of a situation in nearby Waterbury a few years ago, when a canceled production of Joe Turner’s Come And Gone was reversed thanks to passionate students and the support of the Yale Repertory Theatre, which helped create educational sessions for students and the community to address the play’s use of “the n-word” multiple times, to place its more difficult themes in a proper educational context. Now the time has come for everyone who loves theatre to lend their voices to the students’ efforts, but with the respect and level-headedness that the students have employed. If you love theatre, like the Trumbull For Rent Facebook page. If you have deep feelings about Rent and its value for students and what it may have meant in your life, share them with Principal Guarino at Mguarino@trumbullps.org. If you are a theatre professional and you are able, offer to go to Trumbull High School and lead workshops for the students and the community. This posting is my offer of that support. But heed the wisdom of Larissa Mark and act with respect.
“I think the main reason why Rent is so important is that homosexuality, drug use and disease are not ‘issues’ in the twenty-first century,” Mark told me, fittingly on Thanksgiving morning. “They’re part of our lives. It’s not fiction to us, it’s reality. The fact that so many people think of it this way is a reflection on our community. Trumbull is a very accepting community and a production of Rent will only reflect that.”
By the way, remember how I mentioned that Mark had a commitment after the announcement of the cancellation which prevented her from springing to immediate action? It was a government class, and she was at the town hall from 3:30 to 10 p.m. Let’s help her and all the students at Trumbull High School ensure they’re able to do Rent this spring. Then let’s nominate Larissa Mark for public office. Imagine what she could do.
Note: Via e-mail, I reached out to Mark, Spillane and Guarino to request interviews at about 3:45 pm on Wednesday afternoon. Principal Guarino did not respond to my request, as he has not responded to any media requests thus far. Should I hear from him, this post will be updated accordingly.
Update, Wednesday December 4 at 8 am: Last night, at a regularly scheduled meeting of the Trumbull Board of Education, a letter from Trumbull High School principal Marc Guarino was read out. In the letter, Guarino affirmed his decision that Rent should not be produced at his school this year. To date, Mr. Guarino has personally made no public statement about his decision since his meeting with students on November 25, declining all media requests. That he would not personally appear to make his final decision known, and to participate in discussion about how he arrived at his conclusion, sets a poor example for public discourse. What at first seemed like it might yield a beneficial dialogue has taken on the air of an edict.