Should Theatre Have Ratings Like Movies?

Over the weekend in the Sydney Morning’s Herald’s Spectrum section there was an article entitled “Adult Themes, Nudity, Occassional Walkouts.” It was coincidental that it was in the paper because only the day before I had been reading at The Drama Teacher about their experience seeing the very play mentioned in the article. They then followed it up with a post pushing for theatre classification and advisory warnings for live theatre similar to that of films.

Currently in Australia live theatre productions are not classified. Film has always had a fairly good rating system (G, PG, M, MA15+, R18+, X18+) and for the most part it seems to help people work out how to decipher which films are suitable to watch. I would argue that even that classification system is becoming a little hazy in terms of what it deems appropriate for each rating but that’s for another time. It seems that the acceptance and tolerance of nudity, sex, swearing and violence is changing.

In NSW DET school’s we are obligated to only show G and PG rated films to students. Sections of M rated movies are also allowed to be shown but full length screenings of M movies need written parental permission. The kids seem to find this outdated and roll their eyes when I tell them that is all I can show them but I don’t disagree with the guideline. We do have a duty of care as teachers and it is important that we show films that are appropriate to our student’s ages. What kinds of movies they watch at home and despite all the gory, violent video games they are playing at home, we still must ensure that they are watching material that is suitable to their maturity level.

Maturity level. That is what I want to emphasise in my argument towards theatre advisory classification. Theatre is a unique experience and has always been “confronting” because of its live nature. Swearing and some nudity has always been a part of theatre. I have found it confronting at times but I also have an understanding of why it’s there and I like the fact that it is happening right in front of me. It makes the experience and the emotion more heightened and it connects with me so much more differently than a film. Many student’s have not experienced the power of live theatre and cannot deal with mature content in a mature way because it is making them think and feel differently to what they would if they were watching a movie. It’s like the cinema screen filters out some of the feeling.

“A true theatrical experience involves your body responding in some way, whether its squirming in your seat, looking away, groaning, laughing, weeping, closing your eyes in certain moments, getting fidgety. As long as your body is responding you’re having a genuine relationship with the work. That’s often what theatre maker’s aspire to do.” – Tom Wright, Director of Baal.

I have a distinct memory of some student’s of mine who went to see The Season at Sarsparilla a few years back, just before I became their drama teacher. They were recalling to me how there was a man completely nude in the scene and you could see “everything.” They squirmed as they told me this. In reflecting back on this I don’t think their reaction was particularly unusual. Seeing peple in the nude is not a common occurance. There are social expectations about when and where that happens and obviously they felt like they were looking in on something private, which of course they were and that was the point. I’m sure most adults would have reacted in a similar way.

This is when I think the pre and post performance discussion is important. If theatre is going to remain unclassified it is important that student’s have certain things explained to them before they see a performance and that all their questions are answered after they see a performance. Discussion is important and that is what theatre is about in my opinion. Talking about what you are seeing and relating it back to you and your world. It is important that as teachers we are promoting higher order thinking and critical thinking when discussin issues of a mature nature.

At the same time, as teachers we are responsible for the kinds of shows we take our student’s to and I think this article is a reminder that we should be using all the education program guides given to us by the theatre companies, reading them carefully, doing our own research, going back to our programs and syllabus and really ensuring that it links into and is relevant to the outcomes that need to be achieved. In doing this, I really don’t feel that theatre should need to be classified. Not because I think its superior to any other art form but because I believe theatre is about pushing boundaries and making expeiences real and confronting at times for their audience. Look at all those theatre movements throughout the last century. We wouldn’t have known about any of them if they hadn’t been as radical as they were at the time.

I agree there is a fine line between nudity, violence and sex for their own sake but if it is discussed and the dramatic meaning and purpose for all those things is considered, student’s may enter a performance with a much more mature, informed approach to what they are watching. It is a student’s ability to grasp these mature concepts that is the issue and some student’s, and only you as their teacher will know this, are capable of handling the material. Making an informed decision based on your student’s needs is what is important here not necessarily classifying theatre.

What are your thoughts on theatre classification? Share in the comments below.