After two days of auditions for the Carroll High School spring play in Indiana, the drama teacher gathered students on Friday morning, February 24, for an announcement from Principal Cleve Million. The principal then told the class that he had decided to cancel the upcoming production of Adam Szymkowicz's Marian, or The True Tale of Robin Hood. The reason: the show’s queer content of the play was becoming divisive.
Prior to auditioning, students were asked to fill out a consent form. The form asked students if they were comfortable playing a non-binary character and if they were comfortable playing a character in a same-sex relationship.
“This is going to be controversial, because we’re in Indiana,” thought 18-year-old senior Tristan Wasserman when he filled out his audition form. “But I was glad to see it,” he tells Playbill.
The comedic play is described by licensor Concord Theatricals as a "gender-bending, patriarchy-smashing ... new take" on the tale of Robin Hood. Szymkowicz's version of the story recasts Robin Hood as Maid Marian in disguise, leading a group of mostly non-male Merry Men. The work premiered via NYC's Flux Theatre Ensemble in 2017. Carroll High was set to do the teen edition of the play which, prior to auditions, had been approved by administrators.
Wasserman’s excitement to do the play quickly changed to anger during that morning meeting when Principal Million explained that he’d gotten a few concerned phone calls about the play. Wasserman was baffled that just a few phone calls would lead to the cancellation of Marian, and that Million made a decision based on what he was afraid might happen—that things might get out of hand and protesters might ruin the play.
News of the cancellation quickly spread. A petition was created (first anonymously but then handed over to Carroll Gay-Straight Alliance President Kaitlyn Gulley) on Change.org to gather support for the play and to possibly reverse the cancellation. Citing that “the play was called off due to ‘safety concerns for the students involved,'’’ the petition goes on to argue, “We need to show students that there is nothing wrong with being who they are unapologetically even in a world filled with hate for what it does not understand.” The petition, which now contains over 5,000 signatures, was presented to the North Allen County School Board at a public meeting February 27.
Several community members and students attended the meeting and spoke about the play, both in support and against the production of it.
One parent, who introduced herself as Angela, pointedly says that she has not heard from the school officially as to what prompted the decision, but that her comments are based on what she has heard from her son who auditioned, other parents, and the online petition. “It is my assumption and understanding that this production of Marian has been pulled because a handful of parents expressed concerns that there’s LGBTQ+ content and the administration didn’t want to subject the students to the criticism and scrutiny that could come their way if this production were to be allowed to go on.” She goes on to say she is not upset with the administration for wanting to keep students safe.
However, she believes the cancellation of the play was still damaging. “Now you have students who don’t feel like their voices or opinions matter,” she told the room. “Now you have kids who don’t feel they can express themselves, or have a healthy means to gain confidence.”
Science teacher Nathan Hartman also spoke to the board, requesting that they permit the production to continue. “As a school, as a community, we should not be simply caving to the demands of the most violent or intimidating among the community. If they continue to make threats and we give in to them and try to appease them, they won’t stop. It’s not going to stop with the school play. It’s going to continue. Do the right thing for our students,” Hartman urged.
While most of those who spoke at the board meeting encouraged the school board to overturn the principal’s cancellation, there were a small few who applauded the decision to cancel. An unnamed woman (who identified herself as a taxpayer, parent, alumni, and pastor’s wife) says that she believed homosexuality is a sin and “sexuality issues do not belong in school.”
Marian is not a play about sexuality. It is a play about Robin Hood. There are gay and non-binary characters, and while identities are expressed, Marian disguising herself as Robin Hood is more about gender equality than gender identity. Cognizant of its mature subject matter, Szymkowicz had written a teen version of the play, which is the version Carroll High School had licensed. “This play is actually kind of tame,” he says. “Adults are objecting about plays in which gay people exist.” Now in its first year available, the teen version of Marian has been licensed by 27 high schools.
One student who spoke at the board meeting stated that she was appalled, both as a student and as a “human being with a conscience.” She goes on: “It would provide some very needed queer representation in our school. This play would show that we not only acknowledge the existence of queer students, but that we care about them. It’s shameful that we can’t collectively be happy for queer students and instead a minority is attempting to ruin this activity for them.”
With increasing anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation around the country and a rash of school play cancellations, students’ safety should be a primary concern for school administrations. But what exactly does “safety” mean? Is it protecting one child from a bully? Is it protecting one child from exposure to themes a parent may think is inappropriate?
In this particular case, shouldn’t it mean giving a child a supportive space to be who they are? According to the Trevor Project, “Many LGBTQ youth lack access to affirming spaces, with only 55% of LGBTQ youth reporting that their school is LGBTQ-affirming and only 37% saying that their home is LGBTQ-affirming. Fewer than 1 in 3 transgender and nonbinary youth found their home to be gender-affirming and a little more than half (51%) found their school to be affirming.”
When talking to Playbill, Wasserman reveals that last year, Carroll High School presented Badger by Don Zolidis. The work is set in a WWII munitions factory in which the newly-employed female workforce faces deep-rooted sexism. The play features a budding romance between two female characters.
So, what made this year different? Was it the consent form that gave everyone a heads up? The calls to the principal, presumably from parents of students who felt uncomfortable with the queer content of the play, came immediately after the auditions.
The school board did ultimately uphold Million’s decision to cancel Marian. Playbill reached out to the superintendent of Northwest Allen County Schools, Wayne Barker, who provided a statement—which contradicts the claim that Million received phone calls from parents following auditions.
"The decisions to approve the play and to cancel the play were made by the high school principal without any prior knowledge by me or the Board of School Trustees. Simply, the principal was concerned about the disruption that was being caused between students who wanted to participate in the play. Rumors persist that the play was canceled because of parental complaints or threats made against students by outside people. This is simply not true. I did not receive one call about this play before Mr. Million called to tell me of his decision to cancel it.
"I will just reiterate that Mr. Million did what he felt was best for our students. He didn’t do this because of threats from others or the storyline of the play.
"He was concerned about how our students who wanted to participate in the play were treating each other. This is why I supported his decision."
It seems that absent any clear threat, both the principal and superintendent canceled Marian out of an overabundance of caution. With that explanation, it does still beg the question if cancelling was the right thing to do. One cannot conquer an obstacle if the obstacle is removed. If the idea of LGBTQIA+ characters in a play was causing division among the students, why could the play not have been a tool to teach the students about each other?
At the closing of the February 27 board meeting, when Barker announced that the board would uphold Million's decision, he states that the cancellation wasn't about caving into calls and it wasn't about excluding anyone. The decision was made, he reiterated, because it was becoming divisive among students. He lauded Million, saying, "He's a really good person. And he's a good leader. He cares greatly for his students." And there's no reason to believe that's untrue. Educators are faced with difficult decisions every day, especially in a political climate where things like queer content in a school play can quickly split an audience into house left and house right.
"We want all of our students to feel as sense of safety and a sense of belonging in our schools," said Barker at the closing of the board meeting. The unintended consequence, though, of this particular decision, seems to be the opposite.
When Playbill spoke to the individuals at Carroll High, a new play had not yet been selected—and the prevalent feeling was that there was no changing Million’s mind. But far from feeling safe, the students felt betrayed by the adults in the room. “I’ve heard some people suggest doing [Marian] at another venue,” says Wasserman. “But the problem isn’t the fact that we’re not allowed to do this play. The fact is that we weren’t allowed to do it at school. That’s the problem. The actions the administration have taken have shown that our school isn’t a safe place to truly express yourselves.”