Theater violence and language break down barriers, panelist say
Ryan Summerlin May 20, 2012
Former Denver Post theater critic John Moore said he’s never had a complaint over an overly violent play, but he has upset readers when he didn’t condemn a play that explored same-sex relationships.
That was during a discussion of the place and purpose of harsh language in contemporary theater productions, hosted Sunday by the Lake Dillon Theatre Company. It was the first of two free panel discussions on the topic, with the second slated for 4 p.m. June 3, prior to the evening production of “A Behanding in Spokane.”
It’s all part of an effort to educate theatergoers on the types of plays the theater does, and why. It goes hand-in-hand with theater staff’s effort to pull off one “edgy” production each year in the off season.
Though participants and panelists held varying viewpoints of whether language and various forms of violence are appropriate for theater productions, Lake Dillon Theatre Company boardmember John Fitzgerald said there’s value to both because it has spurred discussion.
“Part of the value of the play is what’s happening here tonight,” he said. Getting the community together to discuss the play, why it was written and its content is important, he added.
“A Behanding in Spokane” characters use several harsh curse words as well as the word, “nigger,” which often catches audiences by surprise, director Joshua Blanchard said. At the same time, the play is written as a comedy, leaving audiences unsure whether to laugh or be horrified at playwright Martin McDonagh’s assertiveness.
“The purpose (of the panel discussion) is to allow different theater practitioners to explore the trends in theater today, the purpose of language in theater today and why it has that assault capacity on audiences and what the purpose of that is,” Blanchard said. “I believe there’s a rhyme and reason for the language in the show. And in most shows. It’s not just gratuitous.”
Most participants and panelists agreed that language in a play should be there for a reason, not just extraneous. But they all varied in the degree to which they thought it was permissible.
Local playwright and Summit Daily News managing editor Alex Miller said he wasn’t so sure that repeated use of “the f-word” is appropriate, as it can “become a blunt instrument.”
He used an example from “Pulp Fiction” to illustrate how the word can be a punch line.
Others argued that language in “A Behanding in Spokane” helps illustrate characters’ differences and prejudices better than other methods. It can be the playwright’s attempt to capture the time and place in which his play is set, thereby not serving any purpose other than realism.
“The playwright wants a reaction, just as anyone doing art seeks a reaction,” participant Sandy Greenhut said during the discussion.
Which, perhaps, is why violence appears in theater. Christy Montour-Larson of Denver’s Curious Theatre Company said she has audiences say they’re troubled by the use of harsh curse words, but are not fazed by a simulated murder in which bodies are chopped up on stage. In “A Behanding in Spokane,” characters mull over chopped-off hands.
“It’s a mirror to society,” Lake Dillon Theatre Company artistic director Chris Alleman said. “We see bloody, gruesome things, and we’re sort of OK with it. But as soon as someone says the f-word, people say woah.”
Moore added that he believes language and violence are an effort to infuse a visceral feeling into a play’s topical discussion.
“He’s not messing around. He wants you to feel something,” Moore said of McDonagh, adding that there’s value in reactions to three-dimensional, live acting versus the staged productions of the movies.
“Since we are immune to it, could the playwright be finding a way to get to us?” Fitzgerald asked.
To Blanchard, these contemporary tactics are a way to break down social norms.
“(Playwrights) expose the audience to certain forms of violence that allows them to break down for themselves certain social templates or stereotypes they’ve created in their minds,” he said. “What’s unique about theater is it is a public social situation, but it allows theater practitioners, through theater, to kind of go there and explore stuff that might normally make people uncomfortable.”
The discussion is Sunday evening is the same one that happens each time a playwright breaks new ground, Montour-Larson said.
“If this was the 1940s, we’d be having a discussion of why Rhett Butler said, ‘Frankly, my darling, I don’t give a damn,'” she said.