The last-minute cancellation of a touring play called Boys, Girls, and Other Mythological Creatures at five Niagara Catholic District School Board elementary schools has the director and playwright at a St. Catharines theatre for young audiences seeking answers.
Carousel Players artistic director Jessica Carmichael published an open letter on the theatre's website Friday after she did not receive "a satisfactory or open conversation" about why, over the course of 48 hours last week, the schools in question all developed scheduling conflicts with planned presentations of Mark Crawford's play about an eight-year-old named Simon/e who feels "boxed in by the restraints of gender."
"I fear these cancellations may be based on misinformation, grown out of fear, intolerance, transphobia, homophobia and misogyny," wrote Ms. Carmichael, posting a screenshot from a Facebook post where parents whose children had seen the show complained it taught kids "if a boy plays dress up he mights [sic] be a girl."
The Niagara Catholic District School Board, however, is not making officials available to discuss the cancellations – and whether they were co-ordinated at the board level.
"As a fully inclusive and supportive Catholic Board for all students and staff, decisions regarding offering presentations to students from community members are made upon individual consideration and review," spokesperson Jennifer Pellegrini said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail. "We will continue to follow our process when presentations are offered to be delivered within our school communities."
Boys, Girls, and Other Mythological Creatures, which is aimed at students from Grade 1 to 4, appears to be a new flashpoint in the controversy over the health and physical education curriculum the Ontario Liberal government changed in 2015 to include concepts such as "gender identity" as early as Grade 3.
Progressive Conservative Party Leader Patrick Brown has changed his mind and said he won't repeal the curriculum if elected, but still faces backlash from some corners of his party and supporters – notably in the Niagara region, where Carousel Players has operated for the past 45 years. Sex-ed opponent Sam Oosterhoff was elected as MP there in November – and recently won the nomination for the party in a new Niagara West riding.
Ms. Carmichael says that Mr. Crawford's play about Simon/e who, while inventing a fairy tale for a class assignment imagines being a princess, speaks directly to the updated curriculum that states in its introduction that it is critical to "create an atmosphere in which students of all body shapes and sizes, abilities, gender identities and sexual orientations, and ethnocultural, racial and religious backgrounds feel accepted, comfortable and free from harassment."
In her letter, Ms. Carmichael writes that the message of the play isn't about Simon's questions surrounding gender – but about whether "the family surrounding Simon/e can face their fears, find acceptance and continue to love one another no matter what."
Ms. Carmichael adds: "It's about someone who's questioning – at the end of it, they're still questioning."
Boys, Girls, and Other Mythological Creatures had been on a school tour for three weeks and been performed at 22 elementary schools in the Niagara region and around Hamilton when it had its first performance at a Niagara Catholic District School Board school on April 25. At that performance, Ms. Carmichael spoke with the principal in advance about the show's themes and saw a board trustee, Rev. Paul MacNeil, in attendance.
That night, Carousel Players received two cancellations of the play from NCDSB schools – and the following day three more. Three had been gifted performances by donors, while two had agreed to pay for the shows. All had received study guides explaining the show's themes much earlier – and some had booked as far in advance as September, according to Ms. Carmichael.
According to Carousel Players, all of the cancellations came with reasons along the lines that there was now a conflict with the play. One e-mail shared with The Globe and Mail with the identifying school removed read: "Unfortunately we will need to cancel the performance for May 2nd as we have many activities that we have overbooked and they conflict."
Unable to receive any further explanation from the principals at the schools in question, Ms. Carmichael contacted Superintendent of Education Mark Lefebvre last week, who e-mailed her that, "It is the prerogative of each school principal to determine what events she or he schedules at their school. Cancellation of events that conflict for whatever reason, is also the prerogative of the school principal."
In a later phone conversation, Ms. Carmichael says she was told by Mr. Lefebvre that if she continued to press the issue she "would lose the Catholic School Board forever" – and was hung up on.
Calls to Mr. Lefebvre and school trustee Father Paul MacNeil – as well as principals at several schools that cancelled performances – were not returned by deadline. Follow-up questions from The Globe and Mail e-mailed to the board spokesperson were not answered.
Unable to open a dialogue with the board, Carousel Players will be hosting a free public performance of Boys, Girls, and Other Mythological Creatures on Wednesday at the Silver Spire United Church in St Catharines.