Sunday, September 20, 2009

A rant about "Mature Language"

There are posters all over the Interplayers lobby warning of impending doom and global destruction, all because Terrence McNally's script for *Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune* is R-rated.
These are two adults having a one-night stand and all-night-long debate about whether they're going to make anything more of it than just sex. So while the conversation can get philosophical and even poetic, it also includes references to particular body parts and sex acts, along with fart jokes and f-bombs.
This is objectionable?
Two people have just fucked each other silly, and now they're supposed to revert to prudish standards of decorum? So why this need for "mature language" warnings plastered all over the Interplayers lobby?

How many people ever attend a play without having asked anyone ANYTHING about its content? (That is, in a world filled with electronic media, advertising and word-of-mouth, it'd be awfully difficult not to know the basic premise of this or any other stage play, if you're actually attending it.)
If you're looking for a G rating, you don't show up at a one-night-stand play in the first place. And if you're curious about how humans behave in their most intimate, vulnerable, needy moments, you're probably expecting that the language might get spicy like jalapenos.
Shouted profanity can be discomforting, yes, because audience members need to continue sitting there in the dark, more or less quiet -- and more or less lending consent to all the dirty talk by the fact of their remaining silent about it.
But when it comes to sex, love, companionship, and the pursuit of happiness, a little squirming around in our seats may not be such a bad thing. You won't change your mind about anything if you don't get a little uncomfortable first.

The point being: Why is Spokane posting R-rated warnings that would have been appropriate 40 years ago but which now seem superfluous and quaint? When people fuck and then discuss it afterwards, they tend (surprise, surprise) to use the word "fuck."

The 1991 movie with Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino sanitized most of that out. It was intended for a general audience, and the suits took out whatever they deemed objectionable. (They got an R rating.)

But in the theater, we need to feel that we're nearly in the room with these two. And a couple engaged in all all-night boinking session are not about to shy away from colorful terms.
Every single person in the Interplayers auditorium had to know that they were about to witness a play about fornicators -- a one-night stand, working-class characters, emotions laid bare, a very frank discussion. So why are we making such a big deal here about the dirty talk?
Reed McColm told Bobo that he had to soft-sell the script to the Interplayers board, downplaying all the off-color language that McNally's characters use.
For some, prolific profanity is a deal-breaker: If a play has it, they're not going. And that's their right.
What I'm objecting to is the notion that profanity-laced plays are somehow a) unrealistic or b) ipso facto immoral.
But they'll miss out on the play's ultimately hopeful message. The Christian message of salvation -- we are all sinners, God's grace has redeemed us, we must endure, we must choose to live generously -- is actually validated by a play like Frankie and Johnny.
It isn't a bleak or immoral play; it's an honest and hopeful one. I just wish it were being given a better production than it currently is at Interplayers.
[ spoof R-rating from ]

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At September 20, 2009 11:45 AM , Blogger Bobo the Theater Ho said...

Will this rant never end?
I wanted to expand on a couple of points.
David Mamet's plays are infamous for their high percentage of f-bombs. I'm not bothered by it, personally, though I think Mamet's supporters tend to way over-emphasize the assertion that the torrent of vulgarities just goes to show how inarticulate Mamet's characters are. Surely we don't need to get hit over the head THAT often just to make that point. (When I cuss, I know I'm not exactly being quotable. I get it.)
On the other hand, when riding our beloved STA, I have frequently been subjected to packs of roving street kids who insert F--- loudly into every other sentence. And have, on at least two occasions, confronted them about it. And been confronted, nicely enough, with apologies, cessation of cussing and lowered voices.
My point is that showering unsuspecting little old ladies and other tender-eared creatures while traveling on a public conveyance IS exactly the kind of can't-escape-it exposure to profanity that ought to be proscribed.
Going to a drama in which you'd damn well better expect it is a voluntary matter and altogether different.
End of rant.
For now, at least.
Curious about what others think.

At September 21, 2009 10:06 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Those posters are the influence of the McCurdys, not the supposed prudishness of the supposed stereotypical Spokane audience.

At September 22, 2009 1:48 PM , Blogger Unknown said...

Point of clarification to Anonymous 9/21: posting the notices regarding "Mature language and situations" in "Frankie and Johnny" was an action taken by myself, as Artistic Director, in consultation with Jonn Jorgensen, the play's director. I accept full responsibility.

At September 22, 2009 2:23 PM , Blogger Bobo the Theater Ho said...

I just think that making such a big deal of the R-rated language perpetuates the reputation of Spokane as behind the times and stolidly conservative.
I am NOT in favor of unrestricted cussing at all times. But when it's predictable and appropriate, as here, it should be regarded as a matter of indifference. The cursing is NOT the most important, or among the five most important things about McNally's play.
Theaters with dirty-language plays will shock and offend some patrons, yes; they may well attract new ones who think to themselves, "At last, plays about people who think and talk like me."

At September 23, 2009 12:08 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Posting notices is a good idea in this town. I once had the interesting experience, during intermission of "Sexual Perversity in Chicago", of seeing an angry patron walk out while ranting about how disgusting it was, and how there should have been some warning about it. You'd think the title would have been a tip off.

At September 24, 2009 9:13 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Years ago I saw Interplayers' production of "Orphans." They said "Motherfucker" about every other line (Really.) No warnings were given. Bob and Joan didn't believe in doing that and never did. They managed to build an audience. Why are theatres so afraid now, I wonder.

At September 25, 2009 10:54 AM , Anonymous Rebecca said...

Firstly, I agree with your "rant" completely. I enjoy theatre precisely because I want to be challenged to think about something differently than I have before. And whether it's different language, different culture, different religion, different mores, etc., doesn't matter - it's just nice to get away from myself and see it from their eyes for awhile.

Secondly, after many years' experience in various box offices and auditoriums in the area, it's just become very clear that not everyone attends theatre for the same reasons. And while the majority of patrons react to those warning signs with amusement that their delicate sensibilities may be ruffled, there are a few that would never think to ask if there may be anything offensive being presented. Offensive to them, obviously, not to most of us. Sadly, it's those people who are the most vocal and write the angry letters to the Board and call your advertisers and tell them to stop supporting the immoral theatre that has presented such smut. And then it's that much harder to ever get to do those kinds of shows, because the decision-makers are too nervous to take any risks.

It infuriates me that we end up being held hostage to minority opinions, but I also understand the reason for the postings. The theatre company has to be able to say that no one was caught unawares - they entered the theatre knowingly, and they must take full responsibility for doing so as patrons.

It would be fair, though, for ALL shows to carry warnings: "Caution: tonight's performance contains insipid lyrics and cliched emotions", or "Please be warned that this performance will not require any use of your imagination whatsoever." Little things like that, just to prepare me for how to think about the show before I enter the auditorium and try to form my own opinion.

At September 25, 2009 4:10 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why put a sign in the lobby? People have already bought their tickets by then and it's too late. If these theatres really believed they needed to warn prople, those warnings should be in the newspaper ads and brochures.

At September 25, 2009 6:39 PM , Blogger Drew said...

Just like anything else, it comes down to money.

I run a relatively new community theatre in Davenport, WA. We've produced Bye Bye Birdie, Little Shop of Horrors, an original revue, and Into the Woods. This week I had the pleasure of attending a board meeting from the group, where a community member showed up and told us how offensive the material was.

I directed all four shows, and I was forced to clean up the language and some of the content A LITTLE BIT, and in every advertisement and newspaper article promoting the show, we post a "PG-rating" disclaimer.

I would have loved to tell this woman how stupid she was... that censorship is wrong, that we try to tell REAL stories, that even her beloved 1950's musicals aren't squeaky clean, just veiled.

But the bottom line is that in my job, I have to do what it takes to keep the doors open. So that means keeping the stupid disclaimers.

At September 27, 2009 8:59 PM , Blogger Mari Hunt said...

On the other hand... I know some folks in decidedly larger, more skyscraper-y cities, who'd like a little content warning before they enter the theater. I'm acquainted with someone who took a gaggle of grandchildren to see a show she thought sounded fun, only to find herself about 8 hands short trying to cover ears during all the sexual references. Not that colorful language is so awful, but a person wants to know what they're buying. Theater doesn't exactly have a system for that.

At October 01, 2009 11:55 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Content warnings can be given without hitting people repeatedly over the head with it. There is a middle ground.

At October 13, 2009 9:25 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Warning! The following post contains language and subject matter that some may find offensive.

Ahemm hem hemm.



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