During the 1921 Rome premiere of Luigi Pirandello’s play “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” part of the audience became so upset that they began loudly shouting, resulting in a near-riot. The playwright, Luigi Pirandello, was forced to escape through the theater’s side door.
While infamous incidents like this are rare, less boisterous but still controversial reactions to theater productions still abound in an age of social re-assessment over their content.
How do theaters and their producers handle difficult characters or themes in an age of intense debate over political correctness? How and where does one draw the line on what may be too offensive for a modern audience?
Earlier this spring, a group of students at Western Washington University launched a petition over the Theatre and Dance Department’s intention to stage Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit.” The petition concerned the play’s depiction of a lesbian character, and whether or not that depiction would cause harm to members of the LGBTQ+ student theater community. The petition also questioned the play’s depiction of another character as “a shallow female stereotype,” and whether content within the play could trigger trauma for someone having experienced sexual harassment or assault.
In a written response of more than 4,000 words to the petition, faculty and staff of the department said they respected the courage of petitioners to voice concerns, but determined that to cancel production on those grounds could be potentially stifling to the theater’s ability to freely explore artistic ideas.
Glenn Hergenhahn-Zhao, executive director for Bellingham’s Sylvia Center for the Arts, said he agrees with the faculty response — not just with respect to “No Exit,” but with play productions in general. He said there isn’t an obligation for a theater or its leaders to censor or revise a potentially controversial element of a script.
“I probably come down pretty fiercely on the anti-censorship and expression of ideas side,” he explained. “That being said, artistic directors and producers make decisions all the time about what content to tackle. So, there’s all sorts of self-censorship, and addressing those concerns, going on behind the scenes.”
To address, or not to address
In 2002, the iDiOM Theater — which Hergenhahn-Zhao founded and now operates under Sylvia Center auspices — was known as the local theater where you could swear, he said. Other production houses like the Bellingham Theater Guild, he added, did not allow on-stage cussing at the time.
Since then, Hergenhahn-Zhao said the community has actually become more open-minded, and not less, in accepting mature material.
“There are a lot of plays at the Theater Guild, in recent years, that never would have been staged 20 years ago,” he said. “Our reputation of being edgy has definitely faded away, and we haven’t really changed what we’re doing.”
There have only been three or four plays since the theater’s 2001 founding that elicited angry letters or concern, Hergenhahn-Zhao said. One was “The Marriage of Bette and Boo,” Christopher Durang’s autobiographical play where jokes are made about his mother’s multiple miscarriages. Another was “The Pillowman,” a Martin McDonagh script containing violent imagery involving children.
That production led to letters about gratuitous violence, but Hergenhahn-Zhao said discussions regarding the play’s violence and themes eventually led the upset parties to embrace the play, resulting in their continued patronage of the theater.
“In general, we haven’t had to deal with it very much,” he said of backlash. “Our community that we’ve created has come to the plays that we do, and come with an open attitude about risk and artistic expression, that things are allowed to fail, things are allowed to fall short, and things are allowed to be imperfect.”
Hergenhahn-Zhao speculates that increasingly liberal tendencies on some college campuses — environments different from many community theaters — have led to increased talk of censorship and trigger warnings prior to viewing a play.
And while those trigger warnings come from a good place, Hergenhahn-Zhao said they can potentially mire a play’s audience in preconceived notions before they’ve even seen the play, altering their experience of that art — for better or for worse.
Generally, iDiOM has avoided full trigger warnings before productions for that reason, he said, although a Western student-assisted production of “The Love of the Nightingale” resulted in a content warning — within a director’s note — following a discussion with the students.
In some cases, a trigger warning can be impractical if it threatens to spoil a play’s plot. This was the case with a 2014 Salt Lake City performance of Ira Levin’s “Death Trap,” in which a reveal about a relationship between two characters turns the play upside down, Hergenhahn-Zhao said. Although a patron at the performance was incredibly upset by the reveal, mentioning it in a content warning would have ruined the play for the rest of the audience, he said.
The concept of a talkback — in which a play’s producers and cast talk with an audience about the production after it’s over — is another solution to addressing controversy.
Jason Parker, a choir and drama teacher at Bellingham’s Squalicum High School, sees talkbacks as having great value for audiences, depending on a particular script’s themes.
“It’s a good opportunity, especially for students’ peers,” he said, “to engage with them after they see them on-stage, especially if it’s been something that has been uncomfortable.”
At the community level, Hergenhahn-Zhao feels differently.
“I think they rarely accomplish what people want them to accomplish,” he said.
As a whole, the decision to forewarn an audience of what’s ahead is ultimately a choice each theater must confront for itself.
“If that is the lesser of two evils — if you think there’s a greater evil out there, that someone might get hurt watching the play, or emotionally scarred — then those are the decisions that people make,” he said. “We’re really far away from those decisions (as a theater).”
Concerns of controversy also resonate in public education.
Parker said that choosing productions at Squalicum has definitely not gotten easier in the six years he’s been there.
“There is so much literature that is, in some way, questionable now,” he said. “Whether it’s in regard to ethnicity, gender identity or even gender equality — the way women are treated in some scripts is incredibly inappropriate now.”
Although some may see theater as a vehicle for social discussion or change, Parker said that theater in public education is more about providing students with well-rounded theater experiences and skill-building. With this in mind, Parker works with his students to discuss the skills and genres they want to have tackled by the time they graduate. Typically, students cycle through a variety of different genres, including producing a Victorian period piece, some Shakespeare, modern comedy or drama and a musical.
Parker said he’s still trying to find the best balance of pushing boundaries without crossing a line into offensiveness when choosing scripts to produce. But the question comes up often, he said, of what exactly is offensive.
“Every script, on some level, could be offensive to somebody,” he said. “So it is a struggle, for sure.”
Intention and value
In determining what plays to pursue in a given school year, Parker asks his students what plays they’d like to stage, and also provides his own suggestions. He also works with several other adult team members — including a tech director, costumer, and in the case of a musical, the school’s band and orchestra directors — to assess what’s logistically feasible.
Occasionally, students bring forward scripts with scenes inappropriate for high school audiences, and Parker then has conversations about what may be a better option.
Controversy hasn’t been courted much during Parker’s tenure at Squalicum, but several years ago, some parents were upset over the inclusion of a pot-smoking scene between characters in the Dolly Parton musical “9 to 5.”
An anonymous complaint was submitted after the production, but both students and the adults involved in production felt it was fine to keep the scene due to marijuana’s legality in Washington state.
“There are shows that have drinking, and without question, we let that be okay,” Parker said. “But that was a boundary that somebody complained about.”
Although Parker said he would love to eventually approach more difficult scripts, such as “The Laramie Project” — a play about the real-life 1998 murder of a gay student at the University of Wyoming — he said it is predicated on what student actors and community members can handle.
“If we’re going to do a piece that is controversial, or has social ramifications,” he said, “can the students deliver it in a respectful and appropriate way?”
Still, Parker said his creative choices have always been professionally respected by administrators. If an issue arises, he added, they have his back as long as his decisions are sound ones.
“There has to be intention with every decision that’s made,” he said. “If you choose a piece — and frankly it doesn’t matter what type of a show it is — you have to have intention and a reason behind it with educational value.”
It’s down to balance
Most production controversies, Hergenhahn-Zhao said, come down to an individual or small group of people trying to, in some way, censor a work of art.
And while he admits the importance for people — especially students on a college campus — to be allowed to voice concerns, he said there is danger in amplifying those voices against the weight of a theater’s artistic decisions, the basic freedom of a piece of art to exist, and to be seen as it was intended.
“It’s kind of like an angry parent writing to the PTA,” he said. “One parent can turn the whole school system on its ear.”
Regarding “No Exit,” he finds it somewhat ironic that Sartre had to fight Nazi censorship laws of his era just to have the play — including the inclusion of a homosexual character — see the light of day. The petition suggested replacing the production of “No Exit” with several other plays, but as both Hergenhahn-Zhao and the WWU faculty response point out — those suggestions all had similar or more concerning flaws regarding potentially offensive content.
In the end, Hergenhahn-Zhao said producing a potentially-controversial play comes down to achieving balance: granting an audience the freedom to approach that art and experience it personally, without pre-conception, while still finding a way to alert them to potential experiences they may wish to avoid.
The allure of the theater itself, he hopes, is what still matters most.
“In this town, what really lights a fire under people to come see a play is the word that it’s a phenomenal play,” he said. “I don’t see people avoiding or flocking to a theater when they hear that there’s something controversial.”
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