Despite a caveat about ‘strong language’ and suggested age guidance, student groups left a matinee performance in Haddon Township before the show had concluded last week.
By Matt Skoufalos | May 23, 2023
After two elementary-school groups walked out of a matinee at the Ritz Theatre Company in Haddon Township last week, discussion about their objections — and decision to leave in the middle of the show — has revived conversations about censorship, the arts, and determining the age-appropriateness of content for children.
According to the Ritz, the incident occurred during a May 17 performance of the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical School of Rock, a show based on the 20-year-old movie of the same name.
Its plot centers on down-and-out rock n’ roller Dewey Finn, who assumes his roommate’s identity as a substitute teacher at a private school in order to make rent. During the course of Finn’s interactions with the students, they discover a shared love of performance, form an ad hoc band, and learn to express themselves through song.
The show is presented with a caveat that it “contains occasional strong language” and is recommended for ages eight and older.
However, a pair of school groups at the performance — a third-grade class from the Kellman Brown Academy in Voorhees, and fifth-grade classes from Hartford Upper Elementary School of Mount Laurel — decided shortly into the second act that the show’s content wasn’t for their kids.
Ritz spokesperson Robert Repici had stepped away during a brief intermission between the first and second acts of the musical; when he returned, he found representatives from the schools chatting with theater staff in the lobby, and “it was very obvious that some kind of confrontation had taken place.”
School of Rock includes scenes in which students recognize that their teacher is hungover at work. It features a lyric in which a character references being a “sex god.” But the line that appeared to be the breaking point for the groups, Repici said, was in the middle of Act II, when one character refers to herself as “a bitch.”
The group from Kellman Brown, about 28 or so students, was the first to leave, “without disruption,” Repici said.
“They objected to the amount of language at that point,” he said. “The lead teacher had words with our artistic director.”
But when the much larger group from Hartford Upper Elementary, about 150 people, followed suit, its departure halted the performance altogether.
Representatives from the school were “very, very, very vocal” in “audibly airing their grievances” with the performance, Repici said.
The other two groups in attendance, which the theater did not identify, stuck with the play, moved to fill in the empty seats, and remained until the end.
Afterwards, the cast and crew held a scheduled talkback with the audience, Repici said, and the afternoon concluded without further incident.
Repici said that the Ritz had had conversations with representatives from Hartford Upper Elementary the day before the event, in which the school asked whether the theater would offer a disclaimer before the program that it doesn’t condone the language used in the show.
“[The teacher] had asked me what precise language was in there — words like ‘ass,’ and ‘douchebags’ — and they came in knowing some specific language that was used in the show,” Repici said.
“The adults use most of the language, but the kids do partake,” he said. “We didn’t write it, but it’s there, and we’re honoring whatever [the writer] wanted to put in the script.”
The Ritz doesn’t alter the content of its performances, Repici said; as a rule, the agreement to license a work like School of Rock confers an obligation to perform the work as written. At the time of the booking, he also said the theater offered the district the disclaimer about its language and recommended audience age.
“We gave them exactly what was given to us, and what we found from the original productions: that the age recommendation was eight and up, and that the show contained some strong language not recommended for younger kids,” he said.
“We had no other conversations with the school in terms of content until the day before the show,” Repici said.
Afterwards, the theater decided to make a public statement about the incident, Repici said, partly to counter a message from Hartford Upper Elementary Principal Marques Stanard, which was circulated to parents of its students who’d attended the show.
“Regrettably, we had to end the trip early, as our expectations were not met with the performance we expected our students to see,” Stanard wrote.
“The performance featured inappropriate language and themes that were unsuitable for our students.”
“As responsible educators, the well-being and safety of our student are of the utmost importance to us,” his letter continued.
“When it became evident that the performance was not age- or thematically appropriate for students, we made the difficult decision to end the field trip.
“We understand that artistic impressions can vary and that interpretations of appropriateness may differ among individuals,” Stanard wrote.
“However, we firmly believe that it is our responsibility as educators and administrators to ensure that the experiences we provide for our students align with their age group and are in line with our community’s values and standards.”
In response, the Ritz posted a statement defending the content of the performance, and offering a free ticket to any families made to leave early by their schools’ decisions.
“At its heart, SCHOOL OF ROCK is a show about self-love, finding your voice, and discovering purpose, exploring such vital themes as “inclusion, friendship, and personal identity,” according to original production notes. We believe the work on our stage carries out the goals and intentions of the creators who wrote the musical.
“It is also our firm belief that the behavior and actions displayed yesterday were in direct contradiction with the values of the show and the values of our organization. To disrupt a live performance in that fashion is a disservice to the cast and crew who all took the time to perform the show yesterday morning, to the front-of-house staff who volunteered to help out at The Ritz yesterday morning, and to the other school groups who were present (and stayed throughout) to enjoy the show yesterday morning.
“To the Hartford ‘Team Courage’ and Kellman Brown Academy students who were required to leave the show, we’re immensely sorry, especially as we realize that, for many of you, it was your first-ever field trip. To the many parents who have already expressed their displeasure over their children being removed from the show, we hear you and thank you wholeheartedly for your support.”
Repici said the Ritz believes the themes of the musical — which he described as “being comfortable in your own skin; finding purpose that you’re not alone in the world; that your voice shouldn’t be silenced” — to be appropriate for the intended audience.
“The teacher finds that he has a calling to help educate young musicians, and the students find that they have something to say; that that’s what their music is about,” he said.
The theater drafted several versions of the statement it ultimately posted to its social media page last week, choosing to emphasize the impact of the walk-out on the cast and crew of the show, he said.
“We felt insanely bad for them,” Repici said. “They had to stop the show; they were perplexed. They were devastated about it. They were looking forward to performing for kids.
“The primary issue for us was to address what happened, and get the kids and the parents who were removed from the show an opportunity to come back and see it in its entirety,” he said.
The Ritz has offered to accommodate any ticketholders who were removed from the May 17 show to see another School of Rock performance before the musical closes May 28. The theater has received an influx of contributions from the community to offset the cost of these complementary tickets, Repici said; he added that the Ritz would not refund the money paid by the school groups to see the May 17 performance.
“We want them to [see the show]; they paid for that right from the school,” he said. “A lot of kids were very sad and very vocal about being removed from the show. We want to get those kids back.”
Mt. Laurel Public School District Superintendent George Rafferty said on Friday that the teachers who made the decision to pull the Hartford Elementary students out of the show did so simply because of the language in the performance.
He downplayed any greater significance behind their choices.
“This specific instance in itself is not related to any curriculum controversy, or district philosophy on what to teach or what not to teach,” Rafferty said.
“This was a very specific situation that the teachers made a decision — just about language, and what we would call profanity. And that’s part of that show. It was just not appropriate, in their opinion, for 10- and 11-year-olds.”
The superintendent said the district supported its teachers, while recognizing that the departure of the group “was awkward at the time,” and that he wished “their leaving could have been coordinated in a different way.
“The school has learned from it; the teachers have learned from it,” Rafferty said. “I, as superintendent, want people to understand that the Ritz Theatre did nothing wrong. It’s a quality arts center, and people should have the opportunity to go there and enjoy performances.”
Rafferty went on to describe the Ritz as “a local gem,” and pledged that the district would continue to work with the theater for future performances. He also acknowledged the difficulty in coming to consensus about the age-appropriateness of content for school-aged children.
“Those are publisher decisions made not at our level; made at a level of the people producing and putting the material out,” he said.
“It doesn’t disparage the theater in any way, and it shouldn’t make people look at the Ritz theater in a different light,” Rafferty said. “They were doing what they should have been doing, and they were putting a great performance on.”
On behalf of the Kellman Brown Academy, Stephanie Dworkin, Chief Marketing Officer for the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey, released a statement about the 28 or so third-graders that left the performance ahead of the Hartford Upper Elementary group.
In it, she explained that representatives from Kellman Brown had spoken with the theater ahead of the performance, “and were advised that the content of the production was age appropriate for these students.
“During our trip, our teachers felt that the language used in the production was not age-appropriate for eight- and nine-year-old students, and made the decision to leave the theater during the production,” Dworkin wrote.
Her chief complaint with the Ritz’s handling of the incident was that, in the social media retelling, her school was lumped in with Hartford Upper Elementary as being disruptive, or challenging the themes of the work.
“We did not perceive our decision to leave the show as controversial,” Dworkin wrote. “Our students were seated in the rear of the auditorium, and made every effort to cause the least possible interruption. We respect the Ritz Company, and were disappointed that they decided to post our decision to leave on social media and misrepresent our intentions.
“As we do with all of our school trips, we kept the parents of the students involved, and advised them of the decision that was made,” Dworkin’s statement continued. “The responses that we received from parents of our students were appreciative of our concern for their children. The well-being of our KBA students has always been and will continue to always be our top priority.”
Hartford Upper Elementary parent Kelley Hill, who attended the May 17 matinee with her child, chalked up the entire incident to the overreactions of a handful of parent chaperones from her district.
“I definitely noticed the language that was used more, because the kids who picked up on it were laughing, and I could hear a few people behind me gasping in shock,” Hill said.
“I figured that, if anything, the principal might hear from a few uptight parents later that day.
“When the teacher started to have us leave, I had no idea what was going on,” she said. “Most of the teachers and the rest of the parents were completely in the dark, and had no idea why we had to leave the show.”
Hill contacted the school, and was told that the decision to leave early was based upon parent complaints about inappropriate language in the show. She said some parents from Hartford Upper Elementary were “in an outrage” during the show, and confronted theater staff about their frustrations.
“It wasn’t the whole class leaving in protest of the show,” Hill said, but rather a handful of adults who complained loudly.
“They ruined the children’s field trip, which was only the second field trip my daughter has ever had, and had been looking forward to it for weeks,” she said. “I don’t know why anyone else is upset, but that’s why I’m upset.”
Hill did return with her daughter and their friends to see a make-up performance of School of Rock, “and loved it.
“The show was not inappropriate at all, and the cast were phenomenal,” she said.
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