Does Carnegie Vanguard’s HOLY DAY go too far for high school theatre?

Don’t come to Carnegie Vanguard High School’s UIL One-Act Play (OAP) production of Holy Day by Andrew Bovell expecting laughs. This isn’t Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Over the River and Through the Woods, or The 39 Steps. If you want to see something familiar, perhaps The Caucasian Chalk Circle for the umpteenth time, then I am sure there will be a production around the corner. There are three productions of The Caucasian Chalk Circle alone next week at Texas’s UIL One-Act Play Competition in Austin where Carnegie Vanguard will compete for the 6A State Championship with its highly original production of Holy Day.

If you are looking for professional-grade theatre that is brave, raw, and real, then Holy Day will deliver. Holy Day received its world premiere in 2001 at the State Theatre Company in South Australia. Since then, the play has received few productions, making this a powerfully fresh choice for a Texas high school theatre competition. In 2014, Carnegie Vanguard won the 5A UIL OAP state competition with When the Rain Stops Falling, another Andrew Bovell title.

Holy Day begins with two men and a mute boy entering a traveler’s inn. The minister’s wife appears—her husband has died, the church has burned to the ground, and her baby has been stolen, supposedly by Aboriginal peoples. The remaining 40 minute cutting (per UIL OAP rules) entangles greed and survival between the four leading players: the inn-keeper Nora, the drunken nomad Goundry, the minister’s wife Elizabeth, and the Aboriginal woman Linda. All four actors deliver performances unlike anything I’ve ever seen on a high school stage. Indeed, as the performances in Holy Day demonstrate, to call Carnegie Vanguard “high school theatre,” which often comes with a connotation of “amateur,” would be to undermine it.

Holy Day explores colonialism, brutality, deceit, murder, and racism on the 19th century Australian frontier, on the borderlands of white and black, of frontier life and indigenous life. While Carnegie Vanguard’s production design is beautiful, with professional-looking projections on a jagged-edged tableau, this is indeed a story about the ugly side of life on the frontier and the realities of colonialism.

Aside from the gorgeous projections, Holy Day features a soundscape of rain, thunder, and didgeridoos. The bare set—save a tree and a table—is filled with a shadowy vastness, a metaphor for the harsh expanse of the Australian outback and the secrets that lie in the shadows of Carnegie Vanguard’s powerful Holy Day. As the projections show, life on the frontier is in a constant state of motion that involves violent collisions amidst a world of heightened naturalism. The vast darkness allows the spectator to focus on Bovell’s words and the explosive performances that give them life. Each character is nuanced and flawed in some way. No one is left unscathed.

As an Australian Gothic play, Holy Day often shows the ugly side of humanity by rendering a frighteningly real look at the effects of colonialism in Australia. The play offers a glimpse into the atrocities of colonialism against the Aboriginal population in Australia where, much like in the United States, European settlers pushed indigenous peoples off their lands and, in many cases, murdered them. As Holy Day shows, children were taken by settlers to be raised as Christians, only to become the servants to white settlers and the victims of physical abuse. As in the United States, these histories are not taught across the curriculum in Australia, making Holy Day a bold choice for Carnegie Vanguard to start a dialogue through theater.

Yet, as anyone who has been following Carnegie Vanguard’s road to the UIL OAP State Finals has observed, the dialogue has instead centered on unfounded complaints from opposing schools that the production is “offensive.” People are asking “What is too far for high school theatre?” and “How edgy should high school theatre be?” In fact, many of the people weighing in against Holy Day have admittedly not seen this production nor read the play script. I’m looking at you, Todd Starnes, who penned an opinion piece, “School play depicts rape, filthy language and public urination,” for Fox News. Simply put, if you haven’t seen or read the play then you have no right to be offended.

Would classics such as Carousel not go “too far” if they were directed with a heavy hand to foreground the domestic violence inflicted on Julie Jordan? Could this not be potentially traumatizing to an audience member who has experienced domestic violence? Is it acceptable to sing racist lyrics in West Side Story while your high school’s students of color are experiencing overt and subtle racism on a daily basis. Examples such as these are innumerable.

Let me break Holy Day down from my perspective of having seen the production three times.

Some have complained about the language in the play. Yes, Holy Day includes a few profanities—“bitch,” “shit,” and “bastard”—but this language is used to accurately capture the historical moment that Holy Day portrays. Sure, these words might be offensive to some in 2016, but have you walked down the halls of a high school in the last 20 years? Have you seen a high school play outside of the bubble you live in? Have you seen a PG-13 movie recently? Have you read a John Green young adult novel recently?

One of Todd Starnes’ chief complaints is the depiction of sex and rape in Holy Day, which I will add, never happen on-stage. Yes, we hear the screams of both characters once they are off-stage, but we never see it (many of the complaints have made it sound like these rape scenes occur on-stage). Of course, rape and sexual violence are difficult topics, but if we can’t be having these conversations in theatre then where can we have them? Is theatre not supposed to be a place to have difficult conversations and get people talking? We do a disservice to our students to ignore the topic of rape. As nearly every statistic reveals, 1-in-4 women in college are the victim of rape or sexual assault. The numbers are staggering by any standard. Sexual assault is very real and, like it or not, a lived reality of high school aged-students, both male and female.

Others are upset that a character in Holy Day urinates and that another female character washes her private parts. The fact that I saw this production 3 times and neither of these things ever stood out to me is significant. The reason is simple; Holy Day is not a play about either of these things. They are quick glimpses that add nuances to each character. Even so, since when is urinating away from the audience upstage offensive? People have been saying that the actor “drops his pants.” Yes, he drops his pants and is wearing long johns. Do I need to recount every high school play I have seen with a boy in long johns or a girl in a slip?

So, does Holy Day go too far? Is it too edgy? My answer is a resounding “no.”

The play met the community standards. The principal approved it. Houston ISD approved it and issued a statement supporting the production. The Carnegie Vanguard parents have unwaveringly supported the show. The contest managers and adjudicators of six rounds advanced the play to the next round, often in the first place slot. Not to mention that there have been copious amounts of warnings before all rounds of UIL OAP competition. There were printed warnings in the program and on the doors. And, at nearly every round, the contest manager issued a warning before the play, reminding the audience that the play was approved by the principal. In all instances, warnings reiterated that the plays competing met their community standards and may not be acceptable for all audiences.

So what is the problem? The fact that complaints have nearly entirely come from parents associated with opposing schools whose work was not to Carnegie Vanguard’s level is revealing. Rather than publically speak against the bold work of these students, why not make a vow to improve your own work? Help your students hone their craft during the summer. Find opportunities for self-growth. Make the best use of your professional development funds. Don’t have professional development funds? Fundraise and make it happen. Pick an exciting and new play that showcases your cast’s talents. Be bold with your design. Be creative. Don’t use projections for the sake of simply using projections. Make sure your play’s cutting is dramaturgically sound.

I urge anyone who can to see Carnegie Vanguard’s Holy Day—Friday, May 20 in Houston and Wednesday, May 25 in Austin. It isn’t often you can see high school professional theatre like this.


Carnegie Vanguard will be performing Holy Day at the world-renowned Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland this August. Please go here to donate to this life-changing opportunity for these students!

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