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Trigger Warning! A Drama Teacher's Guide to Producing Edgy Material

By Tina Cocumelli

As theatre educators, we know that this art form can be a powerful catalyst for important conversations. Whether the goal is to challenge our students with new ideas or invite the adults in the audience to address topics of critical relevance to their children, chances are there's a great script for the occasion.

Students are usually excited to be part of productions that take on difficult but relevant subject matter. Administrations and the wider community, on the other hand, aren't always quite so enthusiastic. Here's how to handle the tough conversations and win the support you need to direct a show that addresses sensitive or potentially controversial themes.

 

Understand the big picture

Schools are increasingly aware of—and eager to meet—their responsibility to teach social-emotional literacy and other skills necessary to maintain a growth mindset. Theatre can play a significant role in this endeavor, as a carefully chosen show can provide powerful messaging to students that they are not alone with their struggles to do with sexual/gender identity, mental health issues/suicide, family struggles, abuse, questions around drug and alcohol use, relationships, teen sex, etc.

Yet, shows with sensitive themes can put administrators into a difficult position with parents, faculty, or members the wider community who may not see their value—or who might go so far as to oppose these productions. Navigating this brave new world requires careful planning and diplomacy.

 

Do your prep work

Think of your role in creating growth opportunities not just as related to this one show, but as an important and ongoing part of your service to the community. Take time to develop trust and open dialogue with stakeholders and you will build relationships and a reputation for dependability. This can go a long way toward helping people feel safe in stretching beyond their comfort zone. 

To do this, you must understand the school and community in which you’re working. What can you learn from the past in order to influence the future in your favor?

Research:

  •   What types of shows have been most successful in terms of ticket sales?
  •   Which shows have been rejected by the administration and why?
  •   What process existed for seeking administrative approval? Have the players/landscape changed?
  •   Are there any other schools in the community that are successfully producing shows with sensitive topics? Understanding their process may be helpful!
  •   Who are the stakeholders with whom you’ll need to develop supportive relationships in order to further your program?
  •   What topics will evoke controversy? From whom?

 

Once you’ve identified a show of interest, study up on the script with your Production Team.

Ask these important questions:

  • Does this show meet a need for our students and our community?
  • Will producing this show provide individuals with support, insight, or another investment in their well-being that justifies the programming risk?
  • Is this show appropriate for our students and community?
  • Which scenes, lines, songs, actions may evoke controversy among students and/or the community? This information will be crucial moving forward.
  • How, specifically, will these sensitive parts of the script serve to identify and educate about topics essential to the growth and inclusion of all students?
  • Is this show aligned with our school’s mission statement or credo? This could be a key element in promoting the show with administration. Mission statements often include wording like "we respect the dignity and worth of all human beings" and "create a safe space for all children to learn." These statements should and must include all students, opening the door for shows that address LGBTQIA issues, race, culture, religion, ethnicity, socio-economic status, mental health, teen sex, abuse, poverty, drugs & alcohol, and so on.
  • Are there any co-curricular aspects of the show that that might provide opportunities to partner with another department or colleague on this project? For example, if you have a Human Development curriculum, some topics might be shared between the show and the teachings from that department.
  • Is there a school edition of the script available? Increasingly, licensing companies are working with creatives to offer alternate edits that reduce profanity and are more appropriate for school settings.

 

Take your time with this step! Attempting to rush the approval process for a show with sensitive themes will put undue pressure on everyone. Ideally, your careful and thorough preparation will pay off. However, it is always recommended that you have a backup plan in place in case this show needs to be tabled for a later time. 

Once your Production Team has agreed to move forward with the show and completed your research, schedule a meeting with your administrator to make your case for the production. The goal of this meeting is to present your artistic, social, and educational goals in hopes of gaining partnership and support. 

 

Meet with your administrator

Before heading into this meeting, take time to consider your administrator's priorities and responsibilities. While you might be focused on your students and program, they have to focus on every student, department, and program, and perhaps most importantly, manage potential reactions from all stakeholders, which includes faculty and staff, students, parents and guardians, and the greater community.

In order to set yourself up for success, focus on being open, honest, and diplomatic in all communications. Approach the discussion as partners and exhibit a willingness to compromise.

Depending on the climate at your school and the relationship you have with your administrator, you may choose to provide them with a copy of the show to read before the meeting, or to make your case to produce the show first, and then ask them to read the script. Whichever approach you choose, assume that the administrator’s first question is going to be, “Why do this show?”

If you do share the script before your first meeting, invite them to highlight any scenes, lines, or songs about which they have concern so you can address them specifically.

Be prepared to share the scenes, lines, and songs that you and the Production Team have highlighted as areas of potential concern and to listen to the administrator’s feedback. If you agree on this list, acknowledge the shared point of view and allow it to build trust and confidence from the administrator in you and your team.

Address each area of concern with specifics about educational applications and support for the school’s stated commitment to social-emotional learning. Toward this end, consider the following talking points:

  • Invite the administrator to see this production as an investment in students' social-emotional wellbeing that outweighs or balances any potential risks;
  • Highlight the importance of providing students with the opportunity to see, through the show, that they are not alone with their challenges;
  • Highlight the importance of using the show's themes to catalyze conversations with students and other stakeholders;
  • Discuss the potential for considerable support from students, who will be excited to invest in a ticket to a show that reflects their complex, day-to-day realities;
  • Appeal to the administrator to help you create a safe space for all students, highlighting young people's need to be guided and taught by caring, trained, and compassionate adults.

 

After the meeting, give the administrator time to process the script and your discussion, then plan a follow-up meeting.

 

Follow Up

Thank the administrator for taking the time to study the script and consider your proposal. Listen to their response without interruption and take notes about issues for which you have clarifying questions or counter proposals.

If the answer to whether you can proceed with the production is no, seek clarification about specific concerns:

  • Is it no for now, or is no the final answer?
  • Was there a problem with, or something missing from, your proposal that might be remedied at this time, or for future requests?
  • Is there a specific stakeholder group with whom you need to make further progress?
  • Try to solidify a plan for moving forward, if that’s an option.

 

If the answer is yes, you can go forward with the production, partner with the administrator to create a document of agreement between that includes any and all changes and/or plans on which you’ve agreed.

You can also work together to prepare the announcement of the show, including a statement about why the school is choosing to produce it. Including the administrator in this announcement presents a united front and can go a long way with other members of the community.

No matter how well it's worded, though, don't expect the general announcement to do all the heavy lifting. Be proactive in planning outreach to all stakeholders, rather than waiting for criticism. 

  • Prepare articles and/or offer interviews to be shared on school websites, in newsletters and newspapers, and on your production website;
  • Schedule public forums to educate the audience and to field questions or concerns;
  • Include representatives of groups and individuals with expertise in the themes and topics presented in the show;
  • Offer interviews to local publications and radio and/or TV stations;
  • Be open to meeting and talking with individuals, as more personal conversations can sometime lead to better understanding. Always have a third person present for these meetings, preferably the administrator;
  • Include information in all materials about the age appropriateness of the script;
  • Schedule talk backs after performances to give involved students and adults a chance to communicate with the audience about their experience.

 

 

Walk your talk during production

Before auditions, plan a meeting with students interested in participating in the production. Be sure to include their parents or guardians, as well as administrators. Give students the choice to read only for roles with which they're comfortable. Incorporate a permission form into your casting process, to be signed by parents or guardians.

As you enter production, the entire Production Team should commit to focus on the heart of the script and the integrity of your creative, social, and educational goals. Be willing to edit anything controversial that isn’t essential to telling the story. And perhaps most importantly, keep an open dialogue with the company about any issues that arise during the production period. This includes inviting administrators to attend rehearsals and other production events in order to continue the positive partnership.

Before, during, and after the show, remember that it's in everyone's best interest that you continue to manage productive communication between your administrators and the wider community. The goal all along has been to create meaningful dialogue and learning opportunities, so as difficult as it might sometimes get, this facilitation is a necessary component of the show's ultimate success. Embrace the challenge. You're doing important work!

 

 

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Tags: school theatre, production, how-to

Tina Cocumelli

Tina Cocumelli

Tina Cocumelli is a native of Los Angeles, California, who has spent over four decades creating K-12 theatre curriculum. She has produced and directed over 300 plays and musicals with students of all ages. Tina is a graduate of the UCLA School of Theatre, Film, and Television, and also holds a Master’s degree in Educational Psychology from Point Loma University. Reach out and say hello at tina@onthestage.com.