I am delighted to report that all of the smoking, drinking, drugging and sexual references will be intact – tonight, tomorrow and Sunday – in the production of Maxwell Anderson’s 1950s psychodrama The Bad Seed at Portage High School in northwestern Indiana. This may seem entirely unremarkable, except that just 11 days ago, students were still being instructed to strike out lines in their scripts and change stage directions to purge the production of all such content. Even the presence of an ashtray wasn’t going to be permitted.
Mind you, I’m not specifically celebrating cigarette smoking, drug use, alcohol consumption or sexual activities among teens, but rather their ability to portray these activities in a script some six decades old. More importantly, I want to congratulate the students for responding in the best possible– and effective – way when they were instructed to censor the script, knowing full well that no approval had been sought from the licensing house or the author’s estate.
I caught wind of this situation last Wednesday morning, when NWI Times published a story about Portage Thespians appearing at a school board meeting the night before, to express their dismay over the editing they had been instructed to undertake. Per the newtimes.com account, the school board chair professed to know nothing about any censorship, and she asked the superintendent to investigate.
I received the article via Facebook within an hour of it appearing online in Indiana, and I quickly undertook to track down the students who had so responsibly brought the issue to the school board. By noontime, after some social media searching, I was in communication with several students who had been part of the appeal at the board meeting. I quickly learned that the school superintendent had asked to meet with the students after school that very day. I offered some general counsel about broaching the subject at that meeting, and then simply waited for a report as to how things were proceeding.
Imagine my surprise when, just a few hours later, I learned from the students online that The Bad Seed would be performed intact. Students tweeted happily about erasing crossed out lines from their scripts. All was well. The next day, the nwitimes confirmed the news in a followup story.
When situations like this arise at other schools in the future, those committed to the ethically and legally correct path of producing plays as written would do well to remember the words of Portage superintendent. “The director is encouraged to do the show and given the support to use his best judgment to do what is right for the students,” wrote superintendent Richard Weigel once the situation was resolved. He’d already said, in a statement, “From my perspective, the purpose of theater is to provide insights into characters that reflect different ways of thinking. Theater provides an opportunity for our students to reflect on those characters, not become those characters.”
More importantly, people should emulate students like Lydia Gerike, Sara Dailey and Valerie Plinovich (all named by the NWI Times), who spoke out with clarity and integrity in support of the play and their exploration of it. They didn’t need any coaching from anyone, it seems. They knew just what to do to put the situation right.
Mind you, it’s never come entirely clear who demanded the changes to the script, but it seems reasonably safe to assume that it happened somewhere above the drama program’s director and below the level of the superintendent. Infer what you will about who in the school hierarchy might have been behind the effort.
Calm, rational, righteous heads set thing right in Portage, so that homicidal Rhoda Penmark can wreak havoc tonight, tomorrow night and at Sunday’s matinee. I applaud the Portage Thespians from afar. I may not have occasion to be in touch with any of them again. But they deserve credit, along with their superintendent and school board, for making sure things happened as they should, with the play performed as written and students freed to explore characters and habits not necessarily their own. Now all of those involved just need to keep their eyes open for any subsequent homogenization of Portage High School productions, to make sure that the censorship doesn’t happen before future plays are chosen, and the unknown bad seed in this censorship story doesn’t succeed in the long run by foisting bland material on the next wave of shows and students.
So the only thing left to say to the Portage Thespians, as is only appropriate for a show like The Bad Seed, is: knock ‘em dead, kids.
Howard Sherman is director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at The New School College of Performing Arts School of Drama.