Monday, January 28, 2013

Holy Herriman!

Note: This one is so long...Sorry! But I am BUGGED to ranting.
Pardon the attitude and piousness that I espouse to loathe. It's my blog. Take it or leave it. 

Sucks to be Herriman, Utah, right now. Or just Utah in general.

We're looking stupid. 

I want you to know that not all the Eagle Forum members are Mormon. It wasn't started by (Mormon) Gayle Ruzicka, she just runs the Utah Chapter. It was started back in St. Louis by a lady named Phyllis Shafly who was Catholic. Phyllis fought against ERA in the 60s which I think is the ultimate irony. Nevertheless, the Eagle Forum is something that exists in many states to protect "family values." For some reason, in Utah, they really create some unnecessary chaos sometimes. There are some nutsy people out there that piously wave their self-made rules above all our heads. Careful you don't stand up too tall, they'll put your eye out.

I gave a tour through our school to a mom and her son last week. They were from Herriman. I asked her why she was thinking about sending her child all the way out here to the East bench in Salt Lake to school every day and she said "you haven't seen the news?"

I did wonder (silently, when I first shook hands with her) if she was going to inspect my production season before she registered her kid. Would she complain about Legally Blonde...I was waiting for it. But instead, she was thrilled to hear that we still had free open enrollment.

Shame one bad apple could label a town overnight.

And to be fair, the label belongs to a group of people that hold an imaginary key to all the worlds morals and ethics. I wish I had that key, I'd toss it in the JORDAN river.

Because I didn't post this blog two weeks ago when the issue was hot and bothered, I should review:

Months ago a teacher in the Jordan School District (here in the Southern end of the Salt Lake Valley) did the play Dead Man Walking. This play opens the debate about the death penalty. There was a disgruntled parent, whose child was in the play, and AFTER the play was over, complained to the Jordan School District flanked by The Eagle Forum, a political group hell-bent on getting the entire population to see things through their rose-colored glasses.

Of course the Eagle Forum has the media on speed dial, so within minutes it was public knowledge that a teacher in the Jordan School District was actually using the theatre as a forum to make her kids think.

Only kidding.

That's just what I wish had happened.

Instead, Jordan School District decided to create a "play selection policy and THE LIST." CLICK ME TO READ THE ACTUAL POLICY. This created a board of people that would decide what was appropriate to produce on the high school level and what was not. They also created a list of plays that teachers could choose from. 

In Utah we have a teacher advocacy group called the Utah Advisory Council for Theatre Teachers. Several of the UACTT leaders went to the meeting when the policy was discussed. They actually encouraged the JSD to avoid any policy that takes the selection process out of the hands of the Principal and their drama teacher, arguing that they were the ones that were best able to judge what kinds of plays would best serve the education of their students at their school. Jordan didn't listen. Remember, The Eagle Forum was breathing down their necks. School districts don't like attention unless it's the good kind. There was a big stink, the play was already over when the complaint was made, the teacher kept her job and the policy was ratified.

Forward a few months.

There was (is) a drama teacher that decided she wanted to produced All Shook Up, the Joe DiPietro musical which is owned by Theatrical Rights Worldwide (TRW - this company ROCKS by the way!) She happens to teach in Jordan School District.

After she cast the show, which in itself is a horrible task, they started rehearsing. And then it happened. ONE parent came in (flanked by an attorney) and voiced a complaint to the Principal that the play violated "community standards." She demanded that one of the songs in the show be cut (A Little Less Conversation) and the line in the show indicating that the town was full of "unsatisfied women," if you know what I mean. DO YOU? I am unsatisfied when I have to work 15 hours a day. I am unsatisfied when we run out of ice cream. It was very clear that this parent went straight to the ghetto train of thought and climbed aboard. All aboard!! Oh one else is on the train except your paid lawyer? Let's cancel the play anyway. Okay!

Lawyers scare school districts.


This is where is gets really fuzzy for me. Was this parent the appointed voice of the community en masse? Was there a petition of disgust signed by more than half of the community en masse? No. But this one parent s.h.u.t. the learning d.o.w.n. And the media descended on the ludicrous claims...again. The media was satisfied and then some.

Since I know (because I am one) that NO administrator would EVER call in the media to report on this ridiculousness, this must have been a very powerful parent. Dun dun duhhhhhn.

And so well connected to the media, too. Hmmmm...

And so good at keeping their name a secret too.

If you are going to complain about something...OWN IT. Sign your name! Participate in the solutions to the problem. Only masked terrorists drop a bomb and run.

(Right here is where I digressed so far I actually copied it into its own blog...Hehehehe...coming later)

Let's get back on track. I'm not sure how far into the rehearsal process they were at Herriman, but they were standing in front of set pieces on the news, so I'm assuming it was far enough to give that brand new, first-year teacher a mighty anxiety attack or two. I feel so bad for her. She had the play approved BEFORE the new Jordan District policy had been put into place. She should have been okay to trust her Principal to know the community when she might not because she is brand new. 

She did what most teachers do.

Just for the education of those non-drama types that read this blog, this is how it's usually done: months in advance the teacher gave her play choices to her Principal and he/she approved it. After all, All Shook Up had been produced in Utah nine times before Herriman paid to rent the script. After she got permission from the Principal to go forward, she applied to the company that owns the script and they cashed her very big check (probably around $2000), and sent her the scripts. 

You can't just pick a musical or play and do it. Someone wrote that script, music and orchestration. You have to PAY all those people to use their work. Big licensing companies manage those contracts, advertise it, distribute it... they fight for your business. I have the upper hand, I am the customer. Every playwright wants people to pay to use their script. Except Neil Simon...but that's another blog.

Not all musicals are "up for grabs." I LOVE it when people say "I think you should do WICKED! I saw it four times at the Capitol Theatre and you should do that next!" To simplify this explanation let me just say, new shows, blockbusters (Wicked, Lion King...) that are still selling out on Broadway years and years into a run, are "restricted" to Broadway only until they start to lose money and then they are opened up to us amateur pee-ons. So if you see a high school producing a full-length version of Wicked, that teacher is on her way to the big doll house, if you know what I mean.

So when you get a script, you aren't apt to violate copyright, though it does cost the the state more to keep you in jail than you take home in salary...just sayin'. And they will do your laundry for you in jail...and make sure you eat three times a day...ah, the luxury! But then you wouldn't be able to work 15 hours a day getting your show up. You might just have to read all day. Or think. Or sleep. Or write a blog...

(Mind wandering...lost my train of thought....oh yeah)

More than the opportunity to have the taxpayers take care of you for a while, you're giving yourself permission to think you are a better playwright than the actual playwright, and more than that, you are just as bad as a parent that wants the "swears" taken out.

So don't just cut the "bad stuff" on your own.

The way to get around all those "swears" is to write a list of what you want to cut, need to cut, and mail it in BEFORE you have paid your licensing. Talk to your licensing rep who will then talk to the playwright and get permission to make those cuts. THEN...once they have come half-way with you, make sure that you say the following before the show stars (or print it in the program) "Any changes that were made in the original script of tonight's show were made possible through Theatrical Rights Worldwide" (or (Music Theatre International or whoever owns the script). We thank them for acknowledging the role of educational theatre in the lives of our young people as they learn about life and all its trials and tribulations before they have to actually go through it themselves. Okay that last part's a bit preachy...

Jim Hoare said it best. Jim is our friend, whom we LOVE, at the licensing company of Theatrical Rights Worldwide in New York City. They own All Shook Up. Jim came out to see our production of it in St. George. We've stayed friends since then and so when the Herriman debacle went national, he picked up the phone and told Andy he really didn't want the good name of TRW and All Shook Up dragged through the mud nationwide. What could he do? Andy said "if Joe DiPietro (the author) is okay with it, let them cut the "offending song." Joe said "has the check been cashed? Let them do whatever."

Then Jim did the smartest thing ever. He sent Andy this text from the PRESIDENT OF TRW and asked him to read it to the teachers out here: (This is copied and pasted from Andy's phone)

Subject: Just Ask

Dear TRW theatre family,

The majority of the musicals in our catalogue were written for the Broadway stage, to be performed by professional actors in front of audiences expecting and accepting of a heightened level of language, nuance, subject matter and presentation. In essence, the Broadway production is a “destination experience” for those who attend.

Your school, community or regional theatre production is a “foundation experience,” and, no two foundations are built the same when factors including the age of the performers, the region of the country or the demography of the audience are considered. No successful theatre program can be built or survive without a solid foundation. We understand this and support it.

So how does the destination experience of the Broadway musical assimilate to the foundation experience at your theatre?

Our License says you cannot change, delete or add to the music, lyrics or dialogue or anything to the musical as provided. We expect that upon your selection of a certain title, you plan to perform it exactly as written. But, our License goes on to say that any proposed change, addition, omission, interpolation, or alteration in the music, lyrics, or book shall first be submitted in writing to TRW. In accordance with copyright only the authors can change the show, and if they approve, we will come back to you with their edits.

For many of our titles, we have already modified the script and/or lyrics to have the Broadway language alongside a school/community revision. In addition, we have several titles with youth or school editions now available or soon to be released.   

So when we see you at conferences, or meet at your theatre, or talk to you by phone or correspond via email, we want you to know that you can ask us about making changes. At times you will be told no-you must present the musical as written. At times you will be told yes-with all or a few changes allowed.

We want you to ask, because TRW is a part of your theatre family.


Steve Spiegel 
Isn't that awesome! BOO on Neil Simon and you're welcome for the vacation house in Italy. Your piousness is no longer in fashion. Your holiness to the written F word has suddenly dipped on the stock market....big.

Oh... so good to get that off my chest.

Sooooo.... I hope that gives you more power as you choose your seasons. Don't be afraid to choose new material or even material with controversial themes. This is why the theatre make us critical thinkers... OH and never forget my favorite quote by Brigham Young: 

"Upon the stages of a theatre can be represented in character, evil and its consequences, good and its happy result and rewards; the weakness and the follies of man, the magnanimity of virtue and the greatness of truth. The stage can be made to aid the pulpit in impressing upon minds of a community an enlightened send of a virtuous life, and also a proper horror of the enormity of sin and a just dread of its consequences. The path of sin with its thorns and pitfalls, its gins and snares can be revealed, and how to shun it." (Discourses of Brigham Young, pg. 243)

Would the Eagle Forum argue with Brigham Young? I don't know...I only know that I taught drama to some of Gayle Ruzicka's kids in junior high and they were awesome. I'm not sure why she's on a holy war against the theatre...maybe she didn't get the role she wanted in junior high...those scars run deep if you aren't allowed to learn how to deal with them.

The picture to the left is not Gayle Ruzicka, but the lady that started the Eagle Forum. She looks like she didn't get the roles she wanted either. Or she wasn't allowed to be in plays at all. Shame. I've seen plays change lives. I wrote about it at 

That's My Olympics

She needs to be in a play. There's a great role for her in The Wizard of Oz. 

I digress...

So as we were watching the news and the reporter said Jordan School District had intervened and stopped the production of All Shook Up at Herriman, we gasped with laughter! A.L.L. S.H.O.O.K. U.P.? The Elvis/Shakespeare love child? WHAAAAAAAT? We had a blast with our 2010 cast of about 75 kids at Tuacahn High School. We racked our brains for something we had cut. Nothing.

We knew it would sell well in our retirement community, so we actually rented a bigger theatre and sold E.V.E.R.Y. S.E.A.T. In addition to putting so much money back into education, it changed lives!  It's an upbeat compilation of Elvis music tied together (fairly loosely) with the plot of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.

Well, now that I'm dissecting it,  I realize that right there you've already spelled trouble. You've got Elvis, America's hip-swiveling gift to Rock 'n Roll circa 1950, and Shakespeare, Britain's foremost expert on all things sexual, circa 1590. Did Joe think about that when combining the two phenoms? I think he did. Because the resulting musical reminds me of the first time I ate cotton candy, or held a cuddly puppy, or got a surprise check in the mail. It isn't Les Miserables, lets face it. You don't always have enough voices to do Les Mis. And sometimes the audience doesn't want to spend three hours watching a bunch of French students die. (Les Mis is my third favorite musical by the way, next to Godspell and Pippin... don't judge.)

The All Shook Up cast was one of the best combinations of roles and kids we've ever had. They just "fit" the roles so well and they took the message of the play very seriously as most kid do that attend a performing arts high school. We had two kids at the helm, Chris and Phoebe. I saw it challenge and stretch them as performers, and leaders, before my eyes! We stylized the acting by incorporating the feeling of a 1950's B horror movie into the townsfolk. Sort of Urinetown meets Little Shop of Horrors. (Incidentally, that ensemble won "Best Ensemble" at the Utah Musical Theatre Awards later that year. Those kids were rock stars!)

One of the first big numbers is (Heartbreak Hotel) which happens in a 1950's diner and I could have gone that way, all poodle skirts and bobby socks...but in All Shook Up, the town needs a tune-up.  Everything is worn out, the diner, the auto shop, there's even a dilapidated fair grounds where everyone goes to make out. I would. Even the museum has gotten a new curator.

The lead is an Elvis type character that has just been released from jail for getting the women "all shook up" in a nearby town. Chad's motorcycle breaks down in another worn out town that just happens to need his magical services too. The leading girl, a motherless mechanic at the repair shop, falls instantly in love with Chad and the rest of the musical is about that journey.

Yes...she does kiss him. And yes...she is dressed up as a boy when she does it... (sigh...) Chad thinks she's a boy. The only person that complained about that in St. George, was another local drama teacher. "How did you get away with that?" she wondered. Well, we reminded her, the audience is well aware that the character is actually a woman...dressed up, as a man...remember that whole Shakespearean device? The kiss ends and both characters have a moment of "what just happened?" I chose NOT to have Chad run from the kiss in horror. The tone of the direction was probably not the tone of the community standards as a was neutral. N.E.U.T.R.A.L. 

And that's how you get around a lot of things! TONE. When you present things in high school, encourage your actors to find the neutrality in a reaction and let people think for themselves. If you were in a regional theatre or Off-Broadway in a "destination" experience, then neutrality be damned, you get to do what you want. Do the all nude version of All Shook Up. But think about the word "shake" and all that nudity... just sayin' you might want to think about that. 

What to do... what to do....

I want you to read the scripts of the plays your children are auditioning for BEFORE you let them audition. Be that involved. Don't be a bully about your particular standards. Teach your children that if the play content does not reflect your standards, then they should simply choose to do something else without piousness. Matthew 6: 2 - 6. 

You have every right to complain about the content of a play BEFORE it's produced. But unless you bring more than half of the community with you that believe the same thing, don't cover yourself with the "community standard" blanket. There isn't one. Once a play is up and running...back the hell off! Let learning happen. If you go to the play and find out that "OH NO! My child says some swears! I'm going straight to the media about this," that ship has sailed! It's too late! Your ignorance does not give you the right to complain anymore. 

The story about the mom that wanted the teacher to censor a play AFTER the play was already in rehearsal isn't a story about censorship, the Eagle Forum or even a wayward school district. At that point, it was a story about a dumb parent that didn't do her homework. You looked dumb because you covered it. 

Unless you love all this negative media attention, get rid of the list and give the power back to your Principals.

I hear you talking in the halls about the football games as if you have bet your life savings on the team. You know every detail of your star quarterback's life including how much money BYU is paying to get him next year. Have you honestly READ the play you just approved? I pity the Principal that would rather die than read a play. I know you are exhausted!!!! I was at the school 74 hours last week and I don't even teach this year! Read the list you are given. I feel that the Herriman Principal jumped to a conclusion and didn't know the rules and regulations of script copyright before they had already cancelled the show. KNOW THE RULES. 

The rest of this is for you, take it or leave it. Provide copies of the plays to be read that can be checked out of your library by anyone that wants to read them - well in advance! Provide a copy for the Principal. Provide a list of the changes you intend on making. If you don't want to have parents in your office, the Principal can pre-empt that but ONLY if they know what you are doing about it. I love what my friend and fellow drama teacher Stewart does. He gives each auditioner a "swear chart." So they know the content before they audition. He makes the parents sign off on the content before they audition. 

Teachers, instead of changing the scripts, choose scripts that you know don't need to be changed for your audience and do that show perfectly! Do you feel less of an artist when you aren't doing the Laramie Project, Rent, or Jet of Blood? You should teach on the university level. Would you get fired if you did the full nudity in Metamorphosis, but you LOVE that show and want to direct it with the nudity soooooo badly? After all, it says right in the script that the character is naked. CHOOSE ANOTHER SCRIPT. Not sure if you know this, but all private parts should be covered on the high school level. Even cleavage steals focus from a storyline. This is high school for crying out loud! They are 15 - 18 years old! Let them learn about that stuff after they have decided who they are. It's okay to learn Absurdism by doing a scene from Brecht's Mother Courage... instead of Artaud's Jet of Blood

If that's not enough for you as an artist yourself, STOP TEACHING. Go back to school and get your MFA or your PHD and do what you want with people that already set their standards and are strong enough emotionally, mentally and spiritually to handle content like that. You are a high school teacher. Your emphasis should be your kids. Not your resume. (Though I don't ever direct anything I don't want to direct. The money on the high school level is WAY TOO BAD for that.) Do you know how many plays and musicals are out there? Don't fall back on what you, read,  read more!!! See shows!! Be in shows!!! 

Spend some time with your script. Don't assume it's perfect because you remember doing it in high school yourself. Time spent will help you decide how to change things by altering the TONE rather than the script.

Wanna do Godspell? You should! Afraid? No need. Stephen Schwartz will answer your email. I asked to drop the character names and just use the actor names instead. Audience favorite! 

Pippin? Don't do the suicide at the end. Make it a magic trick. Put a disappearing box up on stage. Pippin has an opportunity to disappear forever... eh??? Same exact thing! Different directing choice. 

Trouble with "Oh My God" in Legally Blonde? Do the "junior" version and put a cell phone in every girls hand and make it OMG which means exactly the same thing and actually makes it very current. 

Grease is a huge money maker!? Hate the demoralizing ending? Put Danny Zuko in a student council sweater and add some glasses and a backpack. Ta da! No changes to the script are necessary. Everyone does things to "win" over the person they love. YOU, the director, have made a choice that changes the tone only.

Love Seven Brides? Think about that kidnapping thing. Assault too. Wish it wasn't so embedded in the plot. Pretty sure there was some premarital sex going on. They even use Witch Hazel on all their wounds. They were witches. And Oklahoma has the "rape ballet," a pogrom in Fiddler on the Roof, an abortion recipe in Quilters, a wharf full of prostitutes in Les Mis...(don't even get me started about all the profanity in Les Mis, yet is sells out in Utah in five minutes wherever its produced. Explain that to me). Little Shop has a man-eating plant, The Little Mermaid has that shell costume, Once on This Island has an intended murder, pre-marital sex, West Side Story has gang violence, Annie Get Your Gun = women's liberation, guns... Urinetown...hmmm...nothing to cut in Urinetown except it has that terrible title.... ;-) And how do you advertise Damn Yankees with that big swear on the poster? (That was real phone call I took one day).

Wanna do Midsummer? Good luck with that...every other line is filled with sexual references, but according to the Educational Theatre Association, it is still the most produced play in high school's around the nation for the billionth year in a row. Ignorance is bliss I guess.

"But I might see Cupid's fiery shaft, quenched in the chaste beams of a watery moon..."
                                            - A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act 2 Scene 1
Sheer porn. 

By the way, you can cut Shakespeare's plays at will. He's dead. He won't sue you. His children won't sue you. Once a playwright has been dead 75 years+, most times those plays become public domain. Except for Neil Simon, I'm sure he's already got his lawyers working on how to prevent that.


It seems to me that far and wide a people will be base and uncivil if they aren't educated. They will appear pious and self-righteous if they complain about something and don't tell us who they are. They will have power because they know how to shake that piousness over a little Elvis music and call it "indecent" and shake the entire theatre world... but for good. It took the Herriman event to get us talking. 

Holiness to the written word, mothers, fathers and apple pie but PLEASE remember respect for the sheer amount of work it is to be a drama teacher. Can you help them take the drama out of drama?

They are a producer, contract specialist, artistic director, team manager, casting director, concept designer, dramaturg, certified acting teacher, people mover and arranger... a music director, accompanist, voice teacher...a choreographer, stage combat designer...a costume designer, fabric buyer, cutter, stitcher, milliner, finisher...a set designer, builder, lumber buyer, hardware expert, painter, mover, safety controller...a sound designer, i-tunes specialist, sound board mixer, microphone repairer, cable runner, battery changer...a lighting designer, buyer, colorist, special effects creator, light board operator, mood maker, electrician, circuitry mathematician, follow spot expert...a props master, pyrotechnician, historical decor professional, craft innovator, spray painter, glue gun queen...a public relations diva, graphic designer, press release writer, professional photographer, advertising mogul, poster printing expert, post master, radio ad maker, poster hanger, ticket seller, house accountant, a nurse, psychiatrist, custodian, mediator, psychic, wailing wall...and don't forget...THEY ARE EDUCATORS! And they work for pennies because they love it and they believe in what it does for kids. 

And finally, drama teachers are the lantern by which we lead our kids through the darkness of their teenage years. Teachers need to stand up and speak out. We have a right to choose because we know the literature! We like our work, we like our clientele. We are professionals! We will protect your child. We will get them on stage! We will teach them to work in a group, to meet a deadline, to communicate, to love the art inside of them. The research is there...put a gun in a teenagers hands and you have given them the ability to create death. Put a script in someones hand and you have given them the ability to create LIFE! (I know that might sound over simplified to you, but it makes perfect sense to me.)

DRAMA GROWS GOOD KIDS. And you don't believe that you can come in and say it to my face. We'll be civilized as I throw you down and call you ...I digress...and so often do. Excuse me now I need to go back to rehearsal...where I make a difference and not a stink.