Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Thoughts on Offending the Audience - Intro

Posted by Bruce Miller
I don’t enjoy offending people. Honestly I don’t. The graphic to the right, I've been told, is borrowed from boy's lacrosse. It's a signal that relates to "offensive screening." It was mailed to me by an audience member who wanted to remind me that what I do is potentially offensive.

I value this signal. I also increasingly buy into that old saw that says if you’re not making somebody mad, you must not be doing it right.

Offending someone is, of course, not the same thing as boring someone. Two of my favorite productions at Barksdale (The Crucible by Arthur Miller and The Lark by Jean Anouilh, adapted by Lillian Hellman) bored some members of our audience. I directed both productions.

Both plays relate to history (the Salem witch trials and the McCarthy era in the case of The Crucible, the Joan of Arc story and the McCarthy era in the case of The Lark). Both plays are politicized (we’re talking Arthur Miller and Lillian Hellman after all). Both plays are narrative and language-heavy, written by playwrights who thrive on polemics, unapologetically requiring audience members to care about the issues the playwrights care about. Both plays are long by 21st century standards—The Coast of Utopia notwithstanding.

I love(d) both plays and both productions. And I know lots of other people who do (did) too. But on different nights during the runs of both shows I found myself sitting next to John Q Public audience members who fell asleep about ten minutes into Act I, clearly bored out of their minds.

Offending someone is, of course, not the same thing as confusing someone. The Lark confused some people in addition to boring them—two, two, two mints in one. Two other personal favorites at Barksdale (James Joyce’s The Dead, written by Richard Nelson with music by Shaun Davey, and The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers) confused some members of our audience as well. The remarkably talented Steve Perigard and Scott Wichmann (does Richmond know how lucky it is to have these guys?), respectively, directed those two productions. They directed them beautifully.

The Lark is character and theme-driven; The Dead and The Member are both character and language-driven. Unlike most dramatic literature, these three plays are not particularly plot-driven. Take away a strong linear plot, and some people feel lost. “What the hell was that all about?” was a question I heard more than once after each of these three shows.

To me, these plays were “about” a hundred things, and I felt emotionally richer for having seen them. Again, I know lots of other people who also loved these productions.

Offending someone can be the same thing as challenging someone. Personally, I like my beliefs, feelings and thoughts to be challenged. More to the point, I need my deeply held convictions to be challenged. Unless and until they are tested, how do I know what I really value and hold dear?

But many people have different brain chemistry, I know. The minute you challenge one of their beliefs, they perceive you are heaping contempt on their innermost selves. This is never our intention. Nonetheless, they are offended.

There are scores of ways to offend audience members, but over the years it seems to me that we’ve offended people in three main arenas: language, race and sex. What different people find to be offensive interests me. And since this season seems to be offending its fair share, and, come Little Dog Laughed, promises to offend lots more, I figure now’s a good time to discuss these issues.

Part of the value of this discussion will be to organize and clarify my own thoughts. An equally important part will be to ask for and welcome your opinions.

So plug in your offendometers (I pronounce it with the emphasis on the third syllable) and get ready to rumble. Coming soon – language!

--Bruce Miller


hoosier steve said...


I loved the production of the Crucible, I thought it was one of the better shows I was a part of in Richmond, but yes it is long. I am about three weeks from opening a production of this Miller classic here in Indiana. Sadly we are not blessed with here with the depth of talent you were able to cast in our production.

Running a community theatre in a town more conservative that Richmond (yes Virginia it is possible), I am always trying to walk that thin line that will challenge my audience, while not killing my company. We are about to do a staged reading of Doubt (I really wish I could get to Richmond to see what Keri does with this beautiful play). A full production would be impossible. Next year we are doing Proof, I am already bracing for the reaction to the language.

I often think of the complaints that Theatre IV gets for relatively silly things. The knife wielding woodsman in Snow White, the "Silly Ass" line in Peter Pan. I think that you are correct, "If you're not making somebody mad, you must not be doing it right. I just wish my paycheck didn't depend on not upsetting too many people.
Rick St. Peter and I often discussed our list of "Shows that we want to do, at someone else's theatre".
Speaking of Rick St. Peter, a recent production of Hamlet that he directed and I lit is featured in this months American Theatre, check it out.

Robinitaface said...

Ooh! I can't wait! The suspense is terrible, Bruce!!!

Dave T said...

I'm with you, Bruce. I think the best art takes people out of their comfort zone and challenges them to look at things differently. That almost guarantees that the best art is going to offend some folks. So please offend away, Mr. Miller!

Frank Creasy said...

Bruce - I would argue that there is a whole generation of potential theatre goers (and participants) who long for theatre to be relevant to their modern lives, not approved by a group of self-appointed censors who believe themselves righteous enough to mandate a theatrical experience to the masses. Provocative theatre can be life affirming while still surprising or even shocking us - in fact, shock value in theatre stands to REMIND us of our humanity and our shared values that find certain human behaviors abhorrent. Staging offensive human behavior is not an endorsement of it, and those who do not realize that point have truly missed the boat.

However, given the infinite range of human perception, there is something to offend in every theatrical event. Unless we schedule only G-rated fare the average middle school or church group might produce, we cannot assure ourselves of offending almost no one - but we CAN guarantee theatre will become nearly irrelevant to our culture.

I'm quite sure if you were to produce "Lysistrata", there would be torrents of protest and letters to the editor of the Times Dispatch. Yet great theatre reflects the entire human experience, not the most politically correct or majority-approved agenda in vogue at a given point in history.

To thine own self be true, Bruce - and you will continue to serve us ALL quite well.