Product placement the wrong lesson in high schools

April 8, 2014

Few of us attend high school theatrical productions with the expectation that they will be as memorable as Marlon Brando in the first Broadway run of “A Streetcar Named Desire” or even a touring production of “Mamma Mia” at the Benedum Center.

But the best high school productions can help engender an appreciation for the dramatic arts and teach students about the merits of teamwork and nose-to-the-grindstone hard work, virtues that also come into play on the football field or basketball court. Of course, high school plays have never received the sort of monetary support or obsessive community involvement that swirls around gridiron or hoops action, and the degree to which secondary school drama departments have lately had to rattle the tin cup was driven home in a March 20 article in The Wall Street Journal.

Focusing on a production of “Grease” in the Cleveland suburb of Cuyahoga Falls, the story reported on how the production featured aggressive plugs for a local pizza joint, complete with one of the owners getting a walk-on part, a bag lunch in the script being replaced by a pizza box from the sponsoring establishment and – surprise! – slices from the pizzeria being served at intermission.

Well, it can be said that pizza and “Grease” is, at least, an appropriate combination.

Leaving aside for a minute the question of why so many high schools feel compelled to stage pricey, well-worn behemoths like “The Phantom of the Opera” or “Les Miserables” when smaller-scale productions like “The Crucible,” “Death of a Salesman” or “Look Homeward, Angel” might better utilize the talents of students and be more artistically rewarding, resorting to product placement might be the only option some schools have. The Wall Street Journal pointed out that only about one-third of drama programs get robust financial support from their schools, whereas half of them did 20 years ago, and parents and students are faced with their own financial pressures in the wake of the Great Recession.

There is only so much, after all, that a bake sale can buy.

It’s an unfortunate reflection of the precarious place of the arts in our scholastic institutions and our broader cultural life that high schools have to resort to such heavy-handed measures to raise the curtain on student plays. High school is a place where young people learn lessons that they will carry later in life, and this is one instance where they’re being taught that expanding their aesthetic horizons isn’t as important as passing a football.



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