At least 10 different local schools staged productions of the musical “Mamma Mia!” in 2019, a coincidence that set writer Grace Ellis on a mission. “I decided I wanted to go to all 10 of the schools and talk to the directors,” Ellis said, “because that is a lot of ‘Mammas.’”
In the course of doing these interviews, Ellis met and formed a bond with Gahanna Lincoln High School theater teacher Cindi Macioce, who invited Ellis to collaborate in 2020, hoping to create a special memory for drama students during a year when the pandemic upended the education system and prevented the school from putting on a more traditional production. The two brainstormed, eventually conceiving of a play set in a football stadium, with the students rehearsing via Zoom before gathering outdoors for small-group film sessions in January 2021.
The pair teamed again in 2022, creating an in-person show around the opening of a high school time capsule, with half of the play set in the 1970s and the other in modern times.
Now, with the partnership between the two moving into its third and likely final year (Macioce plans to retire this summer following 28 years at the school), the two have again crafted a production heavily influenced by the environment in which it is set to debut, introducing “Explicit Content for Teens” at a time when school boards and state governments across the United States are increasingly restricting access to materials they deem problematic for students, much of which relates to the LGBTQ+ community.
“After the show last year, we did a debrief and we were talking to the kids, just chatting, and the topic of censorship came up,” said Ellis, who joined Macioce for a late April interview in the Gahanna Lincoln High School theater, where students will debut “Explicit Content for Teens” with a 7:30 p.m. performance on Tuesday, May 2. “And it turned out the kids had a lot of feelings about it, and a lot of feelings I had never really heard before. … Most of the kids, though, their response to being told they couldn’t look at something was to seek it out and try to find a way to experience it themselves. So, the question becomes, how do you make these decisions for other people? How do you collectively decide what is appropriate for kids? And should you?”
Ellis said this conversation was spurred in part by the 2022 production of “She Kills Monsters,” which features a lesbian character and moved ahead at Gahanna Lincoln without a hitch. Ninety minutes away at Hillsboro High School, however, the same play was shut down by the administration, leading the students to raise funds needed to stage the show independently over the summer. “And now it feels like there’s a story literally every single day about free speech somewhere,” Ellis said.
The action in “Explicit Content” centers on a group of drama students who are preparing for a play that is subsequently banned by the administration, citing its objectionable material. Two Gahanna theater classes are involved in the production, with one portraying the kids as they read the play together in secret, and the second acting out the show as it is performed onstage in real time. In a twist, the audience will vote to determine how the play ends, with one option censoring the explicit content and the other presenting it as written.
Macioce didn’t flinch when Ellis first pitched the concept, believing the theater to be a place where difficult conversations need to take place. “And it’s not always about the theater. I want them to think,” Macioce said of her students. “I want them to form opinions however that looks to them. And this has allowed them, I think, to do that in a safe space where they can be who they are and who they want to be. … People are trying to tell kids what to think, and I think the whole point of education is getting them to think.”
Ellis said the students have been instrumental in shaping the play, giving definition to everything from the language used by the characters to the larger ideas contained within. “It was essential that my viewpoints be secondary and take a real backseat,” said Ellis, a comics writer who previously collaborated with Baltimore artist Hannah Templer on Flung Out of Space, which explored the untold history of author Patricia Highsmith. “My goal is to get people to engage with each other on this topic, and to think about how they form their opinions.”
Macioce, who invited both the superintendent and the school board to the performance on Tuesday, said the voice most often missing in the current conversation is that of the students, and that the theater creates the ideal setting for engaging that needed perspective.
“These kids think more deeply than anyone gives them credit for,” she said. “If you want to find out what’s missing or what needs to happen, go to them. If you allow them and they feel comfortable, they’ll tell you.”