Censoring Controversy

When the arts industry cancels or makes the decision not to show a production that has themes that directly link with controversial issues within society it is telling the world that the issues are not important and should not be dealt with and this means the industry fails to uphold its job within society.

The National Youth Theatre (NYT) cancelled their production of ‘Homegrown’ due to be staged in August 2015. Earlier the same year Ipswich High School for Girls cancelled Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern, from an incoming touring company to the school.

Both of these cancellations were due to either being deemed as inappropriate or concern over how they would be perceived.

NYT’s production ‘Homegrown’ dealt with the issues surrounding young people and terrorism, something that is very much part of today’s world. Here in the UK, we hear of people, both young and old joining extremist groups and then going on to harm innocent communities.

The actual reason given for this cancellation is ‘that there was no complete script’, this just tells the public that there was no real plan or organisation in the process, giving a double barrel of negativity to the NYT since the script or concept of the final production should be in place before auditions began. So was the real reason for the issues which it explored?

Then for a school to cancel an incoming tour because they deem it as ‘inappropriate and not an educator for girls’ when it contains topics of sex and abuse, claiming that ‘it’s hard enough to think or talk about let alone watch’, seems quite ironic coming from any school when society has a problem with teenage pregnancies and child abuse which is in the media more and more. Is it not the job of schools to talk about these issues? By not doing so, are they failing the children they are entrusted with and the communities in which they serve?

In today’s world young people are far more aware of these issues then we, as adults will ever realise with modern technologies, the internet and social media. They all probably know someone, either directly or through a friend who is affected by one or more of these issues. They themselves may even be affected with one of the issues, but maybe don’t know how to deal with it because society tells them it’s a ‘taboo’ topic and its not to be spoken about. But by allowing them to explore the issues through the arts, either watching or being part of it helps to break down those barriers and helps them feel connected in ways that they may not otherwise feel in their education.

We should never underestimate the power of the arts and how it tackles issues head-on. Shakespeare dealt with racism and social class through his play Othello, the actor may well have been white with a black painted face, but this is still a topic we still deal with on a daily basis in the 21st Century, but in the 1600s this was a radical idea. Les Miserable deals with issues surrounding oppression and poverty and what it does to people. Disney’s Lion King deals with corruption teaching children that the truth will always manifest itself in some way or other.

Abuse happens; terrorism is a very real experience for some, so they must be addressed head-on, yes there is a need to be sensitive but at the same time, it all needs to be kept very real. The best weapon society has against these issues is knowledge; the best industry to provide that is the arts in what they do best, by telling stories.

Have we forgotten that part our heritage of the industry is to create discussion? Part of that process is negativity but it shouldn’t put us off dealing issues in society. It should make us feel as though we are doing our job unless the comments are about the actual staging of the production directly.

We have to accept that there will always be those who find the opportunity to twist the story into something that it was never intended to be. In May 2016 I read an article on the BBC news feed about a photographer who had posted a picture on social media of her sick son in her husband’s arms in the shower attempting to keep the boys’ temperature down. For most, it was a humbling photo, yet there were a few who found it offensive and inappropriate simply because the persons featured were naked.

The ease of offending people has become so easy and it does put people off having those important discussions, these people will always be around and just because they are offended it doesn’t make them right. However their views are still important to the conversation, as they keep things real and ensure we get nitty gritty as we explore the underpinning issues that we are trying to convey.

Young people should be encouraged to see and be part of productions that deal with controversy because if we have agreed they can see it at least we know what that the information is and how it is being given, it is being done on our terms in a controlled and safe environment. If we don’t do this, then at the end of the day they will go find that information themselves because that’s human nature to say ‘no’ is a temptation to do.

If they do go looking for themselves online behind our backs, there is no way of knowing what they are viewing or whom the information is coming from and the consequences could be a lot worse. As adults and the curators of today’s world who apparently want a better place for our children need to fulfil our duty and be ready for those awkward conversations and help them create a better place to live.

The Arts and Funding

We often read that theatres should be working with more diversity in their performances and possibly being penalised if they fail. At the same time there’s this discussion about lack of funding for new works. Surely there is a link between the 2 here?

I think maybe we forget a few things, for instance all of today’s great shows all started the same way trying to source funding. Look at Les Miserable, when you look back at when the idea was first hatched it was, in all cases, the rejected play and for no other reason than it had miserable is the title. Yet as it began its 30th season 2015 it had become one the best loved and longest running musicals of all time being translated into 22 languages with productions in 42 counties and 319 cities.

Or look at Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap playing at the St. Martin’s Theatre, the longest running West End play as it began its 63rd session in 2015. There is also the world famous works of Shakespeare, originally written in the 18th Century, they all needed funding at to start out.

All of these scripts were written about a society that was racist, that was sexist and worked on stereotyping. But some of these stories are well loved and give a powerful message reminding us about our past. But to penalise a theatre or production for lack of diversity when attempting to stage these shows would be wrong and it wouldn’t solve the diversity issues in our theatres.

In The Stage on 28th May 2015 Maria Friedman spoke about the lack of work for ‘Older Actresses’, and is almost forcing a generation to move over to directing. While for ‘diversity’ this is good as we are seeing a rise in the female directors. But what does it do for the on stage diversity issue? Is it really the fault of the director or the actors that there is a limit to variety of works to cover all bases of diversity?

Steven Berkoff’s recent comment that ‘White actors should be allowed to play Othello’ seems like a desperate cry to close the diversity gap, as Othello works because of the black / white issue of the day in which it is written. White people have never been singled out and forced into a situation that Othello was, and to do that would make the whole play unreal and unbelievable.

Now I am not saying that funding bodies should just give out money to new works, as the element of risk will always be high. The writers and all those involved to producing the works should work on their pitch and not just to the funder but also the potential audience. In today’s techno world there are ways to gage if a show is going to work, in very much the same way as the retails can gage if there is a market for new product.

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