How Censorship Wars are Impacting Theatre In Schools


The kooky, macabre musical The Addams Family was named the most-produced tuner on U.S. high school stages for the 2022-23 school year. But there will be at least one less mysterious and spooky production for next year’s tally since a Pennsylvania school board voted to cancel a 2024 production, citing the show’s “dark themes.”

Since 1938, the Educational Theatre Association (EdTA) has polled theatre educators to identify the most-produced musicals and plays, but its latest survey also measured the impact of a troubling resurgence of censorship. A whopping 67 percent of educators told EdTA they are weighing potential controversies when they make show selections—and with good reason. 

In recent years, a so-called “parents’ rights” movement has staked a claim in controlling the K-12 curriculum, leading to a surge of banned books and restrictions on performances. Florida’s House Bill 1069, which restricts media with sexual content, has even put Shakespeare’s oeuvre under scrutiny. Many lessons now only excerpt the Bard’s plays rather than teach them in full. As part of a counter-movement, the New York Public Library recently launched the Books for All initiative, making censored playscripts and musical libretti available online to teenagers nationwide.

The polarized political climate has only added to the backstage drama at high school theatre auditoriums, the latest arena for the culture wars. Parents and school board members are challenging show choices, requesting script changes, and outright canceling student productions with social or political themes, especially LGBTQ+ content. Last year, a Florida school gained traction on social media after canceling a production of Indecent, which centers on a queer Jewish romance. And last fall an Illinois school board canceled a production of The Prom, a musical about a group of Broadway actors who travel to a conservative town to help a lesbian student banned from bringing her girlfriend to the prom—though in response to uproar over the decision, the show will in fact go on this spring.

In Indiana, students took matters into their own hands, independently staging the gender-bending play Marian, or the True Tale of Robin Hood after a school canceled the production for its LGBTQ+ themes. An Ohio school requested 23 revisions before staging The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, removing explicit language and the mention of gay characters. A Texas school board canceled a school field trip in response to a social media post accusing a production of James and the Giant Peach that featured actors playing both male and female roles as being a form of “drag.”

This disheartening trend of censoring playscripts and productions coincides with an uptick in conservative legislation aiming to limit queer representation in the classroom. The ACLU is currently tracking a staggering 233 schools and education bills that directly target LGBTQ+ rights and expression.

This threat of censorship not only robs theatre kids of time in the limelight; it also deprives young students in the audience of the opportunity to witness different human experiences. It targets educators and their beliefs and impacts how—and what—they teach. These attacks also affect dramatists and composers, whose works are being amended and pulled from libraries and stages.

Censorship was a major theme of the 2023 EdTA conference in St. Pete Beach, Fla., where middle and high school theatre educators gathered last September. The programming included “The Courage to Produce,” two sessions curated by Jordan Stovall, the director of Outreach and Institutional Partnerships at the Dramatists Guild of America (DG), about navigating controversies and best practices for educators. The sessions were inspired by the Dramatists Legal Defense Fund’s “Dramatic Changes: A Toolkit for Producing Stage Works on College Campuses in Turbulent Times.” The following excerpt from a conversation between Jessica Lit, the DG’s director of business affairs, and Nadine Smith, co-founder and executive director of Equality Florida, has been edited for length and clarity.


JESSICA LIT: Welcome to “The Courage to Produce.” If you’re not familiar with the DG, we are a national trade association for playwrights, librettists, lyricists, and composers, and our mission is to aid dramatists in protecting the artistic and economic integrity of our work. Our sister organization, the DLDF, was created in 2011 to advocate and educate and provide resources in defense of the First Amendment. Since its inception, it’s been an active voice in supporting institutions which have been the targets of attacks on free speech, including the recent cancellation of Indecent at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts in Jacksonville, Fla. The DLDF also recently partnered with the EdTA to establish standards for protecting free expression when theatrical works are taught in educational institutions.

Today I am joined by the co-founder and executive director of Equality Florida, Nadine Smith. Equality Florida is Florida’s statewide civil rights organization dedicated to securing full equality for Florida’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer community. Would you like to talk a little bit about Equality Florida and introduce yourself?

Nadine Smith.

NADINE SMITH: Good morning. I live in St. Pete, and we founded Equality Florida when we realized that we were doing lots of local work, but this place called Tallahassee, out in the middle of nowhere, was where big decisions were being made that impacted our lives. Actually, we’ve been around for 27 years—formally in January of ’97, but we existed before then.

For decades, we held at bay all of the anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in Florida. But 20 years of increasingly extreme Republican control of every level of government has sort of metastasized with Trump and DeSantis. And so we saw in these last two years what began first and foremost as an attack on the transgender community, trans kids in particular, and we also saw a whitewashing of history—no more racist dog whistles; it is a foghorn. We’ve seen bodily autonomy attacked in every way, from abortion bans to banning access to medical care for the trans community, and a stripping away of rights.

One of the ways that’s shown up most visibly has been the banning of books and theatre. I think it’s important for people to understand that this isn’t some movement that has grown organically from concerns raised by parents. The Florida legislature wrote the law in such a way that any resident of the county, they don’t even have to be a parent, can get any book pulled off the shelf in Florida. It’s a de facto ban even when it’s not a technical ban—i.e., schools fear they are vulnerable to lawsuits if they don’t remove books preemptively.

We were talking earlier about, how often do you think of eras in American history, where we see these book bans, a clamping down on art? And what else usually arrives with that? We have to raise the alarm at how perilous this moment is, at how normalized things that should be not just abnormal but hideous to us have become. You know, when they banned The Life of Rosa Parks, we were like, “This is outrageous.” And now it’s like, yeah, there were just another 10,000 titles pulled off shelves.

I’m a Shakespearean actor, paid for it as well. In schools in Florida, they will not do Shakespeare because of how many gender-reversed roles there are in Shakespeare plays. So they will do excerpts.

jessica lit
Jessica Lit.

JESSICA: Thank you, Nadine. I’m going to introduce myself. I’m the director of business affairs for the DG, and I do a lot of advocacy work. I also help in creating resources for educators, and for our members, to help advocate for their rights in the industry.

We’re all here because we love theatre and its ability to bring people together to tell stories that may not have been told, to be a vehicle for change. We understand that censorship and cancellations aren’t new. They’ve been around for as long as stage plays have been around. But as Nadine has just talked about, there are new trends, and it’s not just angry voices. It’s legislation coming down from our local, our state, our federal governments that we need to start thinking about as we enter this new era.

Today there is proposed, pending, and passed legislation in many states. Nadine, you talked a little bit about the book banning that’s happening in Florida, but is there other legislation that theatre educators should be aware of as they move through this new time?

NADINE: Yeah, bans on drag queens or drag performances. The insinuation is that any time somebody is performing in drag, it is inappropriate for children to be present. So if you bring your child to a play like Twelfth Night, have you brought them to a drag show? Have you exposed them to a dangerous ideology that will play “tug of war” with their gender identity?

In Florida there was a program at a theatre in Orlando, similar to a drag Christmas. They ended up putting on tickets for the first time that no one under 18 was allowed. The governor insisted that law enforcement be present. They left the theatre and said nothing untoward occurred, nothing inappropriate. The governor went after their beverage license anyway, claiming that the language on the ticket was printed too small to be of value, and that even though there was nothing sexually inappropriate, the fact that there were people performing opposite of their gender was sufficient to pull their license. They only just settled with three businesses; one of them was Hamburger Mary’s. People are touting it as a win, but the chilling effect is very real.

The chilling effect is intentionally vague so that it casts a big shadow. The impulse is to go, “I don’t want any problems. I will do the least dangerous thing. I will do the thing that is so far from the line that I can’t get caught up even in their overzealous prosecution.” And slowly, the impact of that, not the actual letter of the law, begins to create the worst kind of censorship, which is self-censorship, where we don’t even permit ourselves to think things or pursue things because of a fear of what that vagueness might ensnare.

In the same way they say sunlight is the best disinfectant, ensure that anything which is vague is made concrete. Say to them: “Would you put in writing why this play is impermissible by law?” Six months from now, that could be the most important document in a lawsuit. Make them be explicit about why. And if you’re in a place where these restrictions aren’t being put and you’re not constrained by them, I would say, make sure that you’re building this into all of your performances.

It’s a time for courage. You might be that person in your school district, in your institution, along the chain who’s going to disrupt people sinking to the path of these resistances.

JESSICA: I think what you highlighted specifically is that schools are where kids are being introduced to ideas and cultures for the first time, and we shouldn’t shy away from introducing them to these cultures and different opinions and different viewpoints and different lifestyles because we’re afraid that they can’t handle it. If anyone can handle it, it’s young minds who haven’t been exposed to the discrimination, the hate, and all those things yet. This is actually a great segue to our next question for you.

Can you speak about the importance of addressing topics of queer identity, relationships, self-actualization in the classroom? We know that high school and middle school theatre is an entry point for many kids who identify with the LGBTQ+ community. 

NADINE: You know, I am 58. I know, I look good. [Laughter.] I remember being young, being fearful, and being homophobic to try to put people off the trail, especially playing basketball and softball. I had to throw out a lot of diversionary tactics, though not very effectively. So I understand how internalized homophobia shows up as bigotry in the world. And all of that is by way of saying that, I felt an extraordinary amount of isolation. And there are a lot of young people who do not survive that level of isolation. The suicide rate among LGBTQ+ young people is often talked about, but there’s also the homeless rate, the dropout rate, the self-medicating rate, when you have no place you can turn and the only places that you spend the majority of your time, which are school and home, are hostile environments—the world gets very small very fast.

Representation and visibility are literally life-saving. I want to ring the alarm bell so loudly. The dangerous normalization of these hideous laws has created a world in which young people are watching their favorite teachers who created safety for them leave the profession. They’re seeing empty spaces on bookshelves. All of the books are being taken out of classrooms because they haven’t gone through the approval process. Even donating books that reflect different experiences is no longer permitted.

For people who live in other states, start organizing. In Illinois, they passed a ban on book bans. It’s important that there be a countervailing message, and in places where you’re not having to fend off these attacks, go on the offensive and make a big deal. Vilify what’s happening in Florida and other states. We have to take it that seriously and not just wait until the wolf is at the door.

courage to produce edta conference
Nadine Smith and Jessica Lit at one of the “Courage to Produce” sessions at the EdTA conference last fall.

JESSICA: Thank you. I’m actually going to take a question out to those in the room. How many of you have faced challenges when you’re teaching or presenting works? Or had students come to you asking questions about the current legislative landscape that we’re living in? 

A show of hands indicates there are educators present that have experienced this. One educator in a Catholic school speaks on the particular challenges they faced with administration when attempting to cast a transgender child in a production, and navigating bringing works by different artists into the classroom. 

NADINE: The only purpose of this is to create moral panic. It’s a playbook, and it plays out again and again. Because we haven’t gone through the conciliation process required of our history, we have all of these unexamined and unresolved ways of dealing with difference in America that show up episodically as this massive backlash.

There’s a professor at Boston University named Stephen Prothero and he’s written several books. One of them is about this phenomenon. He says the backlash is a lagging indicator of how much progress we’ve made. The only reason they’re going after us is because young LGBTQ+ people are visible, do feel like they have a place in the world, are showing up as their full selves in school, are finding a support network among their teachers. And so, basically, he says, by the time the backlash arrives, the cultural tipping point has already come.

I think of it as a slingshot, where they are grabbing that slingshot and they’re walking us backwards. But what they don’t realize is they’re creating this dynamic tension that will leave their grip. We won’t just go back to where we were when they attacked. We’re going to propel forward into a world that looks much more like one that includes all of us.

Another educator speaks about the experience of dealing with community-wide controversy and issues with their administration over a production of To Kill a Mockingbird.

NADINE: I think we have to come out of the closet and tell these stories, share much more of how these things are happening. Every time we make them shut things down or we make them explain, we also are kind of showing this universe of people how to fight back.

One university in Florida was told they had to take down the university’s equity and inclusion policy. And what they did was they said, “Here’s our former diversity, equity, and inclusion policy. We have been ordered by the state to remove it. So we want you to know that this is no longer our diversity, equity, and inclusion policy.” Of course, then everybody read their diversity, equity, and inclusion policy. 

I’m saying we’ve got to be creative. I love that you keep taking it back to the students and saying, How do we tell this lesson that teaches them how to navigate? Coming up with these ideas and strategies that don’t put students in the position of, “Hey, I’m going to defend you, I’m going to risk it all to defend you,” which is one instinct, but rather, “You’re not powerless in the face of this. They can’t stop your voice. They can’t stop your TikTok. They can’t stop your message online. Here’s the phone call to PEN America, you may go to the Dramatist Legal Defense Fund, or here are the articles that have been written that can contextualize this. Here’s the background on these organizations that are systematically going after art.” By showing them these things, I think they’re going to emerge into society as people who don’t quietly capitulate. They want you to be fearful.

NADINE: Even though young people are experiencing these really ugly, fascistic impulses that are curtailing their rights, how you guide them in those moments may produce more of what we need in this world.

Another educator speaks on their experiences with censorship, community backlash, and having books and plays removed from their school’s library system after attempting to add them to the curriculum. 

NADINE: We started a group called Parenting with Pride precisely because [of issues like these]. One of the things I encourage is to be proactive and work with the PTA, work with the parents’ groups, work with the parents of the students in whatever you’re creating. And say, “Listen, I don’t know if you’re even watching these timelines, but this atmosphere has developed where one parent will complain on opening night, try and shut down all of the hard work of your kid, and we really need to be in this together.” Which is a thing you probably never would have had to do or think about, but in this atmosphere, we have to go on the offense and we have to engage parents so that it’s not a mom consciously defending the virtues of children from sinister forces.

JESSICA: I want to speak a little bit about the First Amendment. It is different in high schools and middle schools than it is on college campuses, because your students are minors. But the Supreme Court has said that students and teachers do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate. That is from Tinker v. Des Moines. It’s a well-established freedom in our country.

I want to encourage all of you to use your voices to speak up, because while there is limited academic freedom, school boards and school administrations have a wider discretion in determining what kinds of materials can be taught. Discretion does not mean that they can censor something because they’re hostile to the ideas that are presented. There has to be a legitimate educational purpose for why they are removing or moving something.

I’ll take the example of evolution. They may say, you know what, maybe fifth graders aren’t prepared to understand this concept so we’re going to move it to the eighth grade curriculum. That’s okay, but to say we’re not going to teach evolution because we don’t believe in evolution, we don’t understand evolution—that’s unacceptable.

Also, speaking about personal freedom as it relates to you as teachers: Nadine talked about organizing in your community, using your voice outside of schools. They can only really go after you if what you are doing outside of school is substantially and materially disrupting what’s happening in schools. So if you are going on your social media, you are organizing in your communities and creating protests outside of the school grounds or encouraging your students to do the same, you have that right under the First Amendment. I really want to make sure that you’re aware of that. Even though you are in a different situation with schools, it doesn’t mean that you’re now completely eradicated of your First Amendment rights. It’s something to really think about as you move forward.

And creating allies, not just with your parents and the kids, but within your community. One of the things that DLDF has done is rally people to attend school board meetings. Not just parents, but members of the community or people who care. Recently there was a cancellation of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in Ohio. We put out a statement, and many people attended a virtual school board meeting. The show went back on. It wasn’t parents that were even local to Ohio. It was people who care about theatre, people who care about seeing different points of views.

When these things happen, don’t think that you are isolated. Don’t think you’re alone. Think about the educators who are sitting here today. Think about the work that Equality Florida is doing. Come talk to us at the DG. We will do everything we can to help. We put out many statements, but we also have tried to help students find different venues to put a show on. There are resources available for you. Take advantage of them.

It’s a scary time, but the louder we can be, the better. 

To find out more about the Dramatists Guild, including the rights theatre writers have against censorship and cancellation of their work, visit www.dramatistsguild.com.

To find out more about the Dramatists Legal Defense Fund, find out how to support this work, or to reach out regarding additional resources including “Dramatic Changes: A Toolkit for Producing Stage Works on College Campuses in Turbulent Times,” visit www.thedldf.org.

To learn more about Equality Florida, find out how to support this work, or to reach out regarding additional resources, visit www.egfl.org.

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