All Shook Up is a 2004 musical, book by Joe DiPietro, based on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and on the music of Elvis Presley. It opened on Broadway in March 2005, and closed the following September–a short and disappointing Broadway run. But it’s become a popular show in regional theaters, high schools and colleges. It’s also been produced by the Hale Center, a very popular Utah theatre company with houses in Orem, Salt Lake, and West Valley City. The Hales do good productions of musicals and comedies intended for what I suppose you might call ‘family’ audiences. I’m not being snarky–I like the Hale Center, especially their Orem space. My wife and I have seen a number of shows there, and we’ve always had a great time–they do good work. I like good theatre well produced, acted and directed–that’s what they do. But they’re very cognizant of their conservative Utah audience, an audience I don’t necessarily consider myself aesthetically or ideologically part of.
So when Herriman High School, just south of Salt Lake, decided to do All Shook Up for their high school musical, they surely thought they were doing a show their audience would find inoffensive. The play was selected, cast, and was two months into rehearsals, with an opening scheduled for early February, when a parent connected to the Eagle Forum complained to Jordan School district, which decided last Wednesday to cancel the production. The parent complaining cited what he or she called ‘sexually explicit lyrics,’ and also expressed concern over cross-dressing, which might be seen as promoting homosexual behavior. However, after working out a special arrangement with the play’s licensing agent (I expect probably Samuel French), to make changes in song lyrics and lines of dialogue, the high school was given permission by the District to proceed with the production.
I’m a theatre guy. I’ve spent my life doing theatre. When I first heard about this case, I was outraged, furious, heart-sick. My sympathies were with the high school drama teacher and music director, but also and most especially with the kids in that cast. You rehearse a piece for two months, a piece with a very positive local production history, and then you get censored. I’m glad the District finally relented, but it should never have reached the point that it did. And I have no idea what song lyrics got changed, but I’m desperately rooting for the kid who sings that song to change them back again opening night. Serve ‘em right.
Okay, I’m a theatre guy. I see this as a story with heros and villains. And the Eagle Forum makes a nice villain. I’m inclined to see their ‘concerns’ as ridiculous. Let ‘em complain. Let ‘em picket outside the space opening night. It’ll be good for ticket sales. As for Jordan School District, their job is to have the backs of the kids. Period.
And so on. But this situation, foolish and necessary as it is, makes me think about the question of offensiveness, with the contract we, as theatre artists, make with our audiences. Let’s interrogate that a little.
When we do a play, when we perform, we essentially enter into an agreement with our audiences. They give us money for a ticket, but they also give us something even more important; their time, their more-or-less undivided attention for two hours. In exchange, we promise to do our best to entertain them, to tell an engaging story, to create fascinating human characters, to dance or sing or cavort amusingly. We promise to put forward our best effort–the best of our talent and hard work and imagination and professional training. As performers, we have a moral code based on this implied contract. We say “the show must go on.” We have little patience with fellow actors who blow off a performance, or who allow their own personal issues to get in the way of performing well. We call self-indulgent actors ‘divas,’ and we despise them. Our hero is Moliere, doing Le Malade Imaginaire while suffering from tuberculosis, coughing up blood on-stage, turning it into a comic bit, finishing the performance, and dying backstage. That, to us, is an actor.
Now, the essence of drama is conflict. Our art form is fundamentally based on enactment, on an actor/artist creating a fiction construct we call a ‘dramatic character.’ Characters are not human beings, but they are simulacra of humans, and they do, at times, misbehave; we write them to misbehave, for the sake of the story. In fact, without characters making bad choices, we don’t have an art form. Sometimes audiences find character misbehavior offensive. We do therefore feel some obligation to market a play in such a way that audiences have enough information to make an informed decision about whether to see it.
If you’re in an audience watching a show, giving those actors the gift of your attention, and they do things that pull you out of the play, if they say things or do things that so violate your moral code that it becomes impossible for you to be entertained, then you say ‘I was offended,’ and you complain. Your contract with the actors has been violated. They did not entertain you, as you hoped–they took their clothes off or said the F word or did something else that you had not anticipated being part of.
The difficulty is that, as actors, as theatre people, we never really know what’s going to be found offensive. When I was teaching at BYU, I directed probably 20 plays, and had 8 others that I wrote that got produced. Some of them got letters complaining about offensive material, and some of them didn’t. But when a play received complaints, it always took me by surprise. I never had any idea that what we were doing would be perceived as offensive. One year, I directed two plays in the same season: Esperanza Rising and Houseboat Honeymoon. Esperanza was a children’s play about a young woman emigrating from Mexico to the US. Illegal immigration was a major political issue in the US at the time, and I was certain that this play was going to be controversial. I worked closely with my dramaturg to inform audiences going in; I was prepared, but I thought surely we would get letters complaining about it. Houseboat Honeymoon was a charming comedy, and I wasn’t a bit worried about it. Turned out that Esperanza received not a single complaint, while Houseboat was the most controversial thing I ever directed. I had no idea.
That’s the problem. Audience members become offended based on their own personal life experiences and expectations. And actors and directors and designers are pretty well always convinced that we’re doing nothing wrong. I have never directed or written a show that I didn’t think was going to be great. I never once directed or wrote something just to be offensive or controversial. I always thought the show was going to be terrific. When friends go to see your show, and you ask about it, and they say something like ‘I don’t know, I guess I just didn’t get it,’ you’re outraged, at least initially. You work so hard, and you invest so much in the experience, you think that audiences have to love it as much as you do. And I have never not loved what I was doing. That’s not to say that in rehearsal you don’t notice moments that don’t work. Of course you do; so many that by the time opening night rolls around, you think you’ve fixed them all, and that the show is now perfect. Sometimes afterwards, you’ll look back on the experience and think ‘dang, that second act didn’t work at all! What was I thinking?’ But opening night, you’re pretty confident you’ve got a good show. And you want audiences to love it as much as you do.
One thing you hear, especially in relation to high school theatre or college theatre or educational theatre is this: ‘they should only do shows that don’t offend people. Just do inoffensive plays.’ Allow me to suggest that no such plays exist.
Some audience members come to the theater as excited to see the show as you are to see them there. Primed for a great experience, ready to be entertained. Some audience members, however, aren’t as willing to suspend disbelief, aren’t entirely sure they trust you. So when something happens that offends them, they tend to feel that their misgivings have been confirmed. And that’s when problems arise, and people start writing letters and school Districts get involved.
But we should also remember that ‘getting offended’ also involves a decision, that people choose to be offended. Some people, for whatever reason, go to the theater looking for things to be offended by. Perhaps it feeds their self-righteousness, their feeling of moral superiority. Maybe it feeds a personal narrative: the world is growing wickeder, and only a few of us can see it.
When a show is found offensive, the assumption is that the actors or playwright or director is at fault, that s/he did something wrong; chose to present offensive material on purpose, perhaps because, as a theatre person, s/he’s morally depraved. Or maybe just because you, as a director/playwright weren’t paying close enough attention. But I would like to suggest that this isn’t always, or even often the case. The choice to be offended involves agency, and perhaps a misuse of agency. Deciding to be offended can sometimes (maybe even most of the time) be morally wrong.
The audience has graciously given us the gift of their attention for two hours. We sin if we don’t give them our very best effort–if we don’t share the best we’re capable of giving. But if we do our best to tell a powerful and compelling story to the end, the audience has an obligation too, to give us, at least provisionally, the benefit of the doubt. Audiences sin if they judge prematurely, if they choose offense when none is intended. May I suggest that intervening with a production still in rehearsal, censoring a show you haven’t seen, does not in any sense fall on the ‘moral’ side of the ledger either.