After months of deliberation, the Ottawa Catholic School Board (OCSB) in December approved the performance of a gay-themed musical, a coming-out story, written entirely by one of its students.
The approval did not come without concessions on the part of the playwright, Elliot Wehrle. It would be performed only to Grade 12 students at Mother Teresa High School and attendance was optional, but nevertheless, Break Before Bend went on at a grad assembly that same month.
To Wehrle, the high-school senior responsible for Break Before Bend, the Catholic school’s decision to put on his play was no surprise.
“Our school is pretty progressive,” Wehrle says. Some of the cast members of his play are members of Roy G Biv, the school’s gay-straight alliance, which is well into its fourth year of existence.
The idea to write a high school musical first came to Wehrle in Grade 10 after he took part in a school production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar. While no stranger to playing and writing music, the 17-year-old was new to gay issues — he’s straight.
“I was fortunate enough to have one gay correspondent who basically kept it real,” he says. Over eight months, Wehrle spent hours at a time consulting this friend, whom he declined to name, on his struggles and experiences as a gay teen.
“After each time I would go home, alter, change and send him a copy of the script,” he says.
By the time he approached his principal with the project, Wehrle had spent two years composing the script and all 23 of its songs. The possibility of being turned down was daunting.
“When I first brought the idea to them, I was a little bit cautious,” he says. But somehow the idea of having a gay character didn’t faze the administrators. “They quickly assured me that they had zero problems. They were very good to me and to the show.”
Yet while the OCSB seemed to support the messages, it had reservations regarding the maturity of the content. After almost a year of meetings with administrators, chaplains and guidance counsellors, Wehrle and the board agreed to restrict the audience to Grade 12 students.
The school and school board are both “very proud of Elliot,” said Mardi de Kemp, manager of communications at the OCSB, when Xtra contacted the board. Yet she and Gerard Stephenson, principal of Mother Teresa, both refused further comment.
While Wehrle says he appreciates the OCSB’s support, he is not satisfied with the splash his show made at Mother Teresa. After scouting the Ottawa region, he decided to bring his production to Centrepointe Theatre, near Algonquin College. He will be donating the proceeds to Youth Services Bureau of Ottawa, which provides physical and mental-health services to teens.
“People are very reluctant to alter anything about their lifestyle or their personality unless something catastrophic forces them to,” Wehrle says. He and members of the cast hope the Centrepointe shows will stir up more of the kinds of discussions and introspection they say they have witnessed at their school since their December performance.
At the same time, Wehrle says that schools should not be fighting students on promoting acceptance.
“LGBT rights do not have to be at odds with faith in schools,” he says. “The predominant messages of Catholicism have to be love and acceptance; these are the messages that should be promoted.”