Earlier this year, the administration at Cedar Grove High School in New Jersey attempted to cancel the school’s production of the queer musical The Prom due to “community concerns.” After widespread criticism, the administration eventually changed course, but the incident served as a reminder that, despite some important advancements, gay actors and characters in high school theater are still sidelined.
Partly as a response to this dearth of representation, Jay Kinsel, the theater director at Centaurus High School in Lafayette, is working with his students to create an LGBTQ-affirming adaptation of Arthur Miller’s landmark 1953 play The Crucible. The original work, set during the 17th century Salem witch trials, was a critique of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s efforts to blacklist suspected communists — but Kinsel and his students are using the script’s themes to address discrimination against queer communities.
Although Kinsel has always been a fan of The Crucible in its traditional interpretation, he sees it as a living work that can address contemporary “witch hunts,” too.
“People get too lost in the McCarthyism when doing the play,” Kinsel says. “The Crucible doesn’t need to be stuck in the time it was written; I’ve always thought the central allegory could be changed to be more relevant to modern issues.”
Kinsel’s inclusive reframing of Miller’s celebrated play is an extension of the teacher’s mission to create a welcoming environment for all Centaurs Theater Company (CTC) students.
“High schools need spaces where students can receive unconditional support,” Kinsel says. “Students who are still figuring out how they identify need to be given a positive space where they will be surrounded by other students who have been on a similar journey and staff who respect them.”
When Kinsel mentioned doing a refresh of The Crucible to CTC’s student board members and script analysis team, there was some hesitation. Ava Zackoof, CTC’s student publicity director who plays Abigail in the understudy cast, says they “only wanted to do this show if it had some deeper meaning that provoked a conversation within the audience.”
Sparking a dialogue
When searching for a new twist on a classic tale like The Crucible, CTC students saw the most potential in exploring its themes through a queer lens. “Miller’s play is about people in power attempting to gain control of society’s most marginalized people,” says assistant director and CTC president Caleb Loewengart. “LGBTQ+ issues hit closer to home for students today than fears about the Red Scare.”
Because the subject was so important and deeply personal to many of the students involved, they set out to address it sensitively.
“I was personally a little intimidated by the idea because it’s something that affects me in my everyday life, and it felt really real,” says Ruby Loewengart, the production stage manager.
As part of this mission of sensitivity, the group wanted to make sure their depictions of gay characters didn’t rely on outdated and harmful stereotypes. During the development of the play, the students spoke with a CSU queer scholar about how to accurately portray queer characters in a historical context.
One way the production communicates to the audience which characters are gay is through subtle pops of lavender colors on characters’ costumes — a nod to the history of clandestine communication among members of the LGBTQ+ community.
“While the connection between subtle accessories or certain colors and queerness does not necessarily go back as far as the Salem Witch Trials, there is a deep-rooted history within the queer community of using codes to communicate with each other when they couldn’t be so open,” Caleb says.
Seeing students take such initiative and ownership over the production has been the most rewarding part of the experience for Kinsel, who sees himself as the custodian of their story.
“Giving them so much control encouraged them to think about and invest in their storytelling,” he says.
Though there has been some opposition to the play from people outside the school, Kinsel was prepared for it and is grateful for the administration’s support. “My administration team didn’t blink,” Kinsel says. “I’m not sure how many administration teams would have reacted this way.”
After reviewing CTC’s plan for a proposed LGBTQ-centered adaptation of The Crucible, the administration approved the play and got to work making sure the students could safely share their experiences.
“There were so many things that could have gone wrong with this idea,” Loewengart says. “But, seeing where we are now and how far we’ve come, I’m excited to share the show with an audience because I feel like we are actually going to make an impact.”
To help make that impact a reality, CTC students have put in hours after school to finish their original adaptation of Miller’s classic play — which they hope will resonate with audiences long after the curtain closes.
“We just want to inspire a conversation,” Kinsel says. “If we can do that, we have done our job.”
ON STAGE: ‘The Crucible.‘ Various times, Nov. 9-12, Centaurus High School, 1033 South Boulder Road, Lafayette. Tickets here.