FORT KENT, Maine — Despite a protest over play content lodged by a rival school, Fort Kent Community High School is still the winner of a regional drama festival and will represent northern Maine Class B schools in the state drama festival next month.
The Fort Kent club — on its way to a sixth consecutive regional victory — performed the one-act play “Prelude to a Kiss” by Craig Lucas. One of the competing schools alleged the play contained inappropriate sexual and homosexual content and material.
Washburn District High School challenged the play’s content that evening.
A second complaint focusing on the rules governing alerting audiences of mature or controversial content in festival scripts was made Monday by Easton Junior-Senior High School to the Maine Principals’ Association, which sanctions the statewide drama festival, according to Gerald Durgin, MPA assistant executive director and liaison to the Maine Drama Council.
According to Doug Clapp, Fort Kent’s drama coach, he received notice that Washburn high school’s director had lodged a complaint with festival officials soon after the Fort Kent performers left the stage Saturday night at the Caribou Performing Arts Center.
Clapp said the only portion of the play he could see that might have sparked the content challenge was a scene in which two male characters hug.
“The play has no homosexual content,” he said. “Unless you call a man hugging another man homosexual.”
On Tuesday, Ron Ericson, vice principal at Washburn District High School, declined to comment. Messages left for Robin Thurston, faculty director of the school’s one-act play, were not returned.
On Monday, a second letter of complaint was received by the Maine Principals’ Association challenging the content of the Fort Kent production, according to Durgin.
The letter from Easton Junior-Senior High School expressed concern over the play’s sexual content and language inappropriate for a family performance, according to Durgin.
Easton High School Principal Cameron Adams said on Wednesday afternoon that he had discussed the complaint filed by his school’s drama coach, Debbie Rooney, and that she indicated her complaint had more to do with procedure than content.
“She told me she was looking for clarification” on the Maine Drama Council competition rule covering content which could be viewed as controversial or offensive, Adams said.
Under that rule, notes may be included in the festival’s program alerting the audience to content in a play that may be construed as offensive. This was not done in the case of the Fort Kent production and, according to Adams, his drama coach felt it should be done for all schools or not at all.
“I talked to Debbie and she was in no way challenging Fort Kent’s win,” Adams said. “She thought the kids did a great job.”
Easton’s students performed “Oddball” by Lindsay Price, while the Washburn team presented an original play written by its students, “Heinz’s Wheel of Doom.”
“A lot of people were saying really good things about our performance that night,” Clapp said Tuesday night during a rehearsal. “We felt really good about it.”
That feeling began to evaporate, he said, about 15 minutes later when he was informed by Joe Zubrick, festival host, that a competing school was taking issue with the play’s content.
“I said, ‘For what?’” Clapp said. “Joe [Zubrick] said something along the lines it was about content and they thought our play was offending the morals of the community.”
Maine Drama Council rules stipulate that “script selections should be reflective of the maturity level of the performers and in keeping with the family-type audience that is usually in attendance. Directors and principals must be sensitive to the appropriateness of their script choices, particularly when another host school is providing your venue,” according to its published guidelines.
“In my 20 years of doing this, I have never seen a team disqualified for content of their play,” Clapp said. “I have seen penalties handed down for violating time limits or similar infractions.”
Moreover, each school’s selected script is vetted by their principals, Clapp added.
Once Washburn’s complaint was lodged, Clapp said, there was a scramble to find suitable officials to adjudicate the matter given the members of the Maine Drama Council were spread among eight competition sites across the state on Saturday and the representative at the Caribou site was not eligible to make a final decision on the challenge.
“Only a school principal could do that,” Clapp said. “The [Maine Drama Council] rep in Caribou was not a principal.”
By Sunday, Clapp said he had heard from both the Maine Principals’ Association and from the Maine Drama Council that the Fort Kent win was upheld and the performance was not being disqualified based on the play’s content.
“What I ascertained from the judges [at the Caribou site] is I believe the content issue could have been avoided by adding something in the [festival] program about the play containing mature content,” Durgin said. “Or the [Fort Kent] director could have stood up in front of the audience and said that before the play began.”
Regardless, Durgin said the judges indicated to him that the Fort Kent production was “PG” at worst.
Under the Motion Picture Association of America rating system, PG means parental guidance is suggested and “some material may not be suitable for children.”
The original script, Clapp said, in which two characters — a man and a woman — switch souls for a time, did include several romantic scenes with sexual overtones.
“We cut those scenes out,” he said. “We had to get it down within the 40-minute time limit.”
Of course, what is tame to one audience could be called into question by another, Clapp and Durgin agree.
“When we talk about censorship it can be hard [because] what may be controversial for one is not to another,” Durgin said. “We ask that all building administrators watch the plays [and] they are the first level of scrutiny in terms of what is acceptable or not acceptable.”
“Prelude to a Kiss” was not only approved by the Fort Kent high school’s administration, it was performed locally before being taken on the road to the festival.
“No one had any concerns they shared with us,” Clapp said.
The veteran drama coach said that when the first complaint was filed after the performance at the regional competition, his students — and the parents who had traveled to Caribou to watch the production — were confused and upset by the allegations. He said he did his best to allay those fears until the final ruling was conveyed.
“The students were pretty shaken when they heard there was a protest,” he said. “We’d been working hard on this for 2½ months [and] I told them to try and relax until we got the final word on things.”
Theater — like other forms of art — can push societal envelopes, Clapp said, and some schools do push things further than others.
Plays this year and in the past have included themes and incidents involving incest, rape, abuse and suicide, he noted.
“The issue of homosexuality is not one that is avoided and when it is in one of the plays it’s usually a social commentary kind of thing,” Clapp said. “Some kids like to play at the edge.”
In his experience, challenges based on content are rare, Durgin said, adding he will be responding to the Easton High School letter and the matter will be taken up when the Maine Drama Council meets after the state competitions.
“I am sure given the nature of the [Easton] letter there will be discussions on how far we go before we say a school can’t do a play,” he said.
For their part, the students at Fort Kent, who said they were mystified that anyone would see anything immoral in the play, are not harboring any hard feelings.
“We were pretty much in shock and disbelief and never expected anything like that,” said Melanie Saucier, a Fort Kent senior and lead actress in the play. “We knew our cast worked incredibly hard and I was incredibly unhappy this would happen.”
Nothing in the play is at all offensive, according to Jarod Michaud, one of the two male leads who shares the brief hug.
“The maturity level of our play is in keeping with the level you see at a state competition,” he said.
The students, like Clapp, are looking ahead to representing northern Maine in the Class B competition.
“Each school has the right to protest and we respect that,” Saucier said. “But I am glad it’s over.”