Earlier this year, an Ohio school district made headlines when it canceled a student production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, after officials reportedly objected to LGBTQ+ characters in the Tony-winning musical. The show’s original creators eventually stepped in to help, and the production ultimately went on as planned, with the gay characters included.
But as The Washington Post recently reported, that’s just one example of the many challenges high school theater programs are facing at a time when conservatives are intent on reshaping what students can read or discuss in school under the banner of so-called “parental rights.”
This year alone, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is tracking well over 200 laws that have been introduced in state legislatures across the country aimed at censoring discussion of LGBTQ+ topics in schools, banning books about LGBTQ+ characters, and curtailing the rights of transgender students. Many of the laws mimic Florida’s infamous “Don’t Say Gay” law, which bans instruction on LGBTQ+ topics in grades K–3 and severely restricts such topics in grades 4–12. At the urging of Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), Florida’s Board of Education recently expanded the K–3 ban to all grades.
As school libraries have fielded unprecedented book challenges, theater programs have also come under fire, with schools reportedly censoring productions or canceling them outright. Howard Sherman, managing director of the performing arts center at New York’s Baruch College, told The Post that the wave of opposition has been more focused than ever on plays and musicals with LGBTQ+ content.
“Something that was being dealt with community-by -ommunity has now, for some people, become a cause,” he said. “You see politicians and officials enacting rules and laws which are incredibly onerous and designed to enforce a very narrow view of what students can see, read, learn or act on stage.”
Students at Central Bucks High School West in Pennsylvania claim they were denied permission to put on a production of Rent because of the musical’s depiction of queer relationships. Parents, students, alumni, and LGBTQ+ advocates in New Jersey had to fight to stage a modified version of The Prom at Cedar Grove High School after community members complained that the musical, which focuses on a lesbian character, was inappropriate. Duval County Public Schools officials in Florida canceled a student production of a play focused on a lesbian relationship. And the list goes on….
Even legislation that is not directly related to schools and education is having an effect. Jennifer Katona, executive director of the Educational Theatre Association, said that an anti-drag bill could have an effect on school theater programs. That was the case in Texas, where Spring Branch Independent School District administrators canceled a field trip to see James and the Giant Peach because actors in the production played both male and female roles.
“That’s a hallmark of theater because the majority of theater programs have more female-identifying than male-identifying students, yet plays are written with majority male-identifying casts,” Katona said. “It’s a tough time for school theater.”
It’s a pretty tough time for LGBTQ+ students as well.
“I think the [LGBTQ+] representation has been lost,” said 18-year-old Meadowe Freeman, whose Indiana high school canceled a production of Marian, a re-telling of Robin Hood that includes LGBTQ+ characters. “And that’s sad because we were seeing more of these stories that weren’t told for so long, and now … they’re getting censored.”