How Censorship is Failing American Theatre

Amanda Thomas

  • OnStage Connecticut Columnist

The headlines have been rampant in the past few years. A high school theatre company is performing “Ragtime”, “Spring Awakening”, or “Rent” and the parents or school is aiming to shut it down due to “inappropriate content”. Cue the justified outrage from the theatre community.

Now I know this is quite biased but I want to say right out that I understand where parents and the heads of schools are coming from. I can empathize the concern and desire to protect children from topics they might not be ready to hear. But parents, your kids are being harmed by this censorship.

Censorship is a detrimental factor that is greatly affecting the advancement of American theatre in all regards. The fear of including nudity, blatant sexual content, and other controversial topics are affecting the minds and development of ideas in our society. American society is famously Puritan even though we all like to tout that there is a separation of church and state. The ideas and the principles are ever-present and are damaging tolerance and acceptance in our society. Young adults who are exposed to differing ideas and points of view more often than not allow this to affect them and think about it in terms they had never considered before.

In our increasingly diverse and globalized world, young people are becoming more and more aware of topics and ideas parents have traditionally shielded their children from. With shows like “Ragtime”, young people in liberal and conservative areas alike are seeing the effects of racism in a real and emotionally gripping way. For those who haven’t seen “Ragtime”, I suggest you do. The n-word is said freely. In many states and counties across the country this word is censored and any work containing it is immediately taken away and hidden from children. Seeing and hearing that sort of hate speech is something people in this country have to deal with every day. Why hide the truth from the younger generations when, instead, theatre can make this a conversation on how society still has ways to go with acceptance and equality?

Nudity is also a huge taboo topic in theatre. I recall going to see a production of “Spring Awakening” and having relatives being hesitant to allow me to see it because of scenes of sexual intimacy and nudity. Ironically, to me, they were playing right into the roles of Adult Woman and Adult Man. Censoring people, especially adolescents, to the truth and goings-on of life is detrimental to their development. They are taught that sexuality and expressing themselves is wrong and shameful, much as the children in “Spring Awakening” feel.

For a comparison, allow me to give you a personal anecdote. This past fall I spent a semester in the U.K. and Europe. I took two theatre analysis classes and my personal favorite was 20th and 21st Century Drama. We read and saw nearly fifteen plays in three-and-a-half months with my very favorite being a stage adaption of “Lady Chatterly’s Lover”. For those who have read it, you understand why I was intrigued and also nervous to see the show. For those who haven’t, I do have to tell you that there are many scenes of sexual acts and nudity shared in a consensual relationship. I was curious to see how the nudity would be dealt with and how the audience would react.

To my surprise, it was the loveliest and most gorgeous production I have ever had the privilege to see. The nudity wasn’t taken for granted. The depiction of sexual acts was not made gratuitous and the scene where Constance and Mellors run nude in the “forest” (a bare stage with water coming from the ceiling) was lovely and a delightful depiction of freedom. There was no shock to the nudity. The comfort and ease I felt in the audience was indescribable and I was even moved to tears throughout. As my class left the theatre, I wondered what the production would be like if the nudity had been “tastefully done”. If they had used sheets to cover the bodies or shield the audience’s “delicate sensibilities”, then the emotional journey would not have been taken by the audience and the cast. British theatre is, in my experience, quite shameless and simply exposes the audiences to the truths of life that are unavoidable and that includes nudity, foul language, and controversial subjects.

American theatre has much to learn and quite far to go. As progressive as we claim to be we are falling behind on exposing and educating the public on vital life experiences. Seeing productions in which being LGBTQ+, for example, is perfectly normal is extremely helpful to those struggling with their sexuality. Think about how impactful that is to young people growing up in oppressive areas. Seeing representation that, otherwise, would have been censored is crucial to a person’s wellbeing and growth. American theatre must take a step out of the shadow of censorship and fear and bravely take on riskier shows without fear of backlash.

My question to you is: how will you work, as an artist, to combat the censorship that grips much of American theatre? How will you work to eliminate the fear-factor and encourage a new age of fearlessness and open-mindedness?

Photo: The cast of Olney Theatre Center's production of “Spring Awakening.” (Stan Barouh)