A couple of weeks ago, yet another high school play was canceled over its content, this time at Santiago High School in Corona, California. Unlike the cases we often hear about, there was no press about the decision, no student protest, no faculty outcry. By the time I learned of it and communicated briefly on social media with a couple of students involved in the show, they were ready to just move on. The play was to have been performed in the latter part of this month.
The play, Hearts Like Fists, was first produced only two years ago, debuting at Theatre of NOTE in Los Angeles in August 2012. It made its East Coast premiere in December of the same year at New York’s Flux Theatre Ensemble. Described in a synopsis as “a superhero noir comedy about the dangers of love,” it has already been produced at several high schools, including the Jewish Community High School of the Bay Area and at Sachse High School in Sachse, Texas; it will be done next month at TMI – The Episcopal School of Texas in San Antonio. As someone who sees real value in high school students having the opportunity to work on contemporary plays, I was very pleased to see that such a new work had been quickly found by schools.
How did I learn of the quiet cancelation in Corona? My high school theatre advocacy was mentioned in conversation on Facebook where the play’s author, Adam Szymkowicz, had shared the news, which he only learned of through students who had contacted him on Twitter. While a school representative, in response to my inquiry, said that the cancelation was due to the play not having received the proper approval, that is an oft-cited reason that typically differs from other accounts. But with no other accounts to go by in this case, I’m left only with a vague sense of something amiss, since I doubt that any teacher would go into rehearsal for a show without having followed the appropriate protocols. That would be a willful challenge to an administration, putting employment at risk.
In my opinion, the play has an enormous amount to offer school theatre troupes, as it addresses love, rejection, and female empowerment by inverting many comic book tropes, offering strong female roles in a stylized ensemble work with 9 or 10 roles. It does, however, contain stage violence and a handful of phrases that might well bring parents up short. Shorn of context, they include, “She knees him in the groin,” “I promised you angry sex,” and “I’m thinking about your body pressed against mine…I’m thinking about taking of all your clothes piece by piece…Then I would tear into you, with my hands and with my teeth. I would leave marks.”
While these phrases are not typical of the dialogue in Hearts Like Fists, and indeed these examples comprise the majority of what I thought could prove problematic for schools, one can imagine parents who might take exception to hearing this out of the mouths of 17-year-olds, even if the same students might discuss such things in their own lives or hear them even on broadcast TV. But as a result, the skittishness of administrators to allow them to be spoken in performance is not a complete shock. It’s a shame, really, because the play offers so much, but schools have long proven themselves to be risk averse.
I know Szymkowicz entirely from online interactions, stemming in large part from his impressive ongoing series of interviews with other playwrights, so I reached out to him about the cancelation, both before and after reading the play. Via e-mail, I asked Szymkowicz about the fact that in his Facebook dialogue, he seemed disinclined to make an issue of the cancelation.
“As a playwright I am used to plays being postponed or cancelled for various reasons,” he replied. “Productions appear out of nowhere and sometimes just as mysteriously, planned productions don’t happen. I’m not saying it’s a fun thing about being a playwright but at this point I’m used to it. It never occurred to me that I have any power in whether or not planned productions do actually happen. Either people want to do a play or they don’t. I can’t make people do my play just because they said they would.” Szymkowicz noted that the show has had 10 productions, with four more coming up, and would soon be his most produced work.
Had he ever thought about Hearts Like Fists as a play for high schools, I wondered. “No,” was his simple reply. “It was a commission for South Coast Repertory. But I specifically didn’t have cursing in it because of how sensitive it seemed that Orange County audience was to curse words based on the reading of another play I had there. The fact that high schools have been doing it is a happy accident.”
But, in hindsight, does he believe there are facets of the play that particularly speak to high school performers and/or audiences? “I think loving the wrong person is an experience a lot of people have in high school,” he observed. “Also being a secret superhero (metaphorically) or having super powers not yet fully expressed. All general love confusion. High school is, for some, a confusing time.”
As is the case with a number of newer musicals, I wondered if he would consider authorizing a high school version of the show, with his own content edits. “I looked at the play once,” he wrote, “a year or so ago, with an eye to that, but I couldn’t figure out how to make tamer versions of certain scenes still work.”
Given the few phrases that might well give schools pause, I wondered whether Szymkowicz had considered that schools that have done or will do the show might be making their own, unauthorized edits, and how he would feel about that. He replied, “I wouldn’t like that and, of course, as you know, contractually they are forbidden from doing so.”
However, he wasn’t opposed to school editions on principle, saying, “If it doesn’t harm the play, sure. I am glad high schools are doing more challenging work and pushing boundaries and creating conversations. I worry about work that is sanitized past the point of having meaning or worth. But if you as a writer can take out something too adult (not that we all agree on what that is) but still have a play you are proud of, more power to you. Some wonderful plays are done frequently at the high school level.”
Finally, I asked Szymkowicz whether there was anything he’d like to say to the students, or to the administration, about the play being canceled.
“I spoke to a few of the students over Twitter who seem heartbroken and sent my regrets that this happened after they had already started rehearsals. I suspect the administration thought it would harm his/her community in some way to do this play. I think it is a bigger harm to not let them do the play. But look. I’m a playwright, not an administrator. I think theater is a good thing. I think communication is always better than shutting down conversations that make us uncomfortable. And honestly I also think my play is kind of tame. I suspect if these kids wrote plays themselves they would be much more upsetting or explicit than my play.”
I happen to agree strongly with Szymkowicz that communication is better than cancelation, and I believe that somewhere in the process of play selection, the start of production at Santiago High and the cancelation, some essential communication was missed. I admire the teacher who wanted to bring new work to her students and I respect the playwright for his decision that any alteration in the play would be to its detriment, and that even in high schools, he wants to see his play done as written, which is his absolute right. Much as I’d like to figure out if there’s a villain here, I can’t. And, sadly, circumstances have insured that Szymkowicz’s villain, the rejected, lovelorn Doctor X won’t be found at Santiago High either.