What we mean by "community standards" varies from place to place, but there are all kinds of issues raised by the very idea. What about a show that is racist? What if the storyline would be called racist today, but it depicts historical truths? (Think, for instance, of Huckleberry Finn.) What if it is sexist? What if the storyline would be called sexist today, but it depicts historical truths? (Think, for instance, of The Taming of the Shrew.) What about stereotyping? (Think of Fagin, in Oliver.) What if it discusses prostitution? (Miss Saigon, Runaways). What if there is swearing? Partial nudity? What if I think that something is...sexist, racist, otherwise unwholesome in some way...and you disagree? What if there is something scary or troubling? (Othello kills his wife. And intimate partner violence is a national problem, as we saw this last school year.)
When we start applying a lens like this, it would be easy to conclude that we can't perform almost anything historical (likely way too sexist and racist) and we can't perform almost anything modern (likely way too edgy). Should we abandon Shakespeare entirely?
So the first question is: Who gets to choose the shows? Is it one person, or a committee? Does the district have a standard? It turns out, that that depends very much on the school.
Second: What is the bottom line? And what if a show brings up some of these issues--does that mean we rule it out? Are there other options? For instance, last year, Pioneer High School's Theater Guild showed Miss Saigon, and during rehearsals, the students involved in the production had a chance to learn about the setting, the era, Vietnam, etcetera. I think that is a partial solution, but it doesn't address the education of the audience. What does the audience take away from the performance? Should we take that into account?
Personally, I find it much less troubling to show a modern production like Miss Saigon, and much more troubling to show some older shows which have very stereotyped gender roles (Taming of the Shrew). It turns out that things haven't changed too much from when I was in high school--the same productions are being staged. During my high school years, I remember the theater group staging Guys and Dolls, the Taming of the Shrew, and Annie Get Your Gun.
Annie Get Your Gun is an interesting case. It purports to tell the story of Annie Oakley (I have no idea how well it sticks to her real story--it is a musical after all). In any case, years after it was originally written, the play was revised to make it less racist (treatment of Native Americans) and sexist. (Note that I said "less.") The last I heard, it was on tap for the fall show at Skyline High School. The music is excellent, and it meets a lot of criteria for high school theater--it is singable, has a nice size cast, and a "happy ending."
Now I have to say that--although I find racism and sexism in plays to often be a problem--it's also often hard to avoid completely. [Skyline Theater performed Cinderella in the spring. Sexist? Yes--but also a fairy tale, right? Is that then different?]
But there's one thing about Annie Get Your Gun that makes it a little different, I think, and that's the G-U-N part. Never mind all the research that suggests that exposure to guns incites violence. Forget Columbine.
It has more to do with school policies, and what happens if you actually bring a gun to school. I once taught in a school where a teacher (not me) and class were reading a book that had guns in the story line. The teacher had the kids make clay objects of artifacts in the book. One of the kids made a gun. Yes, he was a smart aleck. So then what happened? The teacher, and the student, got in big trouble--even though there is no way that a clay gun looks like a real gun.
Starting in 1994, the law became extremely strict around penalties for bringing weapons to school. According to the Michigan Department of Education,
Pursuant to federal legislation enacted in 1994, local educational agencies cannot receive federal funds unless they have a policy requiring expulsion for at least one year if a student brings a firearm to school.
Now, it is true that the law specifies some exceptions.
School boards are not required to expel a student if the student can establish in a clear and convincing manner at least one of the following:
(1) The object or instrument possessed by the student was not possessed for use as a weapon, or for direct or indirect delivery to another person for use as a weapon.
(2) The weapon was not knowingly possessed by the student.
(3) The student did not know or have reason to know that the object or instrument possessed by the student constituted a dangerous weapon.
(4) The weapon was possessed by the student at the suggestion, request or direction of, or with the express permission of school or police authorities.
On the other hand, the Student Advocacy Center says:
Basically, you don't want to be caught on school premises with anything that can even be remotely thought of as a weapon. This includes hunting knives, toy guns, penknives, nail files, water pistols, etc. Items that once seemed like goofy kid toys are now seen as dangerous weapons. And schools are expelling young kids in huge numbers for bringing them to school.
We have seen schools expel students for such violent 'weapons' as paper clips and water balloons. Be aware of this trend and make sure your children know this too. Kids expelled under mandatory expulsion laws for bringing weapons to school have a very hard time getting alternative schooling placements and often are not readmitted after the year is up. With expulsions in particular, schools have the tendency to fall back on Michigan's highly punitive weapons legislation as format to follow for other offenses. (Emphases mine.)
So, obviously, the theater production, sanctioned by the school, fits right into exception #4. Unless. What happens if a kid, thinking she or he is funny, brings a gun up to the fourth floor, far from the theater? What if a kid holds the fake gun up to another kid's head and goes "bang, bang" just to be funny? Aren't we borrowing trouble here?
So, um, maybe Annie Get Your Gun is not the best show for high school anymore. I don't want any kids in Ann Arbor getting expelled because of a theater production. Oh, and by the way, if you are interested--the ACLU of Michigan is working on a project to get the state law to be a little less strict--right now it is more strict than the federal law. Here's the link for information about the school-to-prison pipeline.
So how about it, Skyline? Choose a different play?