Tuesday, 28 June 2016

The School musical and Christian integrity (2016 Term 2 Week 10)

The school musical is one of my annual highlights. At times I find myself referencing a school year by the musical performance: "That was the year we did Hairspray". Co-curricular activities have their place in the school because of the learning opportunities that they provide; a musical opens up unparalleled experiences in working with others to achieve something that is more than the sum of its parts. The musical gives students' gifts the chance to develop and shine, it prompts them to be courageous in performing before others, and it teaches them to appreciate and to celebrate the contributions of others. The shared experience and emotional bonding are powerfully formative in relationships, both between students and between students and staff. I could go on and on about the benefits of staging an annual musical; it is a great learning experience.

Our students' performance of Bring it on: the Musical last week was wonderful. The students who nailed the lead roles, the cast of dancers who filled the stage, the live music from the band, the lighting and set design, the quality of the choreography and all the other aspects of the show made me extraordinarily proud of our students and staff.

However, it is also the case that the musical can be a cause of concern in our community. Most years, questions get raised about the suitability of the particular musical that we choose, about the themes presented in the musical, about particular scenes or lines, and about how the musical aligns with our school's Christian identity. Given the diversity of our school community, it is unsurprising that there is diversity of opinion on these questions.

It may be that some of the concern felt by some members of our community had to do with the themes and content of the material. As a show set in a high school, performed by high school students, it is unsurprising that the content was pitched at an adolescent level. I can imagine that some of the younger children had questions about the meaning of some of the exchanges between characters. I can still remember my mother's awkwardness when I put a few questions to her following my first viewing of Grease as a primary school student. Having since seen it as an adult, I am not surprised about her awkwardness! Thankfully, nearly all of it went over my head at the time. I would be surprised if the bemusement or lack of comprehension associated with adolescent themes outweighed the benefit for the younger students of seeing the performance of Bring it on: the Musical.

It may also be that some of us as adults were uncomfortable with some of the material, which touched on emerging sexuality, body image and teen culture. My position is that the context is a vehicle through which the wider themes and issues are explored. The fact that this musical takes place in the context of teen culture, with some of the associated themes, tensions and language, does not promote or endorse that culture any more than Oliver promotes childhood crime or The Wizard of Oz endorses witchcraft or Guys and Dolls advocates gangsterism. The musical is really about personal identity, ambition, relationships and the pressures of life; high school cheerleaders are simply the window into these bigger issues.

It may also be that some related concerns stemmed from some of the language in the performance. (For the reference of those who did not see the show, the idiomatic American cultural term 'ass' was used half a dozen times, the word 'bitch' was used once and I think there was an 'Oh my God' as well.) On one level, I don't accept the suggestion that the language was gratuitous; it served a purpose within the narrative. The use of 'ass' was exclusively by the students of Jackson High, which is depicted as a less-privileged school; the language and idiom used functions as a linguistic designate for a particular sub-culture within the play. The only other character to use it was Bridget, who did so for comic effect and for whom it was part of her journey of reinvention through the change of schools. The use of 'bitch' as an insult took place in the context of the relationship breakdown between Campbell and Danielle; this was the great crisis of the narrative and the strength of language emphasised the point.

Having made that initial defense, it is still valid to ask other questions. Could the words of concern have been substituted without substantially changing the play? Of course. Was the language contextually appropriate? Equally, yes. Are these words that I encourage in the context of school? Of course not. Are they 'PG' words, rather than 'G' words? Yes. Is the word 'ass' heard differently in an Australian cultural context to an American one? Yes. Are these words that appear in normal adolescent conversation? Yes. Would it have been better for us to flag the level of language in our marketing of the musical? Yes, and this is a matter to which we will be sensitive in the future. Should we have removed these words from the performance? It seems to me that this is a judgment call on which there will be differences of opinion.

The more profound question for me has to do with whether producing this musical in its entirety undermines the Christian integrity of the school. I don't think so. I do not believe that the only way to honour God in and through the creative arts is to deal with faith-related or explicitly Christian themes. God is honoured both in process and in product. In the context of our musical, I would suggest that we need to consider that God has been honoured in the way that the team have related to and supported one another through the last six months of preparation. God is also honoured through the creative arts as they explore and reflect back to us truths about the messy reality of life, leading us to a deeper understanding of ourselves and God's broken world in which we live. The creative arts should also be a basis for thankfulness, as we appreciate the skills, gifts and opportunities that God bestows. One of our school values declares that we strive for excellence, in thankful response to all that God has provided; there is no reason not to apply this to our thinking about the creative arts. Our thinking about honouring God in the creative arts is broader than our explicit advocacy of the faith.

It may be that the discourse above seems overly or unnecessarily defensive, or that it is irrelevant to you, or that it articulates a position that differs from your own. Hopefully if it was of no value to you, you will have stopped reading prior to this point! As a closing comment, the observation has been made that modern Western society is losing the capacity to maintain good relationships whilst disagreeing with one another. I trust that, as a school community, we will retain this necessary civil capacity. Opposing views need not lead to opposed people. 

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