Parents who have taken their children to a family-friendly show at a Boston theater in the past couple of years might not have been subjected to a nude scene, but they could have witnessed this:
Physical abuse of a child by a cruel headmistress who, it is later suggested, was involved in the death of the father of a gentle-spirited character. F-bombs bursting in a show recommended for ages 8 and older. A character’s hand being cut off by getting slammed in a trunk, then fed to a hungry crocodile.
Few things are more enriching for children than live theater, but these days it can also be a minefield for parents. At a time when edgy material is very much in vogue across virtually all cultural platforms, family theater is not necessarily kids’ stuff anymore.
The controversy over a nude scene in Boston Children’s Theatre’s recent production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’’ has shone a white-hot light on the way the boundaries of traditional family theater have expanded in recent years. That shift has forced parents to make challenging decisions about what they’re prepared for their kids to experience — decisions they’re obviously facing with even more urgency when it comes to the more graphic material found in movies, on television, and on the Internet. Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why,’’ a series about a high-school student who commits suicide, has triggered widespread alarm about copycat behavior and has also, as the Globe reported recently, been watched by young children.
Even against that backdrop, there is no question that the inclusion of a brief scene of full-frontal nudity at a family theater in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’’ was a jolting development for many — including at least two board members at Boston Children’s Theatre who were irate they had not been consulted beforehand by executive artistic director Burgess Clark. He lost his job, at least temporarily, because of the nude scene. (The theater did not allow anyone under 14 to see the show who was not accompanied by a parent or guardian, and issued copious warnings beforehand about the nudity. Clark acknowledged that some in the audience ranged from 10 to 12.)
In response to the “Cuckoo’s Nest’’ story, a reader wrote in the Globe’s online comments section: “This insistence on making every single thing ‘adult’ is killing theater. People like theater and become lifelong theatergoers if they are exposed to theater at a young age. If I was taking my children to a [Boston Children’s Theatre] production, I would be very angry if it included a nude scene. Parents should be able to have a few family friendly place(s) to see plays — besides musicals.’’
But even musicals can be tricky nowadays: Linda Chin, the producing artistic director of Boston’s Wheelock Family Theatre, acknowledged Monday that the theater received complaints about the multiple onstage utterances of the F-word in its recent production of “Billy Elliot,’’ which Wheelock recommended for audiences 8 and above. Audiences were warned about the show’s language and gritty themes during pre-show speeches.
Still, Chin said she would not allow a performance with a nude scene in her theater. “What we try to present is the opportunity for people to use their imagination, and we wouldn’t do something as controversial as put nudity onstage,’’ she said. “It’s too shocking. We have to make very strong judgments about creating environments for safety.’’
It’s important to remember that Grimm’s Fairy Tales were plenty dark, too. And it should be noted that even edgy material is seldom presented in a graphic manner in family-oriented stage shows. And it should be further noted that kids today are very hard to shock. (At the performance of “Billy Elliot’’ I attended, a young boy seated near me roared with delighted laughter at each use of the F-word.)
“Kids can be exposed to darker material if it’s done correctly,’’ says Dmitry Troyanovsky, an assistant professor of theater arts at Brandeis University who recently directed a stage adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “James and the Giant Peach’’ featuring actors from the ART Institute at Harvard University. “If you are able to put a very clear warning, just like they do in movies, then it’s up to the individual family or parents to decide if they want to take their kids to it.’’
Nonetheless, it’s hard to dismiss those parents who long for the days when family entertainment invariably meant the equivalent of a G rating. Today, grim subject matter rears its head suddenly and often, as in “Matilda the Musical,’’ which featured the murderous headmistress and was presented at the Boston Opera House last summer, or even the very funny “Peter and the Starcatcher,’’ presented by Lyric Stage Company of Boston last May, in which the severed hand sequence is played for laughs.
Based on my conversations with theater leaders, including Clark of Boston Children’s Theatre, they do not make decisions to include edgy material lightly. Wheelock’s Chin is a case in point. Her theater’s upcoming season illustrates the mix, from safe to potentially provocative, that defines family theater today: Productions of “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast’’ and “Stuart Little’’ will occupy the stage, but the season will kick off with “In the Heights,’’ a musical by “Hamilton’’ creator Lin-Manuel Miranda that contains mature themes.
During the initial production meeting of “In the Heights’’ last week, as Chin and director Rachel Bertone were discussing set design, lighting, and casting, Chin was quick to bring up the matter of “age appropriateness,’’ especially as regards the revealing costumes and suggestive dance scenes that other productions of Miranda’s musical have featured.
“We want to make sure that the scenes aren’t overly sexualized,’’ said Chin. “These are all things that we talk about, perhaps ad nauseum. We have to make sure that we don’t violate the trust and expectations that people bring to the theater.’’
Reassuring words, but it’s still probably wise for parents to be ready to clap their hands over the eyes or ears of their little ones when they take them to any theater, anywhere. Just in case.