Kastner Intermediate School principal bars students from seeing ‘Oliver.’ Why is overreaction part of the ‘Clovis Way of Life’?
In a head-scratching turn of events that might leave you wondering what century we’re living in, seventh and eighth grade students from Kastner Intermediate School were prohibited by their principal and area superintendent from attending a school show of “Oliver” on Friday because of concerns about “violence, alcohol use and thievery.” On the morning of the performance, a group of 166 ticketed attendees from Clovis Unified School District, including the Kastner students, didn’t show up as scheduled.
No one from the school district informed Children’s Musical Theaterworks, the producing organization, about the Friday cancellation, according to Judy Stene, its executive director.
“We’ve done this for 22 years,” Stene says of the school-show program. “We’ve never had an issue before. The teachers know the title in advance. It’s upsetting from the vantage point of the reputation of our theater company.”
The CMT show, which opened to general audiences on Dec. 2, wasn’t some new, explicit, souped-up version of the classic Broadway musical. It’s the same old “Oliver” that community theaters and schools have been performing for decades.
Joel C. Abels, founder of Children’s Musical Theaterworks, produced “Oliver” at Clovis North High School 10 years ago with full approval of the administration. “We had many elementary students in the production,” he says.
Based on the classic 19th century novel by Charles Dickens – but notably tamping down much of the book’s indictment of social inequalities and the squalid living conditions of London’s poorer citizens – the musical is filled with such tuneful songs as “Food, Glorious Food” and “Consider Yourself.” In 1968, the movie adaptation won a best picture Oscar. It was the last G-movie rated movie to win a Best Picture Oscar.
In addition, for the school shows, CMT toned down the language and diminished the depiction of violence while still keeping the integrity of the show.
The decision by Clovis Unified administrators to keep seventh and eighth graders from seeing the show – officials are careful to note it was not a district-wide ban – was the result of a series of events that began at Thursday’s school performance. Two large groups of first-grade students – one from Clovis Unified, the other from Central Unified School District – left the show in the middle of the second act of the performance. I confirmed with both school districts that classes left because of concerns about content.
Asked for comment, Clovis Unified spokesperson Kelly Avants told me: “Our elementary teachers at the show with their young students made a determination to leave after assessing that the themes of violence, alcohol use, and thievery were not appropriate for their young students. This was a decision made in the moment by teachers who are highly sensitive to what is age appropriate to their students. This decision is consistent with how we assess classroom content for age-appropriateness.”
Avants added: “I want to reiterate that we plan to continue our long and supportive relationship with CMT in the future.”
Why a first-grade teacher would sign up for such an outing is perplexing, but we’ll get to that in a bit. The immediate result was problematic in terms of audience etiquette, and the mass exodus was a blow to the actors, some of whom are elementary school students themselves.
More troubling is the way the Kastner middle-school students got caught up in the drama the next day.
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According to CMT staff, the first act at that Thursday performance felt different than a normal Children’s Musical Theaterworks performance, and not just because of the squirming kids. The adults in the audience at the Fresno Veterans Memorial Auditorium were the ones making a stir. The audience felt “strange,” one staff member told me. There were loud whispers and a strained atmosphere. At intermission, the tension grew as adult audience members – teachers and chaperones – gathered in the lobby. Rumors started to fly. One approached a CMT staff member and asked: “Is there a hanging? We heard there was a hanging.”
No hanging, they were told. But there are two murders. (Actually, Charles Dickens did write “Oliver Twist” with a hanging at the end, but the Broadway musical changed it to a gunshot.) The news was met with disdain, but everyone walked back into the auditorium.
In the second act, the group exodus began during the song “Reviewing the Situation,” not long after the drinking song “Oom Pah Pah” and a scene in which Nancy is slapped by her boyfriend, Bill Sykes. A group of 116 audience members, first graders from River Bluff Elementary School in the Central Unified School District, stood up at the direction of teachers and were herded out of the theater during the performance. Some of the kids could be heard complaining, “Why do we have to leave?”
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They were followed by 148 audience members from Fugman Elementary School in the Clovis Unified district, who seemed to take the lead from the River Bluff contingent.
A text message from an adult in the audience to a CMT staff member noted the complaints: “After seeing a kid locked in a coffin, learning about pickpocketing, seeing characters drink gin, and seeing a man slap his wife to the ground, we needed to leave before they saw the ending with a murder.”
At this point, the situation would have likely been resolved without much attention. It seems a fair argument that first graders aren’t old enough to be asked to sit through a two-hour musical, especially one with some of the darker themes contained in “Oliver.” Though the musical smooths over much of the roughness of the source material, there are drinking references. You can’t “pick a pocket or two” without stealing. Nancy gets beaten up by Bill Sykes, though the violence in the CMT production is much less graphic than what the average first-grader absorbs through streaming TV and video games. Two major characters are killed in the end, true to Dickens’ vision.
Teachers do know their classes, and it seems appropriate to give them the final say.
How the first-grade walkout led to the seventh- and eighth-grade cancellations is harder to figure – or justify, especially considering the ubiquitousness of “Oliver” in the popular culture for more than 60 years. It seems an example of a heavy-handed school district operating on a hair trigger, ready to quash anything and everything that might offer even a whiff of nuance, real-world impact or controversy.
“We have to stop school districts and other organizations from having blanket policies and knee-jerk reactions to cover their rears,” says Shannah Estep, director of “Oliver.”
“It’s fine to make recommendations and offer content warnings, but forbidding an entire group of students from attending a theater production, say, on the basis of a complaining voice, veers into the realm of censorship,” Estep adds. “Not allowing middle school children to attend a show that CUSD produced with the same kids a few years ago screams of hypocrisy.”
Notably, Central Unified administrators and teachers offered a more measured response to the dust-up. “There is no district-wide directive on ‘Oliver, “ spokesperson Gilbert Magallon told me in a statement. “We allow our school sites to decide whether or not to participate in performing arts showcases.”
Indeed, at Friday’s school performance, 81 students from Teague Elementary, from Central Unified, came to the show.
But none of the Clovis schools scheduled for Friday came, including Kastner.
“The decision at Kastner was made jointly by the principal and area superintendent for the reasons I’ve already shared. In addition, the typical parent permission slips used to grant permission for class instruction of a PG nature hadn’t been completed for this trip,” Avants said in response to my follow-up question.
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What are we left with? Clovis Unified should be embarrassed. Especially the principal at Kastner, May Moua, and area superintendent, Marc Hammack, for making a decision so over-the-top silly that it could be spoofed by late-night TV talk show hosts or in a satirical article for the Onion.
I’m also greatly disappointed in the first-grade teachers who signed up for “Oliver.”
Why would competent and prepared first grade teachers opt for such an outing if they didn’t know the subject matter? If you’ve graduated from college and don’t have any knowledge of a cultural touchstone like “Oliver Twist,” that isn’t great, but not doing any research on it beforehand is even worse. Shouldn’t students be prepared for such a field trip? I thought that was part of the pedagogical process. Or was this just a babysitting experience?
The part about audience etiquette bears mentioning as well. Think about the memories the children at Thursday’s school show will take away. Instead of humming “Be Back Soon,” they’ll remember getting forced to their feet during a performance and exiting en masse, while the performers onstage gamely struggled to keep their composure.
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Should CMT have been more proactive in making sure first graders don’t go to such shows? I’d say yes (though I’d also send you back to the issue of cultural literacy, above). The company should be over-communicating to schools the content of the shows involved.
The part that scares me is the sense that we are going backward in this country in terms of freedom of expression. One person’s “right” not to be offended, no matter how much in the minority and no matter the objection, can overrule everyone else.
And think of the ramifications. “Beauty and the Beast” includes a drinking song (“Gaston”), abuse (the Beast is rough with Beauty), violence (“Kill the beast!” the villagers cry) and murder (you don’t really think that Gaston survives that fall from the castle, do you)?
Or, have you ever checked out the plot of “Into the Woods”? Or “Crazy for You”?
The good news is that the Friday school show went very well, says Stene, the executive director, even without the Clovis contingent. Students from Sanger, Oakhurst, Riverdale and Coarsegold were in attendance. It was an older audience overall, Estep says. The kids loved it.
“It was a totally different experience,” Estep says. “The audience booed the villain, they cheered Oliver, they were more responsive and receptive. I felt so great for the cast.”
“Oliver” continues the final weekend of its run with performances at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday, at Fresno Veterans Memorial Auditorium.