Maiden High School drama students performing canceled play at off-campus location

The story of how Maiden High School canceled a student production of the popular play “Almost, Maine” received attention last fall from as far away as England.

School officials said one of the most frequently performed plays in the U.S. had “sexually explicit overtones” and “multiple sexual innuendos.”

Students were disappointed with the decision but didn’t give up. With the help of former drama teacher Carmen Eckard, who’d taught some of them in elementary school, along with support from the community, the show will go on – this time at a location off-campus.

Maiden High students will perform John Cariani’s critically acclaimed play Jan. 15, 16, and 17. The production will be hosted by the United Arts Council of Catawba County at the SALT Block Auditorium in downtown Hickory.

“I feel like it will be a great show,” said Nathaniel Shoun, 17, a Maiden High student actor. “It’s pretty amazing. This is something we believed in. It shows we do have a voice.”

Shoun and other students felt “Almost, Maine,” was canceled because of a scene involving two men who realize they’re in love. While there’s no kissing or explicit behavior, “I think it scared the town and churches,” said Shoun.

In an October news release, Maiden High Principal Robert Bliss said the play had been carefully reviewed and that it contained “sexually explicit overtones and multiple sexual innuendos that are not aligned with our mission and educational objectives.

“As principal of Maiden High School, I have an obligation to ensure that all material, including drama performances, are appropriate and educationally sound for students of all ages.”

Even though rehearsals had already begun, the plug got pulled anyway.

Bliss could not be reached for comment.

When Cariani heard about the decision, “I got confused,” he recently told the Observer. “I didn’t think about it being a play about sex at all. I wrote it to be as gentle as possible.”

The play is comprised of eight short scenes, along with a prologue and epilogue, that explore the drama of love in a mythical town called Almost, Maine, on a winter Friday. Most scenes feature two characters who deal with different aspects of love.

Cariani has been supportive of the Maiden students and the New York City playwright plans to attend one of the performances in Hickory.

“I think that when people want to do something they’ll figure out a way to do it,” Cariani said. “These are great, funny, smart kids who want to put on a play.

‘Overwhelming support’

A letter from several national organizations urged Maiden High and the Catawba County Board of Education to reverse the decision. Signers included the National Coalition Against Censorship, the American Booksellers Foundation For Free Expression, the American Library Association and the Association of American Publishers.

School board chair Marilyn McReeof Maiden said cancellation of the play was an administrative decision and didn’t come before the board for a vote.

“We support our administrators,” said McRee, who had no further comment.

After the cancellation, Shoun circulated a petition to get the play back in production. Meanwhile, he connected with Eckard, who’d offered to help in a Facebook post.

When she’d heard about the cancellation of “Almost, Maine,” “it really made me mad,” said Eckard, 33, of Hickory. “I felt like I had to do something. If I couldn’t stand up for them (the students) nobody could.”

Eckard, who runs a photography and Web design business, taught drama in Catawba County elementary schools until 2008 and was a substitute teacher until 2012.

She got momentum going to mount an off-campus production of “Almost, Maine” and spearheaded a campaign that raised nearly $7,000.

“We had overwhelming support from the community,” Eckard said.

Cariani helps production

The playwright himself also helped out. Eckard said Cariani donated money and got the leasing company to waive the rights to his play, saving $350 in production costs.

“He’s been very helpful,” she said. “His insight helped the kids find their characters as real people, not just words on a page. He questioned them and pushed them just enough to lead to great discovery, which opened them up as actors, and has been lovely to watch. He’s always around by email when we need him.”

As the play’s producer, Eckard sees excitement on the students’ faces.

“They know they’re doing something important,” she said.

Mayukh Sen with the New York-based National Coalition Against Censorship, said Maiden students “have demonstrated admirable resolve and creativity, refusing to back down when hit with censorship.

“By staging the play at another local venue, they’ve sent a powerful, symbolic statement in support of artistic freedom to their censors.”

Kathryn Greathouse, executive director of the United Arts Council of Catawba County, feels the level of community support for the production “indicates people believe it should happen.”

‘Frustrated but determined’

The play’s director, Hickory lawyer Bill Morgan, directed a production of “Almost, Maine” at Newton’s Green Room Community Theater in February.

“There were no complaints that I know of,” he said. “It was very well received. I like the play. It’s very well written – quirky and mostly funny.”

Morgan said the play is “about relationships, pivotal moments in individual lives. It’s about major forks in the road for each of these characters.”

The cancellation of “Almost, Maine” left Maiden students “frustrated but determined,” Morgan said.

For months, they’ve been showing up for rehearsals three days a week, putting in three hours or more per session. The cast includes Nathaniel Shoun, Jonathan Bates, Ruby Osorio, Blake Richardson, Lilli France, Conner Baker, Winston Lee, Carlee Lemmond, Ci-Ci Pinson and Daniel White.

“They’re making a sacrifice in time,” Morgan said. “It’s a very big commitment. They’re not out to tick anybody off or upset anybody. They just want to do this play.”