Thinking About Theater

The Children’s (Shining) Hour

In some current educational controversies, the kids are doing the teaching — theatrically.

Students rally outside Seattle's Eastside Catholic School in protest of the firing of their teacher for marrying his same-sex partner.
Students rally outside Seattle's Eastside Catholic School in an act of theater: a protest of the firing of their teacher, Mark Zmuda, for marrying his same-sex partner.
(© Komo News)

I’m at the age when, if you're not hopelessly indulgent toward the young, you get hyper-suspicious of them. Here they come again, with all their over-the-top energy, grabbing at the most obvious old trick in sight and proclaiming it a great new discovery. Reinventing the wheel is youth’s stock in trade. No wonder the great vaudevillian W.C. Fields, when asked how he liked children, grunted, “Parboiled.”

Lately, though, a few news items have made me reconsider my position. America has been letting some of the wheels that keep its basic machinery turning get awfully rusty, and it seems that, in at least three recent cases, some bright young people are ready to reinvent them. This column is in praise of a batch of kids — sorry, but my seniority entitles me to call these young adults “kids” — who have not only shown themselves knowledgeable but, in at least two of the three cases, have been able to teach the adults involved a few things as well.

Don’t be alarmed: I haven’t become one of those elderly youth-cult creeps, like the ostentatiously radical professors whose attempts at hipness we thought were so hilarious when I was an undergraduate rebel back in the 1960s. I don’t plan to love the young indiscriminately, and you won’t catch me wearing the 2014 fashion equivalent of love beads and tie-dyed T-shirts. But let me draw your attention to a small group of 21-and-unders who look, to me, somewhat like heroes. And all of them, to make matters seem even brighter, are involved with something that constitutes theater. For a bonus, they’re geographically distributed: This is literally something that’s happening all over.

Let’s start with the most recent and farthest west of these incidents, in Sammamish, Washington, a suburb of Seattle (a city that, by the way, has a long radical-theater tradition). A faculty member at Sammamish’s Eastside Catholic High School, about to get married, asked if any of her colleagues could recommend a good wedding florist. Mark Zmuda, the school’s well-liked vice principal and swim coach, suggested the florist who had handled his recent wedding to his same-sex partner — legal in Washington state but not recognized by the Catholic Church. Since Eastside’s faculty agrees, contractually, to uphold Catholic teachings in public, when the administration learned of his marriage, "Mr. Z," as the students affectionately call him, lost his job.

Did the students go apeshit? Did they scream and run wild and throw things and scrawl graffiti? No. They organized. They tweeted, they discussed, and at noon the next day they walked out of school and stood in silent protest on the lawn. The tweet spread: They were joined by students from schools nearby. They started a Facebook page and a letter-writing campaign. Their ultimate goal, one or two of them have told the media, is to make the Catholic Church change its position on homosexuality — or, at least, join Pope Francis in believing that your opinion of other people’s sexual preferences shouldn’t be the stand-or-fall test of your religious beliefs.

Their radical-theater activities are ongoing. When they delivered a petition to the archdiocese calling for Mr. Z’s reinstatement, they made sure to post a video of the event on YouTube. If you want to show your solidarity with them, wear something orange on January 31, which they’ve designated as “Keep Mr. Z. Day” at Eastside Catholic. Through the unconscionable loss of their vice principal, they’ve discovered a meaningful principle, which they intend to live by.

And it turns out that the school’s administration, in its floundering way, is at least making an effort to show some respect for their point of view. The fallout from the media barrage that followed Mr. Zmuda’s dismissal produced some classic comedy of cross-purposes: It was said that the school’s president, a nun, had suggested he might be able to keep his job if he divorced his husband — but it also turned up a case of the school’s dance teacher, Stephanie Merrow, who, in the midst of choreographing Eastside Catholic’s spring musical production, Guys and Dolls, announced her upcoming marriage to her same-sex partner. Not wanting to repeat their error with Mr. Z., or maybe just eager to see Guys and Dolls on its feet, the school has offered her an alternative contract that would make her an independent contractor instead of an employee. At last report she was thinking it over. (Ms. Merrow’s partner, by the way, was apparently a mentor to the up-and-coming drag artiste known to New York’s downtown theatergoers these days as Jinkx Monsoon of The Vaudevillians.)

While Ms. Merrow ponders her contractual status, and the students of Sammamish pick out suitable articles of orange clothing, let’s head back east, to Trumbull, Connecticut, where a theater story you’ve all heard about is moving on toward its happy ending. Trumbull is a quiet town (population 35,000) not far from Bridgeport. And maybe if there were still an American Shakespeare Festival in nearby Stratford, area residents would be more accustomed to the blunt things people sometimes say onstage. And thus the bright, determined kids who run the Trumbull High School Thespian Society might never have faced the trouble that suddenly confronted them last fall.

All Trumbull’s Thespians wanted to do, after all, was produce Jonathan Larson’s Rent, as a great many American high schools do every year. They were using, as high schools do, the specially prepared “School Edition” that tones down the profanity, the sexuality, and the druggishness of this highly popular musical about East Village artists struggling to live a Bohemian life in the age of AIDS. Many high schools love Larson’s rock update of La Bohème specifically because it addresses phenomena adolescents need to face frankly, and does so in a musical language they respond to.

But Rent also gives some parents — and in some communities non-parental adult busybodies — a bit of trouble. Even toned down for schools, its language and subject matter strike some middle Americans as uncomfortably freewheeling: There are people who believe that any mention of drugs, HIV, or same-sex relationships before a high school audience is automatically improper. And one such person — apparently not a student’s parent or even a resident of Trumbull — brought the Thespians’ planned production to the attention of Trumbull High’s new principal, Marc Guarino. His hasty — perhaps too hasty — response was to cancel the production.

As in Sammamish, the students’ reaction was shock, anger, and disappointment. Their feelings were “so scattered,” Larissa Mark, the 17-year-old senior who currently heads the Thespian Society, told me, that she feared “we would never be able to form a single voice and viewpoint” to show the administration “why Trumbull High is ready to take on a production of Rent.” But, as in Sammamish, Mark and her adolescent colleagues kept their heads. No screaming, no shouting, no tantrums. Instead, it was the administrator’s response to their choice of show that seemed emotional and indecisive: Mr. Guarino conveyed his bad news in late November, when he showed up, unannounced, at a Thespian Society meeting that had been called to plan the audition schedule; he reaffirmed the uncertainty of his position by not showing up at a school board meeting where the topic was discussed in early December, instead sending a letter full of generalities. But more about Trumbull — and a still more troubling case down South — next week.

Students at Connecticut's Trumbull High School rallied the cancellation of their school production of the musical Rent.
Students at Connecticut's Trumbull High School rallied the cancellation of their school production of the musical Rent.
(courtesy of Trumbull for Rent Facebook page)

Stay tuned to TheaterMania for part II of this "Thinking About Theater" column, which will appear on Friday, January 24.