A Catholic school district in southern Ontario has responded to complaints after its cancellation of a play about gender identity for elementary students because of age-appropriateness concerns.
The play was created and performed by Carousel Playhouse, a company with which the Niagara Catholic District School Board, which serves the St. Catharines-Niagara area, has partnered for 45 years.
The play in question, Boys, Girls and Other Mythological Creatures, was booked in five elementary schools in the school district. But after one performance last week the other schools cancelled their performances, all citing scheduling conflicts.
Carousel Players artistic director Jessica Carmichael published an open letter on the theater’s website last week, stating that she feared the cancellations were “based on misinformation, grown out of fear, intolerance, transphobia, homophobia, and misogyny.”
The Niagara Catholic District School Board responded this week, saying that the play was cancelled because school professionals believed the material of the play was inappropriate for a primarily elementary school audience.
The school argues that the content and storyline of the play was not fully disclosed in the advertising, and that it was marketed as a fairytale play rather than as a play about an eight year old boy who questions his gender identity.
According to the school district, the description of the play stated: “Deep in Simon’s basement is a secret world of imagination and adventure – where a young prince can transform into mythological creatures! Simon invites new neighbour Abby to help save a princess in a battle against a fire-breathing dragon. Meanwhile, in reality, Simon’s older brother Zach’s not so sure about all this dressing up and fairy tale business…A thoughtful and hilarious new play about our ability to transform!”
Because of the previous relationship with the company, the district did not review the play beyond the description.
“Following the first performance of the play, it was brought to the attention of the Program Department that the play was not age-appropriate for a predominantly primary audience. Further, it was not originally presented as a play about gender identity and the contents of the play required both pre-performance and post-performance discussion with students to prepare and discuss how the play’s message aligns with various curriculum expectations, including the Health and Physical Education Curriculum,” the district said.
“The decision to defer showing the play … was to afford time for further discussion and preparation with age-appropriate students and how the message links to curriculum expectations. It is unfortunate that Carousel Players did not provide a synopsis of the play that fully disclosed the content and storyline.”
In an interview with a local radio program, Niagara Catholic Director of Education John Crocco said that the district is fully inclusive and compliant with education guidelines, and that it has a responsibility to decide what is age appropriate for its students. He added that because of the misadvertising, teachers and school officials did not have time to inform parents ahead of time of the play’s content.
“We have a responsibility to students and their families first, to ensure that we teach and provide opportunities such as presentations and plays that are age appropriate and consistent with our Gospel values,” he said. “…our staff felt that the play went beyond the description and the expectations, and it was beyond the accepting of differences.
“It’s important to remember that there’s no expectation or requirement to have this play performed in our schools to meet any curriculum requirements … and we have the ability to decide if it’s performed or not,” he added.
Crocco said that additional conversations would be needed with the Carousel Players about the miscommunication about the play’s storyline and content.
In their statement, the district board said that it will continue to ensure a “safe, inclusive and accepting climate of respect, dignity and trust, consistent with the Gospel Values.”
It added that it still plans to work with Carousel Players in the future.
“It is our hope that with this learning opportunity for both Carousel Players and Niagara Catholic, we can engage Carousel Players in a further discussion about future offerings, how we can design pre- and post-discussions with students, inform parents about the content of the play and ensure that it is a rich and safe learning opportunity for all students. We look forward to continuing our longstanding relationship with Carousel Players in the future.”