WHAT THE ...
IT’S BEEN THE BUZZ IN THE LOCAL THEATER COMmunity for the past few weeks: Two weeks before Neil Simon’s “Rumors” was scheduled to open at Cape Coral’s Cultural Park Theater this month, the board of directors cancelled the show.
Executive Director Michael Moran told NBC2 reporters that some language in the play “needed to be played down or not done … The board sees us as a family venue and plans to keep it that way.”
The play’s language shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone at Cultural Park Theater, however, because “Rumors” had already been done there, twice — back in 1994 and in the spring of 2006.
The cast of volunteer actors, who’d rehearsed for at least two months, did not want to make any changes in the language. And the law is on their side; when a theater enters into a licensing agreement to produce a play, it agrees to not change the language, unless the playwright specifically OK the change.
In fact, in 2003, the playwright shut down a production of “Rumors” in Pleasant Grove, Utah, because the theater was planning on presenting a sanitized version, sans curse words.
But at Cultural Park Theater, it was the board of directors who cancelled the play because the actors wouldn’t dilute the language.
Suddenly, the cast had no venue, and the community theater had no show.
Annette Trossbach, producing artistic director of the Fort Myers-based Laboratory Theater of Florida, stepped in and offered the cast her space.
With her own theater’s tight schedule, all she could offer was one night. “I wish I could have offered them more,” she says.
“It’s not a particularly lewd script,” Ms. Trossbach says about the 25-yearold play. “It doesn’t push any kind of moral boundaries. It’s a fun, lighthearted show.
“It has the f-bomb in it, as well as some other choice language, but anybody over the age of 16 likely hears that kind of language on a regular basis, (if not) daily.”
The play — Mr. Simon’s only farce — revolves around a close group of couples that show up at their friends’ home to celebrate their anniversary. But the kitchen staff is gone, the wife is missing and the husband, in an attempt to shoot himself, has shot off his earlobe.
The upper-class couples, dressed in fancy dresses and tuxes, grow increasingly stressed and, under pressure, curse. (At one point, a character exclaims, “Well, f***-a-doodle-doo,” a line that inevitably gets one of the biggest laughs of the show.)
It’s an insult to the intelligence of audiences to presume certain things are going to be offensive, Ms. Trossbach says.
“I think audiences need to make those decisions for themselves by not purchasing a ticket,” she adds. “If it’s offensive (to you), don’t go.”
The Naples Players, also a community theater, presented “Rumors” most recently in April and May 2011.
“‘Rumors’ was a non-issue for us,” says Paul Graffy, a director and actor with TNP and a former member of the board of directors. Playwrights carefully select the words they want to use, and it’s not a theater’s role to change them, he says.
“People did not respond negatively to the language,” he says about Naples audiences when TNP did “Rumors.” “Not at all … Our older audience has heard all those words already. They’re not going to judge 2½ hours just on one word.
“It’s one word. It’s often used for effect.”
Florida Repertory Theatre in Fort Myers did “Rumors” in October-November 2011.
“I don’t know the full circumstances, but it’s irresponsible to change language in the script and to waste people’s time by having them rehearse, then cancel it,” says Robert Cacioppo, Florida Rep producing artistic director.
Honesty is key
The way theater companies should handle such things, Mr. Cacioppo says, is to let audiences know in advance, by indicating in advertisements and in signage at the box office that, “This play contains adult language.”
“If someone wants a refund, you do that with a smile,” he says. “You’re not going to have any problems.”
The key, he adds, is honesty.
“How can you go wrong when you’re clear and honest, when you’re letting people know: This has nudity, gunshots, strobe lights. People respect you for being honest.”
In 2001, Florida Rep put on a production of “Side Man,” a play about jazz musicians.
Also in its early years, the company produced “Wit,” which has full frontal nudity.
Those shows did not sell extremely well, Mr. Cacioppo allows, “But I think it was because of their more serious nature, not the language.” (“Wit” is the story of woman at the end stage of ovarian cancer.)
Part of an artistic director’s job, he believes, is to take audiences “on a journey, take them by the hand and get them used to more adventurous work.” He says a highlight of his career as a director was the production of “August: Osage County,” at Florida Rep in March 2011.
“I was so proud of that production,” he says about the 3½-hour show about a dysfunctional family with an alcoholic, drug-addicted mother. “There’s bad language and very vulgar stuff. Our audiences not only loved it, but they made it a really big hit for us.” (Tickets for “August: Osage County” were so hot that on the closing Sunday, someone stood in the lobby holding a sign: Need two seats.)
Taking a risk
“You have to know your audience and what kind of risk tolerance you have,” says Scott Saxon, general manager of the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall, where decision-making is on a per-show basis.
“We look at the show individually,” he says.
While the venue has put on musicals such as “South Pacific,” “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and the current “Mary Poppins,” it’s also brought grittier, more explicit shows, such as “The Vagina Monologues” and, more recently, “Spring Awakening.”
Based on an 1891 German play, “Spring Awakening” deals with issues including teens’ burgeoning sexuality, suicide, abortion and sexual abuse. It won eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
“It’s a great piece of theater. It doesn’t try to offend you just to offend you,” Mr. Saxon says about “Spring Awakening,” adding, however, “We certainly knew it’s not for everybody. We thought we had enough of an audience here that would love it, so we decided to bring it.”
Although the vast majority of the people who saw “Spring Awakening” at the Mann Hall loved it, he says, some didn’t.
But even a wildly popular musical such as the Tony Award-winning “Jersey Boys,” based on the lives of Frank Valli and the Four Seasons, has cursing in it. Lots of it. Between the musicians and the mobsters, the air onstage turned pretty blue at times.
The Mann Hall posted signs in the lobby: “Contains authentic profane Jersey language.”
The first time the musical played at the venue in 2010, there was not one complaint about the language.
When the show returned in early 2012, the hall received two or three complaints.
“It was a surprise, because we didn’t have any complaints the first time,” Mr. Saxon says.
“You’re never going to make everybody happy all the time. We know that. We just try to make sure that we make as many people happy as we can.”
For example, it has booked “American Idiot” for just one night this season (May 16). “We felt that was the appropriate length of time for that,” he says, adding he didn’t think the market was big enough to sustain the musical for an entire week.
“I personally really like the show,” he says. “It’s essentially the entire Green Day album … it contains language, and has a storyline of drug usage.”
Ultimately, Mr. Saxon says, “Every organization has to make its own decision about what to do.”
A variety of tastes
Kristen Coury, producing artistic director of Gulfshore Playhouse in Naples, remembers being warned about local audiences’ conservative tastes when she opened her theater six years ago.
“I was told, don’t do anything with language, don’t do anything controversial, or people will get mad and leave and write letters to the editor,” she recalls. “So I really did stick to that. Every once in a while, (a play might) have a word here or there that might be offensive.”
But then, in January 2012, she produced David Mamet’s “Race.”
“During rehearsals, I would say, ‘And at this point, the audience gets up and leaves…’ I was not joking. I was worried word of mouth would be terrible, that people would get up and leave.”
Reality proved to be something different.
“No one got up and left,” she says.
“And it was our biggest-selling show, up to that point.”
The Naples Players, a community theater, staged “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” this past fall in the Tobye Studio, the black box theater typically reserved for more experimental fare.
“It’s a risqué and risky play,” Mr. Graffy, who directed it, says about the play that deals with adult themes of human sexuality and contains some nudity.
“My feeling was, if you saw the play and came out talking about the nudity, you missed the point of the play,” he says. “Nudity was used in the pure storytelling.
“And to the best of my knowledge, we had absolutely no complaints. It was discussed online, in the newspaper and television news, but mostly by people who hadn’t seen it.”
It’s the responsibility of a theater to explore all different types of theater, to speak to as wide an audience as possible, he feels.
“There are some people that the only thing they will come to see this year is ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses,’ because they’re not looking for Neil Simon or Broadway musicals or farces, they’re looking for interesting and provocative pieces to make them think,” he says.
“Nobody ever selects anything in an effort to offend anybody … If we want to be a highly thought of arts town, it’s really our responsibility to do as many interesting plays and types of plays and genres, and expand our audience and expand our audience’s experiences.
“Unless the mission of your theater is to just do family fare, which is a very limiting catalog of plays, you have to accept that theaters are obliged to provide a variety of plays to speak to a variety of tastes.” ¦