Let’s Talk Profanity

Posted by co-director Traci Brant

As I sit reflecting on the opening weekend of American Rex, I find myself thinking about profanity in theatre.  I am not at all offended by its use within the confines of a play.  Admittedly, I have slung a few choice profane words around in my time.  Since having kids, I just don’t get the opportunity to curse much anymore. Leaving my personal inclinations aside, I do find myself very conflicted about the use of profanity on stage.   

As the co-director of American Rex, I can tell you the play does contain adult language, but I can also assure you that it is not used gratuitously.  Since this is world premiere play, I have had the opportunity to work with the playwright and discuss this very subject.  The characters are depicted with as much realism as possible.  The playwright grew up in West Virginia coal mining territory so he has an intimate knowledge of what these men and women went through and how passionately they spoke.  

Use of language in a play teaches us something about the characters.  It gives us clues about education level, upbringing, social class, and can express a particular kind of passion in dialogue.  So, that’s a good thing, right?  Well, yes and no.  When an audience member is very uncomfortable or offended by a character’s language, they may be unable to feel sympathy or empathy for the character’s situation.  It may actually cause them to disengage from the piece completely. They may not return for the second act.  And, that is no good.  We want to share stories and anything that get’s in the way of that goal is unfortunate.

While I don’t have a solution to this conflict, I’m very interested in a discussion.  I respect a patron’s right to choose their experiences.  If a theatre experience that includes profanity is not right for you, there are many other excellent plays in a theater season that do not use this device. My personal inclination is to remind audiences that profanity in a play does not reflect on the values of the actors, directors, audience, or the theatre as a whole.  In telling a diverse range of stories, you will encounter characters who don’t think like you, dress like you, or talk like you.  And, isn’t that the point?  The theater allows us to have an incredible range of experiences from the safety of our aisle seat.  I would ask an audience to please not turn away from those characters who throw out an f-bomb here and there, but instead to think about why they use that language and what it’s meant to tell us about the situation.  Their upbringing, education, and general circumstance may not be as comfortable as ours and that reality is often reflected in their use of language.

What are your thoughts on profanity used on stage in the context of a play?