High School Spamalot "Gay" Controversy Ends in Director's Firing as Pressure Mounts for School Officials

News   High School Spamalot "Gay" Controversy Ends in Director's Firing as Pressure Mounts for School Officials
The director who planned to stage a PA high school production of the Tony Award-winning musical Spamalot, which was canceled earlier this summer after school officials objected to "homosexual themes" in the script, has been fired.

Spamalot director Dawn Burch, who was not a full-time faculty member at South Williamsport Junior Senior High School, confirmed to Playbill.com that she received an email from South Williamsport Area School District superintendant Mark Stamm Sept. 19 informing her that her contract had been terminated due to "job performance."

Mr. Stamm did not respond to Playbill.com's request for comment regarding Burch's termination.

Prior to her Sept. 19 dismissal, Burch told Playbill.com that she had been working under new guidelines from the school, and that principal Smith had already approved her selection for the spring musical. Burch was also in rehearsals for the school's fall play Alice in Wonderland at the time of her firing.

The director's ouster is the latest event in the controversy that began earlier this summer after emails between Burch, superintendent Stamm and high school principal Jesse Smith became public through Right to Know requests.

In interviews with the press last July, both Stamm and Smith denied ever having approved Spamalot for production at the school. A statement sent by Stamm to Playbill.com on July 2, did not directly address questions as to whether scenes depicting gay characters in the musical were the reasons for the show's cancellation as Burch asserted. Emails released Aug. 21 showed school officials had, in fact, canceled the production due to issues with homosexual themes in the script, which were deemed inappropriate for community events with families in attendance.

Also among the documents released was a production contract for Spamalot, including a deposit for show materials, that had been signed and returned to the show's licensing company Theatrical Rights Worldwide, clearly countering statements by officials that the show was not approved for production.

"I am not comfortable with Spamalot and its homosexual themes for two main reasons," Smith wrote in an email to Burch. "Drama productions are supposed to be community events. They are supposed to be performances that families can attend. To me, this type of material makes it very hard for that to take place. I don't want families to be afraid of bringing small kids because of the content. I don't want members of the community staying home because they feel the material is too risqué or controversial."

He added, "I think that choosing productions with this type of material or productions that may be deemed controversial put students in a tough spot. I don't want students to have to choose between their own personal beliefs and whether or not to take part in a production. I think there are many plays/musicals you can choose from that don't rise to that level."

Read: Documents Reveal PA High School Canceled Spamalot Due to Gay Content

The controversy swiftly gained national media attention, with producer, administrator and writer Howard Sherman, who has served as the interim director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts since 2013, among those closely watching the situation and advocating in support of a more inclusive environment at the school. 

Academy Award-winning Wicked, Pippin and Godspell composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz, the President of the Dramatists Guild of America (the national organization that represents playwrights, composers and lyricists), also issued a scathing letter to Stamm and Smith on behalf of the organization "in strong and unequivocal protest of your discriminatory motivations for cancelling the show."

The Guild asserted that in cancelling the production, school officials "squander an opportunity for education by not only excluding so-called 'homosexual themes' from community discussion, but also by distinguishing between homophobia and discrimination against a particular gender, race, ethnicity or nationality."

The letter went on to ask whether the school would use the same logic to cancel a school production of The Diary of Anne Frank, so as not to offend Holocaust deniers, or those within the community who held anti-Semitic views. The Guild also states that in their decision not to stage Spamalot, school officials were catering to bigotry in order to avoid "controversy," which they "clearly failed on that account in rather dramatic fashion," citing the national media attention the story attracted since news broke in July.

The American Theatre Critics Association, along with the Educational Theatre Association, which represents over 100,000 student members and 5,000 theatre educators, also issued letters to school officials calling for a reversal in their decision to cancel Spamalot.

In its letter, the National Coalition Against Censorship stated, "Not only does the decision to cancel the play raise serious constitutional concerns, but it also sends a message of intolerance to the entire community that could, in addition, intimidate homosexual students, undermine their education and promote a discriminatory environment in school. "Every community is home to a diversity of opinions on moral, religious, and sexual questions. No matter how strong the views of some members of the community may be, though, they have no right to impose their views on others, or expect the public schools to reflect their beliefs at the expense of others. Cancelling Spamalot impermissibly privileges the beliefs of some individuals over others and is likely to make the district susceptible to many other complaints demanding the cancellation of plays and removal of books."

The New York Times, citing a report from The Sun-Gazette on Sept. 23, stated that community members had the opportunity to speak about the issue at a Sept. 22 board meeting.

Jim Dougherty, a parent with children in the school district, said, "I don't know Dawn Burch, I never met her. She may be a liar, I don't know. But what I do know is that the administration did lie and they did stretch the truth and as far as I can tell there has been no accountability for that.

"The way that this has been handled publicly is embarrassing to those of us who are members of this community. The national perception of our community is so narrow-minded and I want to know how we move forward and what can we, as members of the community, do to help?"

Superintendent Stamm acknowledged that a "period of healing" was needed and he hoped to move forward to "create an environment that is open and caring for every student and parent in our community."

Burch declined to comment if she planned to take action against school officials. Her husband Sam Burch, who was on the school's board, submitted his resignation Sept. 22.

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