The arts in all their forms have always faced opposition, but censorship in schools seems to be more aggressive than ever. When schools perform theatrical productions that upset some viewers, the situation often becomes a hot-button issue for students, educators, administrators, parents, and communities at large. Sometimes schools are forced to cancel their artistic work because of the turmoil. It’s called censorship.

National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) explains: “Censorship happens whenever some people succeed in imposing their political or moral values on others by suppressing words, images, or ideas that they find offensive. A censor, traditionally, is an official whose job it is to examine literature, movies, or other forms of creative expression and to remove or ban anything she considers unsuitable. In this definition, censorship is something the government does. But censorship can also be accomplished very effectively by private groups.”

Censorship in Schools: Why it happens

There are many reasons why a school or school district decides to censor high school theatre productions. They might find the language, lyrics or actions performed on stage too mature for teenage audiences. Or they might find the story’s explorations of certain themes or issues too controversial. Students innately have a right to free speech and free expression – but when schools are tasked with managing and limiting appropriate material, censorship becomes a battlefield. 


Censorship in school theatre productions is similar to school libraries being forced to ban specific books. In fact, Banned Books Week, which represents a collective of organizations that celebrate the freedom to read, cites the following plays and musicals that have faced controversy when performed in schools:

  • The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee by William Fin and Rachel Sheinken
  • American Idiot Michael Mayer and Billie Joe Armstrong
  • And Then Came Tango by Emily Freeman
  • Cabaret by John Kander and Fred Ebb
  • Legally Blonde by Heather Hach, Nell Benjamin and Lauren O’Keefe
  • The Producers by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan
  • Rent by Jonathan Larson
  • Spamalot by Eric Idle and John Du Prez
  • Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler
  • Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare


Drama students at Hillsboro High School in Hillsboro, Ohio, were forced to cancel performances of She Kills Monsters by Qui Nguyen in October 2021. The play tells the story of a teenage girl who finds her deceased sister’s Dungeons & Dragons notebook. She’s then swept into an adventure in an imaginary world of her sister’s design. One of the discoveries she makes in this world is that her sister may have had a relationship with another girl. 

The original production of She Kills Monsters premiered in 2011 at Flea Theater in New York City. There’s a version of the play that’s revised for younger audiences, which is deemed appropriate for ages 11 and up. Hillsboro High School drama students were set to perform the younger version. 

It’s been reported that the inclusion of an LGBTQ+ character in She Kills Monsters angered parents and other adults in the community, which prompted the school district to cancel performances just weeks before opening night. Hillsboro City Schools Superintendent Tim Davis released a vague statement which said, “The fall play has been canceled this year because the play was not appropriate for our K-12 audience.” Other parents and community members cited sexual innuendo, implied sexual behavior, and foul language as their opposition to the play. Many students, parents, and educators wholly disagreed with the district’s decision. 

In response to the play’s cancellation, the Hillsboro High drama students organized a GoFundMe to raise funds that would allow them to produce She Kills Monsters at a community theatre over the summer. Their goal was $5,000, and they raised nearly $24,000. The Kindred Spirits Theatre Company presented the performance at Southern State Community College in June 2022. 

Drama students at Turlock High School in Turlock, Calif., also faced censorship challenges recently. In April 2022, their production of Be More Chill, a modern musical, was canceled. Based on the book by Ned Vizzini, the story follows a teenager who takes a pill that transforms his social status from loner to popular. The musical was a Broadway hit and earned eight Drama Desk Award nominations and one Tony Award nomination. 

Be More Chill has been praised, by critics and young audiences alike, for its representation of anxiety, depression, and the complex challenges teenagers face while growing up in the era of social media. It’s been a favorite production for many school drama departments. South Eugene High School performed their production at the 2019 International Thespian Festival. 

After opening night of their production of Be More Chill, Turlock Unified School District site administration decided, abruptly, to cancel the rest of the show’s run. A spokesperson for the district cited “concerns that the content was too mature for a general audience that includes all age levels” as reason for the cancellation. They also said the administration and the musical’s director didn’t communicate effectively about approving the show. When Joe Iconis, the musical’s creator, caught wind of the cancellation online, he tweeted that he was horrified by the district’s actions. He also encouraged his Twitter followers to donate to Turlock’s drama and speech program and included a link to do so. 

After receiving backlash from students, the community, and the expansive digital world, Turlock Unified School District allowed the production to return to performances, one month after their post-opening cancellation. They stipulated that the production needed to include signage disclaiming “some adult themes” in the show’s story. 


No matter their age, artists should always equip themselves with knowledge of their rights to freedom of expression. Many organizations exist to do exactly that and provide legal assistance and support for individuals or groups who find their rights threatened through censorship. Here are just a few you should keep on your radar:

  • National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) provides comprehensive resources for students, educators, and activists. “The Show Must Go On: A Toolkit for Organizing Against Theatre Censorship in Public Schools” provides campaigning strategies, information, and guidance for handling censorship.
  • The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) promotes a culture of free speech and First Amendment expression. Their High School Network offers information, interactive content, literature, access to an educator network, and more. 
  • Dramatists Legal Defense Fund (DLDF) advocates for writers’ and artists’ protection of their First Amendment rights. They have a “Toolkit for Producing Stage Works on College Campuses in Turbulent Times,” and they provide opportunities for schools and theatre organizations to learn more about the issue directly from a DLDF representative. They also keep an extensive database of censorship issues and cases.
  • Banned Books Week offers a huge collection of resources for students, educators, librarians, retailers, writers, and artists. Unless indicated, most of these resources are free to download. 

If you’re a student artist or member of student media who is facing immediate issues with censorship, you can report your case to NCAC and FIRE and receive one-on-one guidance:

The arts provide us with a spectrum of tools, skills, and experiences that help us understand ourselves and the world around us. In troubled times, we need the arts more than ever to reflect our lives and make sense of our realities. Keep the arts free from censorship. Always advocate to keep theatre in our schools.  ♦

Natalie Clare is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Dramatics. Visit her work at

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