Dealing with Sensitive Themes Onstage

Navigating the risks and rewards of controversial themes in school theaters


Risks and Rewards

“Why?” is likely the first question many administrators ask when their drama team floats the idea of staging a hot-button production. In communities where it is possible, shows with an edge can provide educational opportunities and insights. Productions like The Laramie Project and Rent may give students—as well as a general audience—exposure to people, places, and situations that are outside their personal experience, yet real and enlightening. A sympathetic gay role can signal LGBT youth that they are not crazy, or a scene involving a character’s struggles with thoughts of suicide may open opportunities for family and friends to engage that taboo topic.

In spring 2013, Shorewood High School’s theater program—as it has many times before—went outside the pantheon of tried-and-true high school musicals and produced Spring Awakening. The original play from 1890s Germany has been updated and rockified with a Broadway score that helped it win the TONY Award® for Best Musical.

Quality and accolades aside, though, Spring Awakening also puts controversial issues front and center: teen sexuality, domestic and sexual violence, and suicide. Many school districts see this musical—and shows like it—as a public-relations fiasco waiting for a letter to the editor, or worse, to the superintendent.

But not at Shorewood High, located in a liberal suburb of Milwaukee. Under the previous direction of Barbara Gensler and now Joe King, its drama department has embraced theater as a vehicle for putting such sensitive youth-centric themes under the lights. Through the years it has produced many of the shows others have passed on or yanked, including Urinetown, Avenue Q: School Edition, The Laramie Project, and Rent: School Edition for which Shorewood was one of the pilot schools.

Shorewood’s educational leadership sees these productions as social and educational investments rather than risks, suggests King. “First of all, students love performing these titles. So, the excitement level of students can’t be underestimated. A title can draw more students into the arts. Secondly, the social themes in these musicals are perfectly relevant to teenagers— homelessness, homophobia, child abuse, physical abuse, etc.

“There is value in getting parents and teenagers talking about difficult subjects,” King continues. “The arts, and these titles specifically, can be catalysts for such discussions.”

Shorewood High School and its drama department continue to demonstrate that the keys to successfully producing challenging shows requires multi-level communication, planning foresight, and keen community awareness, in school and out.


Programming and Managing Tougher Stuff

The choice of a hot-button production, though, requires forward-looking planning that builds broad-based support. It is not turn-key, and the choice should not be made lightly. “The first question that needs to be asked is whether there is relevance for having our students perform these titles,” King says. “I think it’s important that there be a message, a value, a lesson to be learned.”

And controversial titles carry their own baggage. “Stakeholders may leap to a conclusion about the merit of the work without full knowledge of the content,” says Charles “Chip” Staley, Fine Arts Chair at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville, Illinois. With more than 30 years experience in developing arts programming, Staley has helped build an arts program that has earned national recognition and praise. “Preparing the community for West Side Story is a completely different animal than preparing the community for Rent.”

Communication that is open and honest—yet diplomatic—is key, Staley and King agree. Eventually, it needs to include all stakeholders—teachers, administrators, students, and their parents/guardians.

Building broad-based support should begin in direct conversation between the production team and the school principal, Staley says. (See Tab 4 for complete checklists.) Controversial scenes in the script and questionable language should be highlighted, and potential problems discussed upfront. “There will need to be a free exchange of ideas so that every issue is clearly vetted and addressed so that a decision can be made about the show’s viability,” says Staley.

He adds that the production team should not enter these discussions with an “all or nothing proposition” that paints the administrator into a corner. “If the principal is involved in the decision-making process and supports the choice, he or she is far less likely to cancel the production because of community concerns or complaints,” he says.

Making It Work

Communicate and Compromise

If and when the show gets the green light, the educational and public relations work expands. Even the announcement should be accompanied by some contextual framework to answer “The Why.”

Students—especially potential cast and crew members—and their parents/guardians now become integral parts of the education and production process. For such productions, Staley has the production team schedule an orientation with these stakeholders that gives the synopsis, describes the primary characters, and does not soft-pedal the controversial elements.

“Students auditioning for the play or musical should be given an opportunity to indicate which roles they would be willing to play,” Staley says. He recalls casting the character of a prostitute for Stud Terkel’s Working. Staley contacted the parent of the student being considered for the role. When the parent expressed concerns, the girl was offered a different part and another student took the prostitute’s role, again after a parental consultation.

Buy-in does not mean anything goes once the curtain goes up, however. “Even difficult scenes and subject matter need to be staged tastefully and appropriately,” King advises. In Spring Awakening, he chose to block the sex scene between Wendla and Melchior with the two actors lying side-by-side rather than on top of each other. Meanwhile, the cast sang background music around them.

Community Outreach

Early on, community outreach also needs to be planned with the intention of remaining proactive rather than reacting to criticism. This may involve pre-production articles, interviews, and editorials in local news outlets, and should also include public forums and post-performance talks.

Ideally, administration will be out front signaling its support of the program and production. “If the top building administrator is not an educated ally of the production, the production is doomed,” Staley warns.

Sanctioned forums where concerns can be addressed and questions answered increase the possibility of win-win interactions. In Shorewood’s case, these discussions included representatives from groups with expertise in the areas of the sensitive themes—a youth homeless shelter, the Milwaukee LGBT Center, Planned Parenthood, and others.

“Great Care and Thoughtfulness”

Today, more high schools are tackling shows with sensitive themes that are relevant to youth—sexuality, sexism, domestic violence, racism, suicide, and death among them. Music Theatre International, better known as MTI, has helped make this more possible by developing School Editions™ of Miss Saigon, Ragtime, Les Misérables, and others, reducing profanity and revising material deemed unsuitable for younger audiences.

More schools are also deciding that all shows need not be for all audiences. By adding disclaimers like “For Mature Audiences” and “This musical is appropriate for high school-aged students and older” to posters, programs, and other promotional materials, a production can alert audience members to the show’s themes.

In King’s experience, building a more sophisticated repertoire and overall program should be considered a long-term goal rather than a one-off effort. With thoughtful long-term planning, drama departments can build trust among stakeholders inside and outside the program, trust that can eventually allow greater experimentation.


Theater: How to Use This Unique Space

Teens, as a matter of course, are hungry to explore and develop their understanding of complex, mature subjects of love, loss, and the harsher lessons of life. These may be sensitive themes, but coming to grips with them is the difference between becoming an adult and remaining a child.

Done with thoughtfulness and compassion—and the leadership of caring adults—theater has a unique knack for creating a safe space for young people to do just that, as cast, crew, and audience.

Here are some tips for success:

Checklist for the Director and Production Team

  • Research the play of interest to begin exploring whether or not it is appropriate for your school and students.
  • Read the script carefully, highlighting controversial language, songs, and scenes.
  • Write out specific points of educational value in the proposed production. Also identify points of potential concern in the school and community.
  • Before any public discussion about a possible production, meet face-to-face with the school principal and/or other administrators to discuss the script. List points of potential controversy and how they might be addressed proactively.
  • If and when the production is approved, write a “letter of understanding” that outlines the production team and administration’s shared vision of the production, including modifications to the script, and share it with the administrators involved.
  • Schedule a pre-production orientation with interested drama students and their parents/guardians.
  • Give students the opportunity to request what part(s) they would like to audition for. Have them bring parent/guardian-signed permission slips to the audition.
  • Coordinate outreach programming with administrators. This may include media interviews, public forums, and post-performance discussions with the audience.

Checklist for Administrators

  • Schedule a meeting with the director or production team to discuss potential issues of controversy in the proposed production.
  • Read the script, noting potentially controversial language, songs, and scenes.
  • Consider points of educational value in the proposed production. Consider points of potential concern in the school and community. Meet with the administrative leadership team to discuss the pros and cons of the proposed production, if advisable.
  • As needed, collaborate with the production team to consider modifications to the script, and reach a final decision on whether or not to produce the script.
  • In coordination with the production team, write and/or review a “letter of understanding” that outlines the production team and administration’s shared vision of the production, including modifications to the script.
  • If the production is approved, consider sitting in on the pre-production meeting between the production team and interested drama students and their parents or guardians.
  • Coordinate outreach programming with the production team. This may include media interviews, public forums, and post-performance discussions with the audience.
  • Consider taking the lead on some public outreach efforts, such as a media interview, to demonstrate and articulate the administration’s support of the production.
  • Attend one or more rehearsals as early-on in the production process as is advisable. Provide feedback to the production team, as needed.
  • Enjoy the show.

Little Dancer

Little Dancer: A New Musical
Poster for Little Dancer: A New Musical

Sensitive Themes in Little Dancer

According to author and playwright Doug Cooney, one of Little Dancer’s main messages echoes a plot twist from Frozen: “Don’t trust the prince,” Cooney says. The prince in the film seems sweet and loving, you may recall, but hidden behind his handsome face and chiseled chin is a needy, greedy jerk who wants Elsa and Anna’s realm for himself.

In other words, be wary of people pushing you to do what you’re not sure is right, however charming and noble they might seem.

Little Dancer touches on some sensitive, even harsh themes about trust and betrayal. It is the story of Marie, a 14-year-old struggling to live among people that take advantage of girls like her. The corps de ballet (pronounced kawr duh ba-LAY) is made up of young dancers, many of them from poor families. But these girls referred to as “opera rats” are often surrounded by more powerful men, some of whom do not have the girls’ best interests at heart. “They look over the girls as if they were merchandise,” Cooney says. This imbalance of power is a central theme in Little Dancer.

In the play, the central power imbalance is between the wealthy patrons of the ballet and the poor girls, and some of the patrons take sexual advantage of the dancers. A strong desire for sex can cause some people to become manipulative and cruel. It can even drive them to victimize the vulnerable, just like the patrons prey on Marie’s sisters and the other girls.

We see imbalances of power at work in our lives on a regular basis, Cooney points out. Some examples:

  • a worker afraid to call in sick for fear the boss will fire him;
  • an athlete deciding to compete with a serious injury because he or she does not want to disappoint the coach;
  • a sweetheart being charmed by her older boyfriend to do what she isn’t sure she wants to do.

We often make choices based on our fears of what someone—people we love, respect, need, or are afraid of—will do or say if we don’t do what they want. Sometimes it is for our own good; but sometimes it is for no one’s good but theirs. We are especially vulnerable to such pressures when we are young, when we are lonely and scared, when we are poor.

Honoring our own opinions and learning to trust our instincts are important skills to learn and practice as we grow up. They help us make better choices. They give us the strength to protect ourselves and each other in a world where some people use their power in self-serving ways.

But when we feel overwhelmed by a situation and aren’t sure what to do, there are also organizations that can help.

Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline:
1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453)

RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network):
1-800-656-HOPE. (1-800-656-4673)



    Sean McCollum
    Original Writer

    Editors & Producers

    Lisa Resnick
    Content Editor

    Kenny Neal
    Manager, Digital Education Resources


    Doug Cooney
    Subject Matter Expert


    Anderson, Andrea. “Shorewood High School holding forum to address taboo topics tied to musical.” Shorewood Now. (20 Mar. 2013) Web. 28 Sept. 2014.

    “School Editions.” Music Theater International. (n.d.). Web. 28 Sept. 2014.

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