“Just think,” says Sir Lancelot, of his nuptials to a young man named Herbert in Monty Python’s Spamalot, “In a thousand years time, this will still be controversial.” The administration of the South Williamsport, Pennsylvania, Junior/Senior High School seems determined to prove the gallant knight prescient, as it has canceled a planned 2015 production of the musical due to its “homosexual themes.”
When the cancellation was first reported in early July, the reporting was based primarily on charges by the school’s drama director, Dawn Burch, who spoke of an email she said she had received from the school’s principal, Jesse Smith, requiring a change of show. On advice of counsel, Burch did not provide the email to the press.
At the time, reports focused heavily on a statement attributed to Smith, about homosexuality not existing in South Williamsport—a statement that was quickly disavowed by all concerned and rescinded by its original source, a news report from television station WNEP. School board president John Engel and superintendent Dr. Mark Stamm appeared at a July 3 community event organized by Equality Central PA to debunk the statement, though they did not speak to the larger issue of whether gay content was the cause of the cancellation. In the press, Stamm also asserted that Spamalot had never been approved for production according to school procedure. “School: ‘No way’ on play—but not due to gays,” read a headline in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on July 3, in advance of the forum.
Last week, as a result of a release of emails requested through Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know law, it became clear that the musical’s gay content was, in fact, singularly and explicitly the reason for its cancellation. In a June 27 e-mail from Smith to Burch, he wrote:
I am not comfortable with Spamalot and its homosexual themes for two main reasons:
1. Drama productions are supposed to be community events. They are supposed to be performances that families can attend. To me, this kind of material makes it very hard for this to take place. I don’t want families to be afraid of bringing small kids because of the content. I don’t want members of the community staying home because they feel the material is too risqué or controversial.
2. I think that choosing productions with this type of material or productions that may be deemed controversial put students in a tough spot. I don’t want students to have to choose between their own personal beliefs and whether or not to take part in a production.
When Burch appealed to the superintendent on June 30, he replied, in the only readable portions of a heavily redacted email:
[School Principal] Jesse [Smith] has given the drama program considerable time and attention this year. He has thoroughly explained his reasons regarding show selections to you and discussed them with me as well. His decision is sound.
As for Stamm’s assertion that the musical was never approved for production, the released documents include a $1,935 check from May 12, 2014, payable to Theatrical Rights Worldwide, the licensor of Spamalot, signed by Smith, as well as a check request and contract dated a week earlier, signed by Burch, for the rights to the play. While the check doesn’t specify that it is for Spamalot, it is unlikely that Smith would have assumed the check was payment in arrears for the school’s spring musical presented in March, as standard show licensing practice is for advance payment.
Following the release of the internal communications by the school in mailings dated Aug. 18, the contents were disclosed by the two parties that had filed a request for them: progressive advocacy organization Keystone Progress (via press release, including links to the complete document set) and me (via blog post) on Aug. 21. This yielded a half-dozen national news stories, but to date, no local or regional press outlet in central Pennsylvania has reported on the new disclosures, leaving the administration’s obfuscations intact. [Update, Aug. 26: The Williamsport Sun-Gazette informs me it is working on a story on the topic.] Stamm and Smith have not responded to my requests for comment, and Burch, when reached, declined to comment further.
Prior to the release of the materials, the school administration announced at an Aug. 4 board of education meeting that a “public performance policy” had been put in place. It says, in part:
Material that is generally considered offensive, suggestive, or demeaning based on race, religion, age, gender, or sexual orientation is not appropriate for school performances.
What the policy did not say is that material supporting inclusive representations of race, religion, age, gender, or sexual orientation would be encouraged. Currently in Pennsylvania, marriage equality is the law, however there is no equal rights protection for sexual orientation.
Students return to school in South Williamsport today with the false impression that their drama director provoked an unfounded controversy. What they don’t know is that their principal and superintendent assert that LGBTQ life is unsuitable for families to see, that their parents might be “afraid” of “small kids” seeing gay relationships even in a broadly comic setting, and that there are concerns about attendance at such a show because the material is “risqué.” The students also don’t know that their principal believes that LGBTQ representation might force some of them to make decisions about their personal beliefs, which is presumably part of education and maturation. There are important lessons still to be taught in South Williamsport, but only if the school administration and the community learn them first.
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