In the late 1980’s I submitted scenes from A Lie of the Mind, by Sam Shepard, as our entry into the Texas UIL One Act Play Contest. Lynn Murray, the State Director, called me to tell me the reading committee was split on the title and that he had to make the decision to approve or deny our selection. He was an ex-college professor of mine and was known for his “sailor” vocabulary. His final ruling was, “If you want mount that piece of sh*t, go right ahead and mount it.” A Lie of The Mind was named the AAAAA State Champion that year. At last year’s Texas Educational Theatre Association Convention, Lynn Murray kindly told me it was the best UIL show he saw in his tenure as State Director.
I judged last year’s State AAAAAA contest and was one of the three panelists who awarded Houston Carnegie Vanguard High School’s scenes from Holy Day, by Andrew Bovell, the State Championship. Now State Director, Luis Munoz, told me that Holy Day was his A Lie of the Mind. There was much rumbling about Holy Day: parent protests, attorneys, threats of law suits, police escorted students at performances. A Lie of the Mind stirred some discussion and letters to newspapers, but we now live in the age of texting and immediate news and social media protesting. My principal back in the 1980’s received numerous phone calls, letters, and newspaper interviews. I remember him telling me, “We trust you and how you teach our kids. We are proud of our theatre program. So what do I care what they are saying in Conservative, Texas.”
Should the Texas UIL One Act Play Contest censor play selection and play content? Should high school students be protected from “mature” literature and not be allowed to speak the “mature” words written by a playwright? My answer is no. Every administrator has to sign an agreement form to enter a contest: “The production does not offend the moral standards of our community and is is appropriate for presentation by the students of our school. “I have seen “mature” plays produced in small rural towns as well as large urban schools. I have seen The Small World of Millie McIvor produced in a large AAAAAA school. I have seen The Rimers of Eldritch, with its murder, rape, and bigotry cloaked in Christianity produced in small one A schools. A good theatre director lays a foundation with its school and community to create art and not all art is pretty, thank God. A good theatre director creates trust through clear communication and objectives. A school must know and understand why a company is producing its selected title. I recall casting a Jewish student in the role of Shylock. That sensitive decision did not happen without conversation with the parents of that child. They disagreed with my choice of play selection, but allowed their child to play the role as a learning experience. We all learned. A good director communicates with parents and administrators. I do not ask our librarian what books to put in our library. I do not ask the English Department what literature they are teaching.
Theatre is didactic and outside institutions have no right determining what is appropriate for a particular community. We hear the same argument in politics where many believe the federal government should stay out of state decisions. I believe the state should stay out of local decisions. I served as a clinician for several UIL productions this year. Directors have been told to eliminate all curse words and many directors were told to clean up plot driven relationships. I’m sorry, but Eddie has to be hot for Catherine in A View From the Bridge. I’m sorry, but Brian and Mark are in a Gay relationship in The Shadow Box. Can high school kids handle discussing incest? Can high school kids handle discussing Gay issues? I am sad to say that in my career I have had to deal with more than one student who was sexual abused by a family member. As an openly Gay man, I wish a teacher had allowed me to talk about sexuality when I was 16 years old. A Lie of the Mind deals with spousal abuse, alcoholism, and controversial use of the American flag. I cannot think of a better way to stimulate discussion and allow actors and audience to define their values.
We teach the Google Generation. You are naive if you think our high school students have not searched the nastiest thing you can imagine. Every “mature” subject is at their fingertips. Let teachers and directors safely provide platforms for discussion and adult supervision of their questions. I wished Texas UIL had stood more firmly against threats of lawsuits. There are attorneys who could argue in favor of freedom of speech. There are attorneys who understand freedom of choice.
No matter how hard we try to protect our kids, they will get hurt. Theatre can provide a practice role to prepare them for those inevitable hurts. I am thankful for my American freedoms. The freedom to compete in UIL provided me with success and the foundation to believe in myself. Competition is one of America’s greatest freedoms. UIL made me who I am today. We live daily watching a presiding president try and control the media. We should not censor. UIL taught me to believe in myself and take risks. As a mature teacher and director I have learned to stop wondering if principals and society is going to let me… UIL gave me the confidence to rather say, “Who is going to stop me from doing what I know is best for my students.”