June 12, 2007

The Play's the Thing -- Especially in Stepford, and Especially About War

The New York Times, March 24, 2007:
Student productions at Wilton High School range from splashy musicals like last year's "West Side Story," performed in the state-of-the-art, $10 million auditorium, to weightier works like Arthur Miller's "Crucible," on stage last fall in the school's smaller theater.

For the spring semester, students in the advanced theater class took on a bigger challenge: creating an original play about the war in Iraq. They compiled reflections of soldiers and others involved, including a heartbreaking letter from a 2005 Wilton High graduate killed in Iraq last September at age 19, and quickly found their largely sheltered lives somewhat transformed.

"In Wilton, most kids only care about Britney Spears shaving her head or Tyra Banks gaining weight," said Devon Fontaine, 16, a cast member. "What we wanted was to show kids what was going on overseas."

But even as 15 student actors were polishing the script and perfecting their accents for a planned April performance, the school principal last week canceled the play, titled "Voices in Conflict," citing questions of political balance and context.

The principal, Timothy H. Canty, who has tangled with students before over free speech, said in an interview he was worried the play might hurt Wilton families "who had lost loved ones or who had individuals serving as we speak," and that there was not enough classroom and rehearsal time to ensure it would provide "a legitimate instructional experience for our students."

"It would be easy to look at this case on first glance and decide this is a question of censorship or academic freedom," said Mr. Canty, who attended Wilton High himself in the 1970s and has been its principal for three years. "In some minds, I can see how they would react this way. But quite frankly, it's a false argument."

At least 10 students involved in the production, however, said that the principal had told them the material was too inflammatory, and that only someone who had actually served in the war could understand the experience. They said that Gabby Alessi-Friedlander, a Wilton junior whose brother is serving in Iraq, had complained about the play, and that the principal barred the class from performing it even after they changed the script to respond to concerns about balance.


The scrap over "Voices in Conflict" is the latest in a series of free-speech squabbles at Wilton High, a school of 1,250 students that is consistently one of Connecticut's top performers and was the alma mater of Elizabeth Neuffer, the Boston Globe correspondent killed in Iraq in 2003.

The current issue of the student newspaper, The Forum, includes an article criticizing the administration for requiring that yearbook quotations come from well-known sources for fear of coded messages. After the Gay Straight Alliance wallpapered stairwells with posters a few years ago, the administration, citing public safety hazards, began insisting that all student posters be approved in advance.

Around the same time, the administration tried to ban bandanas because they could be associated with gangs, prompting hundreds of students to turn up wearing them until officials relented.

"Our school is all about censorship," said James Presson, 16, a member of the "Voices of Conflict" cast. "People don't talk about the things that matter."
Some letters in response to that story:
To the Editor:

Re "Play About Iraq War Divides a Connecticut School" (news article, March 24):

Wilton, Conn., where I lived in the 1960s, was the inspiration for Stepford, the fictional town I later wrote about in "The Stepford Wives."

I'm not surprised, therefore, to learn that Wilton High School has a Stepford principal, one who would keep his halls and classrooms squeaky-clean of any "inflammatory" material that might hurt some Wilton families.

It's heartening, though, to know that not all the Wilton High students have been Stepfordized. The ones who created and rehearsed the banished play "Voices in Conflict" are obviously thoughtful young people with minds of their own.

I salute them.

Ira Levin
New York, March 24, 2007

To the Editor:

As a university teacher of theater history, I was discouraged to read that Wilton High School chose to cancel its student-written play about Iraq, "Voices in Conflict" (news article, March 24).

The principal, Timothy H. Canty, feels that the play is unbalanced and that students lack the proper context for understanding the war.

How is balance achieved by banning the production? What better way for students to appreciate the context of the war than through the responses, positive and negative, a project like this will produce?

There are numerous ways to turn this controversy into a vibrant educational experience that students will remember for the rest of their lives.

Instead, Mr. Canty is teaching them that when uncomfortable and politically sensitive issues are raised, many people, particularly those in positions of authority, will silence you rather than engage in meaningful debate.

Unfortunately, Wilton students will remember that lesson for the rest of their lives, too.

David Letwin
Brooklyn, March 24, 2007

To the Editor:

My son's school production, "Voices in Conflict," was canceled by the Wilton High School principal. At first disappointed, I'm now encouraged by the overwhelming response embracing freedom of expression.

At 16, I lost a brother in Vietnam. My son, now 16, is his namesake. This play empowers him to begin to understand that loss, war and decision-making in a broader sense.

Military recruiters solicit regularly at the school; some students will make the military their life choice. Let this play be the balance for recruiters who don't discuss amputation, post-traumatic stress or death statistics.

Congratulations to those who take on challenging material and stand up to the injustice of censorship. Perhaps school administrators will learn from their misguided decisions, let the kids "be all they can be," and allow their voices -- and the words of the soldiers they honor -- to be heard.

Art Presson
Wilton, Conn., March 26, 2007

To the Editor:

Have I got this right? According to Timothy H. Canty, the principal of Wilton High School, high school students without war experience are unqualified to talk about war -- even when the war was begun by politicians with no more war experience than the students. With thinking like that, who needs education?

Louis Greenstein
Merion Station, Pa., March 24, 2007
The New York Times, April 12, 2007:
Students at a Connecticut high school whose principal canceled a play they were preparing on the Iraq war are now planning to perform the work in June in New York, at the Public Theater, a venerable Off Broadway institution, and at the Culture Project, which is known for staging politically provocative work. A third show at a Connecticut theater is also being discussed.

"We are so honored and thrilled, there's no words to describe how excited we are," Bonnie Dickinson, the teacher whose advanced theater class at Wilton High School put the play together, said yesterday.

After barring the scheduled performance of the play, a series of monologues mainly from soldiers titled "Voices in Conflict," school officials have cleared the way for an off-campus production. In a letter Tuesday, Thomas B. Mooney, a lawyer for Wilton's board of education, wrote that the district and its superintendent, Gary Richards "have no objection to students privately producing and presenting the play on their own."


The Public Theater, which is tentatively scheduled to stage the show June 15, and the Culture Project, where it is slotted for the prior weekend, were among scores of off-campus venues, including church basements and college auditoriums, that offered the students a platform after the play's cancellation.

"We started in the school, but we don't have to finish in the school," Devon Fontaine, 16, a cast member, said yesterday. "Wherever we do the play, I think we will all be happy and grateful that that venue has allowed us to do so."

The students were also awarded a "Courage in Theater" award last month for their "non-performance" from Music Theater International, a New York agency that licenses many high school productions. And last week, theater greats including Edward Albee, Christopher Durang, John Weidman, Marsha Norman, Doug Wright, John Guare and John Patrick Shanley, under the auspices of the Dramatists Guild of America, joined the National Coalition Against Censorship in calling for the school district to allow the play to go on.
Amy Goodman, June 12, 2007:
Last Sunday night, as millions of Americans tuned in to the two Tonys—the final episode of "The Sopranos," to see whether Tony Soprano lived or died, and the Tony Awards, celebrating the best in American theater—actor Stanley Tucci (who played "Nigel" in "The Devil Wears Prada") was in an off-Broadway theater, the Culture Project, watching high-school students perform a play about war.

The production, "Voices in Conflict," moved the audience to tears, ending with a standing ovation for the teenage actors, still reeling from a controversy that had propelled them onto the New York stage. Their high-school principal had banned the play.

Bonnie Dickinson has been teaching theater at Wilton High School in Connecticut for 13 years. She and her students developed the idea of a play about Iraq, initially inspired by the Sept. 3, 2006, death of Wilton High graduate Nicholas Madaras from an IED (improvised explosive device) blast in Baqubah, Iraq. The play uses real testimonials from soldiers, from their letters, blogs and taped interviews, and Yvonne Latty’s book "In Conflict," with the students acting the roles. The voices of Iraqis are also included.


The story struck a chord with Tucci. He was already producing a video piece about his high-school alma mater, John Jay High School in Cross River, N.Y., where high-school girls were suspended for performing an excerpt of Eve Ensler’s play "The Vagina Monologues." Their crime: uttering the word "vagina" after being warned not to.

Following the performance of "Voices in Conflict," Tucci participated in a public conversation with the student actors, noting that "Cross River and Wilton are only 15 miles apart. There’s obviously something in the water."


I asked the student actors about their opportunities to discuss the war at school. Jimmy Presson, 16 years old, said his U.S.-history class has a weekly assignment to bring in a current-event news item, with one caveat: "We are not allowed to talk about the war while discussing current events." The students said that they can discuss the war in a Middle Eastern studies class, but, they said, it is not being taught this year. "Theater Arts II was the only class in the school where students were discussing the war," Dickinson said. Jimmy added, "We also get to speak about it with the military recruiters who are always at school."

Following Sunday’s production, Allan Buchman, Culture Project’s artistic director, summed up, "What we saw tonight was the reason to have a theater."