By Brian Klose
Theatre has a unique place in contemporary art and entertainment. Its inherent property of providing live dramatic entertainment to audiences night after night makes theatre one of the most compelling forms of artistic expression and entertainment.
With that power comes the opportunity to show audiences content they’ve never seen, or, more notably, content they thought they’ve never want to see. Contemporary theatre often includes shocking, disturbing, and otherwise uncomfortable content.
While many entertainment mediums, especially film and television, can contain the same content, theatre’s live quality makes audiences more susceptible to experience triggering sensations. As a result, the state of content advisories in theatre is a complicated one. The number of theaters that advertise these warnings is inconsistent, and many in the community wondering why.
Unlike film or television, the theatre business does not have a content rating system. Advertising anything regarding a production’s content appropriateness is made on a theater-to-theater basis, and for good reason. It is arguably impossible for the theatre community as a whole to abide by a blanket set of content advisory standards. The rights and licensing process necessary to put up a show dictates the liberties a theatre company can and cannot take when producing a play.
The theatre community operates at many levels, from high school to community to amateur to professional, all of which function independent of one another. Without a medium-wide regulatory organization, like the Motion Picture Association of America in film, it’s difficult to maintain a catalogue of productions across the country and impossible to manage and advertise the content of those productions, as well as censor them.
Some playwrights, in their contracts, give theater companies the right to change whatever they want about the script, so long as it keeps a slight degree of fidelity to the script. Playwright Charles Mee, an extreme example, grants theaters the right to produce his plays free of charge as long as the final production is a completely different take on his source material.
In cases where creative liberties can be taken, theaters have the opportunity to censor a script. Theaters that primarily produce musicals often take the opportunity to tone down a production’s content to widen its audience reach. Theatre is one of the least affordable forms of entertainment, and theaters that wish to reach a large, diverse audience often adapt productions to be more universally watchable and accessible.
More often than not, playwrights require theaters stick to the script as much as possible, sometimes forbidding any changes to a character’s gender, the setting, or even approaches to any particular play’s most challenging content.
In cases where companies decide to produce plays without any opportunities to change or adapt their content, the theater must grapple with the risk of any negative repercussions if a play contains content deemed incredibly inappropriate.
My first experiences of theatrical censorship came during my time as a student at a Catholic high school. The school’s drama program performed the play “Almost, Maine,” a relatively tame piece of theatre that is most usually used to introduce high school students to more adult-oriented themes, like marriage woes, drunkenness, and, most controversially to my school, homosexual relationships. My school decided to change the gender of one character, preventing a staging of a gay couple. The school’s mission to keep in line with Catholic values undermined the moral and ethical message of the play.
Decisions like the one made by my high school are not unique or unusual in the theatre community. Many amateur theaters are non-profit organizations with clear mission statements that dictate the themes and content of their productions.
Theaters that choose to perform plays with questionable or uncomfortable content often perform them exclusively, advertising the content in ways that both effectively communicates the content warning and fit the theater’s image. Audiences that attend these productions expect this content. This makes it less plausible for audience members to take issue with the content.
It is difficult for there to be any sort of content advisory system that spans the entire theatre community. But should there be any system at all? Should plays be required to uphold the same sort of warnings and advisories that film and television have? The community has presented arguments for both sides.
Those on the side of warnings argue the live aspect of theatre has the capability to cause much more visceral and dangerous reactions for those who can be triggered by specific content, like rape, domestic abuse, or extreme violence. Those against it claim warnings coddle the audience, preventing them from having an authentic experience, as well as undermining the artistic integrity of those involved in the production.
I believe content advisories, at their least invasive application, do nothing but benefit a production and the good of a theater. An informed and prepared audience can make for a happier, more fulfilled audience.
I also find some truth in the claim that warnings compromise the integrity of a production. Theatre has the capability to directly move people more effectively than arguably any other form of entertainment. A prepared audience, while more comfortable with the content, can also lead to a less affected audience.
To stay relevant, theatre requires risk-taking. Undermining risk-taking and the effect it has on audiences brings its own risk of making theatre unimportant.