Berkshire Theatre Group's aim with 'Shrek' musical: All the world's an inclusive stage

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PITTSFIELD — A derogatory, slang term that was used in a recent school production of "Shrek: The Musical" will not be heard when Berkshire Theatre Group's community production of the show opens Aug. 1 at the Colonial Theatre.

The word, "tranny," was in the script of the musical that was given to the student cast at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School. The word is considered a slur that describes a transgender person.

But, according to a spokesman from Music Theatre International, which licenses all productions of "Shrek," that word, and other references that might be considered insensitive, have been removed from the script by the show's creators, David Lindsay-Abaire (book and lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (music).

"The writers have revisited the script and taken all those words out," the spokesman told The Eagle in a phone interview. "The goal here is to create theater that is inclusive."

"We are using a new version that doesn't have that [offensive] wording. This is a revised version for 2019 audiences," said Travis Daly, director of BTG's production, during an interview in BTG CEO/artistic director Kate Maguire's office at the Colonial.

The matter was the subject of discussion at last week's meeting of the Lenox School Committee, which had received a letter from a parent expressing concern over use of the word and recommending several ideas for making the school environment more sensitive.

The Lenox incident was just the latest in a series of episodes in recent years in which the "Shrek" reference has prompted an outcry. A high school production in Maryland last June caused a similar dust-up, leading to the dismissal of the parent of a transgender student, according to the Frederick News-Post. The parent, a member of the teachers union, was fired for her use of social media to criticize the drama teacher in violation of union rules.

In the Berkshires, Maguire said, Berkshire Theatre Group strives to present challenging subjects while being mindful of its audience.

"We have stages, like the Unicorn (in Stockbridge) in which we can present plays that are about the human dilemma and sometimes that is deeply disturbing," Maguire said.

By contrast, she said, the Colonial community productions "provide real heart, have great music and create characters that are mythological and archetypal.

"We are constantly reeducating ourselves to be resourceful. We are trying to instill what it means to communicate powerfully," Maguire said; "to instill an understanding that theater is a powerful tool of communication."

"Every time I go into the big community musical," Daly said, "it's with being aware of ... what people are feeling; what they are thinking."

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Based on the 2001 feature-length animated film adaptation of William Steig's book, "Shrek: The Musical" opened on Broadway in December 2008 and ran for roughly 15 months.

"It's about understanding the 'other'; understanding how we ,,, come together as a community," Daly said.

That theme is sounded in the show's anthemic song, "Freak Flag," whose lyrics say, in part:

"We spend our whole lives wishing we weren't so freakin' strange.

They make us feel the pain. But it's they who need to change

[The way they think, that is.]

It's time to stop the hiding. It's time to stand up tall.

Sing hey world, I'm different, and here I am splinters and all!

Splinters and all

Let your freak flag wave"

"We're constantly reeducating ourselves to be respectful," Maguire said. "We're entrusted with knowing our audience; guiding an audience. But we also are entrusted to be one step ahead so people will know who we are. With that trust comes responsibility ... to hold, as Shakespeare said, the mirror up to nature."

In an email forwarded to Maguire by the mother of seventh-grader Lillian Colvin — who appeared in the Lenox production and will be playing Teen Fiona at the Colonial — wrote: "We bring understanding to the audience and we teach kids to take risks in a creative and artistic way. I feel there's starting to be so many people being offended theater is going to lose the opportunity to do (challenging material) because everyone is getting too sensitive and close-minded.

"In 'Shrek,' at the end, the whole celebration song ('Freak Flag') (is) about accepting differences and celebrating each other as we are ... no matter who we are."


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