Political Censorship in Theatre, and Why It Matters

Anthony J. Piccione

  • OnStage Connecticut Columnist
  • @A_J_Piccione

This week,those of us here in America celebrated Independence Day. Many people took it as an opportunity – as they often do every year – to show what it is that makes them appreciate this country. As I’m sitting here writing this column, there is one thing – far more than anything else – that makes me appreciate the fact that I live here, as I’m aware that not all other countries have the same degree of access to this right as others do:

Here in America, we as artists, writers and performers have the right to freedom of speech and expression under the U.S. Constitution, in a way that does not exist in many other countries. Here, if you have a great idea for a story, or a great message to go with your art, there is nothing stopping you from getting it out there for the world to see.

Or so you would think…

Despite these legal and constitutional rights that artists in America enjoy, it seems as if playwrights don’t always have it so easy, in terms of being able to write something socially or politically relevant for large audiences to see. This isn’t so much our government that is responsible. Rather, it is the producers and executives who decide what shows do and don’t make it to the stage, in the first place. It qualifies as a form of self-censorship on the part of the theatre industry, which I think sets a precedent that is dangerous to the theatre community, if not the larger society.

In the past, I’ve highlighted such examples of self-censorship that occur primarily in high schools, where students are supposed to be just learning about these important issues for the first time in their lives. Earlier this year, I wrote about the controversy that erupted in Enfield, Connecticut, where the local high school decided to cancel their upcoming production of American Idiot after a great deal of pressure from parents who disagreed with the political themes in the show. In the past, there have been many similar examples – perhaps the most prominent of them being Rent, which has been cancelled on numerous occasions in schools across the country – where there have been such restrictions that have been put on what school theatre programs can and cannot produce.

It is not just schools where this problem exists, but also in community theatre. Not to say that all of these parts of the country are like this, but if either of those two musicals were ever selected for production in some of the more conservative, Southern areas of America, is there anyone that wouldn’t think that such a show would face enormous pressure to be cancelled by the theater (if it were ever lucky enough to be selected for production, in the first place) in that area? The same thing can be said for a show such as Spring Awakening, or if/when it becomes available for community theatre, The Book of Mormon. If we were to extend the discussion of this issue to other art forms, such a controversy wouldn’t be that different from the disastrous decision that Sony Pictures made to not release The Interview to movie theaters in 2014.

And then, of course, this is all without even mentioning the countless plays that never see the light of day in the first place, due to the very same climate of political censorship that exists…

I believe those who decide that theaters shouldn’t be producing these shows, or that they should be willing to give in to pressure from special interests that may disagree, are cowards. It’s as simple as that.

The fact of the matter is that we live in interesting times, and now more than ever, theatre producers ought to be welcoming of thought-provoking shows that get people to ponder important issues – such as LGBT rights, sexual assault, economic inequality, etc. – that are facing society in the 21st Century. Now is not the time to back down, but to double down, when it comes to putting theatre front and center in the national conversation of the issues of the day.

To show that I am not fully biased, and that I am anti-censorship in ALL such cases, I will point out that there is clearly a history of both sides of political theatre being blocked by producers. The other day, I came across a post in the “Official Playwrights of Facebook” group, and it highlighted an upcoming Conservative Theatre Festival in Ohio that was accepting submissions. This festival was clearly a reaction to what seems to be a lack of such playwrights finding success. Now anyone who knows me well knows that I’m as progressive as it gets, when it comes to my politics, and I will say now to the public – who may not know me well enough to know this – that I have absolutely no plans to submit to this festival. Having said that, I do believe that those playwrights who do not share my political beliefs ought to have access to a venue where their work can be brought to life, just as much as me or any other playwright out there.

If you are truly an advocate of free speech and artistic expression, you ought to share the view that theatre should be a marketplace for ideas, stories and messages, and that those who produce these shows should not be reluctant to turn down new works simply on the basis that the underlying message might not be something that they 100 percent agree with. That would be a disservice to their potential audiences, who may or may not disagree with the producers.

Obviously, there are some exceptions to this principle. If the play promotes certain ideas that aren’t just politically disagreeable, but morally reprehensible (i.e. racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc.), then obviously any theatre producer ought to reject that play, and ensure that it never makes its way to the stage.

Yet in cases where it is simply a matter of political debate, in which both sides – whether or not they are right or wrong on any issue – clearly have their heart in the right place, then there should not necessarily be a moratorium of shows that spread such controversial views or ideas. Whether you are a solid progressive or a staunch conservative, you shouldn’t be barred from getting your play produced in the theatre community, solely on this basis. Unless the theatre company in question explicitly says that it promotes a certain social or political message, than the biggest sole factor in selecting scripts for production should be whether or not it’s a great story with great characters and great dialogue that is worth telling.

I hope that all of my readers will agree with me when I say that such freedom of expression in theatre is good, as that it strengthens and enhances theatre as a forum for debate discussion, and in some cases, perhaps enlightenment. This, in turn, makes theatre much more relevant and fascinating as an art form, and it should be enough reason to be against these forms of censorship, and in favor of political messages – as provocative and controversial as they often are – being allowed to have a place in theatrical productions.

This column was written by Anthony J. Piccione: Playwright, producer, screenwriter, actor, poet and essayist currently based in Connecticut. To learn more about Anthony and his work, please visit his personal blog at www.anthonyjpiccione.tumblr.com. Also, be sure to like him on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AnthonyJPiccione.OfficialPage), follow him on Twitter (@A_J_Piccione) and view his work on the New Play Exchange (www.newplayexchange.org/users/903/anthony-j-piccione).