Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Annie Get Your...Gun?!

High school theater is a special kind of theater. On the one hand, at times the productions seem professional. On the other hand, those who choose the shows are constrained by "community standards" (whatever that means), as well as by the fact that the whole cast is generally between 14 and 18, typically there are more girls in the shows than boys, and (if a musical) the music needs to be catchy and singable. In addition, at the bigger schools, directors generally need to choose shows which have a capacity for a large chorus or to otherwise accommodate large numbers of kids.

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?


  1. How come Pioneer gets enough money to put on a musical twice a year, and the other high schools do not?

  2. I'm not 100% positive, but I think there are a couple of reasons for this.

    First, the Pioneer Theater Guild is a very large group--it has many parents working very hard on different aspects of it, and that includes raising money. Musicals are typically expensive.

    Second, another way to look at it is that Pioneer has *had* to have two musicals a year. There are some kids, and theater-goers, who prefer straight plays (I happen to be one of them), but in general, straight plays (by which I mean non-musicals) have smaller casts, fewer roles, fewer large group scenes.

    Pioneer has been one of the largest schools in the state for several years, and with so many kids who have wanted to participate in theater, they needed to provide plays that accommodated very large casts.

    Huron historically has not had as large of a theater program (and in any case has been smaller than Pioneer), Skyline is only entering its second year, and Community is a smaller school. I'm not sure how this will all shake out as Pioneer and Huron shrink and Skyline grows. The theater programs will undoubtedly change, and there may be fewer musicals--or different kinds of musicals--at Pioneer. I'm hoping the straight play selections expand.

  3. I can't wait until we live in a world so politically correct that our theater is an empty, bleach white stage.

    Seriously - there are legitimate concerns here, but this attempt to eradicate anything remotely offensive to anyone is going to result in the most sterile, uninteresting void of an existence imaginable.

    Life is not clean, people's inner thoughts are not sterile. I can't think of a single classic piece of literature that would make it past any given yuppie school board's review if it were published today. If we are going to try and purge our society of everything offensive, I hope it at least stops at the stage so I have something interesting to observe at least once a month.

  4. Jerry, Part of me agrees with what you say. Since, in theater, a key part of dramatic tension involves conflict--often about issues that are not so clean and nice--imagining a world of theater without dramatic tension would be a sad theatrical world.
    On the other hand--when I wrote this, I had seen Annie Get Your Gun (several years ago), but I had not actually read the script. After reading the script, one thing that jumps out to me is that the treatment of Indians is really gratuitous. It doesn't add to the dramatic tension, and I think that if it were referring to blacks or Asians (or most other ethnic groups) it would be considered completely off limits for a high school production. Lines like, "You're dumber than an Indian" are simply racist. I would contrast that with a musical like West Side Story, where both the ethnic differences and the violence are integral to the dramatic tension.

  5. Information on how to get tickets to the show:

  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  7. I got an anonymous commenter on this post that said the following, "The sentiments expressed here are a perfect illustration of political correctness in its most awful form. Do you have any idea of how ridiculous you are? In a more sinister vein, PC folks like the blog author are a source for censorship and blocking of free expression." I have mixed feelings about this comment. I don't think it adheres to my goal of being respectful (for example, calling me ridiculous). And yet, because I don't want to be seen as a censor I felt I should quote this in its entirety. On the other hand, I did "reject" it. That was my compromise--you can read it, but only with my commentary.
    And here is my response: If you don't like my blog, get your own. As far as describing my opinion of Annie Get Your Gun as censorship, I think you partly miss my point. It's not as if there are only a very few plays out there in the world, appropriate for schools. There are many hundreds, if not thousands. Since the choices, in schools, of reading material and theatrical material are entirely value-laden, I am simply sharing my opinion about which values we choose to include.