Students shift gears after school’s decision to nix their work

By Marcy Stamper

Students in the Liberty Bell High School drama class had to shift gears last week and choose a different play to perform this May after a school committee told them they couldn’t present their original play because of concerns, raised by a student and parents, about adult content and language.

Concerns were originally raised in the fall by a student in the drama class. After parents reviewed a revised script in February, parents of half the students in the class said they were not willing to have their children involved with the production, said Liberty Bell Principal Deborah DeKalb this week by email.

After discussion, an agreement was made to have the class complete writing the script but to discontinue the production plans, said DeKalb.

The 10 students in the class have spent the entire school year writing and rehearsing the play, developing characters through improvisation, and refining the script, said English teacher Kelly Grayum. They have also created original songs for the play. Grayum and drama club adviser Danbert Nobacon are team-teaching the class.

The play, entitled The Port in the Storm: A Comedy of Mixed Mating Strategies, started from a basic premise presented by Nobacon. He gave the students a setting (a bar in the Methow Valley) and a topic (science versus culture). The students improvised scenes and wrote dialogue, which Nobacon and Grayum helped them turn into a play.

The Port in the Storm explores evolutionary biology (the fact that some animals mate with as many partners as possible to maximize the survival of their genetic line) and looks at cultural expectations for humans through that lens.

The play is set in a bar at a moment of heightened tension, with wildfires threatening the valley and evacuation routes closed. Characters include scientists, locals and tourists, all unwinding from the stresses of the fire and their personal lives.

The characters exchange views about monogamy and multiple partners. They discuss their experiences in relationships, marriage and as parents, and their affairs and one-night stands. They also discuss scientific research and literature.

When Grayum and Nobacon told the students two weeks ago that their play had been nixed, the students were disappointed, said Grayum. “They put a lot of work into it and were pretty excited about it,” he said.

Moving on

Because students knew there had been concerns about the material since the fall, they were also relieved to have a decision and to move on with preparations for their culminating show, said Grayum.

“We didn’t have much choice because we already had dates booked at The Merc [Playhouse],” so the students immediately turned their attention to selecting a new play, said Grayum.

“I was super-excited about the kids and how they handled themselves throughout the whole process,” said Grayum. They exhibited all the qualities the school is cultivating — being creative, principled, and open-minded to everyone’s ideas, he said. “Even how they approached the aftermath of the play being pulled” was impressive, said Grayum.

The committee, which was convened after concerns were raised, included district curriculum and assessment directors, former drama coaches and representatives of the community theater, and the school’s music teacher, said DeKalb.

The committee told the students they had to choose an existing script, said Grayum. “They made it very clear, even if we had the time to do it, that it was not an option to write a new play,” he said.

The students rallied and selected Footloose, a musical about a small town that bans dancing and loud music, said Grayum. The decision is not official — they are still checking on permission and royalties — but the students have already started to work on the play, he said.

Many considered Footloose an apt choice because of the focus on the prohibition of music and dancing and one student’s battle to get the town to lift the ban, said Grayum.

“The kids are ready to get going, and they like the idea of Footloose,” said Grayum. “We have time, but it will be a lot of work.”

Nobacon said he hopes the issue will be debated because the committee said they didn’t want to offend community standards but had not defined those standards.

“That’s what drama is — it’s about troubles,” he said. “Drama is the perfect vehicle for kids to engage with issues while in high school, as they become adults. I’m not trying to offend people — I’m trying to engage students.”

Students surveyed

Throughout the process of creating The Port in the Storm, the teachers conducted anonymous surveys with all students to be sure they were comfortable with the play and wanted to keep going, said Grayum. Their responses led to editorial changes, but all students wanted to proceed. In the end, one student decided to withdraw and was going to do a scene from another play instead, he said.

Nobacon said the script was being edited to modify language, and that enabling students to be the “moral barometer” has been part of the process.

Only one student was interested in talking to the Methow Valley News about the situation, but that student could not be reached at press time.

Some former Liberty Bell students who were in the drama club Nobacon led the past two years did weigh in. Amalia Webber, who participated in writing and performing a play three years ago, acknowledged that The Port in the Storm has adult themes.

“Characters explore the meaning and importance of love, marriage, sex, monogamy, hormones and the natural stuff of human relationships,” she said in a submitted column about the decision to stop the play.

But Webber contended that the play was “no more ‘inappropriate’ than the blatant sexism that occurs in Shakespeare or the rape that we read about in Greek mythology; plays where women are bought and sold, where characters violently murder each other.”

“I’m not saying we shouldn’t learn from these materials, I’m saying to prohibit these students from performing would be to prohibit them from learning,” she wrote.

Looking ahead

The drama class will not be offered next year, said Grayum. He will offer an elective in philosophy.

The school plans to offer drama in the future. The administration will work closely with the drama adviser and will encourage students to write an original play or to perform an existing play, said DeKalb.

There is the possibility that The Port in the Storm will still get its world premiere, but as a community production, not a class or club affiliated with the school, said Grayum. Several students have expressed interest in being part of that, he said.

“I’m really proud — it was a lot of fun to go through this process. The students created something really unique, creative and wonderful,” said Grayum.

The drama club’s production — whatever play they settle on — will be at the Merc Playhouse in Twisp from May 12 through 15.