You’re not going to believe this.
On Monday, Principal Marc Guarino of Trumbull High School in Connecticut reinstated the Thespian Troupe’s production of Rent, after three weeks of negotiation and outcry. On Tuesday, The Suffolk Times on Long Island published an interview with Southold Schools Superintendent David Gamberg in which he, acknowledging awareness of the Trumbull situation, proudly announced that Southold High School’s Drama Club would be producing the school edition of Rent in March, just like Trumbull.
But don’t cry ‘yippee.’ This isn’t a story to celebrate.
Here’s a paragraph from the article:
“What we did was we looked at the school script and we asked the teachers involved in it to really take a good look at it to make sure it’s fitting for the community,” Mr. Gamberg said. “It has a very strong and powerful message that we think is going to be very positive, but again this is based on the idea that we want to make sure that it’s very sensitive to the community as a whole. The three teachers involved are very responsible for that.”
The reporter then goes on to say that Mr. Gamberg doesn’t know what kind of modifications the school might make.
Wait a minute. Modifications?
Perhaps Mr. Gamberg isn’t aware that when you license a play for production, whether at a high school or a professional company, you are entering into a contract giving you the right to produce a copyrighted work as written. You can’t just pull out the metaphorical red pen and edit it to your own specifications. If you do, you’re in breach of contract. That’s something that rights holders and licensing companies take seriously.
The fact that some authors have permitted their works to be edited, or participated in such editing, for licensing as “school editions,” doesn’t give anyone permission to pile on and make more changes. When licensing houses find out such a thing is happening, they get very serious very fast, and that can lead to the loss of rights to the show. This post, combined with The Suffolk Times article, is all that’s needed to place your school under scrutiny. You might tell your committee of bowdlerizing teachers to take a break. Incidentally, where is the school’s principal in all this?
Now when small changes are requested for specific, defensible reasons, the licensing houses may have some latitude to work with schools on very minor revisions. They’re in the business of helping schools; they’re not monolithic ogres. But before anyone thinks this is a run of the mill copyright and license violation, you all need to know: it gets worse. Again, from the article:
“Plans for the school performance led a pair of Southold residents to contact The Suffolk Times with concerns over the school’s handling of gay characters in the play. An anonymous letter writer said the play was inappropriate since it could “put students in the position to have to play gay/lesbian or drug addicted [characters.]” One parent said her child believed the district was making changes that might offend gay students, including a decision to cast a female to play the role of the drag queen Angel, which is traditionally played by a male actor in school, community and professional productions.
When asked about a female student being cast to play Angel, Mr. Gamberg, who said he didn’t know if any casting decisions had been finalized yet, said, “I think that goes in line with being sensitive and making sure it’s appropriate for school. I don’t think it’s going to be written and spoken in a way that’s going to be seen as inappropriate. That’s the kind of sensitivity that [teachers are] looking at.”
Well, Mr. Gamberg, now you’ve done it. The storyline of Angel is very specifically written as a gay male role. To suggest you can simply change the performer to female fundamentally alters the work and seems designed, at the very least, to eliminate the drag queen element of the character – which is essential. Believe me, I’m completely supportive of non-traditional casting, but not when it’s used to smooth over “difficult” content in order to placate the narrowminded.
Tell me, will you be making your female Angel heterosexual or lesbian? Exactly where does your “sensitivity” lie? You may think you’re appeasing your community by suggesting this change could happen, but instead you’re flirting with tampering with a beloved work without the right to do so in order to kowtow to homophobic sentiment. Are you just afraid of what some people in the community might say about Rent? What exactly is inappropriate in the school edition? There is nothing sensitive in what is going on with Rent at Southold.
This post, coupled with my advocacy on behalf of the students of Trumbull High School, may suggest that I’m a rabid Rent partisan, but I’d be writing this if the show was Spring Awakening, Legally Blonde, Avenue Q or Grease. My issue is the rights of students to take on challenging work in their schools, rather than forcing all high school theatre to be utterly anodyne. I’ll yank this post down immediately and replace it with a full apology if I learn that the school is in consultation with MTI, which licenses Rent. But I’m placing my bet that you’re out of bounds Mr. Gamberg, though I’d be perfectly delighted to be proven wrong. The simple solution is to do Rent: The School Edition as written. However, if you are intractable in your desire to rework the show to your own standards, and your statements and planned actions result in your school losing the rights to Rent, there will be only one person for your students to blame. He sits in the superintendent’s chair of the Southold School District.
My thanks to Natalie Chernicoff for bringing this situation to my attention.