Ratings For Theatre Shows?

Last year, after a couple of near misses taking my Year 11 class to theatre shows potentially unsuitable for them, my students asked me “why aren’t there official ratings for live theatre?”

Depending on the age of students you are taking to the theatre, offensive language can sometimes be a concern. The F word is very common in the theatre these days, but I wonder if readers of The Drama Teacher have noticed as I have in recent years the increasing acceptance of the C word in contemporary theatre?

On occasions, nudity is another issue, but thankfully not that common. Of course, it all depends what shows one attends. In my experience, genuine displays of violence are rare in mainstream theatre, most likely because the special effects of film do not always translate to the live theatre stage.

At first glance, adult themes in theatre shows may not appear unsuitable or offensive for teenage drama students. Sometimes these themes are displayed indirectly, with offensive action occurring offstage (as in Greek and Roman theatre) and merely referred to on stage. But recently I saw a mainstream contemporary play with the themes of adultery, (unkowing) incest and murder in the plot. The makings of a great tragedy are also sometimes too much too for teenage audience members to handle comfortably.

While no one would deny the responsibility of ensuring the suitability of shows school students attend rests with the teacher, it also lies with the theatre companies themselves. Notices of suitability should be advertised on theatre company websites and in communications with teachers in the case of school group bookings. But shouldn’t general suitability information regarding plays in a theatre company’s season be on the main pages of their website, as well? This is sometimes, but not always, the case.

So why the absence of industry standards for live theatre suitability? While films are released to government classification authorities in advance of general release, the same may prove difficult for live theatre shows.

If the public believe ratings for theatre shows is necessary, then they should be implemented. Guidelines can be borrowed from existing examples for film and television, such as language, violence, adult themes and nudity warnings. Perhaps age suitability needs introducing also?

In the words of one of my students, “If video games have advisory warnings for adult content, then why can’t live theatre shows have the same?


7 Responses

  1. James Rosen says:

    I was considering this after viewing the Book of Mormon (loved it by the way) and thought about it for quite a while, and came to the conclusion, that due to the spontaneous and fluid nature of theatre, it could be hard to classify. The preview show that the classifiers attend may be changed by the director before the grand opening.

    I do think it would be a rather good idea to legally require any potentially offensive material within a production to be clearly signposted on any publicity, but then again, this could take away from the shock of hearing some words, which is normally (…but not always) used sparingly.

  2. Mell Bird says:

    I am currently a 3rd year Professional Production Skills student at GSA “Guildford School of Acting” and I was wondering if you could help me.

    As apart of my final year I am writing my Dissertation on Censorship and Age Guidelines in theatre, if there is a requirement for it and if it would be beneficial for the industry and the public.

    It seems that age restriction and guidelines in theatre are unclear and most of the time contradicting. Even more so depending on what website you check, for instance;

    The Lion King
    IMPORTANT NOTE: Minimum Age 3+, Anyone under the age of 3 years will not be granted entry to Lion King

    CHILD AGE RESTRICTION: Children under the age of 3 will not be admitted, the show is recommended for children over the age of 5.

    No Guidline

    My investigation is to see who sets these standards, and why they are not incorporated in all theatres. Surely for the benefit of younger audiences, they should be set to prevent them being exposed to content that is unsuitable for them?
    Even more so that the small guidelines publicised state that it is recommended for the ages of 5/7+ but will let children in 3 years younger. Is that really for the benefit of the child? Or do they just want your money?

    The British Theatre Guide states that it is possible for an individual to take out a private prosecution against a theatre or theatre company if it is judged to be obscene, libellous, slanderous when performed, blasphemous and any other forms of “liable to deprave or corrupt”. It also maintains that as far as children are concerned, most theatre companies will or at least should specify publically if a show is not considered suitable for children of a specific age.

    Any feedback would be greatly appreciated, and if you could take 2 minutes of your time to fill out my survey that would be awesome! 😀

    Click here to take survey

    • Meg Upton says:

      Hi Mell,
      This is an area that greatly interests me as I work with theatre companies that produce challenging theatre for young people. I also work with mainstream theatre companies and prepare resource material,framing the resources around a range of mitigating factors.Your first question about WHO sets the standards is the most interesting and most tension filled. However, you second comment seems to indicate that you have made up your mind about the issue? I don’t believe that theatre should have ratings per se because of the difficulty of WHO and WHAT is ‘suitable’, but for carers and teachers bringing young people to the theatre there does need to be a key person to discuss content with.
      My argument though is that seeing challenging theatre with someone or others (parents, grandparents, teachers) in a supported context ie questions, discussion is actually a great way to experience provocations and issues because it isn’t real but it has real people in it. Will now do the survey. Meg

  3. Meg Upton says:

    Interesting to read these comments retrospectively. There is obviously a need to discuss this in a public forum BUT to also include young people – sometimes our own concerns are not theirs!

  4. Jane says:

    Has anyone seen FatBoy? Consider the opening few lines cross most of the language taboos that I thought I held. As a playlisted VCAA performance deemed suitable and appropriate for students, I was really shocked about the intensity of the language.

    Not much more uncomfortable than sitting with your year 11 and 12’s when the opening line is:
    ‘Mother******!, C******sucking ******headed mother****** F********s!’

    Whilst I understand that the VCAA has printed it’s play list with warnings of ‘infrequent course language’, there is a line where I would have appreciated a little more warning. And I also acknowledge that the language is used as an alienation technique…. but really? Really?

  5. Borbs says:

    Hi Cashy. I saw Malthouse Theatre’s ‘Elizabeth’ with my students, and I agree, I don’t think there was adequate warning for a show that is the ‘poster show’ for their education program! (Great show btw, kids were excited to see G Rush 2 rows infront of us!)

  6. Justin Cash says:

    I think the Melbourne Theatre Company needs applauding for creating this online document, accessible by all on their website, for plays in their 2010 season:

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