What You Will

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Location: Edmonds, Washington, United States

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4/28/2006

Beware: Dangerous Intersection!

My wife, Sarah, has been fired from her job.

One of her jobs, anyhow. She has several. This one was a once-a-week gig as a teacher for an after-school drama program at a private Christian elementary/middle school. Not much of a job, but it brought in a little money and gave her a chance to do something that's important to her: work where faith and the arts intersect.

But, as anyone who's been there can tell you, that's a dangerous intersection. Signage is notoriously poor. Boundaries are not well marked. Signals are easily misunderstood. Just when you think it's safe to cross, a truck can come out of nowhere and flatten you, just as one did this week.

Briefly, she was working on two plays: with the older kids, a "famous scenes in Shakespeare" pastiche; with the younger ones, an adaptation of a children's book called Tasty Baby Belly Buttons, based on a Japanese folk tale, in which a young girl, armed with a samurai sword, rescues the babies of her town from a gang of oni, giants who have kidnapped the babies in order to eat their belly buttons. The book is, trust me, completely innocuous.

But a certain segment of the Christian population are devoted to finding Highly Questionable Content in even the most innocuous material, and then Raising Grave Concerns about it. Unfortunately, that's the same segment that often sends their kids to private Christian schools.

In the case of Shakespeare, that Highly Questionable Content isn't too hard to find: One of the scenes was from Macbeth, and the parent's Grave Concern was nothing more or less than "My daughter's playing a WITCH?!" Never mind that this particular pastiche portrayed the witches as harmless dolts who couldn't tell Macbeth from MacGyver, and who, lacking both eye of newt and a caldron, had to make do with French fries and a trash can.

For Tasty Baby Belly Buttons, the parents had to search a little more diligently: "I don't want my daughter handling a SWORD!" Never mind that it was a foam-rubber stage prop, and in the story, the girl doesn't even use the sword to defeat the oni. The other objection concerned the oni themselves, who are described in the book as having red and green faces, and horns. "We can't have our children wearing horns! Demons have HORNS!"

(Ever seen a demon, by the way? Neither have I. What makes us so sure they have horns?)

It gets worse: Along with the Grave Concerns, the parents also engaged in the famous Complete Abdication of Responsibility. No one told Sarah in advance that she couldn't present scripts containing this or that. Neither the principal nor the parent supervisor, who was in the classroom for at least part of the class every week, objected to the scripts when Sarah chose them, or at any point during the rehearsal process. Nor did any parent contact Sarah directly to discuss those Grave Concerns — until it was too late. The controversy swirled behind her back to the point where parents began pulling their kids out of the class. Then the parent supervisor e-mailed Sarah, suggesting that they might have to cancel the performances. Sarah called her back and left a message, offering to discuss some solutions. Next thing she knew, she was fired.

But it doesn't stop there. No, it gets even worse than that. When Sarah went in to pick up her last check and say good-bye to the kids, she learned that the parent supervisor herself had raised the hue and cry about horns and demons — after looking at a costume list. No one, not one parent, not the PARENT SUPERVISOR, nor even the PRINCIPAL, had bothered at any point to REVIEW THE SCRIPTS.

That's a particularly toxic combination of caution and carelessness, but sadly, it's all too common. And beware lest ye be tempted to dismiss the story because it happened at a private Christian school. Sarah ran into some of the same types of problems last year when she directed The Adventures of Tom Sawyer at a public middle school: "Does Injun Joe have to have a KNIFE?! Does he have to DIE?!"

How did a school serving parents like these come to have a drama class in the first place? Well, that parent supervisor had enrolled her kids in a drama camp the summer before, where they acted out C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. (More about that in a minute.) They enjoyed it, so she thought a drama class at the school would be a good idea. And that, dear reader, seems to be all the thought anyone gave to the matter.

What too many parents apparently failed to grasp is that Good Drama requires Conflict, and Conflict requires that someone portray the Bad Guy. Too often, a Christian family's sole exposure to acting is via the church Christmas pageant, and too often such pageants simply leave the bad guy out. The Christmas story offers a spectacular villain — King Herod — but he's usually consigned to a brief mention in the narration. Perhaps pageant directors are squeamish over the details of Herod's population control program. (As a lad, I was in the one pageant in a thousand that had a King Herod... I played his scribe. Neither I nor the kid who played Herod grew up to be murderers, as far as I know. But I digress.)

In children's literature, villains are frequently larger than life: monsters, witches, giants, talking wolves, sorcerers, wicked queens. Maybe that's because children still have imaginations big enough to contain such fantastic creatures. (Or at least they do if you don't pump nine hours of television into them every day … but I digress.) By the time you become a Typical American Adult, your imagination has shrunk to the size of a pea because you never use it any more, and so you must have your villains cut down to size. You can't get your head around a mythical giant, so you turn him into a demon — and the only reason you can do that is that you don't believe demons are mythical. You're so scared of weapons that even a prop knife or a foam rubber sword is Too Threatening. You say, of course, that you're only concerned for your child, who might not understand the difference between a Real sword and a Make-Believe one, but the truth is the opposite. Kids understand make-believe perfectly well, because they're still capable of doing it. In this case it's the adults who can no longer keep things in perspective.

Before you come after me with garden implements, allow me to say this: Yes, I believe media violence can be a bad thing, and that too much of it can desensitize kids to real violence. And no, I wouldn't leave a loaded gun lying around where my kid might pick it up and play with it. Imagination and curiosity have their dark sides. And yes, I know Columbine High School killer Dylan Klebold was involved with his school's drama group. But he wasn't an actor, he was a sound technician. Those are the people you have to watch out for.

All kidding aside, stage combat and media violence are completely different animals. Any drama teacher worth her salt knows that when you teach kids to use prop weapons, safety is your primary concern. You explain to the kids that the props are not toys, and you show them how to handle those props without getting hurt. Properly done, instruction in stage combat makes kids more sensitive to real violence, not less — and better able to tell fact from fiction.

So, could this fiasco have been prevented? I have to say I doubt it. Sure, Sarah could have chosen other scripts, but I can't think of one that's not potentially problematic. Do you know a stageworthy children's story that has no conflict, no villains, no weapons, no element of fantasy or imagination, and nothing that couldn't be misconstrued as Highly Questionable Content by parents with Grave Concerns? I could spend all day on that question, but let's just look at the alternatives that actually were put forth:

  1. The Elephant's Child. This is a musical Sarah and I wrote, based on the story by Rudyard Kipling. It was one of her initial suggestions for a script, but she didn't have enough strong singers and the kids didn't like the story. Which is too bad, because it probably had less Highly Questionable Content than any of the other alternatives. The major villain is a crocodile, not a mythical being. But there is a fair amount of violence, including (gasp!) spanking, which is bound to Rub Someone the Wrong Way. Not to mention that the Elephant's Child disrespects his elders and runs away from home. Finally, the story suggests that elephants haven't always had trunks, which might be construed as Teaching Evolution — and we wouldn't want that at a private Christian school, would we?

  2. The Pied Piper of Hamelin. The parent supervisor suggested this familiar fairy tale — so familiar, I guess, that we don't think about its disturbing elements. Cruelty to animals! Breach of contract! Unfair treatment of immigrant labor! Enchantment and magic! And, Most Disturbing of All, mass kidnapping of all the town's children, who follow the piper into the underworld, never to return! Is that really better than horns, swords, and witches? I don't think so. And would parents who are so wary of Bad Guys really accept a story with no clear-cut Good Guy?

  3. The Magician's Nephew. Suggested by the principal, this is a book in C.S. Lewis' Narnia series. Even if it weren't too long to develop into a script for a once-a-week class, it's still loaded with Highly Questionable Content. A sinister magician! Travel to other worlds! A wicked queen named Jadis, with superhuman powers, offspring of mythical creatures, who rips an iron bar off a lamppost and kills a policeman with it! Later, after a scene paralleling the Genesis creation, this same queen acts very much like the serpent in the garden. It's widely understood, in fact, that the Narnia books are Christian allegories, and that Jadis represents Satan. Parents at this school wouldn't allow their kids to play a weak parody of a Shakespeare witch, or a giant with horns — but somehow playing Jadis would be OK? Can you explain that?

  4. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Ah, the book that started it all. Another entry in the Narnia series. Jadis shows up here too, and we learn that she's not really a queen but a WITCH. Furthermore, there's a faun named Tumnus, who worries that the witch will saw off his HORNS because he has disobeyed her. In the middle of the story, Father Christmas shows up (speaking of mythical beings) and distributes gifts, including a pair of SWORDS. Hm. Horns, swords, and witches — where have I heard THAT before?

  5. "Something from the Bible." Oh yeah, there's nothing controversial in the Bible. Except maybe the WITCH employed by King Saul to summon up the spirit of the prophet Samuel. Or the SWORD used by the apostle Peter to cut off Malchus' ear. Or the beast in Revelation with seven heads and ten HORNS. (Hey, maybe that's why people think demons have horns. Still, there's no reason to assume that anything with horns is a demon. The Lamb in Revelation has seven horns, and he represents Jesus.)

Is it me, or is there a pernicious double standard at work here? Comes an atheist compiling a laundry list of offensive content in the Bible — witness Julia Sweeney's popular one-woman play Letting Go of God, for example — and Christians quite rightly say that the atheist is Missing the Point. Then they turn around and do exactly the same thing to a script they haven't even read.

Sarah's discouraged, naturally — but as dangerous as it is there, God keeps calling us back to that place where faith and art intersect. Maybe we'll survive long enough to see some decent traffic controls put in. But we're not holding our breath.

5 Comments:

Blogger abbieb said...

as Pogo once said, 'We have met the enemy, and the enemy is us.

i for one, appreciate the blinding slivers of light that get through. time to create our own avenues.

9:03 PM  
Blogger Michael Crowley said...

I remember reading in Peter Brook's "The Empty Space" that theater can occur if a person simply walks out onstage in front of an audience. They don't have to do anything or say anything at that moment. Simply being there makes an act of theater.

I doubt the people who fired Sarah would know Peter Brooks from Foster Brooks, but maybe that's the kind of theater they're looking for: a series of static tableaux.

What gets me is the parent objecting to their little girl handling a sword. Why does that raise concerns, of all things?

I'm with Abbie B - create your own avenues, and make the bastards come to you.

10:56 AM  
Blogger Sara Z. said...

My husband teaches drama and English at a Christian high school (in Utah!!) and has run into some issues, but nothing this blatantly free of any critical thinking.

The best story we have is when he did The Odd Couple, and the principal said that a character used "the F word." If you know the play, Oscar makes a joke about Felix (Unger) signing his notes "F.U." So the profanity is in the listener's head. Which, to me, perfectly illustrates so much of this problem. The profanity and offense and Questionable Content mostly comes from the dark recesses of the mind of the Concerned Adult.

7:51 PM  
Blogger RC said...

this is a great post...although very sad...but of course, not very surprising...

and do demons really have horns???

some goats have horns too...let's not learn about goats.

"Goat...what's a goat...did you mean to say boat?"

--RC of strangeculture.blogspot.com

11:31 PM  
Blogger marsena said...

I can imagine what an incredibly frustrating and discouraging experience this was! It brought to mind the time a pastor told me that no Christian should write fiction, knowing full well that I had a novel coming out. Living on the fringes (that intersection you spoke of), I'm glad to see I'm in good company.

8:20 AM  

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