Friday, December 15, 2006

Standards of Decency

"The strange thing about Political Correctness is that it seems to have lots of opponents and no supporters. No one ever describes themselves as PC, and yet somehow the movement thrives."

-Roger Ebert

Last night a crew of us went to see the Blue Coyote Theater Group's Standards of Decency Project and we all had quite a fun time. The show consisted of nine one-acts that featured at least one of the following: nudity, violence or blasphemy. In the final tally, blasphemy turned out to be the big winner (featured in seven of the shows), with nudity coming in second (featured in four) and violence coming in last (only one).

Blue Coyote sent the following challenge to the nine playwrights:

"We're inviting you to join the evening by writing a ten-to-fifteen minute play that includes - in a manner that is fully warranted and justified (that is, that avoids mere gratuitousness or sensationalism), while also intended to offend conventional standards of decency - at least one of the following: 1) nudity, 2) violence, or 3) blasphemy. The literal onstage depiction of these transgressions is strongly encouraged, but not strictly required."

The stand-outs for me were David Johnston's "A Funeral Home In Brooklyn," Matthew Freeman's "What To Do With A Girl," Brian Dykstra's "Two Totally Naked Guys Standing Around Talking About Blasphemy Without Getting All That Violent About It" and Boo Killebrew's "True Love Waits." True, some of the plays were a bit "shmeh," but one of the fortunate things about an evening of one-acts is that if you run afoul of a stinker, you only have to endure it for about ten minutes before it's over.

In the end, none of the shows "crossed the line" for me, which is not surprising, considering I have a pretty thick skin when it comes to seeing on-stage nudity or violence or hearing blue language or anti-religious dialogue.

After the show, one of the organizers of the event said that he was a bit surprised that so far during the run no one in the audience seemed particularly offended at any of the shows, and thought that maybe it was very tough to offend people in theatre (unless, of course, someone literally defecated on the stage or bit off the head of a live chicken, in which case it would go from "crossing the line" to Crossing The Line [or even CROSSING. THE. LINE.]).

This is true. Though there are several people who have a problem with (say) on-stage nudity, there are very few of them who, as an audience member for a show that featured nudity, would scream, "I'm outta here!" and storm out of the theatre in a disruptive manner.

I'm guessing that the only way to really offend is to just end the ballgame altogether (with the previously-mentioned on-stage defecation).

(Now, I also realize that this collection of one-acts was not particularly offensive for New York audiences. In some parts of the country, this bill of goods would not be tolerated. What "flies" in downtown New York City could be shunned and picketed in parts of the Bible Belt.)

In the pre-production stage, the organizer I spoke to after the show said that there was some nervousness within Blue Coyote about how audiences would respond to the scripts being submitted (I would imagine some of them read much worse - worse as in "offensive," not "inept" - than they played).

My guess as to why audiences haven't been blatantly offended by any of the plays is simply because the evening of one-acts is very up-front with what it's offering. As an audience member, you can't exactly walk into a show featuring plays that feature nudity and get up in arms when you see a penis.

I had a similar experience with my own play, The Adventures of Nervous-Boy, a script that many found after reading it to be incredibly offensive: a misogynistic homicidal fantasy written by someone battling mental illness. This feeling of offense and disgust that was almost universal in its readership all but vanished during its staged production. (I'm sure that some audience members still found the play to be disgusting and gratuitously offensive, but they were quite mute on the subject.)

Matt Freeman was a bit apprehensive with his own play, but for the opposite reason, since although the reading of his script - which features a woman getting naked and being objectified - is a funny experience, it was possible that the humor could vanish once the audience is actually watching a real person disrobe and get poked and prodded at (it's one thing to read about a girl being told to take her top off and have a professor poke at her nipple with a pointer; it's another thing entirely to see real people act it out in front of you).

It turned out, by the way, that Nosedive vet Cat Johnson's and Matthew Trumbull's performances were too damn funny to cause the audience any discomfort.

Hey, you just never know.

This isn't necessarily the case with works in other media that transgress standards of decency. I'm a fan of R. Crumb's comics, but some of them, such as "Joe Blow," could be read in one way as a biting satire on modern American life and in another as hardcore pornography (seriously; some of his stuff's just flat-out porn). But there's a big difference between one medium (a comic being a work created by one and only one person being experienced in solitude) and another (a play being a work created by at least a writer, director, multiple actors and multiple designers being experienced with a group).

Also, it's legal to draw what Crumb depicts in "Joe Blow;" anyone attempting to depict his illustrations with live actors is likely to wind up in court.

I'm not saying any of this is good or bad, right or wrong. I'm just saying that, unlike with media such as comics or film, it may very well be impossible nowadays to genuinely offend audiences by transgressing trends in conventional plays without fully crossing over into an onstage carnival geek show or underground sex show (like the one mentioned in The 40 Year Old Virgin where a girl fucks a horse). Then it's like the turd in the punchbowl: after that, the party's just not fun anymore.

Anyway, The Standards of Decency Project runs until Sunday. If it's not already sold out, go check it out. It's playing at the Access Theater on 380 Broadway. You can get tickets here.

Always down for seeing Cat's bare breasts,

James "Classy Jackass" Comtois

Ps. Don't forget that tomorrow is Nosedive's holiday party and fundraiser! Hope to see you there!


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