During the Notre Dame production of the play Get Smart, students raised their concern about the content. The responsibility between students and teachers – actors and directors – to critically analyze content to better fit current societal views, should remain front and centre.
By | Mileva Rodriguez Ruiz
“People thought a lot of things were okay in the 60s,” says Carlo Marchet (who played lead actor ‘Maxwell Smart’ in the drama team’s recent production Get Smart) in reference to the potentially problematic jokes that appear in the original script. Written by Christopher Sergel, Get Smart is a theatrical adaptation of the 1965 sitcom of the same title.
The play has faced student backlash for its cultural appropriation, insensitive lines, and peculiar characterizations of folks from different backgrounds. “[The characters] were all, like, caricatures… they’re different stereotypes,” said Marchet.
The social and cultural awareness expected and practised in today’s atmosphere allowed the cast and crew to drift away from the play’s original content, which played a major role in its production. Mr. Isherwood, director of Get Smart and a teacher at ND, described the situation as simply a part of “the whole process of putting on a play.”
Notre Dame performed a slightly modified version of Get Smart in 2006. In 2022, the play was re-introduced with even heavier edits.
According to Marchet, Mr. Isherwood allowed for open communication following the actors’ initial concerns; he recounts that this open discussion lead to an overall positive enviroment where dialogue changes could be made to the satisfaction of both the actors and the director.
The act of examining and critiquing films and plays with a socially progressive lens is nothing new. If not to stop the reproduction of controversial media as a whole, changes are made to address outdated, ignorant and polemic constructs.
“It’s good that…we’re able to still reproduce these plays hopefully in a positive way,” says Mr. Isherwood. Ultimately, there are no concrete guidelines when it comes to editing or addressing problematic material in art, but what has been done to address this particular issue is commendable.
Mr. Isherwood recounts that prior to auditions, he disclosed to the students interested in the play that he had addressed some problematic aspects, and would continue to do so. According to students, the need for changes was brought up during run-throughs.
Mr. Pavan, vice principal of Notre Dame, stated that each year the drama department shares a proposal with principal, Roger DesLauriers, and the Regional Education Committee (REC), which is made up of parents representing ND’s feeder schools. The general aspect taken into consideration when approving a play or a musical, from Mr. Pavan’s knowledge, is its appropriateness for a high-school setting.
He also disclosed that a proposal is set forth each year, regardless of whether the production has been done in the past.
The level of examination following the play’s proposal might have not been up to present societal standards. Mr. Pavan doesn’t recall concerns raised in the 2000s about the play, so was it deemed as a safe choice simply because it was performed previously?
When asked about potential criticism if the original play was followed, Marchet thinks it might not have been expected from adults; in other words, “they are used to the kind of stereotypes that are presented.” Mr. Isherwood thinks that when consuming societally outdated media, one has to “look at the temperature of the time, and not say that it was right, but say that that was the temperature of the time.”
Ultimately, he hopes that “[they’ve] done everything [they] can to make it… so people can just sit back and laugh and not think about these things.”
According to Mr. Isherwood, the newly modified play is not intended to make a statement on progressiveness, since it is simply a comedy. Perhaps a more appropriate way to describe the play, then, is… not regressive.
Would Notre Dame be better off not producing plays such as these?
Mr. Pavan agrees that students’ voices should be heard. Eleventh grader Alexandra Macachor believes that “[the director’s] judgment shouldn’t have to be enough” when reviewing content.
With regards to student concerns, Alexandra believes that generally, they “aren’t taken into consideration until [the situation] becomes a big problem.”
I was granted admission to watch the play in-person (Notre Dame could only host teachers due to COVID-19 restrictions) and it seems that the openness to suggestions aided in the overall student satisfaction with the play’s end result.
Ultimately, changes can be made. Get Smart’s initially tumultous run proved that it is possible to not only change how art is presented, but also how we think of it.
Yes, it is a heavy responsibility to critically analyze work and reflect upon its potential impact for all contributors: students, teachers, administration, and higher powers.
But we should continue to be mindful of the community, faith, and school and represent this through our actions, just as these students have done.