Jan. 19, 2005 - The curtain fell prematurely on a student play at Ironwood Ridge High School recently after school administrators determined that the show was too violent and vulgar to be presented to the community.
But students involved with the production said they tried to minimize objectionable content in the play in order to get it to the stage, and are upset that, in the end, the show will not go on.
"I was shocked," said Zachary Singer, the student director of "Cannibal! The Musical," after hearing the play would be canceled and replaced with another show, to be performed at the beginning of March.
That is because, Singer said, he went out of his way to accommodate the administration by adapting the play to make it "more appropriate" for a high school audience, which included editing out profanities and finding ways to artistically present violent scenes.
But IRHS principal Sam McClung said if this play had a rating, it would be "R," and that allowing the production to continue had to be weighed against community standards. After all, he said, the play is not just for a high school audience, but would be performed for the entire community, which also includes little brothers and sisters and retired grandmothers and grandfathers, who would not expect to see this kind of content performed from a school stage.
"Cannibal! the Musical" was written by Trey Parker, co-creator of the popular Comedy Central cable network cartoon "South Park" and the 2004 movie "Team America: World Police," when he was in college. "Cannibal" was Parker's first feature-length film, and it developed a cult following, particularly among high school and college crowds. It debuted in theaters in 1998.
The musical is based on a true story. It follows Alferd G. Packer as he and a group of five men head west seeking gold in 1874.
According to several Colorado libraries, the group became lost in the wilderness of the Rocky Mountain state during the winter and Packer was the only one who eventually emerged. When body parts of the other group members were later found near Lake Fork Gunnison, Packer became the first person in American history convicted of cannibalism.
The musical is not the only medium to depict "The Man-eater." In 1964, poet Phillip Ochs wrote "The Ballad of Alferd Packer" and Colorado has the Alferd Packer Memorial Grill, The Alferd Packer Massacre site and the Hinsdale County Museum, all set up to preserve the infamous character.
Stage productions of the play have been attracting audiences all over the world for the past few years, with the most recent version opening in Rome.
There is no official stage version of "Cannibal!" however, and so anyone wishing to perform it has to adapt the script and put it down on paper themselves.
Which is part of what attracted Singer to take on the task of securing the rights, adapting the play and being a student director.
The sophomore aspires to be a film maker when he graduates, and is already making his own amateur movies, currently filming one about outlaws at Old Tucson studios.
But when Singer committed to "Cannibal!" he also took on the additional project of changing it so it would be more appropriate for the high school stage, after being asked by his drama teacher, Joseph Borunda, to do so, as to avoid controversy. He said he took out any profanities and material he knew would be questionable for a high school audience.
Lines in the script such as "Hang the bastard!" were changed to "Hang the butcher."
Violence also was adapted. For example, "Cannibal" opens with a scene where the audience sees the main character, Alfred Packer, dining on an assortment of human body parts.
Singer said he knew this could be too graphic for the tastes of some, and so devised a setting where the scene would be played from behind a screen, with lights shining from the back of the stage, so that it would be viewed by the audience only as shadows, with no obvious blood and guts visible.
When he brought the script back to Borunda, he was asked to make additional edits, to err on the safe side, which included changing phrases such as "oh god" to "oh gee."
But the changes were not enough to appease the powers that be, and Singer and the cast were told by their teacher that they would have to present some excerpts to members of the administration "to make sure it's school appropriate."
"They were basically concerned because a parent called. Our school has never asked us to preview plays before, as far as I know," said Singer.
He said he knew of only one parent who had called with concerns over the production, and thought the issue had to do with the perception that the play was mocking a serious historic event.
"But a lot of theater is parody," Singer said. "We're taking this very seriously, though. We really want to do this."
He said it was his understanding that the parent had never seen the play and knew little of the actual content.
In December, after just more than a week of rehearsing the play, the cast got word that it would need to perform some of the racier excerpts of the play for a "focus group" of IRHS employees.
Representatives of the EXPLORER had asked Borunda for permission to attend that rehearsal, signed in at the main office upon arrival at the school and donned press passes for clear identification once on school grounds.
At the rehearsal, however, Assistant Principal Michael Brown, one of the administrators reviewing the play, told the EXPLORER it was not allowed to be present on school grounds unless approved specifically by building administration, regardless of whether it had been OK'd by a teacher.
The EXPLORER was asked to leave the rehearsal unless its reporter consented to not publish anything until the administration decided whether the show could be performed and also agreed that reporters would get the approval of the administration before running any article or photograph.
The reporter and photographer chose to leave rather than accept those terms.
Brown said a group of IRHS employees was reviewing the play at the rehearsal to decide whether the students would be permitted to continue with the production. There were about 25 people present at that rehearsal, fewer than 10 of which were adults.
"This play is extremely controversial," Brown told the reporter at the rehearsal. "You wouldn't believe how many calls we've gotten on this."
Student Claire Horton took part in the rehearsal and said students were asked to perform their song or scene and then wait backstage, no questions asked.
"They told us there might be certain scenes that could be censored, or changed," she said.
When everyone was finished performing, Horton said all the students were called back into the auditorium where only Brown and Assistant Principal Mike Szolowicz still waited. They were told they had done a "good job" but were told nothing about whether the play would be allowed to continue.
"Mr. Brown said he had a daughter and she really loves theater, and that he was rooting for us," she said.
A few weeks after that rehearsal, the cast members were informed by their teacher that they would not be allowed to continue the play at school.
According to Singer, the students were not told anything about the specifics of the decision, only that, "Oro Valley isn't ready for it."
Sharon Singer, Zack Singer's mother, spoke to the EXPLORER about the news of the musical's cancellation as a mother who is "totally against censorship." Singer also is a teacher at the high school, and made it clear she was not representing the school or the district in expressing her opinions.
She said stopping this production and replacing it with another without a clear explanation to the students about why is unacceptable.
"Now, instead, they are doing a play about infidelity, violence and accusations of witchcraft, it's called "The Crucible," Sharon Singer said about the school's choice of a replacement production. "I mean if we are talking about content, every play will have something that somebody finds offensive."
She said she is upset that her children put time and effort into the production, only to have it canceled, and no one benefits when theater is censored. Her daughter, Caitlin Singer, is also in the cast.
"It's like a goofy, silly show," she said. "People said, 'Would you bring your child to it?' It's a high school, these aren't young children."
McClung said he does not review every play, book, music selection or other art form presented in the school, whether it is limited to the classroom, or open to the public.
He said he relies on a teacher's professionalism to determine the "appropriateness" of material.
"But when something comes to my attention as being possibly controversial, we must listen and determine whether it is a squeaky wheel or whether it is a reflection of the community standards," he said. He would not allow one person's concerns to "dominate the forum," however, he said if those objections are largely held by the community, the school would likely listen.
He said in cases where the school is reviewing material, such as a book to be taught in an English class, community involvement can be extensive, but when an issue arises with material that is already on the table, such as in the case of "Cannibal!" the administration has to move quickly to review it. He said the focus group that was formed in this situation included a small number of teachers and parents, as well as Brown.
McClung admits community standards are difficult to measure, and they aren't written down anywhere for a student or teacher to reference.
However, he said that with the broad choice of material available for performance and review he expects teachers to "understand what fits into the community standards and what is acceptable."
McClung was not part of the focus group and its decision, but said his door has been open if any student has wanted to discuss the decision of the administration regarding "Cannibal!" To date, he said, no one has approached him with objections.
Sharon Singer, who also was present at the rehearsal, said she takes exception to referring to the screening group as a "focus group" when it included only Brown, Szolowicz, Brown's secretary Jeanne Deinert, and three school library employees.
She said if the school really wants to get an idea for how the community feels about something, it should include parents of high school students, those with diverse religious and cultural backgrounds, together to view the play.
Mclung said the school tries to involve as many people as time will allow in these situations, and that students, too, "always have a voice in the development of the community standards."
However, he said, there comes a point when "it's going to have to be the adults - parents and teachers - that need to say, we hear your perspective, but we can't agree."
The school does not have a written policy to guide students, or teachers, in the selection of a play, however, McClung said there is a district policy regarding videos and movies that he said could be similarly applied to other media.
The policy states that movies with G, PG and PG-13 ratings can be shown at a high school, but those with R ratings require notice to parents and an option for an alternative assignment if parents choose to have their child not participate. The movie version of "Cannibal!" is rated R by the Movie Picture Association of America.
However, McClung reiterated that a play viewed by the public would have to meet the additional criteria of being acceptable to the community.
Amphitheater Governing Board Member Nancy Young Wright said that while the school board is not involved in this issue at this point, students and parents always have an audience with the board members.
From what she knows about the situation, she said it seemed to her the school had followed a fair process and she would support the decision.
Young Wright said the board received a letter from a concerned parent just before the winter holiday who felt the play had some material that is "derogatory toward Latter Day Saints."
"If that's the case, it's problematic," she said. "I can understand why the play has generated some controversy." Young Wright said she had not viewed or read the play and could not comment about whether she felt it was appropriate.
She said she is not a First Amendment absolutist, and believes that at a public high school, there are things that are not acceptable and that it often does come down to what the school's community finds appropriate.
"I am a person who certainly believes in freedom of speech," she said. "But there are less appropriate places to exercise that right." She said a solution might be to find a different venue for the students to perform the play.
With the decision to censor the play, those involved with the original productions of "Cannibal!" have rallied around Zack Singer and company.
Jason McHugh, one of the producers of the film version of "Cannibal!" who now runs New Cannibal Society, in charge of licensing the rights to the production, is among those in support of the cast.
McHugh said this is the first time the production has drawn genuine protest (a protest staged by the show's creators occurred in Boudler, Colo., at the film's premiere, to draw attention to the event).
"Zack went out of his way to edit this play so that it was high school friendly and the fact that his production is being forced off campus is an outrage," he said.
McHugh said there has been a lot of interest from college and high school students in the play, particularly since the popularity of South Park and other Parker and Matt Stone creations, have gained popularity.
"It's very historically accurate, yet very campy and over the top," McHugh said in describing the content and the kind of humor typical in the show.
McHugh, the actor who played Frank Miller in the movie, explained that "Cannibal!" was written as was a sort of ode to two of Parker's favorite films, "Oklahoma!" and "Friday the 13th" part two.
McHugh admits there is profanity and some violence, but "no more than is found on T.V."
He said the film is "much more innocent" than some of the other work of Parker that may be more familiar to people. He said it would be unfair to judge this musical based on experience with other "edgier" material from the same writers.
"Cannibal existed before South Park. It's fairly wholesome," McHugh said.
Zack Singer and company are the first high school group to make it to the production phase with "Cannibal!" They also are the very first group to have the play censored or blocked from performance, as far as McHugh knows.
Lisa Gardner adapted and produced the New York City stage version of "Cannibal!" in 2001, and wrote a letter to Brown in December, asking him not to end the IRHS production.
Gardner was a high school English teacher in Ohio before moving to New York, and said she is uniquely qualified to understand the positions of "concerned parents and rebellious teenagers" and the school.
In the letter, Gardner describes the show as "a sweet, innocent tale of a lovable goof who just wants to get his horse back" and that the show's characters are not "self-consciously cynical or sexual in any way."
One of the show's musical numbers, "When I Was on Top of You," was singled out to be viewed by the IRHS focus group. However, Gardener, McHugh and the Singers insist that despite what some may read into it, the song is sung genuinely by Packer about his beloved horse.
According to the show's official Web site, Packer sings in the chorus of the song, "Your eyes, your smile/Made my little life worthwhile. There was nothing I couldn't do/ When I was on top of you."
Gardener also argues, in the letter, that what profanity is in the play has been "sanitized" by Singer and that what violence is included should be measured against other types of violence encountered by high school students on a regular basis.
"Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" contains far more graphic sex and violence then "Cannibal." Yet, parents never balk at their teens learning the story of two 14-year-olds who defy their parents, get married and consummate the relationship, and the half-dozen or so murder/suicides which result," she wrote.
Putting the kibosh on student productions is not all that uncommon. A 2003 article in the Detroit Free Press tells the tale of a production of "Footloose," a musical about kids who challenge a small town's ban on dancing, which raised objections about how appropriate it might be for high school audiences because of offensive language and sexual innuendo.
An earlier article in the St. Petersburg Times reports that the lights were dimmed on a high school production of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," made more familiar to audiences by the film "Dangerous Liaisons," for similar reasons.
According to the Freedom Forum, more than a dozen such cases involving student plays, art and other activities have been reported during the past 15 years.
Angie Polizzi, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Phoenix, said school plays are lumped with a number of other "official school activities" under the law when it comes to the ability of the school administration to censor.
She said art exhibits, some newspapers, yearbooks and plays are among those activities affected by the Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier decision of 1988, in which the United States Supreme Court ruled that administrators at a St. Louis, Mo. high school could censor articles in a school-sponsored student newspaper, which dealt with issues of teen pregnancy and the affects of divorce on children.
"Unfortunately, school administrators can censor these things, if they are inappropriate or harmful, even if they are not vulgar," Polizzi said.
However, she added that this ruling does not give administrators carte blanche to censor arbitrarily.
"They have to be careful," Polizzi said. "Their decision isn't the law. If students don't agree with what has happened, they can always challenge it in court. It's very subjective."
While the Singers haven't yet discussed the possibility of taking this to the courts, Zack Singer said he still intends to stage this production, and if the school won't allow it, he will take it elsewhere. He is looking into other possible community venues.
"I will put it on, even if we have to rent a space," he said. "Right now, it's about getting it done."