When Life Feels Too Much Like the Play

There’s something that I need to process with other theater artists. Over the past two weeks there have been two teen suicides in the city of Newton (just a green line visit away from BU). One of the teens attended Newton North and the other attended Newton South. The body of the Newton South Student Katherine Stack, a sophomore, was found this past Wednesday. Even though Katie’s death was clearly a suicide, no one has officially used that word to describe her death. Coincidentally, Wednesday was the final dress rehearsal of Newton South Stage’s production of Spring Awakening. The show was supposed to go up last night and run through Saturday night.

The school acted fast. They brought in grief counselors and experts and the like to advise Principal Joel Stembridge and Superintendent David Fleishman on a number of issues, including what to do about the musical that deals so explicitly with issue at hand. The adults came to the decision that given how raw the news was, the show should not go on. The professionals gathered the cast and let them know that their play was postponed until further notice. Though the cast was given time to reflect, their opinions concerning whether or not the show should go on were woefully ignored.

While I cannot say with certainty, having not been there myself, the cast must have never felt more in tune with their characters. There they sat, a group of intelligent young theater artists who had for months been exploring the psyches of teens who had atrocious (but sadly normal) experiences but were not listened to by adults.  And all of a sudden, here are these people who claim they know what is best for the cast and the community and they won’t even consider listening to the very kids on whom their decision has one of the greatest impacts.

I understand that this experience is a raw and emotional one for anyone at Newton South High School. But there seems to me to be so much irony in the idea that a group of adults decided that it would be better to shut down an outlet for open communication and awareness, rather then to first ask the opinions of the kids in the play and second to continue with the show so that it could become a piece for dialogue and a way to honor Katherine and her family. Spring Awakening is about how important it is to open difficult but necessary dialogue between adults and teenagers about these topics that have become taboo. So why is it that the school refuses to allow for such dialogue to occur? I understand that it is hard, but how can the students move forward otherwise.

I understand why the leadership made the decision to cancel the show. I don’t agree with it, but it’s understandable. What I don’t understand is the process they took to make that decision. Bring the kids to the table. They are the ones who matter here, so shouldn’t they be allowed a voice? Maybe I am biased because I am a graduate of Newton South. Maybe I am biased because my brother is in the cast. Maybe I am biased because I am an education major. But despite all of this, I cannot get over the irony. If the arts do not have a place in the room when we deal with the hard stuff, what exactly is left in the room? How else are we supposed to process but through art and open dialogue?

UPDATE: The play is scheduled to go up this week. This is the message from the head of the theater department:

“Spring Awakening will be performed on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, Oct. 23-25 at 7:30 PM.
Thursday and Friday tickets will be honored on their respective nights. Saturday tickets will be honored on Wednesday. Patrons are welcome to contact Jeff Knoedler to swap tickets or get refunds.
We are all mindful of the powerful effect theatre can have on its performers and audience. The themes of Spring Awakening include teen depression, dating violence, and suicide. Even before the recent tragedies in our community, we planned to offer literature and support from various local teen depression, suicide, and abuse awareness groups. The school is working closely with Dr. Larry Berkowitz, a nationally recognized expert on suicide contagion and trauma response in adolescents, to present our show in a responsible, thoughtful, and safe manner. We feel the messages of hope and solidarity in the production are clear, but we understand if some aren’t ready for it yet.
Community members who feel they aren’t ready to see the show are welcome to refunds.
In addition to these themes, Spring Awakening contains adult language and intense, emotional content. Students who see the show are strongly encouraged to attend with an adult. Talkbacks with teen health experts will be held after each performance.
South Stage will donate a portion of the proceeds of this production to a suicide prevention group.
Thanks for your support.
Jeff Knoedler
Director of Theatre”


4 comments on “When Life Feels Too Much Like the Play

  1. what did you have in mind? from Katies Dad. David

  2. First of all, I want to express my deepest condolences. No parent should ever have to go through what you went through. I am so sorry for your loss.
    In response to your question, I think that it could turn into some kind of a day of dialogue either just for Newton South or for both North and South to experience together. It would be framed in memory of your daughter and Karen Douglas. After a performance of Spring Awakening and a talk back with the actors and the creative team, there could be break out groups led by grief counselors, art therapists, and the like. Something like this could be an incredible opportunity for the community to process recent events through whatever means they feel most fit while honoring the memory of Katie and so many others who have died too young. The important thing is to let kids know that their voices are valued and their personal struggles are heard by the adults around them. The way to do that starts (but does not end) with an event like this.
    I am obviously no expert on the matter, but if you are interested in continuing this conversation, please feel free to email me at abioshins@gmail.com. If you prefer this more open forum that is fine too.

  3. Dear David,

    As the professor of the class to which this blog project is attached, I’m very glad to have your voice here. Please let me or Abi know if there is anything we can do to facilitate more conversation, if such conversation is desired.

    My deepest condolences to you, your family, and your community. I am so sorry for your loss.

    Ilana Browntein
    Boston University School of Theatre

  4. […] of Spring Awakening and given the experience I had, I feel the need to do a follow up on my previous post on the subject. (If you have yet to read that, I suggest reading it before you continue […]

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