Are You Following The South Williamsport Spamalot Controversy?

The 8/26/2014 edition of Slate published an article by columnist and Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts Interim Director, Howard Sherman that examines the decision by South Williamsport, Pennsylvania, Junior/Senior High School administrators to cancel an upcoming production of Monty Python’s Spamalot by Eric Idle due to what the school’s principal, Jesse Smith, described as the musical’s “homosexual themes.” Smith’s decision was upheld by South Williamsport Area School District administrators even after Sherman’s article produced evidence that the principal and school superintendent, Dr. Mark Stamm, deliberately obfuscated and misinformed the public on their “homosexual themes” issue serving as a cornerstone for their validation.

ADAPTISTRATION-GUY-081Simply put, Smith and his superiors got caught burying evidence that they cancelled Spamalot because they did not find gay characters and same-sex marriage scene appropriate for public audiences. Following the Slate article, the South Williamsport Area School District has attempted to deflect attention by claiming that the email made public thanks to a Right-to-Know request is being taken out of context.

The 8/31/2014 edition of the Williamsport Sun-Gazette published an article by Robert Phillips that includes statements from Smith and administrators claiming that the decision to cancel Spamalot is an act of protect children.

“This was intended to protect students so they’re not in a position to choose between what they believe in and participating,” said Smith.

Some Commentary On One Of The Great Social Shames Of Our Generation

Smith and South Williamsport Area School District’s administrators have sunk to the lowest common denominator of masquerading an abuse of authority behind a cover of protecting children. Simply put, Smith is using his position as principal to discriminate against sexual orientations outside of those he deems appropriate.

If racial discrimination was one of the great social shames of the Greatest and Baby Boomer Generations, then sexual orientation discrimination certainly occupies an equal level of ignominy for Generation X. Clearly, a number of other high schools have had no problem producing Spamalot (you can find a plethora of clips on YouTube from their productions) including Central Catholic High School in Pittsburgh, PA. Additionally, the organization that manages licensing rights for the show, Theatrical Rights Worldwide, lists more than a dozen high schools which have the show scheduled in the 2014/15 season.

Currently, homosexuality is legal in Pennsylvania and homosexuals are not banned from serving in National Guard units. Homosexuality has been declassified as an illness since 1973 and same-sex couples are allowed to adopt and their marriages are legal and recognized.

Nonetheless, Smith told the Williamsport Sun-Gazette that students “should be able to sign up for a play and know that it’s school-sponsored and they won’t have to make a moral or ethical decision” and he “just want[s] students to feel free to join the play and not feel like they are compromising their views based on the content.”

Consequently, what sort of justification exists to discriminate against sexual orientation by cancelling a musical under the guise of protection because it contains “homosexual themes?”

I encourage readers to contact Principal Smith and Superintendent Stamm via their South Williamsport Area School District email addresses to express your views.

  • Principal Jesse Smith:
  • Superintendent Dr. Mark Stamm:

[ilink url=”” style=”download”]Email documents provided via Right to Know law.[/ilink]

[ilink url=”” style=”download”]Spamalot’ emails revealing School leaders explain decision-making’ 8/31/2014 Williamsport Sun-Gazette[/ilink]

[ilink url=”” style=”download”]Filers seek inclusion, open conversation; 8/31/2014 Williamsport Sun-Gazette[/ilink]

[ilink url=”” style=”note”]”Homosexual Themes” Get Pennsylvania School Production of Spamalot Canned; Slate, 8/26/2014[/ilink]

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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12 thoughts on “Are You Following The South Williamsport Spamalot Controversy?”

  1. “This was intended to protect students so they’re not in a position to choose between what they believe in and participating,” said Smith.

    Let me fix that for Mr. Smith (or translate it for the rest of us):

    “This was intended to protect students so they’re not in a position to choose between what their parents believe in and participating,” said Smith.

    Remember, South Williamsport, PA is not greater Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, which means it’s in Pennsylbama. However he may word it for public consumption, I’m pretty sure Mr. Smith cancelled Spamalot to keep conservative parents off his back.

    Before the Interwebz, this would have remained a local story and that would have been the end of it. But now, instead of conservative parents, he has the international press – plus folks like us – on his back.

    It’s hard not to feel for the guy, even if you disagree with his decision.

    • It would be comparatively reassuring if that were the case but given the timeline, I don’t see where any parents would have been aware that Spamalot was even on the roster by the time Smith brought up the topic with the drama teacher. In the end, what seems to matter most at this point is what comes next and to that end,the suggestions contained in the “Filers seek inclusion, open conversation” article seems to be a good place to start.

      • No, the parents didn’t know yet, but they would certainly find out by the time the show went into rehearsal, if not before.

        I think that, once word got out in the community (probably after rehearsals began, since most regular folks in South Williamsport are probably not familiar with the Spamalot script) that the high school was doing a play that ends with a homosexual wedding, there’s a 100% chance that some parents and other community members would very loudly object, even if they themselves didn’t happen to have children in the cast.

        Yes, a 100% chance. There are still places in this country where some people flip out if the local high school does Godspell, for heaven’s sake. (Godspell portrays Lord Jesus Christ as a clown, you see, while the Gospel of Matthew portrays Christ as a king.)

        I’d hazard a guess that Mr. Smith the principal didn’t know the plot of Spamalot when he gave the initial OK, and it was when he found out that he revoked his approval. He probably thought he was revoking the show far enough in advance to avoid the s***storm he wanted to avoid, but the poor guy got one anyway.

    • I think it’s impossible, at this point, to know the personal views of the school administrators themselves, as opposed to their professional views, as we have only their public statements and actions to consider. Whether they have acted in the manner they have out of personal conviction, in response to complaints or in order to avoid criticism from segments of their community may never be answered. But their actions have had the effect of demonstrating that they don’t want LGBTQ characters or issues presented on their school’s stage, even as innocuously as they are in a silly show like SPAMALOT. And that is something that is always to be challenged. There has been censorship of school theatre for many years and there is no question that the internet has made it possible for these incidents to be more widely known. But it also makes it possible to support teachers and students by taking the discussion outside of the closed power structure of an individual community and let in the wider world, especially when the issue is one of equality and inclusion for all, whether the dispute is founded in content, gender, race, age, disability, or sexual orientation. In a closed group, prejudices are reinforced and the dominant perspective almost always wins.

    • I can’t feel sorry for the principal, he is either a coward or a bigot, by the way, what books are you banning from the Library? Walt Whitman, James Baldwin, while you are at it, try all works of Michaelangelo and Aristotle..the list could go on for days. It is the 21st Century, wake up!

  2. Outstanding analysis from MWnyc (although I would have gone with “Pennsyl-tucky” myself).

    Drew is right in focusing on “what comes next” but heaven help a school district (especially ones with board elections at odd times) that have highly motivated parents slating candidates who will rush in to “save the children.” Alas, I won’t be eligible to vote.

    • Why, thank you.

      I have a sister who works as a professional in a public school district in Pennsylbamatucky. I think the town where she works is somewhat more liberal than South Williamsport (the town where she lives certainly is, and could probably stage Spamalot without too big a problem), but I know this would not surprise her.

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