When it was all said and done, three student-written short plays, part of an evening of playlets, monologues and songs, went on as scheduled at Cherokee Trail High School in Aurora, Colorado. But in the 10 days leading up to that performance, the students claim they were told the plays and one student-written monologue were canceled. The students successfully garnered the attention of a local TV station, the National Coalition Against Censorship, and the Arts Integrity Initiative at the New School for Drama over the impending cancelation.
However, the school claimed the shows were never canceled and that the students misunderstood, but first delayed the performance of the pieces in question and then rescinded that delay, which would have pushed the plays to a later date. The school cited lack of proper process for approval, issued permission slips to the parents of all participating students and sent a broader memo to parents regarding the content of the pieces, defining them as “suitable for mature audiences.” Amidst this, rumors suggested that some contemporaneous school vandalism was the work of the drama kids. One student-written monologue was canceled entirely because the student’s parents reportedly denied approval for it to be performed.
What precisely triggered all of this activity around brief student-written plays? LGBTQ subject matter.
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Students in Cherokee Trail’s Theatre 3 class developed the “Evolution” evening under the banner of their student-run Raw Works Studio, working on them both in class and after school for more than a month. According Theatre 3/Raw Works students – including Josette Axne, Kenzie Boyd, Brandon McEachern, Dyllan Moran, and Ayla Sullivan, with whom I shared phone calls, texts and e-mails at various times beginning April 16 – they were informed by the school’s Activities Director Christine Jones on April 15 that because of the LGBTQ content in the student written works, the pieces could not be performed and would be excised from the pending performance set for April 24.
The students immediately took action, reaching out to the local media, setting up a Facebook page called “Not Original,” contacting the National Coalition Against Censorship (which in turn contacted the Arts Integrity Initiative), all over their understanding that the plays were being cut from the performance. After first speaking with Axne, I spoke and corresponded primarily with Sullivan in the first few days.
By the time Channel 9 in Denver, NCAC and Arts Integrity made contact with the school’s administration on April 16, Principal Kim Rauh had prepared a response, which portrayed the situation in a different light. It read, in part:
The student written plays will be performed at Cherokee Trail High School. The decision that was made was to postpone the date of the performance to allow our theater process to be completed. Students were invited to meet with us to work through the process and give the necessary time to work through all of the “what ifs” and attempt to be proactive as opposed to reactive and to plan for success. With every production there is an element of both directorial and administrative review and approval. The plays were submitted after the due date for final approval for the original performance date. We have extended the process timeline to allow the plays to be performed at a later date at Cherokee Trail High School.
Channel 9’s account of the situation, the only significant local news story, was reported on the evening news on April 16, stating that the pieces would now be performed on May 9.
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On Friday morning April 17, shortly before 8 am Colorado time, I received, in the space of ten minutes, an e-mail and phone call from Ayla Sullivan. She was deeply concerned that an act of vandalism at the school overnight was being attributed to the Theatre 3 students, even though she said it had been covered up before students arrived at the school that morning, so that not only were she and her classmates not involved, they didn’t even know the nature of the vandalism. Sullivan asked how the drama students should address this, and I advised them to tell the truth and make clear their position about whatever had occurred. Ten minutes later, the following message was posted, as a screenshot from a cellphone, to the “Not Original” Facebook page:
The vandalism we are now aware of that happened earlier this morning was not done by any member of Raw Works Studio and is not affiliated with the Not Original Movement whatsoever. Due to none of the members even seeing this vandalism, we do not know what it says and if it is even related to us. Whatever the markings say, we can not see it because it was covered as early as 6:45 this morning.
If someone wrote something that is related to Not Original through vandalizing public property, we absolutely oppose it. We do not support vandalism, violence, or hate speech. We do not support this action. We are, and have always been, a peaceful movement.
This is not the way towards change. This is not acceptable.
To date, the students say they haven’t heard anything more about the vandalism. It was a brief source of anxiety, but not central to the dispute.
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On April 17, I sent a series of questions about the events of the past two days to Principal Rauh, copying Tustin Amole, the director of communications for the school district. It was Amole who responded, very promptly. Describing the reasons and process for what was happening with the plays, she explained:
All student performances are subject to administrative review prior to rehearsals beginning. The teacher is responsible for submitting material for consideration. I do not know how soon prior to that the students finished the plays. Regardless of when the materials are submitted, there is a long-standing process which must be followed.
In cases where the material may be mature or sensitive, the school meets with the parents of the students involved to make sure that they have permission to participate. We would then inform the broader community so that they are aware of the subject matter and can make a decision about whether they want to come and perhaps bring younger children.
Because I had pointed out that the new date set for the student written works (all of the other pieces were to be performed as originally scheduled) conflicted with tests for Advanced Placement and the International Baccalaureate, Amole wrote me:
In our effort to ensure that the students have the opportunity to perform the plays, we selected a date that allowed time for the process. We understand concerns about the timing, but this is the only available opportunity before school ends.
Following this exchange, I wrote again to Amole, inquiring as to the school’s specific concerns about the material, which had gone unmentioned. She replied:
The plays concern some issues around sexuality and gender identity. We would not censor the subject matter, but do work to ensure that all parents were informed and give consent for participation, and that attendees know the nature of the material. In other words you would not take children to a movie without knowing what it is about, nor are you likely to allow children to participate in an unknown activity. In the Cherry Creek School District, parents are given the option of reviewing activities, books and other materials and asking for alternatives if they object to what is assigned.
As for when the review process had begun, she responded:
The conversations with the students began when the material was submitted to administrators for review. We were looking for alternative dates to complete the review process when some of the students decided to call the media. Because they did not have that class yesterday, they were unaware that a new date had been determined. Had they waited to talk to their teacher during the next class, they would have been informed. They also always have the option of coming to the principal to express their concerns and they chose to call the news media instead. We regret that they chose not to work through our long established process.
That same day, the students told me, there were two meetings with Christine Jones, who outlined for them the plans for going forward.
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After all of this, imagine my surprise when, just before 5 pm Colorado time on Monday, April 20, the NCAC and Arts Integrity Initiative received the following e-mail from Ayla Sullivan:
We have officially gotten our show back! Thank you so much for your help and support. Your belief in us is the only reason we have this. Thank you.
I wrote Rauh and Amole minutes later, to find out how the timetable had been restored to the original date. Amole replied two days later, sharing the communication that was going out to parents that day, which read in part:
I wanted to take this opportunity to communicate an update regarding the Theatre 3 production at Cherokee Trail High School, Evolution. Evolution contains a series of vignettes including songs, original student works and published scenes centered around the theme of love, some of which contain topics that may be considered best suited for mature audiences.
Because we are not putting topics on the stage, but rather actual students with actual feelings it was our desire to ensure that we had the time to adequately communicate the nature of the production with our parents and community members to help ensure the safety and well-being of all involved. The events of the past week have allowed us to do so and as such the administration, director and students have determined that we can perform the show on the originally scheduled date of April 24.
In response specifically to me, Amole added:
As of now, we do not have permission from all of the students’ parents to participate. While we continue to work to obtain the required permissions, we will honor the parent’s wishes, as per district policy. The performances of those students who do have parent permission will go forward.
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On April 24, the following student written pieces were performed as part of “Evolution”: A Tale of Three Kisses by Kenzie Boyd and Brandon McEachern , Roots by Dyllan Moran, and Family: The Art of Residence by Ayla Sullivan and Brandon McEachern. The evening was, in the words of Dylan Moran, in an interview with KGNU Radio that he gave the day of the performance, about “how love evolves, both through time and within ourselves.”
On April 29, five days after the performance, I spoke with the students to ascertain how the performance had gone. They reported attendance in the neighborhood of 300 people, which while it only filled the orchestra section of their theatre, they said was comparable with other performances of this kind, and they seemed satisfied with the turnout. But had there been, when it was all said and done, any censorship of the work?
Brandon McEachern replied, “The only thing that was asked to be changed was certain curse words. There was no content change. It was just not having the word ‘shit’ or something like that. Those are the only changes they asked for the shows.”
“Certain words were allowed to fly in certain shows that weren’t allowed in others,” Moran continued. “It was very touch and go. There wasn’t any set rule. We’d be performing and it was like, ‘That one’s not OK,’ and we’d move on. Life Under Water did have changes, not as extensively as the original ones, probably because it had already been produced.”
I wondered, given the representations of Amole on behalf of the school district, whether the students had in fact misunderstood their conversation with Jones on April 15, given all that had transpired since. The unanimous reply of Boyd, McEachern, Moran, and Sullivan was that they hadn’t.
“It was very clear to us, on the day, that the show would not be happening,” said Moran. “There was no editing, there was no pushing it to a later date, there was no discussion about it. It was only when we got involved with the media that they changed their story and said, ‘No, we are going to push it back. We told them we were going to push it back, they just didn’t listen to us’.”
Sullivan continued, “There was also the sense of, when we were approached later, that Friday, which was April 17, by our activities director, that we were being guilt tripped, that we didn’t give her the benefit of the doubt and we immediately met with the media outlets and tried to make this a bigger thing than what it was – that it was our fault for misunderstanding, which never happened. It was very clear.”
When asked if it was made clear to them why there was concern over the material, Sullivan said there was a single reason given, that it was about “how the community would react to LGBT representation.” The students said it was on Friday that they were told by Jones that if they could meet all the necessary requirements by Monday, in terms of parental permission, the school leadership would reconsider the May 9 plan.
Had the students anticipated any pushback against the student written shows? “When we were going through the entire process,” McEachern said, “I didn’t think the school would tell us that these were controversial issues and it would make people uncomfortable. I just thought it would go on like a regular show. I didn’t think there would be any backlash.” Sullivan added that once the news broke, “there was nothing but support.”
Referring to sentiment within the school, Boyd said, “I think immediately, as soon as we found out, that there was an immediate buzz on Twitter, everyone from school and even from out of state, that were talking about this and how disappointed they were in the school. I think it was definitely at first – the whole situation is definitely a lesson for schools in general and even for society in general, to really look at people and look at what they’re saying versus what they’re doing. Because everybody’s always talking about equality, equality, equality but then when they actually get the opportunity, it gets shut down pretty fast. So I think it’s a big lesson, but I also think that in a positive manner other than just lessons, it really brought everyone together, because I’ve never seen this school so united.”
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But what of the student-written monologue, Ever Since I Was A Kid? The students I spoke with, who explained that it had been cut because the parents of the student author had declined to give permission, spoke freely of the piece. They shared that it was a personal account of a teen who was in the process of gender transition. It suggests that this piece was, at least in part, what Amole referred to on April 22 when she wrote me that not all permission slips had been received.
I must note that I spoke to the author/performer of “Ever Since I Was A Kid” on April 20, before it was clear that parental permission was being withheld and that the piece in question would not be performed. Because the situation had changed and I was not able to speak with this student again, I have withheld the content of our interview because, despite sending messages through the other students, I could not confirm whether the author was still comfortable with my using our conversation. The students I spoke with said their classmate was permitted to perform in other parts of “Evolution,” just not with the original monologue.
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As much as I have tried to reconstruct the timeline of this incident, it is clear that the students’ account and that of the administration differ. The students say they were told originally, in no uncertain terms, that the student-written pieces were being cut. The school maintains that they simply needed time to put the work in context.
Missing from this report is any account of the circumstances from either the Theatre 3 teacher, Cindy Poinsett, or the Activities Director, Christine Jones. Because it is typical in most schools that faculty and staff do not speak to the press without approval, and because after the first response to my inquiry to the principal, all responses came from the school system’s spokesperson, I did not attempt to contact either Poinsett or Jones. Should either of them choose to contact me directly, I will amend this post to reflect their input.
I have to say that throughout this period, the students I spoke with were remarkably poised in their accounts of what took place. While as I noted, the school was very responsive to my inquiries, there is one notable shift in the timeline they created: on April 16 they said it would take three weeks to put everything in place in order to allow the student written pieces to be performed. Two business days later, everything had been accomplished that allowed the pieces to go forward as originally scheduled.
That the original “solution” would have excised these pieces from the April 24 performance and isolated them as their own event, that May 9 was initially the “only” possible date on which they could do so, suggests that the administration was responding on the fly, in response to external inquiries. If the students had misunderstood what they were originally told, why on April 15 didn’t the school simply say that all would go on as planned if the students brought in signed permission slips by April 20, as they ultimately did, instead of promulgating a new date?
I also have to wonder why, as has so often been the case when potential incidents of censorship arise in high schools, was the initial reason given for the action the assertion that an approval process had not been followed? The students say they had been working on the pieces for more than a month and were never given any deadline or reminded to get their materials in by a certain date. Is Principal Rauh suggesting that the students and their teacher had been keeping the work under wraps? Was there a disconnect between the teacher and the activities director, or between the activities director and the administration?
At the root of this incident remains the skittishness that schools have regarding any public representation of LGBTQ issues and lives to their community at large. While opinion polls show that six out of every ten Americans support marriage equality, that percentage jumps to 78 percent for people under 30. Presumably that is at least the same for the general acceptance of LGBTQ Americans overall, although to quote a New York Times editorial, “being transgender today remains unreasonably and unnecessarily hard.”
So it seems that whatever precisely took place at Cherokee Trail, it derives from the students having a more evolved attitude towards equality than the school fears the local adult community may hold. How long will students be required to get permission before they can tell true stories of their own lives and the lives of those around them? When will all schools stand up for student expression of their lives and concerns on the stage from the outset, and stand firm against those who continue to oppose the tidal wave of equality that will inevitably overtake them?
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I asked several of the students what the ultimate takeaway was from their experience.
Sullivan said, “We got a lot of positive support and had a positive show, but my biggest concern is that now that our department has made a name for itself for doing original content, the administration is going to create a harder process, a new deadline. I’m concerned that student-written work will not be able to be performed the way it should, that now they will have something of a deadline process to fall back on and use that to censor other voices and censor experiences in that light. That kind of worries me, because we’ve already seen an attitude of they don’t want this to continue and they don’t want to have to deal with this again.
“I definitely feel that our principal and our activities director have found that this has created such a mess that they don’t want student-written work to continue, that they don’t want Raw Works, the studio itself, to be representative of the theatre department anymore and that they don’t want student-directed student works.”
Boyd picked up that thread, saying, “I don’t think it’s as much concern about it continuing, as much as they’re going to make it so hard to continue that we’re going to have to stop ourselves. I definitely think there’s been so much backlash on them now that they can’t just say no more original work, but I do think that the process next year is going to be a lot harder to the point that it may be impossible to put on original works.”
When I pressed the students on whether anything explicit had been said about the future for student written work, McEachern said, “Right now, it’s just a concern of ours. They have not said anything.”
In my last communication with Tustin Amole, I asked whether the events surrounding “Evolution” would have any impact on the Theatre 3 class, Raw Works or student written plays in the future, and received the following reply:
Our process will remain unchanged. As I have already explained, it is the standard process that has worked well for us for a long time.
The class also will be unchanged. Students will be able to write and perform their own work.
So for now, all we can do is watch and wait until next year, to see what stories get told at Cherokee Trail.
Howard Sherman is director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at The New School for Drama.