Recently, administrators Trumbull High School in Connecticut have found their decision to cancel a student production of RENT: School Edition facing a large amount of public scrutiny. As the Hartford Courant reports, “Student representatives from Trumbull High’s theater department were told last Monday that the show they planned to perform next spring covered topics too “sensitive” or “controversial” for a high school.” This decision led to a huge amount of public backlash, with The New York Times reporting that about 1,500 students at the high school signed a petition showing support for the production.
When news of the canceled production broke, Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam opened their doors to the students, with Michael Price, executive director of Goodspeed musicals, commenting “It breaks my heart to know that just as musical theater is gaining popularity with young people, such a passionate group of students may be prevented from sharing their message with the community.” Reading this immediately brought to mind when the Huntington Theatre Company offered the Calderwood Pavilion to a group of students from Lexington High School who had their production of Columbinus cancelled by school administrators back in 2011. I was lucky enough to attend one of those performances, and to this day being in that theatre was one of the most profoundly moving theatrical experiences I have ever encountered.
While I applaud Goodspeed and The Huntington for opening their doors to these productions, I still find it remarkably disheartening that high schools across the country find it necessary to ban productions as a knee jerk reaction to any sort of possible controversy that may occur. In an ideal world, these students would not have to look towards the generosity of these regional theaters for opportunities to perform their work. Instead, why not allow these performances to happen in the very institutions that are supposed to be challenging young people to think for themselves and practice critically approaching the world around them?
In recent days, Principal Marc Guarino said that he will allow the production of RENT to occur later on in the year, when there was time to prepare “necessary learning opportunities” for students approaching the show. While I am thrilled that the show is allowed to go on, I cannot help but wonder if, without the help of The New York Times and Goodspeed, the production would have ever seen the light of day. Hopefully we will soon see the day that these productions are allowed to occur not as public relations moves in reaction to negative press, but rather a genuine desire to have difficult yet important conversations with young people regarding the world around them.