Schools Are Canceling Student Shows with LGBTQ Characters

Photo by Mandi Matching
An empty set awaits the Cardinal Local School District performance of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” which drew school board opposition partly for its LGBTQ content.

The crew had built most of the set. Choreographers had blocked out almost all the dances. The students were halfway through rehearsals.

Then in late January, musical director Vanessa Allen called an emergency meeting. She told the cast and crew of 21 teens that their show – the musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” – was off. Board members in Ohio’s Cardinal Local Schools disliked some features of “Spelling Bee,” Allen explained, including a song about erections, the appearance of Jesus Christ and the fact that one character has two fathers.

Sobs broke out across the room, said Riley Matchinga, 18, who was slated to play one of the leads: Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, the character whose fathers are gay. “Everyone’s faces just fell,” she said. “I could see everyone’s hearts melting, because we had worked so hard.”

Following a record-setting surge in efforts to change curriculums and ban books at schools nationwide, the education culture war has now reached the stage. The controversy in Cardinal is one of a number of recent instances in which school administrators have intervened to nix or alter school theatrical productions deemed objectionable – often because they feature LGBTQ characters or deal with issues of race and racism.

In Florida’s Duval County Public Schools this January, administrators stopped a production of the play “Indecent,” which details a love affair between two women, due to its “mature content.” In February, Indiana’s Northwest Allen County Schools pulled the plug on a production of the play “Marian” after adults raised the alarm over its depiction of a same-sex couple and a nonbinary character. And in March, Iowa’s South Tama County Community School District halted a performance of the play “August: Osage County” over fears that its treatment of suicide, addiction and racism was inappropriate for school-aged children.

Censorship of K-12 student productions has been happening for years, said Howard Sherman, managing director of the performing arts center at New York’s Baruch College. Since 2011, Sherman has tracked and fought efforts to end or edit school theater, assisting with roughly four dozen such cases, many of which never became public.

Still, this most recent wave of opposition seems more intense and organized than in past years, Sherman said, and more tightly focused on plays and musicals with LGBTQ content.

“Something that was being dealt with community by community has now, for some people, become a cause, ” he said. “You see politicians and officials enacting rules and laws which are incredibly onerous and designed to enforce a very narrow view of what students can see, read, learn or act on stage.”

The cancellations come amid fierce political fights over what children should be allowed to learn and do at school. State legislatures are proposing and passing a historic wave of laws and policies restricting LGBTQ student rights and representation at school; in Florida last month, for example, the Board of Education banned education about gender identity and sexuality at all grade levels. Some legislation may directly affect school theater productions: Bills advanced in at least 15 states forbidding drag shows could be interpreted as outlawing cross-dressing in school plays, said Jennifer Katona, executive director of the Educational Theatre Association.

“That’s a hallmark of theater because the majority of theater programs have more female-identifying than male-identifying students, yet plays are written with majority male-identifying casts,” Katona said. “It’s a tough time for school theater.”

Some argue it is school officials’ job to ensure that productions are age-appropriate and aligned with families’ preferences. Contemporary musicals are often quite sophisticated and entangled with social issues, said Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

“You have to be mindful of local values,” Pondiscio said. “School has always existed to signal to children what is worth knowing and valuable, what we praise and condemn, and you have to apply that to musicals as well.”

In Pennsylvania’s Northern Lebanon School District this March, the school board voted down a proposed 2024 performance of the musical “The Addams Family,” 7-to-2, after some board members said they found the script too gloomy.

The theme of “The Addams Family” is “darkness, grief and unspeakable sorrow,” board member Michael Marlowe said at a meeting before the vote. Marlowe, who did not respond to a request for comment, noted the musical has songs about killing, scenes of children smoking and references to torture and self-harm.

“These are the things that today’s students are fighting and we’re making light of it a little bit, or promoting it,” he said in a public video of the meeting. “These are not themes that we as a school would permit . . . so I don’t think we should put it out there.”

Northern Lebanon district spokeswoman Lauren Bruce wrote in a statement that “the practice of the School Board approving our annual musical has been in place for many years,” although it is not formalized in policy. Bruce wrote that another musical has been put forward for next spring and “we look forward to seeing it.” Per board documents, that musical is “Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka.”

Board member Michelle Bucks, one of the two votes in favor of the musical, said she thinks the board acted against the recommendations of faculty and the desires of students who wanted to stage “The Addams Family.” In 2019, the musical was the most popular high school production in America, per the Educational Theatre Association.

Student performers, denied their turn before the spotlights, are dismayed.

In Iowa’s South Tama County Community School District, senior Libby Albright was excited to perform in tragicomedy “August: Osage County” – until administrators scrapped the production this spring, three weeks into rehearsal. Theater director Dixie Forcht said Superintendent John Cain watched the film version of “August,” decided it was inappropriate and directed the South Tama County High School principal to shut down the play.

Cain, who did not respond to questions, told a local newspaper the play was “beyond rated PG.” Albright said she and three other students met with Cain the day after the cancellation and he repeated several times that “the community isn’t ready.”

“August,” which debuted on Broadway in 2007, features an implied suicide, incest and drug addiction, as well as racist treatment of a Native American character.

Albright acknowledged the Pulitzer-winning play is difficult. But that, she said, is why students wanted to act it.

“The only productions I’ve ever been in have been fairy tale or comedy,” she said. “To grow as actors, we need to be challenged – to do things that really test us and make us think harder, that drive us to keep creating art.”

She had developed a strong connection to her “August” character, Barbara Fordham, who is stuck in a disintegrating marriage. Albright said she recently emerged from a “rough” relationship and that Barbara’s lines felt like “things I had said before.” A member of Albright’s family died by suicide this spring, she said, and performing in “August” would have helped her grieve.

To replace “August,” the school chose a light 1930s comedy, “You Can’t Take It With You.” Albright played Penny Sycamore. She said it was fun – but not fulfilling.

“It was unfortunate to go from having a character that felt like so much of me . . . to this dumbed-down, cute little lady with her typewriter who doesn’t let herself fix any of her issues,” Albright said.

In Indiana, 18-year-old Meadowe Freeman had just wrapped the second day of auditions for “Marian, or the True Tale of Robin Hood,” a gender-bending retelling of Robin Hood, when the Carroll High School principal gathered interested students and said the production could not go forward. The principal said he’d gotten phone calls from adults upset about the play’s LGBTQ characters, Freeman recalled – and that he feared protests would disrupt the show and endanger students’ safety.

District spokeswoman Lizette Downey said in an interview, “We want our kids protected, we want it to be a positive experience for them, and I think the concern was: It’s possible people could show up and say rude comments.” Superintendent Wayne Barker said he was unavailable for an interview but shared the text of an email he sent to a parent in which he wrote that he hadn’t heard the complaints the principal cited. “The decision to change the production emanated from . . . disruptions already occurring between students who wanted to participate in the play,” he said.

Freeman helped select a replacement play, choosing “Puffs, or Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic,” a 2015 parody of Harry Potter. But she is still sad about “Marian.”

“I think the [LGBTQ] representation has been lost,” Freeman said. “And that’s sad because we were seeing more of these stories that weren’t told for so long, and now . . . they’re getting censored.”

In Ohio’s Cardinal schools, Matchinga and her peers were determined to put on “Spelling Bee.” They bombarded the school board with emails questioning the cancellation.

Musical director Allen began revising the script to erase lines board members dubbed inappropriate – eliminating profanity, a line about “[beating] up” kids and replacing the phrase “fake mom” with “step mom,” according to school documents obtained by The Washington Post. She was assisted by Rachel Sheinkin, one of the writers of the 2005 Broadway musical. Ultimately, after requesting more than two dozen edits and receiving 12, the school board voted to let “Spelling Bee” proceed.

Alterations to Matchinga’s lines included replacing “and I’ve heard she is pro-choice/though still a virgin” with “but she will not make her choice/til she is certain.”

“I don’t think that really made a big effect on the story, and the show was still really funny and we got a ton of laughs,” Matchinga said. “Overall, I think it was okay.”

Librettist Sheinkin wrote in communications to the school board obtained by The Post that she was “happy to accommodate” the erasure of profanity, but she dismissed as impossible any more “fundamental” changes, writing that she hoped the musical would spark “productive conversation” in the community.

“What we changed were individual words overwhelmingly and we mostly changed variations on the word ‘goddamnit’ or ‘damn it,'” Sheinkin said in an interview. “We of course didn’t change anything to do with the gay dads . . . we didn’t change anything that affected the story or the characters.”

Allen has mixed feelings.

Staging the lightly edited version of “Spelling Bee” felt like a victory. But in late April, the superintendent informed Allen of a new policy: From now on, any play or musical must be submitted for formal approval to the principal, the superintendent and the full board. (The school district did not respond to a request for comment or questions asking about the policy.)

“It makes me worry about the future and the scrutiny I am going to face,” Allen said. “It makes me paranoid about every decision.”