Trying To Find Out A Lot About A Canceled Spamalot

July 15th, 2014 § 16 comments

spamalot logoOn July 2, I wrote about a situation at South Williamsport, Pennsylvania’s Jr/Sr High School, where a production of Monty Python’s Spamalot, slated for 2015, was canceled, reportedly due to its gay content. A number of news items and opinion pieces were written about the cancelation, with particular attention paid to a statement that homosexuality doesn’t exist in the community. However, the television station which first reported the story subsequently repudiated that portion of its report, saying the statement had not been made. They stood by the rest of their account, which relied primarily on an interview with Dawn Burch, the school’s drama director.

So, nearly two weeks later, where do things stand?

As originally reported, Burch asserted that the principal’s cancelation was attributable to gay content in Spamalot, which he communicated to her in an e-mail. Burch sought legal counsel regarding her right to release that communication, and she has yet to share it, presumably on the advice of counsel. So the reported smoking gun that could prove or disprove anti-gay bias on the part of the South Williamsport district and/or the school administration has not been revealed.

Screen Shot 2014-07-15 at 12.50.17 PMHowever, the state of Pennsylvania has very clear “right to know” laws, available to both state residents and non-residents alike. Consequently, this morning, I filed a request for all documents and communications regarding the musical, in particular any communications between Burch, superintendent Dr. Mark Stamm, principal Jesse Smith and the licensing house Theatrical Rights Worldwide. According to Pennsylvania law, upon receiving a request, an agency has five days in which to either accede to or deny a request, with subsequent appeals processes.

Screen Shot 2014-07-15 at 12.51.01 PMAs I was filing, I learned from a press report that another entity had filed the same type of request on July 10. While the source of the request was not identified, based upon their submission date, they should get an answer by tomorrow or at the latest Thursday, depending upon when exactly they submitted it. Without knowing who requested the material, it’s impossible to know whether they will make the response, successful or not, public. But at this point, I’m in the secondary position for an answer.

In the meantime, Equality Central PA had held a conference of support for gay rights on July 3 in Williamsport, which was attended by superintendent Stamm and school board president John Engel, as well as Dawn Burch. The event was by all accounts a positive one. But additional news reports included statements which suggested that Spamalot was only one play under consideration and had not in fact been selected and approved. Yet the superintendent said the play was canceled to avoid controversy, without specifying what he found to be controversial. While officials can’t even agree on whether the play was ever approved or was in fact canceled, the lack of approval claim is in direct contradiction of the statement I received from licensor Theatrical Rights Worldwide, that made clear that a license had been granted, which surely required both a contract and an advance payment (I don’t imagine any school enters into contracts for multiple shows while they wait to make a final decision). While Burch may have signed the agreement, surely someone from the district with authority signed the deposit check; it will be interesting to learn who approved that payment.

s williamsport high 2Last night, at a school board meeting in South Williamsport, the receipt of the first Right To Know request was acknowledged. However it appears the only public comment beyond that was that it had been referred to “the district’s solicitor.” As expected, they’ve lawyered up. For the record, my attorney received my e-mailed records request concurrently with the school district.

FYI: here’s an interesting tidbit. Under Pennsylvania’s Open Records Policy, every state and local agency must appoint an Open Records Officer. For the South Williamsport School district, that officer is Superintendent Stamm, not an outsider, ombudsman or impartial arbiter. I can’t help but suspect the documents won’t be quickly forthcoming.

And so, we wait, either for Dawn Burch to be assured that by releasing the e-mail she will not be putting herself at professional or personal risk or liability, or for the school system to release the e-mail, voluntarily or compelled to do so by law, the content of which they have not explicitly denied.

To be continued.

Addendum, July 19, 2014: When I got home last evening, I had mail from the South Williamsport Area School District, dated and postmarked on July 16. It acknowledged receipt of my request for records under the Right-to-Know Law and said that the request was under review. However, it was most specifically a “Notice of extension for time to respond to request,” citing the following reasons: 1) “Your request for access may require redaction of public records,” and 2) “A legal review is necessary to determine whether the requested record is a public record subject to access under the law.” The letter further states that, “The School District expects to provide a response to you on or before Monday, August 21, 2014. If the school district fails to provide you with a final decision within that time period, your written request is deemed denied.” It is signed, “Dr. Mark Stamm, Superintendent and Open Records Officer.”

And so, in accordance with the applicable Pennsylvania law, I must wait. If the request is denied, I have the right of appeal, at which point the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records becomes involved. As I wrote previously, I doubted I’d get an immediate, affirmative response to my request, so while this is frustrating, it is not surprising. I suspect that many people don’t have the patience to see freedom of information and open records requests through to the end. However, I am not one of those people.

Addendum, July 31, 2014: Equality Central PA has issued an update regarding their press conference from July 3 and their written offer to work collaboratively with the South Williamsport Area School District “in order to foster a more inclusive environment for all students.”  The update states, in part: “Dr. Stamm responded to the letter promptly, and Equality Central PA is now in discussions on how this new partnership will move forward together. As next steps are determined, details and updates will continued to be shared.” The update concludes with a note, stating, “It has been made known that two separate organizations have filed “Right-To-Know requests relating to the e-mails from Principal Smith to drama director Dawn Burch. Equality Central PA is not involved in those inquiries, but will share whatever information becomes available.”


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  • Noodle94

    Mr. Sherman, I wish there were 1,000 more people like you in the theatre. As Justice Louis Brandeis once said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Thank you for wanting to shine some sunlight into this dark episode.

  • lisa

    a musical that has gay themes??the next thing you are gonna tell me is jews write the stuff

  • MystiMarieJordan

    If this is all you have to worry about then you better open your eyes and see the real problems in this world, abuse, hunger, homelessness, lack of medical care for those truly needing it,. to name a few. There is so much more to get yourself worked up about and involved in, rather than this Who cares if you choose to be gay or straight? And NO! sexual orientation and plays about it do not belong in our schools. Get a real life and do something productive for those who truly need the help.

    • Krista Yurcaba

      Our schools are no place to have this subject addressed. It should be up to the parents to educate our children about homosexuality, just as it is left up to us to teach our children about religion. Prayer is not allowed in school because of separation of state and religion. Why should it be any different for ones sexual preference. It is a personal choice, just as religion or politics are. It need not be made a public spectacle and therefore has no place in our public schools. Maybe the selection of plays should be left up to the parents instead of a small handful of individuals.

      • Noodle94

        You’re right. We should teach children math, so they can see what conservative policies backed by religious zealots have actually cost this country in lost jobs and industry (see where Kansas is financially right now because of conservative policies). We should teach children civics, so that when they read the phrase “equal protection under the law” (14th amendment to the Constitution) they’ll know it means you can’t deny the right to marry to people who are different from them. And no, we should never teach them the arts, because under no circumstances should they acquire empathy, or learn to dream.

      • anon

        Sexual preference is no more a choice than whether or not you are born a male or a female, a redhead or a blonde.

      • Rob Kennedy

        Dear Krista and Mystic Marie,

        Play selection left up to the parents? Whats next the starting lineup of the football team chosen by the parents? The National Honor Society chosen by the parents? The theater professional who is directing these plays have been hired because they have some expertise in the area of musical theater. Where would this board of parent get their expertise to school the play? The bible perhaps? This is an extracurricular activity where the audience gets to choose their participation by purchasing a ticket. If you don’t agree with their choice don’t have your child participate and don’t purchase a ticket.

        American Schools are EXACTLY where this subject needs to be addressed. We SHOULD (and do at the school where I am employed) teach tolerance and inclusion. It sounds to me it desperately needs to be taught in your communities.

        Spamalot (which I assume neither of you have seen) is based on the Monty Python movies. It is a satire. The message of this play is laughter, silliness and unbridled joy. Their happens to be a gay marriage (which is hilarious BTW) in the show. I would love to see your reaction to musicals like RENT, La Cage Aux Folles or a play like the Laramie Project. There are 19 states where gay marriage is legal. So whats wrong with the Monty Python boys having it in their show? You know what they always say; “No one expects the spanish inquisition!”.

    • Noodle94

      And yet here you are, posting on a theatre arts web site. Don’t you have a soup kitchen to staff?

  • Heather

    Give ’em hell, Howard!

  • Chip Deffaa

    Keep up the good work, Howard! And Rob Kennedy, you said perfectly just what I would have liked to have added; thanks!

  • urban.spaceman

    The hilarious thing is, there’s a line in the show (spoilers) after the gay wedding where Lancelot says “just think Herbert, in 1000 years time this will STILL be controversial”.

    Sums this entire case up for me. These people belong in the Middle Ages.

  • Truth seeker

    We can’t just let the people that lead our tax funded schools get away with whatever they desire. If Mr. Stamn said the email didn’t have those statements within it why then can’t we see it?? Something is indeed rotten in Denmark my friends.

  • SomeoneWithTheirOwnOpinion

    I am actually a junior at this school and I can’t believe what is going on. If people believe that parents should be the ones to educate their children on sexual orientation then I believe that they are idiots. If someone who hates gays teaches their child about them then that child will grow up and begin to bully their classmates for being gay because children follow in their parents footsteps. If the child is told a non-bias statement in school then they can choose how they would like to see others. I sincerely hate it when someone believes in something just because that is what their parents believe. We are brainwashed from birth. Everything that is happening is just ridiculous.

  • Super Red

    I think the big picture is that Dawn Burch got a bug up her a$$ over something she didn’t like, and decided to act upon emotion rather than deal with the situation within the proper, professional, appropriate channels.. This entire “drama” is based solely on a single, biased, emotion-driven interview with Burch and has already been found to be questionable in its content. Regardless of the details, Burch was wrong in how she handled it, and she should be worried about the liabilities that could ensue as a result. As for South… as a former alumni… what else can you expect.

  • markpkessinger

    I wonder what could possibly need redacting? Could it be the statement by principal Jesse Smith that was originally alleged?

    All I can say is that IF the statement originally alleged to have been made by Smith (i.e., “homosexuality does not exist in a conservative community such as South Williamsport”) turns out to have, in fact, been made, it would be absurdly laughable, but for its manifest bigotry. I am a gay man who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s just 35 miles from South Williamsport, in the borough of Beech Creek, in neighboring Clinton County. Beech Creek (pop. 749, give or take) is slightly over 1/10th the size of South Williamsport, and lies in a much more rural and sparsely populated county. In addition to myself, there were numerous other LGBT folks who lived there then, some of whom I knew about, and some of whom I found out about later on. (One such person of some renown in the theater and literary community is graphic novelist, Alison Bechdel, on whose 2006 graphic novel, “Fun Home,” was based the off-Broadway musical by the same name, adapted by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori, which ran for approximately 3 weeks last Fall and into the early part of this year at the Public Theater here in NY, to widespread critical acclaim.)

    All of which is to say, if there were LGBT folks in my little town of Beech Creek — which was every bit as conservative as South Williamsport, if not more so — then we can be certain there were LGBT folks in South Williamsport as well!

    And to those who think the content of Spamalot is ‘inappropriate’ for their . . . [ahem] . . . innocent little darlings, let me ask you something: when your children are very young, say 5 or 6, did you ask people to refrain from talking about people being married, merely because there is an element to the heterosexual marital relationship about which they weren’t quite old enough to fully understand? No, of course not. You merely explained it in terms they could understand, reserving talk about the sexual elements of that relationship until such time as they were of an age to be ready to hear about it. You can do the same thing with regard to gay marriages, you know.

    • South williamsport citizen

      The play was not cancelled because of homosexual themes that a small group of people were uncomfortable with. It was denied because PARENTS (who under the law are not to be called out by name) were uncomfortable with some content. Also some students were not comfortable with performing the play because of the MOCKERY content of homosexual Most importantly the play did not meet school play polices in which the drama group had not reviewed until the play was denied. Since these events the policies have been reviewed by the drama group and a new play that meets elementary/High school policies has been picked.

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