Something Unpredictable With “American Idiot” In High School Theatre

January 25th, 2016 § 15 comments

Casting Notice for American Idiot at Enfield High School

Casting Notice for American Idiot at Enfield High School

“Welcome to a new kind of tension.
All across the alienation.
Where everything isn’t meant to be okay.”

The details are very sketchy. The drama director hasn’t yet responded to a call or e-mail. The school principal said that he “wasn’t comfortable” talking about it without the approval of the superintendent, which he did say he would seek. The licensing house that handles the rights for the musical has not responded to an e-mail inquiry about approved changes (although the company’s president is overseas). An anonymous source who provided some background materials won’t be named publicly because they fear recriminations against their child in the school system.

But here’s what’s known: the Enfield High School Lamplighters, in Enfield CT, were scheduled to perform the musical American Idiot this spring, with auditions set for January 13 and 14, with callbacks on January 15. Performances were set for early May.

On January 17, Nate Ferreira, faculty director of the Lamplighters, sent a general e-mail to the school community which included the following statement:

As most of you know, we had a drama club meeting this past Wednesday to discuss the details of producing “American Idiot” as our final show this school year. Due to the mature content of the original production, I have been working with the publisher to modify the script, to ensure that it would be appropriate for a high school group to perform.

This project was very successful, and we feel that the modified script and production notes maintain the integrity of the show, while removing profanity and the more adult scenarios in the original Broadway production. The publisher is even starting the process of turning our edited version of the script into their official “School Edition” of the play, to allow other high schools to easily perform this play in the future.

As I’ve stated at our student/parent meetings during the past two school years: this extended production process was intended to allow us to work on a show that most of the kids were extremely excited about, while continuing the award-winning Lamplighters tradition of exploring serious issues in a mature and responsible way. In the same way that our presentation of the student-authored and directed “Happily Never After” last year did an excellent job of handling the difficult issues of domestic abuse and justifiable homicide, “American Idiot” opens discussion about many issues of young adulthood.

Unfortunately, a very small number of extremely vocal people have complained about our choice of production. This led to Mr. Longey [principal Andrew Longey] and I meeting on Friday to discuss a change in our choice of production. To be clear, Mr. Longey did not force us to change – he and I took a long and careful look at all aspects of the show, and all arguments on either side. At this late stage it is very difficult to switch to a different play, but I do feel that it is best for us to set aside “American Idiot” for the time being. I want ALL of our club members to be able to be a part of our musical, and I want to be absolutely certain that the play happens at all.

Billie Joe Armstrong in American Idiot on Broadway

Billie Joe Armstrong in American Idiot on Broadway

Currently, the last post on the Lamplighters Facebook page is a reference to a meeting on January 20. There is no announcement of a new show for the spring.

While hopefully more details will fall into place, there is someone else who would like to see the production of American Idiot go on. I reached out to Christine Jones, who designed the set for the Broadway production of American Idiot, in an effort to make Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong, the composer and lyricist of the show, aware of the situation. Armstrong sent back the following message through Jones in a little over an hour’s time, and reportedly also posted it on Instagram (it is reproduced here precisely as he wrote it):

dear Enfield high school board,

It has come to my attention that you cancelled your high school theater production of American Idiot.

I realize the content of the Broadway production of AI is not quite “suitable” for a younger audience.

However there is a high school rendition of the production and I believe that’s the one Enfield was planning to perform which is suitable for most people.

it would be a shame if these high schoolers were shut down over some of the content that may be challenging for some of the audience. but the bigger issue is censorship. this production tackles issues in a post 9/11 world and I believe the kids should be heard. and most of all be creative in telling a story about our history.

I hope you reconsider and allow them to create an amazing night of theater!

as they say on Broadway ..

“the show must go on!”

rage and love

Billie Joe Armstrong

P.S. I love that your school is called “Raiders”

Mr. Ferreira seems to have followed every appropriate step in the process of planning this show for Enfield High, but the production has been suspended. Yet he is still hoping that American Idiot will be done at some point. So is its author, who has apparently granted permission to alter the work to make it more appropriate in a school setting. Perhaps there’s still room for dialogue, and Enfield High can still give its students the opportunity to take on challenging, modern work.

If indeed a few parents resulted in spoiling this experience for all of the Lamplighters, that would be a real shame that denies opportunity to many in order to satisfy the views of a few. I’d rather at this turning point, the school was directing the students where to go – towards work that will help them grow as performers and as people, towards work that provokes rather than palliates. I hope they’re allowed to have the time of their lives with American Idiot, sooner than later.

Update, January 25, 10:45 pm: In an article in The Hartford Courant that went online an hour ago, the Lamplighters director Mr. Ferreira represents his intended revisions to the text of American Idiot in a markedly different framework than he did in his e-mail to the school community. Per The Courant:

Ferreira said the performance included “a lot of swearing,” which Ferreira said he’d hoped to limit or eliminate pending approval from the publisher. “There’s some heavy drug use and graphic sex scenes, not things we were going to depict to the extent they did in the original show.”

This is a far cry from the tone of Ferreira’s e-mail, which declared:

“I have been working with the publisher to modify the script, to ensure that it would be appropriate for a high school group to perform. This project was very successful, and we feel that the modified script and production notes maintain the integrity of the show, while removing profanity and the more adult scenarios in the original Broadway production. The publisher is even starting the process of turning our edited version of the script into their official “School Edition” of the play, to allow other high schools to easily perform this play in the future.”

In my original post, I said it seemed that Ferreira had followed the appropriate steps, and now by his own admission, that is clearly not the case; he did not have approval to make any changes, he had not undertaken a successful project that would influence future productions. While I think there may still be opportunities for Enfield students to benefit from performing in American Idiot, they cannot do so in any version not fully approved by the authors and their representatives.

I don’t support a small number of parents ending the opportunity for the majority of the Lamplighters, but I also don’t support Ferreira’s effort to aggrandize his own sanitized version of the text. This has been a lose-lose proposition at Enfield High: the show has been shut down without being properly defended, and there has been an effort to misrepresent to the community that Ferreira’s text was authorized and even praised, obscuring the authors’ rights and copyright protections.  Unfortunately, the students lose as well.

Update, January 26, 6:30 am: I received the following e-mail from Nate Ferreira at 1:55 am this morning, more than 17 hours after I first attempted to contact him, 14 hours after Principal Longey said he could not comment without the approval of the superintendent, 11 hours after my original post went online, and three hours after the previous update was posted. It is reproduced in its entirety precisely as it was received (except for the lack of paragraph spacing, which is a formatting problem on my site).

Thank you for reaching out to me. I’m sorry that I didn’t see your email until after you had finished writing your post.
Here are some more details regarding our decision not to perform American Idiot. As the director of the school’s drama club, I was very excited to produce American Idiot, and to explore the issues raised by the material.
Due to the fact that some of our club families were not comfortable with their kids being involved in the show, it was my decision to perform a different show. This was not a decision forced on me by the school administration, it was simply what i felt was best for our club membership. Many of the kids were disappointed by this decision, but others were happy because this would allow them to be involved again. I had also begun to feel that the material itself would be better served if I were to stage American Idiot _unedited_ with another local organization, and encourage the families who still wanted to do the show to become involved with it there.
My decision to change the show came prior to finalizing the contract and payment, prior to any rehearsal, and prior to casting or auditions. As with any show that would require edits for a high school group, I had a full list of changes that I felt were necessary to the dialogue, and they would have had to meet approval by the publisher. I made several phone calls to MTI during the past year, and their staff were extremely helpful in explaining the procedures for requesting edits.
I stand by my decision to change our choice of production, and I have always felt that the school administration has been supportive of our efforts.
That being said, I am elated that people like yourself are fighting for the freedom of thought and expression that is so vital to the arts. Your coverage of our situation has helped to shed light on the issue, and to spark serious discussion in our community. Mr. Armstrong’s support has likewise invigorated our students. Although we will not be performing American Idiot for our end of year production, you can be sure that the Lamplighters will continue to push boundaries and explore serious issues.
Thanks again,
Nate Ferreira
Director, Enfield Lamplighters

This post will be updated as additional information becomes available.

Thanks to the National Coalition Against Censorship, which first became aware of this situation and brought it to my attention.

Howard Sherman is director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at The New School College of Performing Arts

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  • Kathleen Warnock

    Another turning point, a fork stuck in the road
    Time grabs you by the wrist, directs you where to go
    So make the best of this test and don’t ask why
    It’s not a question but a lesson learned in time
    (Sorry…couldn’t resist!)

    • Ryan Doyle

      Wrong album!

  • Katie

    This past fall my former high school became the first in the country to perform American Idiot and it was a huge success. The students learned so much through the process and were able to talk about a lot of difficult issues that most young adults face. High schoolers have the ability to perform shows that have mature content if we just let them. So long as the students understand and exhibit the maturity to conquer heavier shows, cencorship doesn’t belong in the arts. Theatre is a wonderful gateway for students to explore their own thoughts on issues and maybe even reevaluate some of their life choices. This Summer I had the honor of coming back to my high school and working on the show Next to Normal with other graduates as well as current high school students. This is a very heavy show with lots of mature content and it was often questioned weather or not a high school should be performing this piece of theatre. On closing night a member of the crew came into my dressing room because a high school aged audience member from the previous performance had asked her to relay something to me. The girl who had seen the show the night before had asked her to tell me “thank you for doing this show. Without it, I wouldn’t have realized that I need to get help.” This encounter affirmed why I am going into this field and why it is so important to expose adolescence to theatre beyond a happy, clean musical. Creating art that matters is the most important thing a high school drama department can do for their students. I hope to see more high schools doing full length productions and not cencoring the content simply because they are working with young adults. I’m glad that this high school is fighting to do American Idiot but I wish more people could see what high schoolers are capable of handling.

  • Resilient1

    It sounds as if the most “adult” portions of the show have been circumvented with the school version. If the resistance is coming from just a few parents, then perhaps the solution is for them to keep their kids away from/out of the production, but let the show go on as planned. I understand that Mr. Ferreira–to his credit–wants to be inclusive; however, there is a larger issue here.

    There is too much at stake when theatrical productions can be shut down by a few who disapprove. There is more to theatre than the milquetoast offerings that are part of the typical H.S. canon. Guys and Dolls; Oklahoma!; Pippin; Fiddler on the Roof…all have merit, of course (witness recent and current revivals) but none of them will spur the dialogue on contemporary issues the way shows like American Idiot can (see also Rent, Spring Awakening).

    How will budding performers and writers learn that their views and voices are important–essential–in theatre if they are not allowed to perform material that sounds like them?

    Howard, is there some way we (outside of Enfield) can support the Lamplighters in moving this forward?

    Thanks for bringing this to light.

    • smalltragedy

      Pippin has an orgy scene. One of Guys and Dolls main characters is a stripper, others are gangsters. In Oklahoma the main character urges another to commit suicide. Anatevka is a victim of the Russian pogroms. (sigh) Musicals are sooo misunderstood.

  • Tami Craigle Montilone

    Censorship sucks, and so does anyone who would be involved in the shutting down of this production.

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  • smalltragedy

    I’m not entirely convinced that this is an act of censorship. A teacher makes a judgement call to make sure all his students are free to participate in this years musical and because a few parents have expressed concern, he makes a judgement call. No one has forced him to make this decision. He worked in good faith with MTI to see whether changes could be made, he’s not breaking a signed contract, and he seems to have done this with the best of intentions. This feels entirely appropriate to me. While I certainly understand the fear of a “chilling effect” that parents can have in these situations, I think we need to recognize that communities do have the right to set their own standards. It would be a whole other story if this teacher were forced to cancel by a superintendent or a principal, and were fearing for his job security.

  • Amy Poe

    I ended up leaving teaching and starting my own company ultimately because my administration shut down my production of Spring Awakening because of a “few vocal parents” who couldn’t handle teenagers performing teenage issues onstage. I got no support from the administration or the press, and the students were devastated. Since then my community theater has done Spring Awakening, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and American Idiot all with teenagers from the SAME community. Public education is a dismal place these days.

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