Like So Much Drama

It's a time of reckoning for the theater department at the Denver School of the Arts.

Act I, Scene I. The Drama Teacher: Enter stage left.

Stephen Nye doesn't mind a little drama. In fact, he welcomes it.

Nye, who has taught theater at the Denver School of the Arts for three years, didn't think twice about producing two medieval-era plays with strong Christian themes and language during the holiday season. After all, both plays, Everyman and The Second Shepherd's Play, are classics of their genres, and both are part of the Denver Public School District's classroom curriculum. "Everyman is referred to in our textbook as the most famous morality play, and it's studied as literature in classrooms across the city. It's the gem of an entire art genre," he says. "We study things as works of art, not as doctrine. It is what it is -- a play from a Christian society at which time the Catholic Church was a sponsor of art."

But not everyone was happy with Nye's choices, especially since they were scheduled to be performed in early December during the first few days of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. Mike and Nancy Flanagan, who have two children at the Denver School of the Arts, asked Nye in October whether he had considered that The Second Shepherd's Play, which is about the birth of Jesus, might not be a sensitive choice and might violate the separation of church and state.

"I said to Mr. Nye that I had no problem with studying it in the curriculum but that maybe he shouldn't do it now -- maybe in February, but just don't tie it to Christmas," Nancy Flanagan says. "But I truly don't think he grasped the question, and I left it alone. I never even brought up the other play, Everyman."

The Second Shepherd's Play was eventually dropped because of the students' lack of interest -- neither play is particularly exciting. But by then, someone -- not the Flanagans -- had called the Anti-Defamation League, and the ADL called the school and asked to see the scripts. The school then called the DPS legal department, which also asked to see the scripts, and Nye told his students there was the possibility that the play could be censored or killed.


Act I, Scene II. The Parents: Enter stage right.

Everyman was written by an unknown author sometime in the fifteenth century and has become a famous example of a genre known as the morality play, a style that uses symbolism and allegory to teach about moral struggle and Christian redemption. With only 900 lines, it gets to the point quickly. In the opening scene, God is angry that his people have become a little uppity, forgetting about values, forgetting about morals and focusing only on "fleshly lusts and treasure."

So God sends Death to find Everyman, who serves as a symbol for complacency, and force him to examine the choices he has made in his life as he prepares to meet his end. Along the way, Everyman realizes that his friends and relatives, his possessions, his knowledge, beauty, strength and discretion will all be useless to him on Judgment Day. Only his good deeds in life will speak for him when he faces God.

"I'm not bothered by the controversy," Nye says. "Good art illicits a response, and this is evidence of the connection that art makes in people's lives and of the urgency of art in the lives of our children. Now they are learning about some of the basic tenets of American life, about freedom and responsibility and censorship. The disturbing part is, what are the implications of censorship? Will the musicians be next? What about the artists and the creative writers?"

Nye told his students about the ADL and rallied them around the cause, encouraging them to take their feelings about censorship to a Denver Public Schools board meeting on November 4. The students did, and went even further by calling the ADL to complain.

During that week, rumors were rampant and accusations flew. The Flanagans, who had already dropped the matter themselves, were roundly, if mistakenly, criticized by parents and students. Rehearsal and preparation for the play -- which also involved students from the stagecraft and design and costume departments -- ceased. But Nye, who was publicly decrying the possible censorship of the play, was himself cutting out the parts of Everyman that he thought had the most religious content.


Act II, Scene I. The Lawyers: Enter stage left.

On November 8, Nye met with DPS lawyers, school principal Bob Johnston and others to show them that he had, in fact, cut out about 200 lines of the play.

"The lawyers had grave concerns and lots and lots of questions, but they felt I had made the appropriate cuts," he says. "They wanted to understand the reasons we had chosen the play." Nye says he removed the "most objectionable" sections, those that made overt references to worship and Christianity.

That night, the collaborative decision-making body for the school -- teachers, parents, administrators and community members -- held an emergency meeting. After two hours, they came to a general agreement, says chairwoman Vonda Smith, that the decision should be left to the administration of new superintendent Chip Zullinger and not to them. But they also said they would support the production if it was approved by Zullinger.

Neither Zullinger nor Johnston would take calls from Westword, but DPS spokesman Mark Stevens says, "I don't think anyone here would tell those kids what to do about their artistic expression. They just can't preach religion. People can't feel as if their tax dollars are going into a performance that would be or could be perceived to take a side."

"The problem with the play," adds Amy Hudson, also speaking for the DPS, "is that students can study any number of things in the classroom, but there is that educational context. The concern with the play is that people could walk in off the street and see that DPS is having the play Everyman without any context. We wanted more context so that people would see it as an academic pursuit."

As it stands now, the play will not be produced this semester because there is not enough time to do it. But Nye says he is planning a new version of Everyman for the spring semester called Everyman on Trial. "It would be a courtroom drama which would address the issue of censorship," he says. "The evidence would be a production of Everyman, and it would end with a public discussion of the issues. The lawyers were comfortable with that concept."


Act II, Scene II. The Students: Enter stage right.

For his part, Anti-Defamation League director Saul Rosenthal feels the entire sequence of events was blown out of proportion by everyone involved: the teachers, students, administrators and parents.

"We received a phone call two weeks ago from a relative of a student in the school, and she said to us that they are doing these two plays which may contain inappropriate religious content," he says. Although Rosenthal did call the school to ask for a copy of the script, he never actually talked to anyone and never planned to file any sort of complaint.

"The students start calling us and saying they are angry at us and that they were told that ADL is engaging in censorship and that we are going to sue," he says. "Then they go to the school board and do the same thing. All this time, Mr. Nye is not calling them off or giving them the right information, and we still hadn't even seen the play."

Rosenthal says his organization is interested in maintaining a clear separation of church and state but that he prefers to find a solution that everyone can agree on. "We don't sue anybody," he says, adding that he might not even have an issue with a medieval play like Everyman being performed in a public school.

Rather than Nye being a victim of censorship, the Flanagans and several other people who asked not to be named suggest that he used the students and the media to stage the entire drama at the school when it's possible that the play wouldn't have been cut at all. "There was no censorship going on," says Mike Flanagan. "We are about as anti-censorship people as you can find. This is an issue of an out-of-control drama instructor who got questioned by a DPS lawyer and fanned the flames immediately."

Works of art are cut for lots of reasons, including time and space, Nye says. "We are accustomed to it in the theater," he adds. "A case could be made either way about whether the integrity of the play was maintained. I certainly felt it was, and now it's in a version that will be better appreciated."

Exit. End Act Two.

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