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Niagara Catholic schools nixed play on gender for being ‘not age-appropriate’

Boys, Girls, and Other Mythological Creatures had been on a school tour for three weeks and been performed at 22 elementary schools.

Carousel Players photo

Five Niagara Catholic District School Board elementary schools cancelled a touring play about an eight-year-old who questions his gender last week after a superintendent expressed concerns to principals that it was "not age-appropriate for a predominantly primary audience."

On Wednesday, John Crocco, director of education at the NCDSB, said the Niagara elementary schools had pulled out of planned performances of Boys, Girls, and Other Mythological Creatures after hearing from a board official that the play aimed at Grades 1 to 4 was beyond the comprehension of younger students – and had not been clearly advertised as being about gender identity by St. Catharines-based Carousel Players.

"The decision to defer showing the play … was to afford time for further discussion and preparation with age-appropriate students and how the message links to curriculum expectations," Mr. Crocco said in a statement that defended his board as "fully inclusive, accepting and supportive" and in line with recent changes to the provincial health and physical education curriculum.

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In an open letter posted on the Carousel Players website on Friday, artistic director Jessica Carmichael expressed alarm that Mark Crawford's play – about a Simon/e who "feels boxed in by restraints of gender" while inventing a fairy tale for class – was cancelled in rapid succession by five NCDSB schools that had booked it as early as September of last year. The theatre company was told in each case that the cancellation was due to a late-scheduling conflict.

"I fear these cancellations may be based on misinformation, grown out of fear, intolerance, transphobia, homophobia and misogyny," she wrote, 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 be a girl."

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Crocco confirmed that the board was, indeed, involved in the process that led to the widespread cancellations.

But, according to Mr. Crocco, after a presentation of Crawford's play at Mary Ward Catholic Elementary School last Tuesday, the principal there contacted Superintendent Mark Lefebvre to express his concerns that the play's age-appropriateness did not match the Grade 1 to 4 range that had been recommended by Carousel Players – even in the updated curriculum that the Ontario Liberal government introduced in 2015.

"The Grade 3 curriculum … begins to talk about cultural values, beliefs, gender identity, sexual orientation, etc," Mr. Crocco explained. The curriculum has been the source of political controversy in the Niagara region. "There were students [at the play] in Grade 1 and 2."

Mr. Crocco said that Mr. Lefebvre was subsequently in communication about these concerns with the principals at the schools that withdrew from the play. He did not know why the schools and the superintendent had told Carousel Players scheduling conflicts had arisen rather than expressing concerns about the age-appropriateness of a story that engaged with questions of gender identity – and not having enough time to prepare students for it.

Mr. Crocco promised to reach out to Ms. Carmichael to discuss what he called a "miscommunication" – saying he also looked forward to talking about "the messaging that was originally presented to schools" about Boys, Girls, and Other Mythological Creatures and ways to ensure the board and the company were on the same page in the future. In his release, the director of education quoted from a Carousel Players description of the play as "a thoughtful and hilarious new play about our ability to transform!"

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Ms. Carmichael said she found it "encouraging" that Mr. Crocco was going to be in touch – the two were playing phone tag on Wednesday afternoon – but that she felt the release he had sent to media had "quite a few points of misinformation" in it. She noted that none of the five NCDSB schools that had previously booked performances had suggested that they were "deferring" them.

The theatre director added that all of her company's plays were reviewed by the NCDSB's elementary school-art consultants, who had deemed that Crawford's play fit into the grade range the theatre company specified. Information provided to principals in advance noted that the play tackled themes such as "gender," "self-expression" and "bullying" – and that the wording had been recommended by board consultants, she said.

Boys, Girls, and Other Mythological Creatures has been presented at 22 elementary schools in the Niagara/Hamilton region to the recommended age group – and Ms. Carmichael says the feedback had been consistently positive up to this point. She said that, for the time being, she still stood by her statement from Friday: "I've heard nothing to the contrary to lead me to believe that there's something else behind why those cancellations are happening."

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Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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