WHAT SHOULDN'T CHILDREN SEE?
So, Theatre for Young Audiences should be about children or childhood, should address its subject matter with honesty and respect, both in the acting and in the writing, and should not rely for humor or understanding on esoteric information that is outside children's experience. It should challenge its audience, both in its ideas and in its presentation of ideas, to think and to feel. Theatre for young children should be active and fast-moving. These are the first things I look for when asked to decide if a work is "appropriate" for a young audience. That's what I mean when I say we should apply positive, rather than negative criteria when considering this question. But it begs two questions. First, isn't there any kind of content that would automatically disqualify a play? And second, what about taking young people to see plays or films not specifically intended for young audiences? I'll address these questions one at a time, although most of what I say about the first will apply as well to the second. (I should note here that I am NOT suggesting that producers of children's theatre adopt my standards when programming, even if they agree with them. No play is any good for its audience if it is never seen by them, so it is important for a producer of children's--or any--theatre to know what is acceptable in their own community, and if they disagree with the community standards, to push the limits only gradually.)
First, is there any kind of content whose presence in a play would make that play "inappropriate" for young people, even if it conforms to the positive criteria above? The answer is that of course there is, but it's not such a simple question. First of all, here is where we get into individual parental attitudes. As long as we're assuming that parents have a right to decide what is best for their children, I have to allow for the possibility that subject matter that doesn't bother me a bit might bother other people. All I can do is tell you my opinion, and defend it as best I can. Second, obviously, it depends on how old the children are. (Of course that applies to all of my criteria, but more so here.) Let me just try to cover some of the basics of my own standards. Virtually all of what I say here applies to film, television, and video games as well as to theatre. The easiest way is to take what I see as some of the most obvious "generally accepted" classes of "questionable" material and discuss them individually. As I see it, the things most likely to worry producers and parents are, in no particular order, "strong language," sexuality, religion, death, drugs, and violence. On the first four I suspect I am more permissive than the average parent; on the last I am pretty sure I am far less. (My position on drugs in dramatic media is complex.)
I don't really know what the term "strong language" means, and I doubt anyone does. In a particular domain--say, the rules of motion picture rating--it often has a specific meaning, because there exists a list of forbidden words and phrases, but in the real world that's obviously absurd, which is why such lists are constantly changing. Every community has its own unwritten list, and they are all different. Even after several years in one school, I am still occasionally astonished to see shocked looks on my students' faces because I have used a "bad word." For example, "shut up," was taboo at one school. (I would never tell a child to shut up, but I used to sometimes use the expression in other contexts, is in, "the third little pig thought he was so smart, he almost never shut up.") The funniest example of this phenomenon I have encountered is the "bottom/behind" controversy. Kindergarten students at one school were expected to sit crosslegged on their derrieres during "circle." For reasons that still escape me, it was acceptable to remind them to keep their "bottoms" on the floor, but not their "behinds." (I don't mean that anyone told me I mustn't use the word "bottom"--I mean that when I did, the children all giggled because the teacher had used a bad word.) That's merely humorous and silly, but it illustrates the point. What is or is not a "bad word" is different in every community, and changes with time. (Many people point to the changing language on prime-time television as a sign of the laxness of the times, but I would argue that it mostly reflects the fluid nature of language. It's not so much that producers are more willing to use "bad words" as that some words have ceased to be seen as "bad.")
I think people are way, way too sensitive about "strong language" in the entertainment children see. Most children are smart enough to understand that what is permissible in one setting may not be in another--and if they're not, what a marvelous opportunity to teach them the concept. I am discussing here the use of words independent of their literal meaning. When a "four-letter word" is used literally to describe an object or action that is "inappropriate" the problem is not the word, but the concept it denotes, and that comes (mostly) under the next two headings--sexuality and religion. And I do strongly object to the use of words (pejorative or otherwise) that refer to particular groups (such as "faggot") as general insults, because such use implies that to be a member of said group is somehow shameful. But when a character in a play says, "f___ off," or "you need to get your sh__ together," I find it impossible to get excited about it--provided such language is consistent with the character and his situation. Virtually every child I know older than four uses language like this every day when she thinks no adults are listening, and so do most of the adults I know, when they know or think they know no one in the present company will object. I try not to use "four-letter words" in my own writing for children because I know it is the quickest way there is to earn the dreaded "inappropriate" label, but I personally think the whole thing is pretty silly. There are probably words that I would admit no child should hear, but I can't think of one offhand. (On the other hand, I think many writers use "foul language" far too much, in the belief that it is somehow "edgy," and that's just as stupid as running in fear from the occasional "damn it!") This issue is unlikely to come up much when dealing with entertainment specifically marketed for children, except in exceptionally conservative communities, but it has bearing on the decision of whether to allow children to view other entertainment.
Sexuality is a more difficult issue. As I have already said, it is unlikely that a story with sex at its center will be of any interest to children--other than for the thrill of the forbidden--but I don't think it makes much sense to pretend sex doesn't exist, even with very young children. If the story is important and appropriate, and it cannot be told honestly without mentioning sex, I usually don't have a problem with it. I think most of the sex even in "adult" entertainment is unnecessarily graphic, but that's more an issue of artistic taste than morals. I also think much of the sex in the movies is gratuitous, which is why I make the requirement that it be necessary to the story. (And I do draw the line at simulating sex onstage--but then that's practically never justified by story.) However, implying or even saying right out that characters are sexual beings is not only permissible, but necessary if failure to do so would be dishonest
I refer above to sexuality in general, but this category can be divided into subcategories that should be discussed separately, because they sit in very different places on different people's "appropriateness index." Divorce, for example, is in a sense an issue of sexuality: certainly sex is sometimes an important issue in a divorce. Many people believe that plays about divorce are inappropriate for children. I would argue that it is a very important topic children need to discuss and explore. Suzan Zeder's Doors, and to a lesser extent Step on a Crack, concern children who are, like the vast majority of children in practically any audience, trying to deal with this issue in a healthy way. Divorce touches nearly every child, either in his own family or in a friend's, and the theatre is a powerful force for social understanding. When a play deals with this issue from the child's perspective, it is almost always a good thing. Children should probably not be subjected to the meanness and vitriol of conflict between adults (don't take them to see Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf), but they need to explore their own feelings about the disintegration of family.
Homosexuality is another issue that terrifies most producers and many parents. Simulating homosexual sex on the stage is of course inappropriate for the same reason that simulating heterosexual sex is. But as far as I'm concerned, portraying homosexual characters, or discussing issues of gender orientation should not even be an issue. Fifty years ago (or more, or even, sadly, fewer, depending on the community), many people would have said it was inappropriate for children to view plays in which characters of different races fraternize--but that didn't make it true. It saddens me that it took us so long to abandon such prejudices, and I think it's time we abandon this one as well. I probably wouldn't take pre-pubescent children to see a play about gender orientation, because sexuality in general isn't a major concern for them, but the presence of an openly gay adult character shouldn't keep children from seeing a good story, and I'm inclined to think even a play whose young protagonist was struggling with her sexuality would be appropriate for teenagers. I realize I am probably so far off to the left of most people as to be outside the building altogether, but that doesn't change my opinion. As a playwright I am leery of including openly gay characters in my work (though I have occasionally done so), in part because I know it will reduce the chances that the play will be produced (which is, after all, the point of writing a play) and in part because I'm not totally confident in my ability to write such characters sensitively, not having experienced firsthand what it feels like to be a gay teen. But I think it's sad that it's still an issue, and I'm glad to say that it may finally be changing. This issue is unlikely to come up, in children's theatre, at least for a few more years, but it will when deciding whether to allow children to view "adult" dramatic media.
A final note about sexuality (and this applies to language as well). Anything which children think is a touchy issue must be handled very sensitively in any theatre that will be seen by audiences of primarily children. Whatever one thinks about the importance or appropriateness of a topic, if it provokes embarrassed or delighted laughter because children know they are seeing or hearing something they are "not supposed to," it cannot be effective. Children who hear what they perceive as a "bad word" or see what they perceive as "forbidden" behavior on stage giggle, nudge their neighbors, and glance uneasily at their teachers. (A colleague of mine once described this reaction as, "did you just see me hear that?") The children are thus taken out of the story. Children are extremely unlikely to have this reaction unless surrounded by peers, so this concern really doesn't apply when trying to decide whether to bring children along to the "adult" theatre, but it is very important in Theatre for Young Audiences. This is one reason (and the only really compelling one, in my view) that such references should only be used when the integrity of the story demands.
Religion is an especially difficult issue to navigate because charges of "inappropriateness" can come from both the left and the right. In many public schools, "political correctness" has been carried to such an extreme that anything that can possibly be construed as "religious" in tone is decried as discriminatory--especially stories taken from the Judeo-Christian scriptures. On the other hand, certain "hot button" topics, such as witchcraft (and, of course, homosexuality) often excite major controversies in predominantly Christian communities, especially in the South. (Even fairy-tale "wicked witches" can qualify for this kind of reaction.) As to the first problem, I am personally inclined to take an inclusionary, rather than an exclusionary approach--if, over time, all the "religious" stories dramatized and all the openly religious characters depicted come from the same religious tradition, that's a problem, but I see no reason to reject a good story just because it happens to relate to a particular cultural or religious group. Of course if a school has a rule, they have a rule. Regarding the objections to witches and other such things, all I can say is that I have never seen an example of such controversy that didn't strike me as a silly, knee-jerk reaction. Usually the problem goes away with considered discussion with the concerned group. If it doesn't, one has to respect people's sincere religious concerns. This is not usually an issue except in schools.
Of course, if a play is intended to advance a particular religious position (which is not necessarily the case in plays based on bible stories, other than maybe the Nativity) then it probably has no place in a public school performance. It is important not to be disrespectful of children's personal and family beliefs or traditions, but I have never understood how not telling a particular story (when there are, obviously, an infinite number of other stories you're also not telling) is disrespectful. I can illustrate the distinction by referencing other media. I have no problem with the upcoming movie about Noah--which, at least judging from the movie's advance press, is treated simply as a good story told as such--but I am acutely uncomfortable, despite having been raised Christian, when I come across a religious service (like the old Billy Graham Crusades) on network television. Similarly, I would have no problem with a public school producing Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (apart from the thought that they might choose something with more artistic quality) but I was very disturbed by the straight-from-the-gospels Christmas pageant that was an annual event at one officially secular school where I taught. However, I freely admit that this is an issue I don't really have a handle on.
Death is another issue that some people think children should never have to think about. I disagree, for precisely the same reasons I have expounded regarding divorce. Of course I don't want to frighten children for no good reason, but sensitively told stories about dealing with death--either from the point of view of the dying or of those left behind--can be extremely good for children. I have already mentioned David Saar's The Yellow Boat, which deals with a dying protagonist. Another excellent example is Aurand Harris's The Arkansaw Bear, about a young girl learning how to mourn for her grandfather. Most children will have to deal with the death of someone close to them, and all children fear that they might. Often it is a good idea for parents and teachers to be prepared to help children deal with issues brought up in such plays, but that is true of any play.
When it comes to plays that deal with, or contain references to drugs (including nicotine and alcohol), it is extremely important to look at the context and the style of the references. Drugs and alcohol are very dangerous and extremely pervasive in the media. I would have strong reservations about taking children to see any play in which drug use is portrayed as glamorous or "macho." Glorifying a behavior as destructive as this is just a really bad idea. I deplore the gratuitous presence of drugs, and especially cigarettes and alcohol, in film and television. With rare exceptions, I don't see this as a contradiction with my insistence on honesty. While it is true that many people drink and smoke without being junkies or drunks, it is usually unnecessary to show them doing it. Even most habitual smokers spend the vast majority of their time not smoking, and so unless a film purports to follow a character through every moment of his day, there is no reason we need to see him with a cigarette. And the same could be said for alcohol and illegal drugs. I use the word "gratuitous" deliberately, however. If a character's drug use is an important plot point, that's different, but even in that case I don't think it is appropriate for children to see drug use glamorized. On the other hand, plays that deal honestly with the issue of substance abuse, whether directly or as a side issue, do not usually strike me as inappropriate. I was once asked to excise Miss Hannigan's drinking scenes from a production of Annie I was directing, and I refused. For one thing, I believe it would have been unethical to make such a significant change in a copyrighted work, but I had a more important objection. In Annie, it is obvious that her drinking is a large part of Miss Hannigan's downfall. No one could possibly see it as glamorous. People objected to the drinking per se, rather than evaluating its context and meaning. I think the refusal to face and deal with the issue of substance abuse is, if anything, even more dangerous than glamorizing it. Even at a very young age I approve of plays whose purpose is to point up the dangers of drugs (provided they are good plays, which they often are not), and for the most part I don't have a problem with casual references like the one in Annie, provided they are honest--by which I mean they show the dangers of abuse. If the reference in an existing work is neutral--that is, if it shows an adult character drinking or smoking in moderation, and neither glamorizes it or condemns it--I would not allow that to over-ride other positive virtues, but when creating new work I always think every care should be taken to avoid even this kind of reference.
My position on the appropriateness of plays, films, television shows and video games containing gratuitous violence is much the same as my position on drugs, only more so. Here is where I suspect I am far more particular--far more apt not to allow children to view a work--than most people. I will go into detail about my reasons for feeling the way I do, but let me first just put it out there: Children should NEVER be allowed to view "professional wrestling," "extreme fighting," or similar atrocities. Many television programs, such as Breaking Bad, Transformers, and Power Rangers (and all similar shows) should be off limits at least into the middle teens. Films such as True Lies (and most other Arnold Schwartzenegger films), all James Bond films, and films like Natural Born Killers are extremely dangerous for children. Video games such as Mortal Kombat, Grand Theft Auto, and countless others should be forbidden to children if not taken off the shelves altogether. It frustrates me to no end that parents who become incensed if a character says the word "masturbate" on stage during a school play think nothing of the fact that their children spend hours everyday imagining themselves in the role of a violent killer while playing Nintendo. It shouldn't take a disaster like a school shooting to remind us that we live in a culture in which people--adults and children--are far too quick to turn to violence to solve problems. We must stop glorifying violence. We must stop presenting it as a first option in times of trouble. And we especially must stop doing it to our children. Even many programs, movies and games designed specifically for children (note my mention above of Power Rangers) are incredibly, gratuitously violent. And parents often allow their children to view material not designed for them--particularly if it is violence, and not sex, that makes it inappropriate.
Some of the works I have mentioned above are ones I, as an adult, personally enjoy. (Others simply disgust me.) But all have two things in common: graphic depictions of violence, and a protagonist or protagonists for whom violence is usually a first, rather than a last resort in times of trouble. Although I think any graphic violence should be viewed with extreme caution, it matters that it is the protagonist who is violent. It is natural when viewing any kind of narrative entertainment to identify oneself with the protagonist. An adult may identify with a violent character while watching a program without wanting to be him, but for children this is often a difficult distinction. The problem is compounded when, as in most of the specific examples I have mentioned, the protagonist is presented as heroic and glamorous. It should not surprise us if children whose heroes are James Bond, the Power Rangers and The Rock choose violence over words when they are confronted with adversity. The fact that most of these characters are fighting for "right," far from making it all okay, makes it even worse. Everyone always thinks they are in the right in a conflict. We ought to be promoting the idea that even when you're in the right, violence should not be your first resort. I'm actually less disturbed by violence, even if it extreme, committed by characters we know are supposed to be bad people than by much less extreme violence practiced as a first resort by supposed "good guys." Video games are the worst danger of all: in a video game the protagonist IS the child. Virtually all video games these days are role-playing games, in which the player is expected to step into the role of the hero of the story. I can think of nothing more frightening than the image, repeated hour upon hour in countless homes across America, of a child playing out acts of incredible violence as the hero of one of hundreds of hyper-violent virtual-reality-type games.
Some people believe that the increasingly graphic nature of the violent imagery in the media "desensitizes" people to violence. I'm not sure how much credence to give this idea. I suspect there is something in it, but I think it is far less significant than the amount of violence, and the heroic and glamorous light it is given. That's why movies like those of Jackie Chan, in which the violence is stylized and often comic rather than graphic, worry me more than a show like Law and Order, in which the violence is much more graphic and naturalistic, but far less pervasive, and practically never perpetrated by the protagonists, or indeed by any sympathetic character. (I confess that I enjoy both.) However, there is one way in which I think media does literally desensitize children. The fight scenes in television and the movies seem to always be absurdly drawn out, and the soundtracks enhanced so that every kick and punch sounds as if it carries the force of a nuclear missile. In the real world, no one could possibly survive even a fraction of what these guys shake off as if it were nothing. Children need to know that if they hit someone--even once--they can hurt them. (Obviously this is one of the main problems with "professional wrestling" as well--if anyone needs a reason to avoid that particular brand of pornography.)
When the violence is not presented sympathetically, one must look at the surrounding context to make a sensible decision about whether children should see it. Graphic violence can be very disturbing regardless of which character commits it, and regardless of what the opinion of the creator is about its "rightness." Unless the story, and its relation to the violence, are very important, I am inclined to give graphic violence a miss with children even if it has none of the characteristics mentioned above. Still, as with the issue of drugs, there are times when the mention of violence, or even its direct depiction, are appropriate. Schindler's List, for example, depicts fairly graphically the atrocities of the Nazis, but it does so in order to tell an extremely important story, and while I would probably not want very young children to view it, older ones not only could but should. I'm inclined to feel the same way about Twelve Years a Slave. When it comes to the theatre, graphic violence is almost impossible, so the question generally comes down to the glorification of violence versus its condemnation. If it is important, it is often appropriate. Again, the theatre is a powerful force for social change, and we need plays that deal sensitively and honestly with the issue of violence in our society. Many schools are beginning to make rules forbidding the use of prop guns, knives, etc. in plays, and I can't get behind that. Schools need to trust drama teachers to be sensitive to the issue, and program responsibly. (And, of course, they need to hire trained people who will be able to do that.)