Saturday, May 16, 2009

Standin' By My Girl

Posted by Bruce Miller
No matter what show Theatre IV chooses to produce, some parents and teachers are going to be offended. I don’t mean one or two. I mean 25 to 50. Every year, a growing number of those who are offended insist that their personal viewpoint is “moral” and that those with differing viewpoints are “immoral.” With the assurance of those who know they are right, they insist that their perspective is the only one that matters.

I’ve been in my job 34 years. It didn’t used to be this way. Adults used to be more open-minded and accepting of diversity. They viewed each show as a whole. If they loved nine tenths of it, they focused on that and went away happy. They never called me and demanded their money back because of the tenth they didn’t like.

They never were astonished that the public was not forewarned about this “objectionable” content or that. They never had the arrogance to demand that all future productions be rewritten to suit their personal perspectives. “And I know it’s against the law to rewrite,” I was told yesterday by a teacher, “but it’s time Judo-Christians (sic) took a stand and stood up for what’s right.”

In the old days, if adults objected to one particular aspect of a show, they seized the opportunity to talk with the children in their care about their personal beliefs and preferences. They made teachable moments out of content they considered to be non-desirable. They didn’t assume or expect the world to be in sync with each of their personal feelings and beliefs. They accepted that it was their responsibility to discuss issues with children.

They chose not to try to “protect” their children from any and all “objectionable” content. Instead, they felt good knowing they were with their child, and talking with their child, as the child encountered such content in the world.

From 1975 until about 1995, I rarely if ever heard complaints from parents about content and language. And the shows we did then were no different from the shows we do now.

In the mid- to late-90s, we entered into the current “just say ‘no’,” “I’m mad as heck and I’m not going to take it anymore,” “zero tolerance” period. Nowadays, most of the angry letters, emails, phone calls etc I receive come from parents and teachers in their 20s, 30s and maybe early 40s.

As a general rule, adults born before 1970 remain open-minded and eager to expose children to the world. But there’s a vocal, frequently angry minority of younger adults born after 1970 who seem to believe and insist that the entire world should fall in line with their personal perspective. They don’t care what anyone else believes. They don’t want to discuss values with children; they want to force their values on the world before allowing their child to enter into it.

They object to Winnie the Pooh because A. A. Milne “doesn’t make it clear enough that Mr. and Mrs. Rabbit are married.” They object to Treasure Island because “no one warned us that there would be all those pirates and rum.” They object to Hansel and Gretel, Rumpelstiltskin, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Sideways Stories from Wayside School and The Wizard of Oz because they “celebrate satanic forces.” They object to The Best Christmas Pageant Ever because the minister uses the word “sexy” when describing the subject matter preferred by some of the older Herdman children. "How am I supposed to explain ‘sexy’ to my eight year old?!” one mother asked me.

They object to the euphemisms that the father in A Christmas Story uses as a substitute for vulgar language. They are livid when Peter Pan (written in 1904) uses the word “ass” even though he's clearly referring to a jackass or donkey. And they are beside themselves with righteous rage when in Annie (written in 1977) Daddy Warbucks and President Roosevelt's cabinet members use the words “damn” and “hell” a handful of times when discussing the Great Depression.

The most recent objection I received, and this from a student who was writing with her class under the direction of an offended teacher, mentioned the pain caused by Annie herself singing that she liked to imagine her parents collecting things “like ashtrays and art.” "Why," I was asked, "did you have to use the word ashtray?"

I guess I’m old fashioned. I believe it would be unwise for me or anyone to rewrite classics like Annie and Peter Pan to be in step with a vocal minority. I think it’s regrettable that teachers encourage children to write to nonprofit leaders and ask them to knowingly break the law. I think in an age when Christian conservative icons like President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney openly used words far more vulgar than “damn” and “hell” in the Oval Office and on the floor of the U. S. Congress, it’s actually helpful to see Annie and afterwards talk with children about language and the pressures placed on adults in power.

Regarding adults in Annie using the words “damn” and “hell” a dozen times (I think it's 10 "damns" and two "hells"): “It is immoral,” I’m told, “for you to expose my children to this terrible behavior.” Not a single one of these adults has mentioned any discomfort with their children being exposed to the behavior of the character Rooster, who alludes to the fact that he’s going to take Annie away and dispatch her with a knife. That behavior, apparently, fails to meet the “terrible” threshold of saying “damn” and “hell.”

Anyway, I’m whining. We try our hardest to offer positive, uplifting experiences to children, families and schools. It depresses me that an increasing number of adults would prefer to see us not do Annie at all than see us abide by the law and present Annie, an American classic, the way it was written.

--Bruce Miller


Aaron Dotson said...

My wife and I took our two daughters to see Annie this morning. It was a fantastic show, and they loved every minute of it. And so did their parents! Please know that for every one complaint you receive there are dozens of us who applaud what your team is doing for our children and our community. Bravo!

Laura & Jim Daab said...


This is such a good post. I wish that you would try to get this published in the RTD or a theatre biz magazine.

As you know, we have been producing murder mysteries for 16 years. Jim writes all of our scripts. They are comedies that involve broad characters in familiar settings like weddings, reunions, the Wild West, game shows, etc.

We also get complaints about the show's content, even though we don't use any "swear words." What people object to are usually a character's sexual orientation or the occasional innuendo that's common in farcical theater pieces. Shakespeare used innuendo often.

What we ask people when they are complaining is how does this relatively benign stuff bother them when they are consciously choosing to attend a show with their children that involves murder - and that they are laughing at it.

No one ever has an answer to that.

Just wanted you to know that you are not alone. The morality police are alive and well at a theater near you!

Anonymous said...

To those who are so displeased that they need to write letters to Bruce, I say that it's a damn shame they're so close minded. I suppose all the violent video games and risky television shows are probably better suited for their children. I think we should continue to produce such subversive and immoral works like Annie and Peter Pan. I feel sorry for all the children who won't be able to watch Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in school like I did, since the word hell is used once.

Joy W. said...

I think this post is just great!!!

I also think if a few parent's are going to be so ridiculously closed minded, then they have a personal responsibility to find out for themselves if there's any content they may find questionable or objectionable before they come to the show. If a damn or a hell is going to push someone that far over the edge, they should call ahead of time and find out if that language is used in the play.

And, you're right, if you find something objectionable in a show, or in life in general, you could use it as an opportunity to educate your kids....a learning tool.

Anyway, thanks for the post! And thanks for the opportunity to be in this show that has been an absolute blast. I will be sorry to see it go.

Frank Creasy said...

Perhaps prospective theatre patrons concerned about objectionable material should read each and every script freely available through the publishers to determine if a specific production will or will not meet their individual set of values. At least with theatre, you do have the opportunity to avail yourself of such resources, something you can't do with movies, TV shows, songs on the radio, or other forms of entertainment.

As a fiscal conservative who believes strongly in individual rights, I would hope those whose conservative values are based on religious dogma would look in the mirror and do some serious reflection. I'd suggest they ask themselves how their own intolerance of the world around them differs from those of people and things they find so objectionable. Christians know, based on their beliefs, that Jesus suggested throwing stones only if you're without fault (sin); showed love and kindness to a prostitute; forgave his own persecutors and blessed a common criminal crucified next to him as he suffered, dying, on the cross. Jesus knew the world around him held many imperfections and that God gives us all choices. As you point out very well Bruce, those choices include sharing theatre experiences with family members which can prompt dialogue about the characters, the story, and how it relates to our own lives.

After seeing ANNIE and WELL last weekend, I was struck by how characters in both shows chose hope, optimism, and love while others chose cynicsm and bitterness and selfishness. The former choices led to self awareness and contentment while the latter led to unhappiness and a life wasted. Why can't the young parents and their children draw vital lessons from such stories? Why choose to laser focus on a particular word in lieu of the overarching lessons of the play?

Religious intolerance has led to so many of this world's current problems. I do hope people of all beliefs come to the theatre in a community of acceptance and tolerance to learn, laugh, and live together as one, despite their differing views. For those whose faith guides them, I hope they will remember that we are all God's children, imperfections and all.

Janine Serresseque said...

If I were a teacher, I would approach it like this:

What are words and what are deeds? And what has a greater impact on your world? Of course, it's your deeds! Daddy Warbucks may have used a few " hells" and"damns" but in the show, he's a hero. He helps people and he is kind and generous, despite his salty language.

An Audience Member said...

It is also a parent's (or audience member's) responsibility to do their homework and find out information about the show they are about to see. There are at least 2 (if not 3) movie versions of "Annie", and in each one, the same language is used - one of these versions was done by Disney - can't get more family friendly then that! So the parents have no right to complain if they don't do their homework. Keep doing the great work you're doing, Bruce. We're behind ya. "Annie" is absolutely fabulous!

Stacie Rearden Hall said...

I grew up in a conservative town in South Carolina. As a young child, my mom allowed me to watch many different films and shows with many "questionable" themes. In fact, the only thing that Mom gave the big N-O to were films that had graphic violence. She used questionable content as a way to start a dialogue with me. Sometimes she would talk to me about why something I saw was appropriate or inappropriate. Often, though, she would simply wait until I asked questions about things that no longer went over my head.

Her willingness to be open with me caused me to be more open with her even in my teens. When most teens found themselves at odds with their parents, I was telling Mom everything from how the cute guy in class smiled at me to the times where peer pressures were becoming increasingly difficult with my friends.

I guess my message is mostly for the parents reading this. I don't think eight year old children should be watching South Park by themselves or the latest chop-em-up horror field, but I do think that they should be informed about the world around them. When you shelter your children too heavily, they start to believe that there are things in their lives that need to be hidden and you are the one that they'll be hiding those things from.

Cameron said...

I found your link on Twitter, and I just wanted to say that while I agree with you, not all of us born in the 70's are like that. :) Many of us agree that "offensive" and "objectionable" material (and people, for that matter) exists in the world and appreciate the chance to expose our children to them in such ways that allow us to explain it. Just like all of you born before 1970. :) I hope there's another tide change in American culture, and soon. :)

Mark said...

I think the current state of the economy makes this issue scarier than it really needs to be.

Keep doing the good job you're doing, because the show is fantastic. It really is. All that this hubbub means is that some misguided people probably aren't coming back to Theatre IV, becuase they can't handle going to the theater, period. You cannot and should not change your productions based on their narrow and silly puritanism.

Don't sweat it, Bruce. I agree, for every one who writes to you in pumped-up outrage, there's a hundred who loved the show.

Matthew Costelo said...

Outstanding post Bruce. I am appreciative that you have taken the time to share your experience and articulate your insight.

jeanettej blaylock said...

Well said, Bruce! Keep up the GREAT work. Richmond is lucky to have you, Phil, Theatre IV, and Barksdale. And, the many staffers and crew that work behind the scenes.
Ya can't please everyone all the time.
And, I agree, that with every ONE complaint, there are a dozen positive comments to zero out the negative ones!

Dave T said...

Once again - it's Holly and not Dave. I need to take Jackie Jones up on her offer to help me get my own account set up!!!

ANYWAY - I have been thinking about this post since I read it yesterday, and mostly it just makes me really sad. For people to let a curse word (and not even a BAD one!) spoil their experience of a children's musical is just kind of a lonesome and defensive way to live, I think.

I also think you're falling prey to the sad reality that people tend to be more motivated to speak up when they are UNhappy than when they are happy. I was at the theater today dropping off Bryce, and I watched people coming out for a little while. What I saw was really beautiful - it was simply parents enjoying their children. Not marching them along in a hurry, but smiling into their faces and stroking their heads as the kids looked longingly back at the little girl stars in the lobby. It was really sweet and everyone's faces just appeared to be so full of life and love. More so than the parent/child combinations I see at putt-putt or movie theaters or amusement parks (though I think those are good experiences, too). I would guess that for every complainer, there are probably 75 other parents who left the theater quietly happy and just didn't write a letter about it!

Also - I remembered something our rabbi at Congregation Or Ami said to me one time. My extended family was circulating some email campaign warning people about the dangers of the movie "The Golden Compass" and how it was secretly anti-God and had a mission to turn children against religion. I was bothered that my literate, intelligent in-laws were buying into all that hooey, and was feeling more and more like an oddball in the world for NOT worrying about that stuff. (A lot of times I chalk it up to just being Jewish, which at times really does make me feel like an outsider in different ways). ANYWAY (how I do go on) I went to talk to the rabbi looking for a little insight into all this. He said this:

If these parents are sincerely worried that one movie is going to have more power over their children than the mom and dad raising them every day of their lives, they have bigger problems than the content of the movie.

'Nuff said.

Steven Koehler said...

Very well said Holly/Dave.

The truth is that the children of these parents will still seek out, and more easily find (thanks to the internet) the questionable material (and much worse) they are so afraid of. I know my daughter has friends who were told by their parents that the Golden Compass movie was evil and horrible, but the girl had already read every one of the books in secret. The also all have read the Twilight books. Now we would prefer that our daughter not read the Twilight books, but more over questionable quality than any content. Point being that these parents are in no way going to be able to shelter their children from the evils of Annie, they will merely push them out to find really questionable materials elsewhere.

I also want to stress that not all parents born in the 1970's are like this. Hell our daughter (I think she was 5 at the time) attended Peter Pan several times, not to mention several rehearsals where I am sure she heard worse than Ass, and she seems very well adjusted. Keep up the good work Bruce.

Anonymous said...

Well said, Bruce.

If people want to feel and think their view of the world as "sweet," "pretty" and "nice" is the correct view then they should never leave their little cocoon. They should give up on living. AND, they certainly should never be or call themselves teachers for then this honored title becomes a misnomer and hypocritical.

If, as Horace said, the purpose of theatre is "profit" and "delight," why should an audience memeber at a "children's theatre show" expect less? Should you not want to be challenged to think and delighted by the perspective of another view of life? Call me silly but this is what I want to experience at the theatre and what I want children to experience, too! I want them to ask questions. I want them to think and to know.

If you cannot think, if you cannot abide what is different from yourself, if you are so fearful of life to demand to shove experience in a box, I can only advise that you simply eschew theatre and, indeed, all art, for art will ask you difficult questions starting with "What does it mean to be human?" And, if you don't want to know, don't look, don't see, don't ask, don't tell!

Dave T said...

Hi, this is the real Dave T, not my computer-challenged (but lovely) wife. I'm late to this party and don't have much to add to the general praise for this post.

The only thing I would challenge you with, Bruce (and any other artistic director faced with similar small-minded reactions), is to use these interactions with patrons as "teachable moments." Clearly, these people came to the theater because they wanted to be entertained and/or enlightened. Though it's hard for people to look beyond their initial reactions, I would hope that they might be encouraged to do so.

Though it might not make an impression, it might help to point out to folks that all forms of entertainment are capable of pushing people out of their comfort zone -- that is part of their power. Even if people only watch Veggie Tales cartoons, they are likely to come across something that tweaks their sensibilities. I expect people who react so extremely to aspects of relatively tame productions are on some basic level afraid, maybe afraid that from one "hell" or "damn" it's a slippery slope to open acts of depravity on stage. Maybe they need someone to reassure them that the slope isn't so slippery.

From what I know, you are uncommonly patient and understanding with your patrons, Bruce. I hope (and expect) you also challenge them, even just a little bit, to open their minds to both the joy and the discomfort that can come from theater outside their comfort zones.

Anonymous said...

I'm no prude. I've been a liberal-minded member of the arts community for a very long time. I love gritty, dark, foul mouthed stuff. I also understand an artist's need to "show things as they are" in life. I don't think it's always right to water down scripts to avoid offending an audience; hell, I like to ruffle feathers--when the time is right. I'm also a parent of two small children who gets frustrated at the number of G rated movies that are made. Even todays PG movies we've seen are often filled with words that make me cringe next to my five year old. Television? Forget it! You can't even take your kids to a ball game any more without the drunk fans shouting in unison "Bullshit!, Bullshit!, Bullshit!..." You got to understand that sometimes parents just want to give their kids a break; to see a show, go to a movie or a ballgame, to have fun and not have to worry. It's not being prudish; it's just that sometimes it seems we are pushing are kids to grow up.

For me, here's the thing: Would the production of ANNIE been any less if those words in question had been cut? There were several that I heard when I thought, "Okay, they could easily have lost that without hurting the scene." I think artists sometimes need to put their egos about "art" aside. It's ANNIE, not SPEED THE PLOW. I'll teach my five year old about "damns" and "hells"; we came to see a children's show. We all need to pick and choose our battles. Should the "words" have been cut? I'm not sure. But I firmly believe it would not have HURT the production to do so.

As a side note: I think I'd have been more worried how the show seemed to be on crank. The pace of the show was blinding. I know this help with the running time, but it lessened the emotion of the show horribly. The songs were rushed, the lines were rushed and the meaning got lost for the sake of bus schedules.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, it's "Anonymous" again-
I guess what I'm saying is that we all need to lighten up. Maybe parents shouldn't be so quick to be offended, and maybe artists shouldn't be offended when parents get offended.