“Do you think they’ll let us put the award in the trophy case?” student actor Seth Koproski asked Bonnie Dickinson, his theater teacher at Wilton High School, after a June 15 production of Voices in Conflict at the Public Theater in New York City. The award, for “Courage in Theatre,” came from Music Theatre International, and Wilton High (in Wilton, Connecticut) probably won’t display it alongside its basketball and soccer trophies.
Dickinson and her students won the prize for performing a play the school administration had specifically forbidden them to do. When principal Tim Canty looked at early drafts of the script of Voices in Conflict, which is based on letters, interviews and blog posts of soldiers in Iraq, he canceled the show, citing concerns about bias, plagiarism, insufficient context and potentially offensive material. Dickinson and her class started to work on a less controversial play.
But once the New York Times publicized the story, prominent First Amendment attorneys, anticensorship advocacy groups and some of New York’s most renowned theaters started calling. Dickinson and her students returned to Voices in Conflict, ultimately incorporating the story of the school’s cancellation into the script. By the end of its run, the sixteen young actors, ages 14 to 18, will have presented the play at the Vineyard Theatre, the Culture Project and the Public Theater, all in New York, and at the Fairfield Theatre Company in Fairfield, Connecticut.
Principal Canty claimed that the play might offend Wilton families “who had lost loved ones or who had individuals serving as we speak,” and worried that there wouldn’t be sufficient teaching and rehearsal time to insure “a legitimate instructional experience for our students.” Wilton junior Gabby Alessi-Friedlander, whose brother is serving in Iraq and who complained to Canty about the script, told Good Morning America, “I at least view educating people as presenting both sides to a story and not just reciting word for word all the negatives. I’m all for showing all the sides, but not just one.”
In response to these criticisms, the National Coalition Against Censorship reminded Wilton Schools superintendent Gary Richards that the use of “found text”–journal entries, letters, blog entries–for the production of theater is a well-accepted practice, used in works from My Name Is Rachel Corrie to The Laramie Project. The Stamford Advocate opined, “It’s not the job of a play to present all sides of any issue. Art often takes a position.” Critic Robert Fisk marshaled Shakespeare’s use of violence and gore as evidence that Voices in Conflict couldn’t possibly have gone afoul of mainstream theater’s norms. A New York Times letter writer pointed out that military recruiters at Wilton High don’t address “amputation, post-traumatic stress or death statistics.” Student actor Cameron Nadler, a junior, said, “Most of this cast can vote in the next election. If they don’t think we’re mature enough to do a play about Iraq, why should we vote?”