Editor’s Digest: a ratings system for the theater?

Beyond PG-13: Theaters divided on applying movie-style ratings on productions”: Should theaters agree upon or adopt a formalized system for alerting the public to a production’s content? Many companies already inform potential patrons of nudity, mature themes, language, and violence, but a universal system would help patrons make better choices.
(Hedy Weiss, Chicago Sun-Times, April 23, 2014.)

I can understand the impetus on the part of theater companies in Chicago or elsewhere to establish a rating system for content. Forewarned in this case is definitely forearmed: A patron who walks out in disgust — whether at a restaurant or play — will rarely return. Parents who unwittingly drag a 12-year-old to the musical Spring Awakening (an event I’ve witnessed) might wind up towing a confused youngster out by the arm at intermission. If that mother didn’t want her daughter exposed to suicide, premarital sex, unintended pregnancy, and more, she might not have paid for tickets if she knew the show contained that material. In these cases, a ratings system would help consumers make more informed choices.

But I can also foresee unintended consequences, which have happened in the movies. Horror films universally receive R ratings, which limit their audiences, and movies such as The Counselor have suffered at the box office because the “R” rating didn’t fully convey the grown-up content intended only for adults. Moreover, many directors have gone on record as choosing to tone down dramas, comedies, and period pieces to receive the more favorable and family-friendly PG-13 designation. Nudity and sex scenes, or violence which in a writer’s eye may vitally impact the plot or theme, often find their way to the cutting floor. Language or action that sharpens or distinguishes a character might get toned down in favor of a lesser rating, and thus impart a blander performance in favor of a more general audience.

Can we imagine James Cameron’s Titanic without the brief nudity or single sex scene? Sure. But did the nude portrait scene intensify Rose’s vulnerability and the growing intimacy between her and Jack? Absolutely. Was the content objectionable or deserving of a rating designed to alert and potentially exclude audiences?

The real question asks if theater companies and directors would respond in similar fashion, toning down nudity, drug use, simulated sex, language, or violence (not to mention dark or adult-oriented themes) to avoid a rating that might lessen their box office receipts. Or if artistic directors would begin — as has happened in the movie industry — to produce more shows in the “PG-13” category in attempts to curry a wider appeal and broader audience.

I believe that no company in town (sorry Exile, Luna) or Philadelphia-based director (not even you, Geffers) is immune to these influences, and that no matter how well-intended, a ratings system would begin to induce subtle or significant changes to the theater landscape. For that reason alone, theater communities should not establish any system of content rating, but leave the decision to inform audiences about nudity, language, violence, etc., to the discretion of each organization.

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