Concerned Mitchell residents hold prayer meeting over play shown to students

Photo: WLOS staff

A group of concerned parents and pastors held a prayer meeting after a play was performed at Mitchell High School they say was inappropriate for the student audience.

Part of the the comedy "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged," was performed Thursday by a group from Parkway Playhouse in Burnsville.

On Friday afternoon, we were live at the prayer meeting at the Mitchell County school building.

We also spoke with the executive director of Parkway Playhouse, who says the group edited content from the version that is performed at the playhouse, but the version performed still upset some in attendance.

Toe River Arts Council, who helps set up these plays, has apologized for the content, which it also deems inappropriate for high school students.

"We realize that there was inappropriate content in the original script of the play which we were told was to be edited to make it appropriate for high school audiences," reads the official statement from Toe River Arts Council. "The intention was for it to be funny as well as to show how plays were actually performed in Shakespeare's day. Also, because the director is an experienced high school drama teacher, we believed that she would review the content and conduct to make it fun, educational and appropriate."

The superintendent of Mitchell County schools said he didn't see the play, but it was stopped immediately when one of his staff realized there was drinking being portrayed as well as inappropriate language and portrayal of a suicide.

In reference to discussing the play’s content before it was performed, superintendent Chad Calhoun said the new director of the play reached out to the Mitchell High Principal via email.

“She had reached out to him, told him the name of the play was 'The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged,' and he said, 'Sure, come on, present it.' And like I said, we never had a bad incident with them. It had always been good,” Calhoun said.

He began receiving texts from teachers and students during the play about the content. The superintendent called the principal, but he was unreachable as he was dealing with a disciplinary issue with a student. He decided to send one of his executive directors to watch the play, and shut it down if necessary.

“She went up there, about two minutes they were acting out drinking out of a flask, a suicide was being acted out.”

The executive director spoke to someone involved in the play which was then shut down 12 minutes after the superintendent received the texts, the superintendent says.

The superintendent said the play was being performed for 9th, 11th, and 12th grade students while 10th graders took the pre-SAT. He said he needs to finish his investigation into the matter, but said they need to sit down with the director in the future to go over content before the performance occurs.

We're told in the past when these plays were performed there was discussion over content before they were performed, but that didn't happen this time.

“It's all rooted in parody and hilarity about condensing all of Shakespeare's works in about 99 minutes. Three actors play many, many characters,” Parkway Playhouse executive director Jeff Bachar said.

It’s presented similar to how it was in Shakespeare’s time, with men playing all roles, including those of female characters.

“A lot of this is done improvisationally. The script gives you some guidelines and then within certain frames you improvise, so, we knew we were performing for high school students and toned down some of the language and that kind of thing,” Bachar said.

Bachar said the content of the play -- the language, violence, drinking and suicide -- are part of Shakespeare's works.

“All of that is in the play. You're taking about Shakespeare. Shakespeare is required reading as part of the North Carolina state curriculum, and Shakespeare wrote about a lot of the things reflecting the world he lived in and, honestly, the world we live in,” Bachar said.

He said when those are presented, it is very brief and done in a comedic, tongue-in-cheek kind of way. and most of the audience seemed to enjoy it.

“We weren't promoting that kind of thing. It was a comedy, and we got a great response from the audience. The kids loved it. From what we hear, we got a lot of compliments in the hallway to the actors," Bachar said.

Below is the Toe River Arts Council's official statement on the play:

Bachar said the theater group did not set out to offend people.

“ I think we’re a theater, and we’re producing theater and stories, and we’re never going to please everybody, and that’s OK, you know?" he said. "We didn’t set out to be controversial. I think it’s encouraging some dialogue that’s really healthy about some different topics, and that’s our purpose as a theater.

“As we move forward, being able to talk to the teachers and staff about what will be presented is really important and I think having a discussion afterward with the audience about what they saw is also important so we can help process.”

While those who attended the prayer meeting were unhappy about the play, they did say they were OK with how school officials are handling the situation.

“There were students that walked out yesterday and teachers that were offended by what was said and done, and, because of that, we want them to know we’re behind them,” said Grassy Creek pastor Nathan Silver, who attended the prayer meeting.

The play's depiction of suicide hit a nerve. Silver said it is a sensitive issue in the community.

“Life’s hard, and that seed can be planted of there’s a way out, and that’s detrimental to not just someone who takes their life but to those that are around them that care for them,” Silver said.

“And that’s a big deal to me as we don’t want that to be thought of as being OK, and, as a student, you trust that what’s on stage or what’s being taught is acceptable and is OK and you can rely on it. Even though it is a very grim reality that people go in that direction, there are better ways to deal with the hardships of life.”

Silver and others who attended the prayer meeting said they thought the superintendent and administrative staff were handling the incident well, and they are “fully confident that what needs to happen will take place.”

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