Thursday, March 25, 1999

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Risque scene kills school play
Director wanted to leave out sex-related part of Neil Simon play. Playwright wouldn't allow it.

By RODNEY TANAKA

LENDALE HIGH SCHOOL -- The Glendale High School production of Neil Simon's "Brighton Beach Memoirs," scheduled to open Wednesday night, was canceled due to some of its content and the inability to make changes in the text.

The play calls for a cast of seven characters. The school planned to have two rotating casts performing the play twice each. But instead of a performance, the students talked Wednesday about their disappointment in six weeks of rehearsals going to waste.

The students found out Friday the play wouldn't be staged, a decision made after discussions involving director Mack Dugger, Glendale Co-principal Gloria Vasquez, district Assistant Superintendent Joann Merrick and Superintendent James Brown.

One main area of concern by the district was a scene in which two brothers talk about wet dreams, masturbation and sex. Dugger had put a call in to publishing company Samuel French, Inc., which provide rights to produce the place, for permission to make minor changes to dialogue, including removing references to God.

Dugger later talked to Vasquez about the masturbation scene, and she talked Merrick and Brown, the director said.

He talked to the publisher again and was told he couldn't make the changes -- a problem he hadn't forseen.

"I didn't think it was a problem, but I understand their concerns," Dugger said. "I didn't think `Brighton Beach Memoirs' was controversial."
Some people suggested changing the play without permission or including the scene without district permission, Dugger said.

"That is not honorable," Dugger said. "What would that teach these kids?"
The play leads up to the scene and certain lines refer back to it later in the play, and the lines wouldn't make sense without the scene, said junior Shushan Karapetian.

The students last year performed "How I Survived High School," which also deals with sex, said senior Marissa Underwood.

Brown said the play couldn't go on with the inappropriate passage. Even if it could, the cast would have to then learn the text that had originally been omitted, he said.

"The passage is inappropriate to a high school play shown to a mixed audience," Brown said. "I think it's a wonderful play for high school if we could make some changes in the play. Since we're not permitted to do that, it's not appropriate to go ahead."
Arden Heide, who works in the royalty department of Samuel French, Inc., said his company contracts with authors to publish their works and license their plays. Neil Simon gave directions that his plays are to be performed as he wrote them, Heide said.

Neil Simon's attorney, Gary DaSilva, said by phone from his Manhattan Beach office that Simon does not allow changes to his work for four reasons -- principle, practicality, quality control and consistancy.

DaSilva added neither he nor Simon had heard about Glendale High's situation. He added, however, that the issue of changes does come up and the answer is always the same.

Simon does not allow changes because of the principle of anti-censorship and because it would not be practical for him to consider 100 requests a week or delegate the right to tamper with his work, DaSilva said.

He also does not allow changes because of quality control -- when he does changes, he does it himself. Finally, if he allows one group to change something, he would have to allow all groups the same privilege, DaSilva said.

This type of situation is part of the education process, DaSilva said.

"Part of putting on a play is not just saying the words, but also the legal and business context in which a play is produced," DaSilva said. "It's building the set and acquiring rights."

"It's not Neil Simon's fault -- he shouldn't be required to change the play," DaSilva said. "If any group finds the work objectionable, they don't have to do it."
Assistant Superintendent Merrick said the situation is unfortunate.

"It obviously means we need to look at our process for approving high school productions," Merrick said. "We need to do that early in the process so we don't have students practicing something that then results in being withdrawn."
Meanwhile, the cast is left without the play it worked on for weeks. Although some will participate in a school production of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," they said the large musical has a different feel than the intimate Simon drama.

"For some seniors, that was the last play we were going to be in," said senior Sara Mendoza. "The next one is a musical, and it's not the same chemistry."


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