jakub | March 19, 2024

AMERICAN THEATRE | Life Imitates Art in Hampshire High’s Contested Staging of ‘The Prom’

Normally, at Hampshire High School, the students in the annual spring musical gear up for their performance with spirit wear, posters at businesses around town, and announcements of the show at school and on social media.

But in the weeks before the opening night of their production of The Prom, the selection for this year’s musical that ran for three performances over the weekend (March 15-17), that pre-show buzz was noticeably absent. Just two and a half weeks before performances, the student cast and crew were informed by the school district in the small town of Hampshire, an hour outside of Chicago, that they were not allowed to advertise the musical outside the school building: no posters, no social media posts, not even a mention the name of the musical in their school announcements. They were told they could refer to it only as “the musical.”

Additionally, tickets were only allowed to be sold to the public online and only for one week prior to the performance, with all sales ending on March 10, six days before opening night of their one-weekend-only run. No tickets were allowed to be sold at the door.

These were just some of the restrictions and mandates implemented by the district specifically for this production of The Prom. The production almost didn’t happen: Initially, when the show was announced last October, the district canceled the production. Their explanation at the time was that The Prom—a musical based on the true story of a lesbian student banned from attending prom with her girlfriend—might draw protests and anti-LGBTQ+ violence or bullying. In a public statement, the district cited anti-LGBTQ sentiment locally and nationally and concerns for students’ safety as the reasons for the show’s cancellation. Canceling a show about an lesbian girl being banned from her prom was deeply ironic, said senior pit crew member Ainsley Bryson, who was crowned homecoming queen at Hampshire High along with her girlfriend Belle Eckert just last fall. 

A promposal at rehearsal for “The Prom.” (Photo courtesy of Liv Ross Photography @liv.rossphotography)

“The plot of The Prom the musical is literally like my life,” said Bryson, whom Eckert asked to be her prom date during one of the rehearsals for the musical. “There are kids and also adults living in Hampshire every day that are gay. It’s something that we do every single day, and it’s never an issue.”

After substantial pushback from the Hampshire community, and support for the show garnered by national media attention, the district relented, allowing the show to go on, but only if a safety plan was developed. The families of The Prom‘s cast and crew said the measures put in place are unprecedented.

“My kids have been involved in musicals since middle school,” said Mandy Hanson, parent of two cast and crew members. “I have been involved in lots of different plays and musicals, and this experience has been completely different than any other experience.”

Hanson, who said the audience was electric during a spirited opening night for the show, doesn’t believe there was a real threat to the students at all. Even if there were, she said, this is not how it should have been handled.

“I don’t think that we should ever tell students in any less represented group that they need to be quiet so that the bullies don’t cause an issue,” she said. “I think the message we should send is that we support you, and if someone has a problem with it, we’ll deal with that person.”

According to an email from the district, all aspects of their safety plan for The Prom were “guided by the district’s commitment to maintain a secure environment for our students, staff, and community members.” Countered Bryson, “I don’t feel like I’m being protected. I feel like my district administration is afraid to stand behind me and everyone else.” 

The cast of Hampshire High School’s production of “The Prom.” (Photo by Erik Hanson)

How It All Began 

When the district canceled the show on Oct. 20 last year, a closed meeting between Hampshire students and district superintendent Susan Harkin and the Director of Diversity of Equity and Inclusion Adrian Harries was held to explain the district’s decision. Afterward, the district published a statement saying that, due to community feedback, they were reconsidering the decision to cancel the production, noting in a statement that the decision had been “unrelated” to students’ “desire to demonstrate their school’s progress toward supporting the LGBTQ+ community. Instead, the postponement reflected a concern held by our administrative team that the larger District 300 community may not be prepared to fully support this performance without risking potential harassment, bullying, and violence targeting our LGBTQ+ students, performers, staff, or community members.”

Wrote superintendent Harkin in the statement, “Unfortunately, there has been a rise in harassment, bullying, threats, and violence directed toward the LGBTQ+ community, locally and nationally.”

A poster created after “The Prom” was initially cancelled.

But the Hampshire community did not let matters rest. They showed up in force at a school board meeting on Oct. 24. Roughly 100 people attended the meeting, some of them having to move to an overflow room, and 25 students and community members spoke out against the district’s decision, telling district leaders how the musical helped LGBTQ+ members of their school community feel represented. One student said at the meeting that canceling the play for safety reasons “doesn’t make sense,” according to public minutes from the board meeting. 

“I have participated in multiple Days of Silence at school with no safety plan,” the student said, referring to the annual event during which observers take a day-long vow of silence to represent the silencing of LGBTQ+ students through bullying and harassment. “I have received no backlash regarding my participation. Why is this more dangerous?”

Even the Hampshire Village president Mike Reid, who graduated from Hampshire High School, showed up at the meeting and took issue with the Hampshire community implicitly being blamed for the cancellation of the show.

“It is hard to understand why the Hampshire community ended up with a target pointing at us, based on a decision we had no communication about,” he said, according to board meeting minutes. “The perceived characterization of the Hampshire community directly correlated from comments by district staff is wrong, hurtful, not inclusive, and not in the spirit of working together. Hampshire is changing by the day, and the community will continue to change.”

Speaking last week, Reid said he intended to attend the show with his family as well as several staff from the Village office and the Hampshire police chief.

In the Oct. 23 statement, the district cited instances in which community members tried to “out” students in the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), hate-filled emails regarding the district’s Day of Silence, and threats related to the LGBTQ+ Learning Space meeting held at a school in the district. Indeed, Kane County, where Hampshire is located, is no stranger to anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment. In July, 20 minutes away from Hampshire, an LGBTQ+-owned bakery in Lake in the HIlls closed after the shop was vandalized and the owner received threats related to the bakery’s attempts to host a drag brunch. 

But there have also been strong showings of support for LGBTQ+ residents in the community. The nearby city of Elgin hosted its first ever Pride parade and festival in June last year, and roughly 4,000 people attended, according to Elgin Pride founder Kayla Bates. 

The inaugural Elgin Pride Parade. (Photo courtesy of Kayla Bates, founder of Elgin Pride)

“The fear is louder than the reality,” said Bates, who noted that Elgin community members were very supportive, though some were still afraid of protests and pushback. Bates believes the fear comes from the abundance of anti-LGBTQ+ incidents in the news.

“Fear and hatred and controversy are newsworthy,” said Bates. “Love is not.”

Elgin Police, Bates said, were out in force on the day of the parade in case of anti-LGBTQ+ violence. But, Bates said, other than a few angry comments on Facebook, there was no pushback.

Anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment is very real in the U.S.. The Anti-Defamation League reported 356 anti-LGBTQ+ incidents between June 2022 and August 2023, even as a 2022 Gallup Poll indicated that national support for same-sex marriage increased to 80 percent.

The Hampshire High School community has typically been particularly supportive of LGBTQ+ students, said Mandy Hanson, parent of two The Prom cast members. In September last year, just 20 days before the district canceled the production of The Prom, Hampshire High School students voted to crown queer couple Ainsley Bryson and her girlfriend Belle Eckert as homecoming queens.

“School is and was the place that I feel safe being gay,” said Bryson, who came out in her sophomore year. “Before I came out to anyone in my family, I was out at school. I told my band director, ‘I’m coming out to my parents today.’ If anybody in Hampshire wanted to cause harm to me or anyone else for being openly gay—this sounds morbid, but they’ve had every opportunity to.”

Not all threats to LGBTQ+ Americans take the form of violent attacks. One of the most significant threats to LGBTQ+ youth is suicide. According to a 2022 survey by The Trevor Project, surveying 34,000 LGBT+ youth in the U.S., 45 percent of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year. The bsurvey also found that LGBTQ youth who felt their schools and communities were LGBTQ-affirming reported lower rates of attempting suicide.

Bryson said that, until the district’s actions around The Prom, she has felt supported by her school and community. 

“I’ve always felt accepted and safe at school, and this whole situation has tried to tell me that my experience isn’t true,” said Bryson. “I just see this as, honestly, an embarrassment for our upper administration, because they’re trying to place this label and instill this fear in a community that they obviously don’t know anything about.”

Student cast members met with superintendent Susan Harkin again on Oct. 25 after the show’s cancellation garnered national attention and support from people far beyond the borders of Hampshire. The next day, the district relented, announcing that it would allow the musical to proceed, contingent upon the development of a security plan to keep students safe from anti-LGBTQ+ harassment. 

“While the district and each school have effective safety plans in place, I felt this production required an additional level of security,” superintendent Harkin wrote in an Oct. 26 statement, again citing “a national rise in bullying, threats, and violence directed toward the LGBTQ+ community.” 

With that, The Prom cast and crew thought the fight was over and their story would have the uplifting ending befitting, well, a musical. Instead, a few weeks before the performance, they found themselves fighting to even just say the musical’s name at school.

Hampshire High School’s production of “The Prom.” (Photo by Erik Hanson)

Protection or Silencing?

Two days before opening night, the district relented on one thing: Students were now allowed to wear the shirts they had purchased to promote the musical. This small concession was too little and too late to cool the ire and frustration of the cast and their families.

“I feel like the district did not hear the concerns parents and students gave at the school board meeting,” said Hampshire High School Music Parents board president Amy Driscoll in an email about the district’s restrictions. “They continue to act out of fear and ignorance.”

The district insisted that the rules and restrictions were in place to protect students from potential anti-LGBTQ+ harassment. In addition to the restrictions on advertising, cast members said that no one outside of musical staff and cast members was allowed into the rehearsal room, that three non-musical-affiliated staff members had to be on hand to observe all rehearsals, and that on performance days, ticket holders had to present a photo ID that matched the name on their ticket.

Parents and students, who say they were not consulted in the development of the safety plan nor given advance notice of the restrictions or the details of the plan, felt these measures were essentially discriminatory. Serena Bryson, Ainsley Bryson’s mother, shared her disappointment in a letter sent at the end of February after the marketing and ticketing restrictions were made clear. 

“What you are giving our students and children is isolation and silence. You are telling them they are ‘less than’ just by your actions. I realize you think you may be ‘keeping them safe,’ but you have caused more harm than you realize,” wrote Serena Bryson.

“Your ‘protection’ is SILENCING who they are.”

Parents like Bryson and Hanson were very vocal when the show was canceled last fall, and they pushed back against the district’s restrictions in the weeks before opening night too: writing letters, posting flyers for the musical on social media, and asking their community for support. But they grew more hesitant as the performance weekend drew nearer, afraid that their actions might have consequences for their children. Both students and their families were afraid the district would cancel the performance if students did not adhere to the restrictions or if they talked to the media (including American Theatre) and news stories were published before the play closed.

“There’s no way to really know,” said Ainsley Bryson in an interview before the show. “But I just don’t want to risk it, because that seems like a worse outcome to me.”  

In the meantime, Serena Bryson is just disappointed by how all of the restrictions impacted what was supposed to be a joyful experience for her daughter. “My heart aches for my daughter as she is coming to the end of her high school career,” Serena Bryson wrote in her letter. “This is what she will remember.” 

The district said in an email statement that “while the district’s priority is safety, we’ve strived to ensure our safety plan does not compromise the artistic integrity of the production.” They also noted that “ticket sales for The Prom indicate each performance will be well attended.”

Attempts to contact the high school’s musical director Chris Cherry, who selected The Prom alongside his staff, were referred to the district’s communications department.

The restrictions and conflict surrounding the musical have had impacts beyond ticket sales and “artistic integrity,” said senior cast member Henry Hanson. 

“At the beginning of this, they told us that they had failed us in not letting us do this show,” he said. “I think they’ve failed us now, in these restrictions that they put on us. It feels like they’re trying to tell us, ‘You can do it, but you have to be quiet about it—you can’t be proud of who you are.’”

Still, he said he’s come away from this experience with pride. 

“I’m upset about all the restrictions and the fighting I’ve had to do to be able to put on the show,” he said, “but I’m also proud to say that I was able to fight for it. I mean, it’s the best civics lesson I’ve ever learned from school,” he added with a laugh. “I really got to see the power of people coming together and fighting for what they believe in.”

That fighting spirit showed on opening night.  

Hampshire High School’s production of “The Prom.” (Photo by Erik Hanson)

“There were tears on people’s faces,” said Mandy Hanson, who worked the “cast gram” table, where audience members could purchase gifts and send notes of support to cast and crew backstage. The table, she said, was slammed. “It’s been a long, challenging road to bring the show to stage, and so to be able to do it was thrilling.”

Outside the auditorium there were drones, a video command center, and at least six police cars, according to Mandy Hanson, as well as roughly a dozen district staff, including the DEI director and superintendent Harkin.

“I hope that they came in and watched the show, and I hope they really listened to it and listened to the message of it,” Mandy Hanson said. “Because this is literally like, we were living this. It’s wild how life imitates art which imitates life.” 

What does the future hold for similar performances at Hampshire? The district said they “remain open to exploring various themes,” and said future LGBTQ+ events will be be “evaluated individually.”

District superintendent Susan Harkin, who has been the face of the district’s challenges to the musical and the champion of the safety plan, is retiring later this year. Additionally, the district’s director of fine arts, Sheila Crotty-Kagan, and Hampshire High School principal Brett Bending, who was a strong proponent of the musical and who students said supported their fight to have the musical reinstated, both announced their resignations in February, according to the district’s Feb. 13 HR Report, though both will be finishing out this school year.

Despite everything, Ainsley Bryson is hopeful for the future of LGBTQ+ performances at Hampshire.

“I hope that this changes things for the better,” she said. “That our administration realizes that if they try and do something like this again, it’s not going to go over well.”

Crystal L. Paul (she/her) is a Chicago-based journalist and editor, specializing in community journalism and reporting on race and culture and the arts. @cplhousecrystal.l.paul@gmail.com.

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