Letter: Arts Alive! would be wise to follow John Gray's advice


To the editor:

I read Paul Crosby’s letter to the Times about Arts Alive! elementary school Broadway revue, and the harsh ensuing attacks on him by parents, with interest. I thought I would share some thoughts on appropriate theatre in the schools from the perspective of having been the Barrington High School theatre director.  (Stagemasters).

I first directed a play for the high school in 2002 as a volunteer to send Barrington to the Drama Festival. I had chosen the play that I had been in at Classical 25 years earlier and we won the festival both in 1977 and then again in 2002. But John Gray, the principal of the high school, who we just named the high school auditorium for, was very involved in what would go on stage in his school. He went through the script line by line cutting out several including a line by a doctor who had just delivered a baby “damn he was a bloody little bastard.” I pointed out that the boy was not a bastard, but he told me that there would be students in the audience who would be and he was protecting them and I could not use the word. I did not agree, I thought high school students could take hearing the word bastard, but he was the boss, and I did as I was told.

No one who considers themselves an artistic person likes to be censored.  I know I didn’t. When I took the job as the director of Stagemasters in the fall of 2003, I was shocked to find that John Gray had a list of musicals we could not put on due to content. On it was one of my favorites, Once Upon A Mattress, which Arts Alive! did at the middle school this year, as John told me a female heroine was pregnant outside of marriage and that is the main theme of the play and did not want students or parents to think the schools supported that. Also on the list: Little Shop of Horrors, Les Miserables, Into the Woods, and the Robber Bridegroom (all Tony Award winners) I could only imagine  his displeasure if I had the audacity to suggest “La Cage aux Folles” Which along with “Hair” are the only 2 fully “R" rated musicals I know of. Yet 2 high school students just did that play as an approved senior project.

My last play for the high school was “Inherit the Wind”  based on the famous Scopes monkey trial of 1920s And Mr. Gray let me do the play, since it was part of the history curriculum. But he told me to expect trouble. I did not see how. The students learned this case in junior year.

But sure enough right after casting, a 15 year old girl, who was a good actress, came to me in tears telling me that she would have to quit the play because her parents said it conflicted with their creationist views.

I suppose, like many responders to Mr. Crosby’s letter, I could have responded by being defensive. I could say that their issues were ridiculous and that I had been careful not to offend anyone, which I had. But instead all I saw was that crying child who couldn’t be in her school play because I wanted to do a play that I was warned could be offensive. It was then I saw John Gray’s wisdom. That schools and school plays are supposed to be where everyone feels comfortable. He knew that there is a big difference in just reading a book and a child acting the same story on stage in a play. Schools need to be safe for all kids not just for the majority. John knew that the minority had to be protected. And in the end it doesn’t matter what I think or Dena or what most parents think is OK. Schools must protect that minority.

Perhaps that is why John Gray’s name is above the auditorium. But you have to ask, if John Gray felt that these plays were not suitable for high school students, what would he have thought about  nine year olds performing them. Perhaps everyone needs to back off Mr. Crosby and take a deep breath.

Joel Hellmann



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Wonderfully written and enlightening. It's interesting and sad, how only one other person has commented on your post - whereas a plethora of others just blindly were quick to cut down Mr. Crosby. There has to be way to voice ones opinion without being dragged to the guillotine in this town?

Many have said that Mr. Crosby should have said something sooner, but if he's like most other dads here in town he probably never had the chance to attend rehearsals or read through a script?

Tuesday, May 28, 2013 | Report this

I applaud Mr. Hellmann for his courage to express his opinion and offer his words of experience and wisdom on this subject - especially after witnessing the vicious attacks on Mr. Crosby after he voiced a similar opinion. I too was very surprised Mr. Hellmann did not receive the same harsh criticisms that were launched at Mr. Crosby. However, I attribute that to the fact that Mr. Hellmann is an authority on this as he was the Barrington High School theatre director. Thank you again Mr. Hellmann for being a voice of reason on this important matter.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013 | Report this

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A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.