Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Censorship in Theatre

A while back there was an uproar about publishers re-releasing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and taking out words like “negro” and “colored” from the writing. Some people felt that these words weren’t appropriate for literature today. Others, like me, felt it was taking away from a time period and a style of writing. Not to mention it is essentially changing the writing of an author with no permission.
I say those things to touch on a subject that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Censorship. Censorship is essentially changing something about a written work for some reason. Most of the time it seems to be the purpose to make it “less offensive” to the general public.

But how does this apply to theatre? Fact of the matter is that there is a lot of censorship that goes on in the theatre. In more conservative areas of the country (i.e. where I live) I believe I see it quite a bit. And I’ve heard stories of people becoming offended with a work. One person I know went to see a touring production of Avenue Q in Indiana. He told me that even though he loved it, that he saw people leave at intermission and never return.

I’ve seen similar things happen myself. Even in New York City. I was seeing American Idiot for the sixth (and final) time. An older lady (probably in her late 50s or early 60s) came in, dressed up way more than most of the younger people in the theatre (after all, it is a rock opera of Green Day music). During the opening, title number the lady left. And didn’t return.

Here are my questions: Why would you purchase tickets to see a show and not research what you are seeing? It seems to me that it could be a total waste of money. And with the prices of shows these days, is it worth it? And what’s the other option? That the show be so censored that it only vaguely resembles the original work? Sure, I may not use “the F word” in every other sentence myself. But some people do. And if a character is written that way by a writer, shouldn’t we assume it’s for a reason and respect the writer’s character as written?

This gets into such a can of worms that I almost don’t want to go there. But I feel like I must. Rent could be considered one of the best (or at least one of the most successful) modern musicals. So much so that a “school edition” was done (presumably with the assistance and permission of the Jonathan Larsen estate) so that it could be safely performed for a school audience. But is a show like that even appropriate for a school (even after editing?). I suppose that is up for debate too. But I like to think that Jonathan Larsen wrote the songs and the characters the way he did for a reason. Songs like “La Vie Boheme” are so inundated with cultural things of the time period that I would be afraid to change the words…yet some of them were changed for the school edition.

The famously “Sesame Street for adults” musical, Avenue Q even did a school edition. Um….with songs like “Loud as the Hell You Want” and “The Internet is for Porn” and a character called Lucy the Slut…let’s just say that I’ll be that one wasn’t an easy job. Again, I question the need to make a notably adult play “suitable” for children and young people. Why? The cast recording for Avenue Q is marked “explicit,” the show was obviously written for adults (it’s about life after college for crying out loud!). So what would make it important to tame it down for children? Why not just write another play?

I guess I just think that some shows are meant for adults. Some can be more “family” oriented. Why should someone try to force an “adult” show to be a “family” show? Is it fair to the author? Is it even fair to the audiences? I don’t think it’s fair to either. The author deserves to have their show performed as written. The audience deserves to see the show as it was intended to be seen. As an audience member, it’s your job to inform yourself about what you are seeing and to determine if you want to see it anyway.

I tried to find a place that I could get ahold of the scripts for the school versions of Avenue Q and Rent and was unable to find either of them. What I heard was changed for both shows was simply what I could find online (i.e. messages boards, etc). I did, however, find a video of “My Social Life is Online” from the school edition of Avenue Q. I’m going to post it, and the song that it replaced, “The Internet is for Porn” below. Simply because I want you to be able to see the difference.

But, I’d really like to know your thoughts on censorship. Do you agree with censorship? When is it important? When is it too much?

"My Social Life is Online" from the school edition of Avenue Q

"The Internet is for Porn" from Avenue Q (adult version)

This is a comment that ended up e-mailed to me instead of posted. I was granted permission to add it to this post. We'll call it a "guest commentary." I felt it was so much along the vein of what I was trying to say that I wanted to share it with all of you.

Great post, Cara! You raise a number of interesting questions. As you know, I'm an outspoken advocate of free speech (and have strong feelings about editing anything), so I'm delighted by the opportunity to join this discussion. While I'm aghast at the idea of editing something like "Huckleberry Finn," I must confess to understanding the impulse. When I played Willie Stark in Vinnette Carroll's brilliant multiracial production of "All The King's Men" in the early 90s, I was VERY uncomfortable with my character's use of a racial epithet in the second act. During a rehearsal, I asked if it could be cut or changed. Her response was, “DAH-ling, you MUST use that word. IT'S WHO HE IS.” She was right, of course. The line spoke to the time, the place and the person. With a brilliant economy of language, it spoke volumes about the soul-deep corruption of that larger-than-life character. I’d LIKE to think that I would have eventually reached the same conclusion on my own. Regardless, I must admit that my naïvely well-intentioned impulse was both misguided and, ultimately, wrong.

That being said, I’m generally of the opinion that censorship has no place in the arts. Any artist (of any stripe) needs the freedom to use all the tools at his or her disposal to create something that is vital, that is kinetic… art can illuminate, calm, alienate, seduce, offend, shock… that’s part of its nature and part of its appeal. The act of EXPERIENCING art has limitless potential for an audience (or viewer, or listener). Theater, specifically, can effect a profound change (and a remarkable connection) in the artist and the audience during a shared moment of exchange. Ages ago, an acting coach once told me that I was doing my job properly if the audience breathed with me. Every moment in a theater has the potential for that kind of shared electricity; that’s why theater has endured. That’s why it’s important. And that’s why we shouldn’t ever censor what a playwright has to say. Without the freedom to express the truth of a scene, character, or moment – with whatever language or action or movement is necessary to create that moment – a playwright is hobbled. Potential is diminished. We settle for a pallid echo of what could have been. And the audience is cheated without even realizing it. You’ve “heard stories of people becoming offended with a work” (God knows, so have I). And that’s their right. They also have the right to walk out, ask for a refund, write angry letters and complain to whomever will listen. (It seems silly, especially in the information age, that someone would choose to spend hard-earned dollars on something they hadn’t researched in the least, but it happens.) But that’s pretty much where their rights end. They don’t have the right to silence artists. Artists have a right to speak through their art. Artists have a RESPONSIBILITY to speak through their art. A play (symphony, opera, oratorio, ballet, painting, sculpture… the list goes on and on) that exists merely to entertain can’t truly be called “art,” can it? Something whose sole purpose is to placate, to pacify, to coddle, to allow people to feel safe and secure in their preconceptions and biases is the antithesis of art. Yet we see it on stages everywhere, all the time. I’ve endured more than a few productions like this as an actor. I desperately hope that I’ve never foisted something like this on an audience as a director. But let’s face it, there are scores of valleys for every “peak experience” in life.

Lastly, I want to address the odd phenomenon of “school versions,” “youth versions,” “JUNIOR versions,” etc., of existing plays. I only have experience (and that’s somewhat indirect) with one such project… the school version of “Les Miserables.” Interestingly, most of the changes to the original were NOT for language or subject matter. The school version is tighter (it’s almost an hour shorter than the original), keys have been changed and vocal arrangements adjusted so that younger singers might approach the piece with more ease. The same appears to be true of the school version of “Rent.” Aside from cutting the song "Contact" from the show, the language changes (from what my limited online research has shown) have been quite minor. And the subject matter is the subject matter. Some schools and other producing organizations have made further alterations (I encountered lots of online comments like, “We did the school version of ‘Rent!’ And once we cut out some of the language and stuff, it was great!”). I paraphrase, but you get the point. Was that the intent of the Larson estate? Perhaps not. But I do know that Music Theater International (the company that handles the performance rights for the play) is fairly lenient about such things if an official request is made. Why do these odd pieces exist? To give young people the chance to perform extraordinary pieces of theater, I’d guess. And to make even more money for the publishers, writers, etc., probably. Are these pieces appropriate for younger audiences? I guess that would depend upon the individual parent (and the individual child). I probably would have let my daughter see the national tour of “Rent” when she was 12 or so. Certainly, by the time she was 14 it wouldn’t even have been a question. (Though her mother might have had a different opinion.) I never questioned her seeing “Les Miz” (or “Miss Saigon”), even at 6 or 7.

But I have to say that the existence of a “school version” of “Avenue Q” is a complete and utter mystery to me. Really? REALLY? WTF??? It seems completely pointless. But I have NO doubt that it’s making money. :/

Again, kudos for a great, thought-provoking post, Cara!

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