Beyond PG-13: Theaters divided on applying movie-style ratings on productions

When the Paramount Theater in Aurora announces the musicals in its Broadway Series, it appends movie-style ratings to each show. For example, for its 2014-15 season, “Cats” and “Mary Poppins” got the expected Rated G label, while “Les Miserables” earned a PG and “The Who’s Tommy” got a PG-13.

For the most part, live theater has managed to escape such labeling, with presenters convinced theater audiences tend to be sophisticated enough to do whatever “pre-screening” they might think necessary on their own, especially if they’re planning to “take the kids.”

But at a time when even such outlets as National Public Radio and the BBC send out “trigger warnings” before stories that deal with everything from war atrocities to human trafficking, theaters are increasingly playing it safe, too. Aside from Paramount, none so far apply the strict movie standard, but the “forewarned is forearmed” approach is noticeable, if far from uniform.

Sex and nudity are generally the red flags, but when the Museum of Contemporary Art presented the Elevator Repair Service’s “Arguendo” recently (a show based on a Supreme Court case dealing with nudity by “exotic dancers” in an Indiana bar), there was only a modest “recommended for mature audiences; some nudity” mention on the website, and it hardly suggested the extent of a quite hilarious scene involving full-frontal male nudity. As it happens, the wholly clothed (but rough play) sex scene now being performed in “The Dance of Death” at Writers’ Theatre is far more shocking.

The House Theatre of Chicago’s current production of “Dorian,” a modern adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” comes with the advisory “for mature audiences only.” The show contains brief nudity, drug and alcohol abuse, and “darker material such as self-harm, violence and suicide,” says a parental guide posted on the company’s website.

Far more tongue-in-cheek is Theater Wit’s website rating of “M” (mature content and language) for its hit show “Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England.” The warning reads: “This production contains simulated sex between prehistoric college students, and also between contemporary lesbians. No mammoths were harmed, nor museum dioramas damaged, in the making of it.”

Dance, by its very nature, is a whole different matter. It is an art by, for and about the body, so the squeamish tend to steer clear of it from the start. Yet when France’s Ballet Preljocaj brings its contemporary take on “Snow White” to the Harris Theater, its May 2 and 3 evening performances will include “brief nudity,” while its May 4 matinee will not. Neither version will be for the Disney crowd, but parents obviously are being warned.

Language is often deemed the next “worst offender” after nudity. Violence, as usual, comes in a very distant third. The failure to warn about the use of strobe lights, or smoke, fog or other health-altering effects, often causes the greatest consternation.

Are audiences increasingly sensitive, despite ever greater exposure to disturbing content in every medium? Or are they just increasingly “reactive”?

Jim Jarvis, marketing director at the Paramount, noted: “On our surveys we constantly get positive, appreciative comments about the rating system. Adults want to know if a show is appropriate for their children. In ‘Hair,’ we had the obvious nudity, and we rated it R on everything from the brochure to the website. As a result, we had just one or two complaints. ‘Miss Saigon’ was rated PG-13, and the box office had a lot of calls from parents trying to decide if it was appropriate for their kids.”

Theatergoer Margaret Cain didn’t take kids to Paramount’s recent production of “Rent.”

“Having that rating information available can’t hurt, as long as no one intends to exclude people of a certain age from certain shows,” said Cain. “Theatergoers are historically different from moviegoers in their approach to entertainment, in part because of ticket prices. And they tend to be more aware of what they are going to see. I took my 7-year-old granddaughter to see Paramount’s ‘Annie,’ and found it much too long for a little girl. But really, would I need a rating guide to tell me Court Theater’s upcoming ‘M. Butterfly’ is not for kids?”

BJ Jones, Northlight Theatre’s artistic director, notes: “Artistically, if we’ve chosen a piece, we are on board for whatever the playwright has intended, and of course the director’s vision of it. We certainly answer any questions about age appropriateness. We do not indicate in materials that there will be nudity or coarse language, but we do warn our school groups. And we put notices up when guns or smoke are utilized. In the case of ‘The Lieutenant of Inishmore,’ for example, we let the audience know on our website, in emails and in printed materials that there would be extreme violence, and blood.

“The truth is, we are in the professional theater,” said Jones. “And I believe our audience should understand that contemporary theater reflects … a broad spectrum of the human experience. If you are coming to live theater in a post-Mametian era you should expect a more unvarnished experience. Hopefully we are all grown-ups, and live and work in a 21st century world. I’d like to think going to the theater means you are up for the ride, no matter where it goes.”

David Rice, executive director of First Folio in Oak Brook, had a chuckle recently when a patron said she was surprised by the theater’s current show, “Salvage,” a thriller about a seller of collectibles.

“Her friends told her they weren’t seeing it because there was nudity, but there is no nudity in it at all,” said Rice. “The theater’s ticketing page did say ‘mature content’ because of a half-dozen or so swear words, including the F-bomb. But that was it. Interestingly enough, I’ve gotten about two dozen responses to my email about ‘Salvage,’ and every single one was humorous, including ‘Well, if there’s no nudity, I may have to ask for a refund!’ ”

Andy White, artistic director of Lookingglass Theatre, said that because his company’s productions can range so widely — this season included “The North China Lover” (with nudity and adult situations) as well as “The Little Prince” (a whimsical piece for all ages) — he takes very seriously his responsibility to be clear about content so audiences know what to expect.

“Also, since most of our work is original, audiences can’t read a review of a previous production to get a sense of the content,” said White. “So we make sure we’ve got a clear path of communication between artists, marketing and staff as we announce each season, and we give the box office staff helpful guidelines about age suggestions, or sometimes even a contemporary cultural reference.”

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