A Christian school in Alberta recently contacted me to ask if they could cut certain words from their upcoming production of my play Schoolhouse, "simply to adhere to what our community prefers." I was pretty startled by this, as this play has been done in some of the most conservative communities in Canada without incident. Furthermore – although I've fought hard my whole life to reach out to those who think differently than I do – at the time when they wrote to me, the campaign (and eventual victory) of Donald Trump had made me viscerally alarmed for the future of social justice and artistic liberty in my own society. And, perhaps unfairly, I was mentally equating the kinds of people who would complain about the word "bastards" in a play set in rural 1938, with Trump supporters. In other words – to put it mildly – I was NOT in the mood.
On the other hand, this is exactly the kind of community where I most want the story of Schoolhouse to be told. And they were ethical enough to come to me rather than just trying to make their changes in secret. Moreover, when asking if they could substitute "buggers" for "bastards", they also said: "We are absolutely open to other alternatives if there are some." (At which I thought: my preferred "alternative" is for you to just do the darn play.) So, I gave them a choice. They could either bowdlerize the offending language, or else post a language warning, as well as the following letter. I strongly urged them toward the latter.
Hello, and welcome to Schoolhouse! I'm the playwright. From about 2002-2004, I read books, diaries, and archives, and interviewed the people of Cavan County about their experiences as students and teachers in one-room schools. This play is very closely based on those real people and their stories. The first production was, I'm honoured to say, a huge success. Since its premiere in 2006, Schoolhouse has been performed hundreds of times and seen by upwards of 25,000 people in schools, colleges, and theatres across Canada and the USA.
I have been told that some folks in your community will be bothered about the (few, isolated) uses of "h__l" and "b____d" in this play. I was kind of surprised by this, as there have never been any objections to the language in this play (including from several Christian academies): so rather than changing it, I thought I'd talk to you about why it is there.
1) Authenticity. Perhaps the primary goal of most playwrights (other than not boring you) is to tell the truth, as best we know how. In my play, one character at a Christmas concert uses the H-word at an especially unfortunate time. Like most of the episodes of my play, that actually happened. The fact that the man's language and behaviour were completely inappropriate is exactly why this incident stuck with witnesses fifty years later! If I softened his language, it would not only be dishonest, but it would also destroy the point of this scene... which is about how other grown-ups deal with an adult who is behaving boorishly around children. The few rough words of the few rough characters are not there for shock value: rather, they very much reflect their personalities, their situation, and their rural community in 1938.
2) Values. The central theme of Schoolhouse is about values. How do we transmit values to our children? How much does the school shape the community, and how much does the community shape the school? Audiences across this country have seen themselves in this narrative. They have heard, in Ewart's most objectionable words, the language of his suffering. They have watched Evie moving from disdain for a rural community to an almost painful level of empathy. These characters' stories invite our compassion... and challenge our moral priorities.
3) Cultural context. The words "h_ll" and "b____d" are mainstream in modern Canadian life, including in the kinds of texts that are studied in high school, from literature to current events. They are found dozens of times in the King James Bible. Shakespeare uses the word "h_ll" 160 times, and "b____d" 109. These words occur on a daily basis on the radio, in the most conservative newspapers, on the Internet, on primetime TV: they barely rate PG-13 in a movie theatre. However, if you are bothered by their use in a school context, please see under (4), Teachable Moments.
4) Teachable Moments. This play has been embraced by conservative as well as progressive, religious as well as secular communities, because it treats their values, and its characters, with respect. That being said, you don't necessarily have to like or accept everything that happens onstage, whether it's child-murder in Macbeth, or farm-boys swearing... and now you will have an opportunity to talk with your children about why. Just because someone says something onstage – whether it's Evie or Ewart or President Trump – it doesn't mean it's okay to say it in your home.
Over and over again, studies have shown that the arts are good for young people: they teach self-esteem, discipline, teamwork, creative problem-solving. Theatre in particular strengthens our abilities for quick thinking and resourcefulness, for courage, for understanding. In order for young people to engage with the arts, and with living writers, it is important for them to discover that you can have empathy and even love for characters who act in ways of which you do not approve. I also believe – and here we may disagree – that it's important for young people to address the ideas of artistic freedom and artistic truth; and to encounter the idea that you can engage with, and learn from, a writer's vision of the world, even if you don't share it.
I do hope that this addresses some of your concerns. I take note that your school's web site upholds the common values of Equity, Accountability, Collaboration, and Integrity... and I can assure you that those are my values, too. Speaking of accountability: I take full and personal responsibility for every word you hear onstage tonight, so if you are still angry about what you hear, please contact me through my web site at www.leannabrodie.com . That's the price of my freedom of speech... which has never felt more precious than it feels in these times.
Thank you so much... and now, I hope you enjoy the show!