Gay Denials Slam ‘Spamalot’ at Pennsylvania School

July 2nd, 2014 § 11 comments

lumberjack“I chop down trees, I wear high heels, suspenders and a bra.

I wish I’d been a girlie, just like my dear papa.”

My friends and I happily sang those Monty Python lyrics, at the drop of a hat, throughout our teen years, identifying with Michael Palin’s exuberant character, rather than the men who walked away from him in dismay. Yes, we’d seen men dress as women in comedy sketches, but those were burlesques, painted in broad, garish strokes. There had never been a declaration of donning women’s garb as a part of regular life, let alone by a macho character like a lumberjack.

In my little gang of friends, we didn’t necessarily know or talk much about homosexuality, which was decidedly less open in our suburban lives in the 70s (though one of our group later came out, to little surprise from any of us). We also hadn’t heard of terms like transvestitism or cross-dressing. Remarkable as it may seem, Monty Python may have played a key role in raising our consciousness, even more so when we learned, in the following decade, that Python’s Graham Chapman was gay, sadly lost too young to cancer.

spamalot logoSo it’s particularly galling, more than three decades later, to find that South Williamsport Junior/Senior High School in Pennsylvania has just shut down an intended production of Monty Python’s Spamalot reportedly because of its gay content. WNEP News paraphrases the school’s drama director, Dawn Burch, as saying, “school officials dropped the musical because of its homosexual themes, according to an email she says she received.” WNEP quotes the superintendent as saying, “We want our performances to be appropriate for the student performers and audiences so that anyone participating or watching can enjoy all aspects of the show.” There’s no indication of what he finds inappropriate or unenjoyable.

I have already reached out to Burch, as well as to the school’s superintendent, for comment; I’ve received no replies as I write a few hours later. I would very much like to read exactly what the e-mail that nixed the production said. The language needs to be brought out into the open. But if Burch’s characterization is accurate, it marks the first time I’ve encountered a school explicitly saying that gay content caused cancellation of a show; the language is usually veiled, with references to mature themes, difficult material or, as even the WNEP report is headlined, “questionable content.”

The WNEP piece continues, “In that email, Burch says the principal wrote that homosexuality does not exist in a conservative community such as South Williamsport.”

If the principal believes that, then he is standing with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinajad who denied that homosexuality existed in his country during a 2007 speech at Columbia University. He is backing the rationale of Russia’s Vladimir Putin who has outlawed the “promotion” of homosexuality. That’s a very strange cast of characters for any high school principal to be aligned with, especially in such a conservative community.

While I’ll grant that there’s some language in Spamalot that a combined junior and senior high school might have some concerns about, they certainly could take those moments up with the licensing house, Theatrical Rights Worldwide. In fact, TRW already has an FAQ with suggested edits for schools right on its website (click here, then ‘Resources,’ then ‘FAQ for School Productions’).

spamalot photoBut the marriage of the characters Herbert and Lancelot is non-negotiable. I asked Jim Hoare, director of licensing for TRW, whether they would ever entertain the excision of those nuptials, and his answer was blunt: “Absolutely not.” Hoare said that hundred of schools perform Spamalot annually.

This news is just breaking, and I’m writing with limited information at what I suspect and hope is the start of a story, not the end. One facet to be explored: Dawn Burch’s husband Samuel is on the district Board of Education, and both are active in community theatre as well, so there may well be support for the show above the level of superintendent.

Despite this coming to light just before a national holiday (gee, didn’t Trumbull High cancel their production of Rent right before Thanksgiving?), it must survive the weekend festivities, on a wave of deserved outrage. School may not be in session, but hopefully the students can organize, like students in Trumbull High School in Connecticut, like students at Timberlane High in New Hampshire, via social media, to increase pressure on the narrow-minded, retrograde administration.

That any educator or school administrator is still denying gay love and gay life in 2014, that a school would cancel a show in a move designed both implicitly and explicitly to shame and frighten any gay student, teacher or person, is simply ugly and wrong. It’s worth noting that in the very first news piece on this, reporter Kristina Papa quickly found people to counter the principal’s alleged, now retracted, assertion about gay life in South Williamsport, which must have really startled the blinkered administration.

It’s worth noting that gay marriage is legal in Pennsylvania. So it is ironic that, as they marry in Spamalot, Lancelot says to his spouse, “Just think, Herbert, in a thousand years time this will still be controversial.”

I guess Tim the Soothsayer had warned Lancelot about South Williamsport, PA. But maybe we can change history, if we raise our voices together.

I urge you to write Superintendent Dr. Mark Stamm ( and Principal Jesse Smith ( to voice your concerns (and please share your correspondence with me, if you’re willing, at howard [at] hesherman [dot] com. But I ask that you do so respectfully, even if the district doesn’t afford the same respect in its attitudes and actions.

Addendum, July 3, 5 pm: WNEP now reports that the principal did not make the statement about “homosexuality not existing.” I have left the material in place with the text and my rhetoric about it struck through, because I cannot deny having shared that original report or that I made statements resulting from it, but to show that they are also no longer supported by facts in evidence. Disclosure of the e-mail at the root of this controversy seems more essential than ever, and it should be noted that the school administration certainly has the legal right to disclose it should it wish to do so.

For those who do read the original WNEP story, it should be noted that the local resident and parent, Manny Tskitas, who makes several statements in support of the school administration’s position and questions the play choice, is also a staff member of the South Williamsport school district, as the librarian for grades K through 6. It would have been beneficial if WNEP had noted his affiliation.

Correction, July 5, 7:30: The original version of this post stated that Graham Chapman died of AIDS. That was an error and the text has been updated with accurate information.


Print page

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

  • Musicalites

    The lack of solid information on this topic is only fueling the speculation that the school admin and district are greatly out of touch with societal norms at this point. It would be nice to know how much discussion was had between the teacher and the admin about the show. This all seems to me like a teacher who feels spurned by the admin (in the middle of summer) and is fighting back via social media. I’m not agreeing with anyone involved, but this reeks of “agenda” more than anything else.

    I personally feel that a show of this nature could be a great opportunity for parents, teachers, and the admin to discuss sensitive issues like gay marriage more openly rather than keeping everything in the “closet” as it were. This has been poorly handled on all fronts, but at this point the information is too little to jump to any real conclusions.

  • labman57

    Okay, class. Today’s lesson is how to rationalize homophobic intolerance and bigotry.

  • David Agosta

    Hmm…” according to an email she SAYS she received.” She doesn’t have a printer and her email program has no “forward” button?

  • shadeybaby

    I went to college and now work in Williamsport, and the rumblings I’ve heard is that Burch lied about the reasoning for cancelling the show and that she was doing this because she knew she was getting fired. Plus, Jesse Smith’s now denied making the remarks, so at this point, I want to see a screenshot of this e-mail or I don’t believe it.

    • I think it’s essential that the e-mail come to light, to either confirm some or all of the story, or to debunk it completely. I hope that happens as soon as possible, and I should note that certainly Mr. Smith has the freedom to release it even if Ms. Burch is awaiting legal counsel in order to determine if she may do so.

  • Michelle

    Mr. Smith did NOT say that. WNEP has retracted that statement. In addition, the play had not yet been selected. It was one of several submitted for consideration. I am disappointed in WNEP for publishing a story without getting its facts straight. I grew up in that small town. It IS conservative, but knowing some of the people involved, I fully believe that Mr. Smith gave this matter serious consideration before asking the drama department to consider a play that didn’t require the heavy edits suggested by the webpage that sells the Monty Python play to high schools.

  • The Truth

    Mr. Smith did not say what Ms. Burch claims he said. He has publicly denied the statements and so has the Superintendent. Ms. Burch has now changed her story:

    OBSERVER: Do you stand behind the comments that you made to WNEP – that
    the principal said “homosexuality does not exist in a conservative
    community such as South Williamsport”?

    DAWN BURCH: Regarding
    the quote from WNEP. I will verify that the only reason I was given as
    to why we are not permitted to use “Spamalot” for our spring musical
    was its homosexual content in the form of an email from the principal.” (

    “ Dawn
    has the email that proves the principal didn’t want the play produced
    because of its homosexual content, but she’s waiting to consult her
    lawyer to make sure that she can legally release it to the public.” <- This is a much different statement than "homosexuality does not exist in this community."

    I suggest Ms. Burch start apologizing immediately. She has made false and defamatory statements which have damaged Mr. Smith's reputation.

    I suggest you change your story as well, as much of the content is demonstrably false and you are contributing to the defamation of Mr. Smith by publishing known falsehoods and equating him to despots and murderers such as Putin and Ahmedinajad.

    • Regarding the assertion that Mr. Smith said that “homosexuality doesn’t exist,” I have struck it and my related commentary from my post consistent with WNEP’s retraction and noted why. However, the school has not denied, so far as I have seen, that the show was canceled due to homosexual content, so I leave that material intact for the time being.

      • The Truth

        This is behind a paywall, but the Williamsport Sun-Gazette published an article on this today. Here are some relevant quotes and excerpts from the article:

        Quote From Dr. Stamm “It was any number of things… when you look at the website for the play it has a list of modifications to be made to make the play appropriate for high school students. Language and whole songs would need to be replaced,” Stamm said.

        Excerpt: “While Stamm realizes the production is a satire, he felt the need to modify the play was unnecessary if another production could be chosen.” Quote from Stamm: “The play itself is meant to be satire, and major parts of it are designed for more mature audiences. Our concern was, if it had to be modified that extensively that perhaps we could look for a play that was more appropriate for everyone.” Stamm said.

        Excerpt: “Art Leiberman, producer for Courtyard Theater in the Susquehanna Valley Mall in Selinsgrove, who has seen the show and said there is some profanity and suggestive content, says for a school to perform “Spamalot” is entirely up to the school board.” Quote: “I would give the original Broadway version a PG-17, if not R rating. The High school version maybe PG-13.” Leiverman said. “My personal opinion on Spamalot doesn’t mean a thing to school boards. Every school district and school board has regulations on what is proper and improper for kids to see.”

        Excerpt: Leiberman echoes Stamm when it comes to modifying the play for all-age audiences.

        Quote: “Why bother to pick a show you have to make those changes to when you can pick one the audience is more familiar with,” Lieberman said. “If you take the sexual content out, you lose a lot of the fun.”

        It is important to note that Spamalot was just one possible selection for a play to be performed next school year. It is being portrayed as if this was selected, scheduled, etc and the principal nixed it at the last minute. From all available information, that is not the case. From all available information, it seems as if the Monty Python play was nixed for several reasons, not exclusively due to homosexual content. Perhaps it would be better to classify the rejection as based on merely “sexual” content, in addition to the substantial modifications that would need to be made. My guess is the principal thought “why deal with all of these changes, etc, when we can just do a play that is generally accepted by the public.” Just like the Courtyard Theatre director said. After all, Monty Python is not the most mainstream of school plays to begin with. Perhaps some Bill Shakespeare could be performed instead (yes i realize Shakespeare has lots of adult themes, but his works have been accepted for centuries.)

        • If the production was only “under consideration,” that doesn’t explain why a licensing agreement was fully executed. In a statement from Theatrical Rights Worldwide, the licensing house says, “TRW granted a license to South Williamsport High School and that license is still valid.” As for suggestions that the show was nixed at the last minute, I’ve seen none. All reports seem quite clear that the show was intended for the next school year. Also, I prefer to engage in dialogue with people, not pseudonyms. I would ask that any further communication be done under your real name, or I may elect to delete any further comments from you on this matter. The information you’re sharing is a valuable contribution to dialogue on this topic; I would hope you could share it openly.

          • Gary Fitzsimmons

            No pseudonym this time:

            lots more information in this article regarding a “press conference” held by “Equality Central PA” yesterday at a local church. Dawn Burch, the Superintendent, and the President of the School Board were all in attendance. It seems there is a disagreement between the school and Ms. Burch as to whether or not Spamalot had been “approved” for next year or not. I have no first hand knowledge of anything in this entire controversy, I am just following it closely.


            (EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is a follow-up to yesterday’s story about the principal of South Williamsport Area Junior-Senior High School rejecting his drama department’s plans to produce “Spamalot” due to a scene that includes a gay wedding. To read the original story, click here:

            A lot has happened in the last twenty four hours regarding the “Spamalot” controversy at South Williamsport Area Junior-Senior High School (SWAJSHS): WNEP has retracted part of its original story, drama director Dawn Burch has clarified her original statements (making many more illuminating ones along the way), and Equality Central Pa. held a mostly positive but occasionally tense press conference concerning the issue at New Covenant United Church of Christ.

            First things first, the most controversial part of WNEP’s original story, written by Kristina Papa, which stated that SWAJSHS Principal Jesse Smith said something along the lines of “no homosexuals exist in a small town like South Williamsport,” was retracted. The statement was not in the email that Smith sent to Burch, a fact Burch confirms. “The quote that was used by WNEP was not part of the email,” Burch said. However, Burch maintains that Smith did indeed cite homosexual content in “Spamalot” as the reason for the play not being produced at the school. “The email said we could not do the show due to the homosexual content and listed two bullet points why.”

            At the time of publication, Burch still refused to release the email out of fear of legal ramifications. However, at the Equality Central Pa. rally today, her daughter Mersadies revealed some of the contents during a heated argument with John Engel, president of the board at SWAJSHS. “It [the email] says specifically, ‘I’m not comfortable with South Williamsport doing ‘Spamalot’ for its homosexual themes for two reasons: One, it will make families scared to bring small children and two, it will make students uncomfortable because it may conflict with their personal beliefs.”

            Engel accused Mersadies of paraphrasing and she admitted to doing so, but with Dawn’s strong assertion that the email does exist and that she’s just waiting for legal confirmation to release it, there’s good reason to believe that the actual contents aren’t too far from what Mersadies says they are (Mersadies claimed to have the email on her phone). Engel disagreed and continued the narrative that Superintendent Mark Stamm had begun the day prior, by saying that the principal has made no discriminatory remarks regarding the LGBT community and that “Spamalot” was canceled due to its general mature content and not one specific scene.

            But, according to Burch, the school isn’t being truthful on several counts. In an interview with the Sun-Gazette, Stamm said, “It was a play that was submitted for consideration … It was never officially approved.” Burch disagreed, saying, “I don’t know why they’re saying it was never approved when Smith signed the check granting us permission. We got the license. He signed the check for $1,923 and I don’t know what he thought that was going for. The check even said ‘Spamalot’ license right in the memo.”

            She also said that the school “insisted” that she sign a press release, which would have made her the scapegoat. “I refused to sign the release and thank goodness,” she said. “I didn’t like the way he kept re-writing them and printing them out. I said, ‘You’re making me look like the bad person.’”

            Regardless, it was brave for Stamm and Engel to show up at the Equality Central Pa. rally today, where they easily could have been cornered. Instead, the event was a mostly positive affair — outside of the confrontation betweenMersadies and Engel — that gave the LGBT community a chance to respond to the issues.

            South Williamsport Area Junior-Senior High School Superintendent Mark Stamm, left, and board president John Engel speak at the rally today.

            Dan Warner, a graduate from South Williamsport who has been working with Equality Central Pa., a group whose mission is “to create equality for LGBT individuals,” said, “Being a gay man in the area has definitely been difficult and I would never want the same difficulties for other people. I mean, obviously, the difficulties are going to come for people who are gay and lesbian, but I think it’s important that the administrators of South Williamsport do everything they can so that every student and employee feels welcomed in an inclusive and safe environment.”

            Another representative of the group, Paula Beiter, added, “I feel that it was important to get some clarification about representation about the gay community in this area — that we do exist. And to try to deny the students that are in that community, even the school staff, is wrong. So I felt it was important to be here for that reason.”

            Ultimately, Burch really just wants Principal Smith to apologize. “I asked yesterday that they have Mr. Smith make a statement apologizing for his reasons,” she said. “Maybe he needs to attend some sort of counseling to learn more tolerance and diversity, and that’s what I asked for and that’s not what I got. I said it would be best if he came forward and said, ‘Yes, that was in my email and I apologize for saying that information.’ I thought that would be the best solution.”

%d bloggers like this: