By: Kate Lechtenberg
I’ve been a musical junkie since I was twelve, the age my daughter is now. My first love was Les Misérables, and hers was Hamilton, but recently we’ve bonded over Spring Awakening while watching NBC’s Rise. The ten-episode drama chronicles a fictional high school’s controversial production of Spring Awakening, the 2006 musical by Steven Sater and Dunan Sheik that embraces the joys, sorrows, and complexities of adolescent life, including sex, sexuality, rape and sexual abuse, abortion, and suicide. The show is based on German playwright Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play, which was originally banned in Germany, and the NBC series is based on Michael Sokolove’s 2013 book, Drama High, which tells the story of real-life high school theater director Lou Volpe of Levittown, Pennsylvania, who directed several controversial theatre productions.
I spend much of my professional life asking the questions that the characters are asking in Rise (which was cancelled after one season), and now that my daughter is twelve, my professional concerns collide with my parenting worries: What is “appropriate” for young people? How should schools and communities respond to “controversial” content and issues? How can teens and adults communicate about difficult topics? While my daughter is just one twelve-year-old whose opinions could never hope to represent the millions of diverse young people out there, the conversations we have help me move beyond a purely academic view. Here’s a peek into the talks we’ve had about Rise, Spring Awakening, and the tough topics that teens and adults work through every day.
Drama: Adult & teen decisions
Mother: So what was it like to watch Rise with your mom?
Daughter: Well, it was kind of annoying to be honest…you were always going on about “Mr. Mazzu is such a horrible teacher!” and blah, blah, blah, blah.
Mother: Well, he was a bad teacher! He wondered why his students didn’t find his class meaningful? Maybe he should have asked better questions than “Who is the protagonist of The Grapes of Wrath?” and What time period was the book set in?”
Daughter: True. I guess it was kinda fun to hear you vent and rant, so yeah.
Mother: I wasn’t the only one who did a lot of venting. I remember when we watched the season finale, we started listing all the characters we liked and the ones we didn’t, and at one point you said, “It’s basically all the adults who are messed up and the teenagers are good.”
Daughter: Yeah, the adults were making bad choices that reflected on the kids more than they thought. Like when the coach and Lilette’s mom had an affair, when Gwen [the coach’s daughter] found out she was really sad and depressed, and that affected some of the choices that she made.
Mother: And what about the adults involved with the play and their decisions? Like in the first episode, the principal fires Mr. Mazzu as the theater director and says they have stop doing Spring Awakening because of all the controversial content. He tells them to do The Pirates of Penzance instead, since the school already owns the costumes, but the episode ends with the teenage cast members and Tracey, the assistant director, having a bonfire with the Penzance costumes and insisting that Mr. Mazzu direct Spring Awakening.
Daughter: That was a little too much. That first episode was basically like a whole season in one episode–so much drama. If I was the principal I would have shut down the musical because they burned the school’s stuff.
Mother: I agree that it was too dramatic. I hated how adversarial and manipulative the relationship between the principal and the theater director was–that’s definitely not how I think a theater director should approach things if they want to do a show like Spring Awakening that has mature content. I think Mr. Mazzu should have been honest about how complex the show is with the principal from the start–then maybe they could have worked together to talk about how to approach the show with the community, instead of having everyone get mad about it after the show was already in rehearsals.
Inappropriate, uncomfortable, and awkward
Daughter: I think that the director should have been prepared to have the school board say no. They’re not gonna let him do a show about sex, dad/daughter stuff [sexual abuse], whipping people, abortion, suicide, self-harm, etc….things that nobody wants to talk about. I don’t think that Spring Awakening is appropriate for any high school just because of the sex scenes that happen between two of the most important people in the whole play.
Mother: What do you think “appropriate” means?
Daughter: I think it means safe for kids eight and up…that’s kind of the border between being a clueless little kid and actually realizing what’s happening in the world around them. If it’s not appropriate for kids eight or nine then it’s not appropriate for the entire audience and for little younger kids to see.
Mother: I see what you’re saying, but I think it’s hard to set clear age distinctions that work for everybody.
Daughter: I know that these are things that happen in real life but that doesn’t mean that you have to show them to little kids. Parents do NOT want to talk about sex after the performance is over. And honestly, no kid wants to see that kind of stuff or talk about it because it’s very uncomfortable to talk about for most kids.
Mother: I don’t know…I think lots of parents want to talk about these things with their kids, but aren’t always sure how to. Don’t you think it’s good to talk about things that make us uncomfortable sometimes? I mean, we talk about uncomfortable things sometimes, and I kinda feel like it’s my job as a mom to have tough conversations with you. Watching Rise has actually helped us do that.
Daughter: Yes, but at a certain age. And you’re my mom, so you know the line for me. I know I’m kind of unreasonable when I get all awkward and say sex is gross and you say, “It’s a part of human life!” But honestly, I’d rather be like Jane the Virgin.
Mother: I’m fine with that right now 🙂 And talking to you about all this is really good for me, too. I think about issues like this in my work a lot, and in general, I always advocate talking about “controversial” issues, avoiding censorship, and embracing complexity. But talking to you reminds me–
Daughter: –that I’m a twelve-year-old kid who is very uncomfortable with sex and stuff like that? Yeah. Awkward!
Mother: Right. I forget sometimes that even though I strongly believe in the principles of intellectual freedom, it means some really new and complex thinking and talking for my own daughter.
Should the show go on?
Mother: So you said you don’t think Spring Awakening is appropriate for high schools. But actually, high schools have performed it across the country, from New York to Wisconsin to Florida, where survivors of the Parkland school shooting have recently performed in a local community production. Would you want to go see the musical?
Daughter: Yes…but I would probably close my eyes in the sex scene.
Mother: But think a high school never should do Spring Awakening in the first place?
Daughter: They should have done Hamilton! That would have been a way smarter choice!
Mother: Well, I don’t think that’s being performed by high schools yet. Plus, Hamilton has explicit language, sex, and violence too. So, what about other solutions, instead of canceling the show? What did you think about the principal’s suggestion to replace words and scenes with “family friendly” content? Like when they changed the song “Totally Fucked” to “Totally Hosed” or they changed the sexual abuse to the dad just yelling really loudly at his daughter?
Daughter: That was dumb. And that’s not a good idea because technically it’s copyrighted, right? They could get sued for that, right?
Mother: See, you did learn something from my rantings! Yes, changing the language or content of a play can be a violation of the contract that schools sign when they obtain a license to perform a show. This has been an issue with other shows, like Ragtime, a show that has several racial slurs. What about other options, like preparing the school and community with discussions about the complex content and being clear with parents about what is in the show so they know whether it’s right for their kids to attend or to be in?
Daughter: I guess, but then people might make petitions to stop the show like the conservative Christian dad did in Rise. But I guess that started after one of the students made that sexy promo video to sell more tickets.
Mother: Right–that’s another example of letting rumors get out instead of dealing with controversy up front. If the director had started the conversations before they started rehearsals, maybe people could have focused on making good choices for themselves rather than getting all scared and angry. I would choose to take you to it if you wanted to go, but some other parents might choose to stay away.
Daughter: Yeah, I’d want to go. And like I said, you know the line for me, and other people can decide for their own kids.
Mother: Spoken like a future intellectual freedom fighter! You always make me think, and I hope you know how much I love you.
Daughter: ily too 🙂
Kate Lechtenberg is a doctoral student in Language, Literacy, and Culture in the University of Iowa’s College of Education. After working in public schools for fourteen years as a high school English teacher and school librarian, her doctoral research now focuses on text selection, multicultural literature, educational standards, and equity initiatives. Kate teaches a young adult literature course in the College of Education and a school librarian course on print and digital collection management in the School of Library and Information Science. She is also a member of the AASL Standards Implementation Task Force. Find her on Twitter @katelechtenberg.