Friday, September 11, 2009

L is for Language

Posted by Bruce Miller
I love our audience. I think you folks are smart, adventurous and appreciative. I admire your receptive imaginations and expansive hearts.

I know many of you are sensitive to language. I’m thankful for that. Language is a key ingredient in theatre—perhaps the key ingredient. Sensitivity to it is a very good thing.

Boleros for the Disenchanted has some of the most beautiful, evocative and distinctive language you’ll hear from a contemporary playwright. Like Sarah Ruhl, the playwright who gave us The Clean House, Jose Rivera can turn a phrase in a way that sends your spirit soaring.

Talk about sensitivity to language. Jose Rivera is SENSITIVE to language. I like to think I am as well.

I also know that sensitive people are the easiest to offend. This is because our feelings are readily accessible. We wouldn’t have it any other way even if we could. In many ways, that too is a very good thing.

A great playwright—and I believe Rivera is a great playwright—paints with language chosen to evoke strong feelings from the hearer. Particular words and phrases are chosen to stimulate a comic or dramatic effect. Characters speak from their authentic places; they live in real worlds. When they speak, they use real words.

They sometimes use real words that we ourselves may not use. They are not us.

As we all know, real worlds and real words can delight, injure, inspire and offend us in equal measure.

On occasion, I hear from audience members who are offended by the language they hear on our stage. "Why didn’t you warn us?", they ask. This is a reasonable question. I’ll try to provide a reasonable response.

I believe that 85% to 95% of the people who attend our plays are not offended by the language they hear on our stage. Or they are appropriately offended, I should say.

When they hear vulgar, coarse or profane language, they sometimes gasp. They may even be stunned. Nonetheless, they appreciate the way in which the playwright's carefully chosen words and phrases illuminate the character or the situation and draw them into the play. They enjoy experiencing a world that is not their own. They want to ride the emotional roller coaster with the characters, and language helps them do so.

For maybe 10% of you, offensive language jars you out of the world of the play. You hear a word or phrase that you don’t want to hear, a word or phrase that you would never use yourself, a word or phrase that you were always taught should not be spoken in polite society, and the moment you hear it, you are so shaken that you’re no longer taking a journey with the actors. You find yourself sitting self-consciously in a theatre, feeling embarrassed and even a little angry, concerned solely with what just happened in your world, not the world of the play.

I know this; I respect this. I don't like it. I apologize for it.

The theatre artists involved in each production share the job of drawing the audience into the characters’ world. When we suddenly send you reeling into a personal reaction happening in real time, we fail to transport you. We fail at our job.

When faced with this failure—not a failure of intent, but a failure of effect—I struggle deciding what to do.

Here’s what I’ve decided. We will continue to produce plays with strong language—who wants to produce plays with weak language? When a play contains language that approximately 10% of our audience may find personally offensive, I’ll ask our marketing department to place an L in the lower left hand corner of our promotional materials for that play.

L is for language. S is for sexual activity that is seen, not just discussed. N is for nudity. V is for violence.

These letters are not “ratings.” Every play I select to present to you is rated W for Wonderful. If I don’t think the play is Wonderful, then we’re not going to produce it.

These letters are not “warnings.” I would never select any play that I felt required me to warn audience members not to come.

These letters are “advisories.” Understated advisories to be sure. Understated because I don’t want to misrepresent the content of the play and advise anyone that the content is improper or ill conceived. I believe in and stand in support of every play we produce.

These understated advisories are there to prepare the 10% or so of you who find that offensive language takes you out of the play. If you see such an advisory, you can call our box office or check our website and we will provide you with a very detailed description of the content that is being referenced. If you choose not to attend a play after seeing such an "advisory," we will, of course, be happy to refund your ticket price.

This may not all be in place immediately. It will all be in place soon.

Regarding Boleros, the L will soon be appearing in our ads. Boleros is a beautiful, spirit-lifting, heart-warming play. It is filled with wonderful characters and magnificent language. The script includes a few words and phrases that may take some of you out of the play. I encourage each of you to see it.

As always, I welcome and ask for your thoughts. Thanks for your support of Barksdale Theatre.

--Bruce Miller


Anonymous said...

You sure have a way with words! Very nicely said! I am one of the 10% that is taken out of MY world. You brought up a good point, that it is the world of the PLAY!! I will remember that!! It will make me view a play differently!
Thank you for making me see the other "world."

Joy W. said...

I think having a letter advisory is a wonderful idea! You will, most certainly, still get a few folks who call to complain about a word like "ass" being in Peter Pan or something like that. But I think your audiences will appreciate having the advisory.
Really good idea!