RENT Ruckus Roils On In Connecticut

December 6th, 2013 § 5 comments

rent school edI had not intended to write again about the conflict over a planned production of Rent in Trumbull, but the story continues to grow. In the interest of brevity, this post will merely draw your attention to several other pieces written about the Trumbull High School Rent controversy, notably from the chairman of the Board of Education and from the town’s First Selectman. They bear directly on the controversy, and even offer a compromise solution.

From Stephen P. Wright, Chairman of the Trumbull Board of Education, in the Connecticut Post:

 “The benefits of exposing the school and the community to the play Rent are undeniable. The discipline of tolerance, the gift of acceptance, the splendor of diversity, and exposure to different lifestyles are certainly lessons that should be a critical part of a high school student’s education and mature growth….While I personally do not agree with the position taken by Mr. Guarino, I support his right to make that decision. This is a school decision, not a Board of Education decision, and is one that a head of school has every right to make. While much of our town may be “for Rent,” I am confident that we have a firm “lease” on promoting diversity and tolerance here, too.”

An alternate solution proffered by Trumbull First Selectman Tim Herbst in the Trumbull Patch:

“I believe there is a positive alternative that addresses Mr. Guarino’s valid concerns while at the same time allowing RENT to proceed. Every summer, the Trumbull Youth Association (TYA) offers a summer musical for the community. Many of the Trumbull High School students who participate in our high school theater program are also members of TYA.  Proceeding with this musical in the summer through TYA offers enough time to address the very valid points offered by Mr. Guarino.  It will also allow graduating Trumbull High School seniors the opportunity to perform in this musical before they leave for college. Finally this action will embrace the concept of collaboration, communication and compromise at the same time we try to teach our students the fundamental principles of acceptance, responsibility and tolerance. It is my sincere hope that this recommendation will establish a dialogue and a workable solution that all of us as Trumbullites can respect.”

Subsequent to Herbst’s suggestion, Trumbull Youth Theatre indicated their taking on Rent wasn’t a viable option:

Those involved in the Trumbull Theatre Association say as good as it sounds, it may not be feasible.

“It really isn’t going to work for us,” said Mary Wright with the Trumbull Youth Association. “We feel like the high school should take it on.”

From a letter titled “Five reasons we should be concerned about cancellation of Rent” by John Blyberg in the Trumbull Times:

“These are high school students. They can handle this. To suggest that the student body requires a comprehensive, board-approved coddling betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the very students he is supposed to be serving. They don’t need to be coddled. And just to be clear, this is only an issue because Rent deals indirectly with homosexuality, AIDS, and addiction. Quite honestly, I think the THS Musical players will provide a much more insightful and compelling treatment of this subject matter than Mr. Guarino will be able to cobble together in the next year.

I find this whole business to be very concerning. What happens when Mr. Guarino gets ahold of the AP English reading list and takes exception to some of it? This is a dangerous precedent to set. I suppose the one lesson that the THS students can benefit from is that sometimes we all experience authoritarianism and it’s maddening. You know it’s authoritarianism when you witness righteous anger from its recipients — which is what I see with this fine group of THS players. The silver lining in all of this is that they have handled that anger beautifully — with grace, poise and maturity.”

From “High School That Banned Musical Over ‘Sensitive’ Content Doesn’t Get Teens,” by Emily Abbate, a former Trumbull high drama kid writing at The Stir:

“I’m gonna be blunt: High schoolers across America aren’t dumb. Although parents may not be ecstatic about the topic, their teens are most likely sexually active. They sure as hell have friends that are trying to figure out their sexuality, and most definitely have been through a few health classes talking about sexually transmitted diseases. Which is why I’m dumbfounded about what’s going on in my hometown right now: the principal of Trumbull High School has cancelled the Thespian Society’s production of Rent because of its sensitive nature involving topics like sexuality, drug use, HIV, and the love lives of both gay and straight characters. Topics that kids are discussing AT school probably this very moment.”

And finally from today’s “Tattle” column in the Philadelphia Daily News by Howard Gensler:

“Last March, the “school edition” of Rent was performed by Hillsboro Comprehensive High School in . . . Nashville. The home of the Grand Ole Opry is more progressive than Trumbull.

So before the Trumbull Thespian Society is ordered to perform South Pacific, but cuts the onetime questionable romance between Nellie and Emile because, you know, they’re different, here’s a suggestion: Take Rent off campus. Perform it in a barn if you have to.

Or go to principal Guarino and tell him you’ve decided to instead perform something else.

Spring Awakening.”

The previously released statement by Trumbull High School Principal Marc Guarino appears in its entirety in my post from Wednesday.

Needless to say, please try to read each of these piece in their entirety and share your thoughts. This issue is more important than any single school, because it is far from an isolated incident, and not unique to Rent.

Updated Saturday, December 7


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  • BwyProducer

    I grew up in Connecticut, and we had a vibrant drama department. I advocated for a production of INTO THE WOODS there one year and was shot down by the drama director because of the affair that occurs between the Baker’s Wife and the Prince. (Seriously.)

    We coddle our kids these days to the point where they are completely incapable of handling themselves or making their own decisions. They live at home until they’re 30, relying on their parents for everything, refusing to stand up and make a life for themselves because they never had to do so! Fifty years ago, most people were getting married at the age of 19 or 20. High school sweethearts married and started families as teenagers, and this was normal because you became an actual adult at 18. We send our boys to war in Iraq and Afghanistan at the age of 18 to KILL people. Why do we assume they can’t handle big issues at 17?

    Why, in this day and age, when our televisions are inundated with sex, violence and drugs (Game of Thrones – incest, murder; Breaking Bad – drugs, murder; The Bachelor and Bachelorette/Real World/Big Brother – constant sex), that these teenagers are ill equipped to handle the discussion? And why do we assume we need to create special lesson plans to discuss the issues being presented in RENT?

    These students have Health class. They’re talking about sex, drugs, and gender issues. They have Social Studies and American Government, in which they discuss major political issues. They are exposed to issues of transgender and gay marriage through the media. Drugs? It may not be 1992 any more, when the War on Drugs was still prominent, or when every teenager was watching Pedro Zamora slowly die of AIDS on MTV, but these teens are aware of what is going on and they need to be offered the opportunity to discuss it.

    It’s simple — have a POST SHOW DISCUSSION. Bring in a health teacher. Bring in a theatre maker. Make it conversation *with the audience* leading the discussion. And let the story prompt the discussion. That’s the point of theatre: not to be didactical, but to offer a complex story that elicits thoughts, feelings and emotions and themes and social issues as we examine ourselves as humans and members of society.

    It is shameful for this principal to censor this material and to be a stubborn autocrat. I believe the community should be rising up. Put on the production outside of the school. Finance it through the support of local businesses and community members. Make it happen THIS YEAR, in spite of the principal. THAT is what La Vie Boheme is all about.

  • Ed Gillespie

    I am trying to figure out what I am so caught-up in the
    decision to cancel Rent. And I think because it cross two issues that are close to my heart: the nurturing of our children, and the acceptance of people who are different than me.

    At the age of 16, my grandmother left her family, boarded a ship for three weeks, and travelled 4,000 miles to a country where she had no relatives whatsoever. That was about 100 years ago, and today she is regarded
    as a pioneer and hero. Today we get upset if our kids cross the street without texting us first. Instead of trusting our kids—and nurturing
    them so they are in position where they can be trusted—we instead build
    fences. We jump in and take over. Actions that do nothing to prepare our
    children for the world.

    I also believe that the only true “controversy” in RENT is
    that it features homosexuals. Yes, there are other sensitive and mature issues involved, but American theater—from Lion King to Grease—deals with tough topics, from murder and teen pregnancy, to horrible illnesses and terrible criminal activities. In each of these topics, we can share in the struggles, the pains, the sorrows and the victories.

    However, there is a divide in this country, in our community—and I bet in many households—about the acceptance of gay men and women. I
    personally have friends who believe that two people who care for each other and love each other will burn in hell unless they repent from their evil ways. They are wrong, but until they come to know the truth, I am patient with them.

    And as upset as I am about this whole Rent ordeal—and the un-artful way it has been handled—I am mindful that I do not have all of the facts. I am not privy to the thoughts and intentions of our new school principal.
    So I’ve decided to be patient here as well. And let this play out over the next year or so.

    In the meanwhile, I can take joy in how the leadership at the THS Thespian Society have handled themselves with grace and dignity. Instead of taking over their fight and sticking my foot into a cause they are able to take on themselves—I will support them when asked. And put my trust in these student leaders to deal with this on their own, in their own way, on their own timeline.

    • enness

      “They are wrong, but until they come to know the truth, I am patient with them.”

      Gee, how indulgent of you. (I wouldn’t be surprised if they said the same thing about you!)

      “I am mindful that I do not have all of the facts.”

      You make a pretty assertive claim on the truth, though…

      • Ed Gillespie

        I do make an assertive claim, enness and am sorry if this upsets you. At least we can agree that there is one Truth, and take comfort that one day we’ll come face to face with the One who does have all the facts. Then you and I can stand in unity. Until then, peace to you.

  • Ryan McEniry

    In regards to Mr. Herbst’s offered solution to have TYA perform Rent, it unfortunately is not possible. The contract for organizations to perform the School Editions of shows like Rent require all actors to be no older than 18, to avoid non-student productions trying to get a cheaper price for a relatively same production. TYA includes not only high school students but also returning college students. The producers of TYA productions would certainly not be willing to exclude these college students, nor commit fraud by signing the contract and allowing college students to perform anyway, and the original version of Rent is obviously to mature in the eyes of town officials to allow high school students to perform. The only way to expose these students to the “educational opportunities” brought by Rent is through the Trumbull High School Theatre Department, which now does not seem possible due to the overreactions of Mr. Guarino and some of Trumbull’s officials.

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