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.