In my second last year if high school I had the immense privilege of participating as a student representative in a joint research project between the county district boards of public health and education. The goal was to train student facilitators to run student focus group discussions about the relevance and effectiveness of the sexual health curriculum.
I was trained to be one of the facilitators but was unable to participate in the groups due to the misfortune of an enthusiastic bout of chicken pox at the age of seventeen (yeah, not an experience I recommend for anyone). Being on the committee overseeing the project, however, I was also part of the sorting and collating the following fall and of searching for ways to utilize and implement the findings.
The students were amazingly open and honest with us about how they felt and perceived things. The short answer, they didn’t feel the curriculum was relevant enough to their actual needs. Rather than lessons solely about anatomy or abstinence they wanted training in the actual life skills they needed for navigating their lives and the challenges facing them.
As one participant so eloquently put it, where the fallopian tubes are located doesn’t really come up all that often at the drive-in. Nor is it helpful when your friend comes and tells you they’re pregnant, or that their partner is beating them, or that their parents are throwing them out of the house because they found out they were gay.
Some kids spoke of having positive experiences and feeling helpfully supported but most were looking for actual ‘what to do if or when’ kind of information and had quite a few suggestions, requests, and recommendations none the least of which was for the committee to keep working to ensure something was done with the information and that it was shared back out to the schools.
For that recommendation I was able to offer a suggestion of my own. Having just finished a production with an amazing and talented local youth theater group I felt fully confident we could put together a play capable of presenting the information in a manner true to its original tone. And at a much higher level than the play about the evils of smoking which the school board had circulated the year before. I don’t like to speak ill of other people’s creative endeavors but it really was quite terrible.
I was given the green light, assembled my team, in a few weeks the script for The Sex Files (it was the early nineties) was completed and approved by the superintendent of schools, we pitched a treatment of the play to a meeting of county officials, were given the go ahead, and rehearsals were underway heading into the Christmas break of my final year of high school.
We didn’t try to preach any particular approach or ideology, we didn’t try to propose any solutions or fixes for the problems the students pointed out. We simply presented their concerns and examples in blunt and honest ways.
An uncomfortable health teacher dropping a condom and wooden model on a student’s desk telling them to demonstrate stranding them in the position of ‘doomed to be a slut if they do, doomed to be a dork if they don’t’.
Boys posturing excessively to compensate for their insecurity and then not being able to talk to one another, or anyone, about anything of real importance.
A teacher asking for a show of hands as to how many in the class thought being gay was wrong, trapping the students in between conforming or being supportive of a friend and potentially being seen as gay themselves.
Girls feeling pressured to look and talk and act in certain ways and feeling worthless if unable to measure up.
Teachers feeling shoved in front of other people’s children without the right kind of support or training to talk about things they weren’t even fully comfortable talking about with their own children.
Students misinterpreting two teachers trying to support one another over a student disclosing something serious as them gossiping.
Parents preparing for ‘the talk’ with their kids then the father panicking and simply blurting at the dinner table he and their mother still regularly have sex.
One character, Jane, eventually disclosing to her friend she is worried her physically and sexually abusive boyfriend might have gotten her pregnant.
The students we spoke with were open and honest so we did our best to portray their feelings and perceptions as they expressed them. They were empathetic to the fact that the topics they wished were covered more were also difficult to handle but that didn’t negate their necessity.
They didn’t pull their punches so we didn’t pull ours. We opened the play with Jane being dragged off into the wings as her boyfriend droned on about how she wanted it followed by the sound of her screaming for him to leave her alone. Silence. Then ‘Ms. Thang’, my Neve Campbell lookalike friend Laura, strut onto the stage in fishnets, cut-off jean shorts, and a white shirt tied in a knot over an excessively stuffed bra to leering onlookers and the ‘You Ain’t Never Gonna Get It’ refrain from En Vogue’s iconic song.
She gave the boys a moment to ogle then read them the riot act about the impossible body images and pressures in media and male attitudes before pulling the gym socks out of her bra, tossing them in the boys’ faces, accepting an offered trench coat from another unimpressed looking girl, tying it firmly shut and striding off arms linked and ignoring them. Next scene.
I was, and still am, extremely proud of everyone involved in that play. The good friend who helped me write the script and wound up playing Jane, the board of education for giving us the go ahead to perform something that blunt and provocative, and all my actors who took on the very vulnerable and difficult material without hesitation and absolutely nailed every performance and every question and answer period afterwards.
We did one final preview performance for the relevant board of education officials that January and were given the final thumbs up. More than that, the superintendent of schools mandated every school bring us in and as a result we spent the entire month of February our last year of high school touring to thirteen schools all across the county.
Given the sexual health angle our primary contact with each school was through their head of physical education. Virtually all the schools were happy to have us even though the material challenged a lot of different ideas and people. There were a couple who weren’t quite so thrilled and one that very clearly was not, which just happened to be the school at which the local Shaw Cable affiliate was set to come film the play for us.
We arrived having flown at nearly dangerous speeds from essentially the opposite edge of the county ready to try and improve our record of thirty minutes from parking break to curtain up as the plan had been to do two performances that afternoon. One right after lunch for the junior half of the students and the second, which would be filmed, for the seniors.
As we came flying in the doors our contact, the head of the phys ed department with an immediately noticeable distaste for our presence, asked why were in such a rush. Apparently there had been a memo about amalgamating the two performances into one at about mid afternoon. He was sorry we hadn’t gotten the word but assured us the cable company knew and would to be there at the right time.
With a suddenly generous amount of time to catch our breath and prepare we asked him to show us to the stage so we could set up and just stay out of people’s way until show time. It was at that moment we fully understood the nature of the obstacle(s) we had in front of us.
We hadn’t asked for much in the technical rider for the play. A sound system our stage manager could plug into, basic stage lighting so we were visible with the ability to turn them off for black-outs, and wings for entrances and exits which were private enough for Laura to do a ‘down to the underwear’ quick-change out of her Ms. Thang get-up.
As we walked he informed us they didn’t really have a stage per-se but were going to set up some risers in their triple-gym which they could but up against a set of doors out into the hallway to act as wings. My brain was spinning through potential plan b’s, c’s, and d’s to work with whatever they were going to give us while also preparing to make it clear Laura wasn’t going to be doing her quick-change in the hallway.
When we reached the triple gym there were as yet no risers set up since there was one period of gym before the final set up. There was however, contrary to his earlier statement, a rather large and proper stage at the one end of the gym. It had a ball-net lowered and appeared to be filled with a random assortment of lazily strewn mats and exercise equipment but it was a large and proper stage.
When I began pointing at the stage our in no way condescending contact started to inform me the janitors could not possibly be freed up to clear the equipment away at that precise time. I jumped right in assuring we didn’t mind, especially since we now had all this extra time, and my gang was already up behind the ball-net and starting to organize things before he’d fully finished his excuse.
It took the six of us all of ten minutes. Voila, a clear and usable stage and their equipment was now organized and neatly stored.
Our next hurdle was lighting. When we flipped the switches he directed us to we discovered the only lights they operated were two rows of fluorescent lights on the ceiling of the stage itself, surprisingly bright from above but creating completely dark and invisible faces no matter where we stood. When I asked if there was any other lighting he began to complain about there not being any request for full lighting in the tech memo. Apparently their full lighting rig had to be bolted to the ceiling using a cherry picker. I assured him we didn’t need anything that extensive just something to cast light on our faces so the audience, and video cameras, could actually see our faces. He said he would check and see if anything could be found.
We waited about five minutes then I sent Laura and Michelle, my co-author and our Jane, to find the drama room and see if they had anything we could use. Five minutes later they were back each with a large box light we could plug in and set on the stage just as our contact was stepping back into the gym very obviously preparing to sadly inform us he had not been able to find anything. Instead he simply closed his mouth and walked back out.
We set one box light at each front corner of the stage angled in towards the center. Viola, full and sufficient front lighting and the only change we needed to make was instead of sitting on the edge of the stage during one scene the girls had to scoot back and sit cross-legged. Done. And we managed to accomplish all this before the lunch break was finished.
Our final hurdle was to get a sound check in to make sure the hook-up worked and quickly check the levels. The girls’ phys ed class was just starting so as we closed the heavy main curtains our sound guy snuck out and asked the female teacher, apparently our host’s second in command, if it would be okay for him to do a thirty second sound check while they were warming up. She said would be fine.
The sound check took ten seconds, literally. Voila, we had sound.
A short while later our host’s second in command startled us by poking her head around the curtain and informing us in icy tones she assumed there would be no further disruptions of her class. Despite the fact our sound check had been over and done with more than fifteen minutes prior we smiled calmly in the face of her unsurprising frost, assured her were completely finished, and went back to eating our now almost lackadaisical lunch.
The camera crew from Shaw, having actually received the memo, arrived right on time just as the phys ed class was wrapping up. They were warm, friendly, excited, and somewhat impressed with how well our jury-rigged lighting was working out. We were all rested, set up, and had our house music playing as the students began to filter in.
That is when our bonus hurdle presented itself. Three hundred plus students were coming into the triple gym to sit and watch an hour long play followed by a question and answer talk back and there were no chairs set up for them. Three hundred plus students were apparently supposed to spend the next hour and half or more sitting on the tile floor of a gymnasium.
Our host was a little more ready for us this time as we started lifting the flats revealing the standard chairs on carts underneath the stage. We were informed it was strict school policy that only the janitors were allowed to set up and strike the chairs.
We handed down all the folded athletic mats we had previously stacked neatly in the wings. Not quite a full ‘voila’ but at least the front third of the crowd had something to sit on.
The performance went brilliantly, perhaps one of our best. The video turned out very nicely. The kids loved it, we got great questions and more hugs from students as they left than in virtually any other school we visited. The drama and English teachers just about crushed us to death with their hugs and thanked us effusively for coming. They stopped just short of apologizing for any difficulties we might have faced and instead told us they were glad the borrowed lights worked out so well. They assured us they had all sorts of ideas for how to take the ball we had handed them and keep running with it then hugged us again.
We folded and returned the mats to the wings where we had originally stacked them as part of our strike. Some of the students who had lingered to chat with us and snag hugs even joined in. I don’t know if our host and his second were watching or not. None of us were looking.