When high schools put on plays or musicals — as they will across the Lower Hudson Valley this weekend and next — friends and family will flock to the theater armed with flowers and “you were wonderful”s.
There are plays — “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Nyack this weekend, “Around the World in 80 Days” in Eastchester, “Rumors” in Yonkers next — and a few musicals: “Little Shop of Horrors” at Chappaqua’s Greeley, “Guys and Dolls” at Cortlandt’s Walter Panas, and “Bye Bye, Birdie” at Scarsdale, all running the weekend of Nov. 20-22.
They are unlikely to raise a lick of controversy.
Nor, it would seem, would Valhalla’s choice: John Cariani’s “Almost, Maine,” a collection of scenes about a magical Friday night in the Maine woods. It is the most-produced play on high-school stages this year, according to a survey by the Educational Theatre Association. It has been produced more than 2,000 times, by professional and amateur companies. Valhalla will stage it Dec. 4 to 6.
But controversy has found “Almost, Maine,” albeit far from the woods of Westchester or Rockland counties, where the play has graced the stages in Mamaroneck, Hartsdale, New Rochelle, Nyack, Rye and Spring Valley. (Hudson Stage, Westchester’s professional theater company, staged it in 2008; Elmwood Playhouse in Nyack, a community theater of excellent reputation, staged it in 2012.)
The controversy, at North Carolina’s Maiden High School, involves one scene, “They Fell,” in which two men, drinking beer in the frosty Maine air, suddenly find themselves unable to stay on their feet. They fall again and again, powerless. It’s not the beer. It turns out, Chad and Randy have fallen for each other.
Maiden secured the rights to stage the play this fall, but after a church group complained, Principal Rob Bliss pulled the plug, saying in a statement: “The play contained sexually-explicit overtones and multiple sexual innuendos that are not aligned with our mission and educational objectives. As principal of Maiden High School, I have an obligation to ensure that all material, including drama performances is appropriate and educationally sound for students of all ages.”
The news set off a firestorm of protest, led by blogger Howard Sherman, a champion of theater students’ rights. The show will go on, however, as a Kickstarter campaign to produce it off-campus in January sought $1,000 and raised $6,605.The news in South Williamsport, Pa. — where the Little League World Series welcomed the trailblazing girl pitcher Mo’ne Davis last summer — was less promising for trailblazing theater. Principal Jesse Smith canceled “Monty Python’s Spamalot” due to “controversial content,” including a gay wedding. Emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act confirmed the administration objected to “homosexual themes” in the musical, the 2005 Tony-winning best musical that ran four years on Broadway.
“I don’t want kids to feel like they had to choose between performing and what they felt was controversial material,” Smith told the local paper. “They should be able to sign up for a play and know that it’s school-sponsored and they won’t have to make a moral or ethical decision.”
In September, Stephen Schwartz, head of the Dramatists Guild of America and creator of “Wicked,” fired off an angry letter.
“Your actions strike at the very heart of the function of art and culture, as well as the purpose of education,” Schwartz wrote. “While the arts may sometimes inspire us and support our social institutions, they may also unsettle and challenge us and make us questions our values and assumptions. It must never be considered dangerous to encourage people to think.”
Two weeks later, South Williamsport fired director Dawn Burch.
Last fall, Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, “Rent,” was imperiled when Principal Marc Guarino canceled, then tried to postpone, then permitted a production at Connecticut’s Trumbull High School.
Guarino said Trumbull wasn’t ready for “Rent.” Bliss said Maiden isn’t the place for “Almost, Maine.” Smith said he wasn’t comfortable with “Spamalot.”
While no public high school has yet staged “Spamalot” in the Lower Hudson Valley, “Rent” and “Almost, Maine” have been produced regularly and without controversy.
The only blip on the censorship radar came in 2007 when three John Jay High School students knowingly disobeyed high school administrators and said the word “vagina” while reading from Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues” at an open-mic session. Principal Richard Leprine suspended the students for what he said was insubordination, but Superintendent Robert Lichtenfeld later rescinded the punishments.
Flori Doyle directed Ardsley’s “Almost, Maine” in 2012.
“Sexual innuendo is in so much theater and musical theater, I laugh when I hear people I hear that people have a problem with ‘Almost, Maine,’ which is so beautifully written and so pure and so human,” Doyle said. “It is a glimpse into the human soul. It’s also an ambiguous overtone at the end of that scene. You don’t know where those two men are going. They just acknowledge these feelings but that doesn’t mean they act on them. And that’s life. We all acknowledge feelings but we don’t act on them. What John did was to touch on that little piece of humanity.”
Jim Haubner, Ardsley’s principal, is a theater supporter and even appeared as the waiter in Ardsley’s “Rent” last year. His only request was that the fliers for the show contain a warning for parents that the subject matter and language were adult. Haubner said the community standard is the key, and his community has no problem supporting these shows.
“We’re very fortunate here that this has never been an issue,” he said. “We’ve done ‘The Children’s Hour,’ ‘A Chorus Line,’ ‘Rent’ and ‘The Producers.’ The path we’ve always taken is to make sure there’s an educational component, a reason for doing it. And we’re very clear about censorship. We do not want to censor artistic work. It’s not the right thing to do.
“When it came to ‘Rent,’ we made sure that the community knew it was the original production and wasn’t appropriate for younger audiences. And I think they appreciated that. As long as people know what they’re coming to see and they’re making that choice, that’s what’s important.”
Adam Sommer, an Ardsley senior, was in “Almost, Maine” as a sophomore. He said “They Fell” was an important scene.
“I felt that as part of a romantic play, it was necessary because it’s such a big part of our society now that we see there are more homosexual couples and it’s more accepted. That needs to be displayed and portrayed on stage and in the media. I think it’s OK that people got offended, but that’s just their opinion. I feel very strongly that it should be more promoted and stood up for.”
Sommer said Ardsley wasn’t up in arms over “They Fell.”
“It went on like it was nothing, a funny, bittersweet moment. No one said, ‘Oh my God! Did you see that scene? I can’t believe they did that.’ It wasn’t a big deal.”
Erica De Cicco, a senior, said it was awful that the show in Maiden was canceled over that one scene.
“All of these different scenes come together as a whole, so if you take out that one scene, it ruins the whole thing,” she said. “That one specific scene was more playful, not offensive. It wasn’t trying to impose any belief on the audience. The play has serious parts and playful parts. That part was fun and playful.”
“People hear ‘gay’ and they freak out. They didn’t handle it well.”
T.J. Lyons played Chad in “They Fell” at Ardsley and did a lot of falling. He said the play marked a major shift in his life, a shift that might be at the center of this controversy. “Almost, Maine” helped him come to terms with his sexuality, he said.
“When I first read it, I really liked it. It wasn’t coming on too strong. They don’t kiss or embrace on stage. It’s just two people having a realization about who they are, possibly. They don’t try to force it on everyone.”
Lyons was a sophomore and played opposite then senior Nick Beldoc as Randy. “We were just two friends getting on stage and doing a scene,” he said.
“Seeing works like this validates my feelings. Growing up, you only see a guy and a girl falling in love. Being in this scene was the first seeds of me thinking ‘OK, this is who I am, this is OK.’ It was in 10th and 11th grade when I was thinking ‘OK, this isn’t a phase. This isn’t going to change. This is who I am.’
“Being gay, it destroys me that people are saying that who I am and who all my people are is wrong and not deemed appropriate for normal society,” Lyons said. “That’s just wrong. I understand that people have been brought up to believe it’s not right, but they have to change, because we’re not going away. We are here. We’ve been here for a while and that’s just how the world is.”
Playwright Cariani — who appeared in an Off-Broadway production of the play last winter — doesn’t find it remarkable that the issue is still the focus of controversy in 2014.
“I think we have to be careful and gentle the way we help people who are not around difference,” said Cariani, who was raised in tiny Presque Isle, Maine. “We just have to be patient with people and let them catch up. It’s a numbers thing. If you live in a place like New York City and you’re against diversity, then why are you here? You’d be exhausted if you were battling diversity every day of your life in New York City.”
“One of the things I find interesting is that the students in that town, Maiden, N.C., will not go to the ACLU, because one of them said they have to live there and go to high school there and it’s such a small town that that would be difficult for them. People in urban areas forget that people who live in small towns have to figure out how to get along with each other because they come in contact with each other all the time.”
“Almost, Maine” is about a small town, about people finding out about themselves.
“I wrote it because there’s a lot of theatrical literature that presumes acceptance of this issue. There are plays about the pain of AIDS, but I don’t think there are a lot of plays that examine the drama of what happens when you’re a girl and you fall in love with a girl or you’re a guy and you fall in love with a guy. I just wanted to introduce people to the idea that people don’t choose that, it happens in a flash, and you’re left to deal with it.”
The play has been opening minds for more than a decade.
Said Cariani: “When we did it in Portland in 2004, we had a talkback and a woman said ‘I just want to thank you for that scene about the two men, because I’ve never thought about the fact that my son fell in love with someone. I never thought about it like that. I never thought that he fell in love with a guy and had to deal with it.’”
Valhalla High School Principal Jon Thomas heard about the controversy in Maiden after he had approved director Julie Colangelo-Doré’s proposal to stage it in December. He went to see Superintendent Brenda Myers last week.
“She looked at me and said, ‘In 2014, in our school district, is this even an issue?’” Thomas said. “And the answer is ‘No.’”
When Colangelo-Doré brought Thomas the play, he said “there wasn’t even a second thought. The kids love it. They’re enjoying it. And probably half of my cast are members of the Gay-Straight Alliance.”
Thomas, an actor in his own right, said one way to play “They Fell,” is as “a bromance.”
Valhalla senior Alex Pronevich and junior Domingo Ramos agree. They plad Chad and Randy, respectively.
“I think it’s hilarious, an excellent, fun-loving scene,” Pronevich said. “It’s good to see two guys hanging out. I have no problem with it.”
Ramos echoed that: “They enjoy each other’s company and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
If “They Fell” doesn’t cross a line in Valhalla, Principal Thomas said he knows where the line is when he sees it. He attended the Metro Awards honoring the best in high-school musicals last June and saw, with his students, a rather racy production number from Fair Lawn High School’s production of “Cabaret.”
“I would qualify Valhalla as conservative. I asked the kids ‘Would you ever do that?’ And they said, ‘No! I wouldn’t do that!’” he said.
“I look at it from the producer’s standpoint,” he said. “You have all these components when you choose a show: Do we have the talent for it? Thematically, is it going to work? But also is it going to sell? The last thing you want is for these kids to put all this time and energy into it and play to a small crowd.”
“I want the community to come out and support the show and the students,” Thomas said. “For me, when you’re doing theater in a high school, you’re constantly building the program and if you don’t give the community something to get excited about, they’re not going to come out and support it.”
One of the strongest rebuttals to those who question the appropriateness of certain subject matter on high-school stages came from Gerard Marciano, when Hastings became the first Westchester high school to stage “Rent,” in 2009.
“Listen, ‘Romeo & Juliet’ has two 13-year-olds,” the producer said then. “In the course of four days, they fall in love, get married, have sex and kill themselves. Is ‘Romeo & Juliet’ about suicide? No. Because this play has certain elements in it that might be challenging, it doesn’t mean it’s about lesbianism, about AIDS. It’s a great work of art because it rises above that and it becomes about something much more positive, and that’s why people want to keep coming back to it.”
Photos: Top, T.J. Lyons, left, and Flori Doyle, in Doyle’s classroom at Ardsley High School. Lyons appeared in “They Fell,” part of “Almost, Maine” in 2012, when he was a sophomore. He said the depiction of male-male attraction helped to validate his sexuality.
Second, Ryan Vogt, left, and Jason Pointek perform “They Fell” in Nyack High School’s 2013 production of “Almost, Maine.” Photo by Suzana Camargo.
Third, Kevin Isola, left, is Chad and playwright John Cariani is Randy in “They Fell” in the Transport Group production of “Almost, Maine,” Off-Broadway last year. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Fourth, Alex Pronevich, left, and Domingo Ramos will appear in Valhalla High School’s production of “Almost, Maine,” Dec. 4-6. Their scene, “They Fell,” involves two friends falling for each other.
Fifth, Mamaroneck was the first local high school to stage “Almost, Maine.” The 2006 cast included Gordon Granger, left, and Hadas Margulies.
Here’s a short list of who’s doing what in the next couple of weeks:
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Nyack, Nov. 14 and 15.
“Around the World in Eighty Days,” Eastchester, Nov. 21 and 22.
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Ardsley, Nov. 20-22.
“Rumors,” Sacred Heart, Yonkers, Nov. 21-23.
“Almost, Maine,” Valhalla, Dec. 4-6
“Little Shop of Horrors,” Blind Brook, Nov. 21 and 22.
“Little Shop of Horrors,” Horace Greeley, Nov. 20-22
“Guys and Dolls,” Walter Panas, Nov. 21 and 22
“Bye Bye, Birdie,” Scarsdale, Nov. 21-23
“The Tempest,” Briarcliff, Nov. 21-23.