Theatre In Australia Needs Rating Classifications

The time has come for professional theatre in Australia to be classified with advisory warnings in the same way as films, DVDs, publications and video games are subject to in this country.

Readers of The Drama Teacher may be aware I first posted on this topic over a year ago in response to some of my senior drama students asking me “why aren’t theatre shows given ratings like films and DVDs?”. Not so long ago, video games were classification-free, but changing times and increased violence in this medium (Grand Theft Auto etc) called for new action. In Australia today, video games are given four of the six possible ratings: G, PG, M (all advisory) and MA15+ Restricted, but not R18+ Restricted or X18+ Restricted. Although it should be noted the introduction of the R18+ Restricted rating for video games is currently under consideration by the Attorney-General’s Department. Edit: R18+ classification for video games in Australia has now been introduced.

Similarly, the nature of contemporary theatre in this country is also shifting. Although this website deals mainly with theatre, in this instance one would have to consider dance and opera, also. A recent example is the current Malthouse Theatre/Sydney Theatre Company co-production of Brecht’s early play Baal that contains male nudity, female nudity, cross-dressing, alcoholism, men kissing men, women kissing women, simulated sex, attempted rape, violence and murder on stage.

Theatre companies are finally getting up to speed and using their websites to give patrons advance warning of content such as adult themes and nudity. Last year I applauded the Melbourne Theatre Company for posting a parent’s guide to the appropriateness of plays in their mainstage season. But yesterday I read on the Sydney Theatre Company website that a pre-production session for high school students for Baal is included in their education program, just prior to the play’s opening with the STC in early May. High school students shouldn’t be let anywhere near the themes or content of a play such as Baal and certainly not this current production. The STC itself warns the play is not suitable for people under 18 years of age on another section of their website, yet they include it in their education program for students! Go figure?! Granted, while the discussion session in question may not include an actual performance of the play, how will they avoid some of the play’s themes and visual elements such as heavy violence against women, attempted rape, onstage murder and some fairly “full-on” nudity by all nine cast members?

So now we come to drama teachers and their involvement in this increasingly tricky issue. It is our responsibility as educators taking students to the theatre to seek out whether the work is appropriate in advance. Not as easy as it seems when you are normally enquiring with the theatre company weeks (sometimes months) ahead of its first performance, the education officer understandably may not know all the answers to your questions about nudity on stage or profanities etc, it is often the first performance of a new work so there is little or no background to research or script to read before booking, and then there’s the challenge of matching all this up with your school’s internal policies regarding suitability of content on student excursions. To be frank, this process can be an absolute nightmare and as many of you reading this post know, we are the very people receiving the phone calls at school the following morning from angry parents whose son or daughter experienced unsuitable material in a school-approved excursion to the theatre.

Wouldn’t it be a lot easier for everyone concerned if the play you wanted to see had the PG or MA15+ rating on the theatre company’s promotional material and website? The Australian Classification Board’s symbols and their interpretations are well known across Australia and generally understood. The problem in this case, however, will be the difficulty of approving a live event and the time frames involved with its production. How will a play get a classification rating before opening night when one would assume its final version would need to be seen first in order to be classified? Then there’s the fact that you can’t take the play to the Australian Classification Board, unless they accept a taped DVD version, which is always a possibility.

If we can’t get a solution for live theatre like the Australian Classification Board’s rating classifications, then at least we must be able to get a greater consistency among professional theatre companies in different states. Even an increased awareness by theatre companies, large and small, for a mandatory publication of descriptors regarding suitability of content, would be helpful.

This issue is now gathering momentum in the press. Today in Melbourne’s The Age newspaper, Elissa Blake examines this topic, saying

recently these (hazards) have expanded to include all manner of potentially objectionable content as a new generation of theatre makers push the boundaries (The Age, 22 April, 2011. Lifestyle p.18.)

Right now, I know some of you out there think I’m crazy. My example of Baal, above, is just one of many theatre works in recent months I could list in this post that would prove my case for the need for rating classifications in Australian professional theatre. Another example is the Melbourne Theatre Company’s current production of Sarah Ruhl’s In The Next Room (Or The Vibrator Play).

Is contemporary theatre-making in Australia pushing the envelope of suitability and acceptability too much? Or are audiences so used to it now the case is mute, because we are becoming desensitised to it all? Should professional theatre companies across Australia meet to create their own agreed code of conduct for content appropriateness and then publish it? Or should theatre join the big boys and have the same rating classifications already used in other mediums by the Australian Classifications Board?

I encourage readers of The Drama Teacher to comment below with your own thoughts on this issue.

4 Responses

  1. Ellie Schneider says:

    Dear Justin,

    Ellie Schneider here from 2ser Radio Sydney. I tried to get in touch with you earlier but if you get the chance could you please contact me at [email protected]. I work on a national media and communications program ‘The Fourth Estate’ and are looking to do a story on the classification of live theatre. I would love to have a bit of a chat.

    Kind regards,


  2. Michael says:

    Justin, agree that theatre companies need to get better in advising schools (and the pubic in general) of the content of their shows. I think an official system like the gaming and filming industry would never be practical. Remember movies are in post production for months, sometimes years, giving the classificaton board heaps of time to do thier job.

    Maybe thetare companies can agree on a set of their own ratings, more on a scaling system. For exampe

    Course Language: low – med. – high. (a list of words may need to be listed)

    Nudity: low – med – high (again a list of what nudity will be seen – full frontal)

    What is the VCAA role in all of this? Last year there was a Theatre Studies with full frontal male nudity. I know they put out a generic warning, but is that enough.

    And on the other side of the fence, what are we protecting our students from? They are watching much worse on TV and in fillm.

  3. Karla says:

    I agree that teachers have a duty of care to be responsible in the choice of show that their student’s to go and see. We are aware of the guidelines within our school system’s and should be choosing shows that expose student’s to theatre. This does not have to be shows with mature content.

    I think we are the experts and therefore should make informed judgements about shows to see students and that is why I feel theatre classification is unnecessary.

    I wrote a blog post in response to reading your earlier article.

  4. Meg Upton says:

    Contemporary theatre is often wild and random in its making and staging and this current generation of theatre makers are making it more so with each interpretation (although probably no more so than Jarry, Brecht, Brook, and Artaud in their beginnings). I don’t think we can rate theatre in the same way that film and television is because it is live and alive and subject to the very things that our students are studying – directorial, actual, dramaturgical. I think Brecht was perhaps like a Simon Stone of the 1930s – young, adventurous and ready to break open the theatrical landscape.
    I agree about the duty of care we owe our students, I agree that detailed conversations with theatre companies are important, BUT these conversations plus the pre-performance setting are the ‘rating’ and are vitally important to the choices that educators make within the context of the school excursion.
    I also wonder whether it is the adult sensitivity that is being tested when contemporary theatre is being held up to scrutiny. Something to think about.
    In the end, good theatre delivers great stories. Acted well, they are about what it means to be human, rather like Medea, Hamlet, Richard III, Romeo & Juliet, Antigone, Macbeth etc which contain violence, abuse, suicide, matricide,, teenage love, familial dysfunction, psychological disturbance, murder, and other adult themes. Can’t go wrong there…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *