21 Aug 2014
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Students Fight Back After School Shuts Down 'Rent'

Citing 'inappropriate content,' administrators nix spring play choice; Plainfield Central teens say decision sends an anti-gay message.

Students Fight Back After School Shuts Down 'Rent'

Editor's note: This article was written by Plainfield Editor Shannon Antinori. 

Some Plainfield High School - Central Campus students are speaking out after an administrative decision put an end to plans to stage a reworked version of “Rent.”

Senior Topher Otake, 17, said students learned Thursday that school administrators would not allow a production of “Rent: School Edition” to move forward for the spring 2013 musical.

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The show is based on Jonathan Larson’s Broadway hit — itself modeled after the opera "La Boheme" — about a group of struggling artists coping with poverty, AIDS and drug addiction.

Plainfield Central Principal Robert Smith did not return a message left by Patch, but District 202 Community Relations Director Tom Hernandez said administrators made the decision that the play “is inappropriate, based on some of its content.”

Otake said he believes the decision stems from the show’s focus on several main characters who are gay.

“The musical has had its many controversial topics watered down so that it could be rendered appropriate for high school students,” he said. “ … Whether they want to say it or not, that’s the message they are conveying.”

Otake, who is gay, called the decision “hypocritical” given the school district’s focus on themes like tolerance and acceptance.

But administrators cited other reasons for the decision.

“The [high school] version is indeed ‘reworked,’ but after reading the entire script some elements were still considered inappropriate,” Hernandez said Friday in an email. “For example: the show gets into drug use, disrespect for the law and sexual promiscuity, among other topics. While some of the profanity is toned down from the ‘official’ version, the rest of the script still caused significant enough concern to make this decision, which was not done lightly.”

PCHS senior Kayleen Brady said the high school version tones down the displays of affection between characters and does not explicitly portray drug use.

“There’s literally one drug reference and it’s the word ‘stash’ in a song,” she said, adding past PCHS performances have included sexual innuendo, and, in the case of "West Side Story," an attempted rape scene.

She also cited last spring’s “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” which featured a character who has an affair with a married man.

“In the past, we certainly covered all these issues,” Brady said. “There are a lot of sexual innuendoes in [‘How to Succeed’], but they’re all heterosexual, so we didn’t have to worry about it.”

Brady said she and other members of the PCHS theater community feel the district is sending an anti-homosexual message.

“It sends the message to us that homosexuality is wrong,” she said. “Even those of use who are not homosexual are deeply offended.”

Senior Teresa Bates said students were excited after director Alanna Frederiksen, who also serves as the school’s choir director, introduced the play to them at the start of the school year.

“As Ms. Frederiksen started talking to us about it, we really started seeing the meaning behind it,” she said, adding she believes “Rent” shares a message of acceptance.

“This is good for us and kids in our school,” she said.

“ … One parent said, ‘This is not a Girl Scout play,’” Bates added. “Yes, but neither was ‘West Side Story' when we did it."

Otake said he realizes the topic of homosexuality is a loaded one.

“It’s such a touchy subject, especially with the election coming up,” he said. “It was really exciting to have a show we could really sink our teeth into,” he added.

Another student, who asked that his name not be used, said he wasn’t surprised by the administration’s decision.

“I can’t say I wasn’t expecting it,” he said, adding that as an aspiring actor, he was hoping the show would be a learning experience. “I was just more or less disappointed.”

Otake said students have been emailing PCHS administrators to make a case for allowing the production of “Rent” to proceed.

Frederiksen, who was to direct the play, did not respond to a message from Patch on Friday.

Facebook page draws support

Hours after learning of the administration’s decision on Oct. 4, Otake said he launched a Facebook group to raise awareness of students’ efforts to get make the play happen.

Titled “Save Rent: School Edition, Save PCHS Arts,” the group quickly gained hundreds of members.

“I started it at 8:30 and invited 80 people,” Otake said. “I checked back 20 minutes later and there were 400 people.” By the end of the night, the number had climbed to 1,300 members.

As of Sunday night, there were more than 1,700.

“I was not expecting that many people,” Otake said. “People started sharing it with their friends and families and it started sort of a chain reaction.”

“I think it shows that people care, and that’s what’s important,” Bates said. 

‘Rent’ in high schools

Plainfield Central wouldn’t be the first high school to stage the “school” version of the play, which was first made available in 2007.

The website for theater licensing company Music Theatre International offers a description of the school edition: “This adaptation has been carefully done, working with the Larson estate to retain the dramatic intent of the groundbreaking rock musical, and consists of minimal changes to language and the removal of one song ... to make it possible for many schools to perform this piece.”

In 2009, a judge ruled that students in a Nevada high school could proceed with staging not only “Rent,” but also “The Laramie Project,” which deals with the murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard.

Last March, students in Massachusetts successfully lobbied the school board for permission to perform the school version of “Rent.”

What do you think? Should Plainfield Central students be allowed to perform a version of ‘Rent’? Tell us what you think in the comments. 

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