In the following letter, Del. Mary-Dulany James responds to the controversy surrounding the recent drama production at Havre de Grace High School, known as “Drama Therapy”. A copy of the letter was provided to The Dagger upon request.
I watched Havre de Grace High School’s “Drama Therapy” performance this past weekend after being asked by constituents to respond to public comments made by a legislator in the Harford County Delegation. I took detailed notes on each of the seven vignettes. Additionally, I have spoken to some of the parents, read all of the letters and emails I have received (from parents and students), and have interviewed various employees of the school system. To anyone else who would like to share their views, please just give me a call: (410) 841-3331, or email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Let me begin by saying how impressed I was by the letters I received from the students. As someone who grew up in Havre de Grace and graduated from Havre de Grace High School, I cannot tell you how proud I am to receive such well written, thoughtful correspondences. As you can imagine, I receive a lot of mail, and my alma mater must be doing something right to have educated young people as fine as the ones who have written to me. And of course, I am heartened by the fact that so many young people are engaging in the democratic process. I also want to applaud all of the students who acted in or helped to produce this year’s performance of “Drama Therapy.” It takes a great deal of hard work, hours of after school rehearsal, and courage over stage fright to perform live before hundreds of people. No matter what you do in life, you have taken a big step into being bold that will forever serve you well.
Now ordinarily state legislators do not, and should not, take it upon themselves to delve into critiquing, criticizing or censoring local high school theater, particularly in an official capacity. But somehow, this year’s production of “Drama Therapy” caught the attention of a member of the Harford County Delegation, and it was brought up at one of our regularly scheduled public meetings although it was not on our agenda. It was relayed that a parent or parents had concerns about the production and a request had been made by that single legislator to view a DVD of the performance which was deferred by the Superintendent until a Freedom of Information request was made. This was considered inappropriate by some, but not all, of the legislators present, and as a result, the Chairman of the Delegation sent a letter to the Superintendent requesting that he come to a specifically called Delegation meeting to explain why a DVD was not given to the legislator who requested it and otherwise to discuss Havre de Grace High School’s “Drama Therapy.”
As the second public meeting was not set at a regularly scheduled time, and I was in meetings on the budget, I was not able to attend but did appear at the beginning to let people know I was available to meet and discuss the matter either later that day or back home at another time. As it turned out, the Superintendent was able to bring a DVD of the show to the public meeting which had just finished being produced at Cecil College after some delay due to the blizzard. However, due to technical difficulties, the DVD could not be viewed at the meeting and after the Superintendent was assured that the DVD would not be disseminated beyond the Delegation members, it was left with the Chairman so that each member could see it when their schedules permitted. As it turns out, that was the wisest course of action to begin with as the play is two hours long and there were hundreds of people in Annapolis that day from all over the state (including Harford and Cecil Counties) who were expecting us to attend the already scheduled public hearings, briefings, and meetings.
Since this second meeting, I have read quotes from press releases saying such things as, “the… skit was stupid,” “the teachers who put the program on should be removed from teaching children [and] action should be taken against the administrators… who neglected to adequately monitor their staff” and “the children who participated in the skits, as well as the students who were forced to watch them, were abused.”
Also, I have received two detailed letters from a single person expressing concerns about the content of the performance and the process of addressing these concerns. I have also received 3 letters and 20 emails supporting the production and/or supporting the school, the principal, and the drama teacher. It is because of these facts and under these circumstances only that I feel it is appropriate for me to comment publicly. However, I am speaking only for myself and not for anyone else in the Delegation.
First, I do not believe the teachers who put on the play should be removed from teaching children, nor do I believe that punitive actions should be taken by anyone involved in the “Drama Therapy” production. None of the Harford County legislators have the authority or jurisdiction to fire or punish our local educators; that is an entirely local matter. Those kinds of statements have frightened, angered, and dismayed people back home. Also, the reverberations of such statements can be far-reaching, dissuading people from wanting to work in our schools. This is the last thing I want to see happen.
While the newspaper rarely distinguishes between us, and more often than not lumps all of the members of the Delegation together, there are vast difference between us, most strikingly in how we approach problems and speak to and about people, although you would never know it by the local news coverage. The most destructive comment made was that all young people who attended as well as produced the “Drama Therapy” performance were abused. I have known some of the parents all of my life and their children since they were born, and that statement is unconscionable. Therefore, I want to apologize for all of these types of statements and assure everyone that in me you have a calm, deliberative representative who uses intelligence, facts, and fairness to respond to and help our communities. While we all are allowed our opinions and have protected speech, given the type of media coverage we receive and our status as representatives of all the people of Harford County, it is imperative that we are measured in our conduct and how we express ourselves.
Now to the substance of the production, I must say at times it was jarring and disturbing. As the mother of three, I was moved to anguished tears at a certain point. Its emotional affect on me was how I felt watching the Academy Award winning movie, “Precious,” about an abusive mother and her teenage daughter’s gut-wrenching life. To the extent this was the desired reaction it succeeded with me. I am sure that I am not alone. I can remember my parents telling me I take things “hard,” meaning I’m sensitive. Now, to each his own when it comes to art, but to this day, I will not watch anything I think might be disturbing on a Sunday night because I do not want to start my week off out of sorts. My point is that we all have different temperaments and tolerances that should be respected and accommodated. Some people may enjoy, appreciate, or learn from shocking theater; others may not.
Like the movie, “Precious,” “Drama Therapy” was R-rated with adult language and content, or as they say, “suitable for mature audiences only.” In high school, those attending range in age from 13 to 19, and those age differences alone illustrate that not all teenagers are at the same level of maturity. In addition, one must take into account individual differences in abilities to witness deeply troubling and provocative issues in the setting of a mandatory assembly. Using the R-rating as a guide and a reflection of our shared consensus, it seems reasonable to have required some kind of a collaboration with families so that each could choose if they wanted their sons or daughters to attend the production (at least up to the age of 16 of 17). This is what some refer to as the “opt out” option. Except in unusual circumstances, parental involvement should be a priority.
It may well be that “Drama Therapy” is unworkable in a large public assembly. If so, perhaps it should take place in a smaller setting rather than a large congregation where students can actively participate and discuss the vignettes that were portrayed following the performance.
I understand that the intent of “Drama Therapy” was to be thought-provoking and encourage the audience to reach out for help if needed. I also understand that some of our teenagers are exposed to underage drinking, illegal drugs, loveless or violent sex, abuse and more, and I understand that not all young people have parents or mentors they can talk to about the struggles of growing from childhood to adulthood. While I am neither an artist nor a therapist, my common sense and life experiences tell me that when you try to blend drama with therapy, entertainment with raw emotions, and a public forum with perhaps deeply private matters, it will be hard to strike the right balance. “Drama Therapy” was an ambitions production, trying to do many things all at once. I do not know how you apply therapeutic techniques through live performances, but I imagine, if it can be done, it requires considerable expertise and a great deal of care
As I stated earlier, I have interviewed and spoken with those at the high school most involved in the production along with school administrators. They provided me with a detailed chronology of the events leading up to and since the December 3rd and 4th presentations which include the several subsequent showings of “Drama Therapy” to parents, the substance of conversations with parents, their four-point action plan to improve the program, and the creation of a committee to further identify areas of concern, ways to address those concerns, and ways to foster better communications between the school, the families, and the community. I want to point out that all of the school systems’ actions were undertaken without the need for threats.
While I am still waiting for a few parents to return my phone calls, I believe I have spoken to or heard from a representative of each of the various, thoughtful views on the 2009 “Drama Therapy” performance, all of which are sincerely held. Nearly everyone wants to continue “Drama Therapy” in some form, although it has been suggested that using therapy in the title should be rethought, and those that work on it agree, it can and must be improved. I remain available to anyone who would like to further discuss the program’s past, present, or future, and in the meantime, I support Havre de Grace High School’s committee which is being tasked to address the problems and issues at the local community level. I am hoping that with parent and community input, the drama program in its entirety can be a model for the county.
Maryland State Delegate
Harford and Cecil Counties