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“Voices In Conflict” goes to the Public Theater April 12, 2007

Posted by Jeff in Drama in Wilton, Legit, Theater.

“Voices In Conflict” headed for the Public Theater

Canceled by Principal, Student Play Heads to Off Broadway

Students at a Connecticut high school whose principal canceled a play they were preparing on the Iraq war are now planning to perform the work in June in New York, at the Public Theater, a venerable Off Broadway institution, and at the Culture Project, which is known for staging politically provocative work. A third show at a Connecticut theater is also being discussed.

“We are so honored and thrilled, there’s no words to describe how excited we are,” Bonnie Dickinson, the teacher whose advanced theater class at Wilton High School put the play together, said yesterday.

After barring the scheduled performance of the play, a series of monologues mainly from soldiers titled “Voices in Conflict,” school officials have cleared the way for an off-campus production. In a letter Tuesday, Thomas B. Mooney, a lawyer for Wilton’s board of education, wrote that the district and its superintendent, Gary Richards “have no objection to students privately producing and presenting the play on their own.”

While defending the school’s initial decision to halt production pending “concerns about balance, content and copyright,” Mr. Mooney wrote that “school officials have no interest in interfering with the private activities of students.” The letter goes on to say that the teacher of the advanced theater class that initiated the project, Ms. Dickinson, could also participate in an independent production “as long as she makes clear that she is acting as an individual and that the play is not sponsored in any way by the Wilton Public Schools.”

In canceling the play last month, the school principal, Timothy H. Canty, cited concerns about political balance, sourcing, and the possibility of hurting Wilton residents “who had lost loved ones or who had individuals serving.”

But administrators have said in recent days that they might yet allow the play to be performed on school grounds in some modified form, but probably not this spring, when about half the 15 cast members are scheduled to graduate.

The Public Theater, which is tentatively scheduled to stage the show June 15, and the Culture Project, where it is slotted for the prior weekend, were among scores of off-campus venues, including church basements and college auditoriums, that offered the students a platform after the play’s cancellation.

“We started in the school, but we don’t have to finish in the school,” Devon Fontaine, 16, a cast member, said yesterday. “Wherever we do the play, I think we will all be happy and grateful that that venue has allowed us to do so.”

The students were also awarded a “Courage in Theater” award last month for their “non-performance” from Music Theater International, a New York agency that licenses many high school productions. And last week, theater greats including Edward Albee, Christopher Durang, John Weidman, Marsha Norman, Doug Wright, John Guare and John Patrick Shanley, under the auspices of the Dramatists Guild of America, joined the National Coalition Against Censorship in calling for the school district to allow the play to go on.

Martin Garbus, a First Amendment lawyer who has been working pro bono with Ms. Dickinson and several parents of cast members said yesterday that schools are allowed to regulate speech that has the potential to disrupt learning. But canceling the initial production only increased the likelihood that its eventual performance on school grounds might stir up trouble, he said. “Had the school not done any of this stuff, it would have just gone through uneventfully,” Mr. Garbus said.

Ms. Dickinson said the script was a work in progress, and that students would now be rushing to polish it and rehearse amid other spring concerns, like the prom.

“We’re looking forward to finishing writing the play or putting it together, as it were, and coming up with some kind of ending that feels right with the kids and then rehearsing it,” said Ms. Dickinson, adding that the show may be performed on-book, with the cast reading from scripts, to relieve anxiety about memorizing lines before their Off Broadway debut.

— Alison Leigh Cowan, New York Times, April 12, 2007

I am thrilled and not a little verklempt that Ms. Dickinson’s students are getting to see their play produced … and at the Public Theater, no less.

But I’m not in the last bit surprised. Ever since this story broke I had no doubt that the students could have found a venue for their production. But it will almost certainly not be performed at WHS.

How generous of the school district to give their students permission to do something on their own time. Canty’s offer to “let the play be performed in some modified form” on-campus is perhaps the most ludicrous statement from any Wilton school official to date on this issue — and that’s saying a lot. The town of Wilton is the biggest loser in all of this, and they will continue to lose so long as hacks like Canty and Richards continue in positions of authority.

I know Ms. Dickinson and the Theater Arts II class is very happy. And I’ll bet Joe Papp and Kurt Vonnegut are pleased, too.

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