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?

Q&A With American Rex Playwright Joshua Rollins

Playwright Joshua Rollins

Q: Where did the material for this play come from? 

I grew up in West Virginia.  Both grandfathers were lifelong coal miners.  In the late 80's and early 90's, large coal companies did a systematic union breaking that reached far and wide.  Their goal was to hire people without having to pay pensions or medical benefits.  The only way to do that was to make life living hell for anyone who was union, and that is what they did. They also started the horrible practice of mountaintop removal mining- deciding it was much cheaper to blow the tops off mountains and scrape the coal out.  This has caused horrible environmental devastation.  People who live in the blasting oath are having their wells poisoned, their foundations are crumbling- and there is no legal recourse.
Q: What sort of research did you conduct about coal mining and West Virginia culture?
I have been very active in the debate on mountiantop removal mining.  I've read multiple books, including Coal Mountain and Big Coal-  two wonderful accounts of what has happened.  More importantly, I lived it.  My grandfather was pushed into early retirement and families I know have been blown out of their homes.  This is really happening now.
Q: Does the set, which includes vintage appliance and out-of-date decor, accurately depict what you had in mind when you wrote the play?
Totally.  Most of the applainces from the 60's were built so well, my grandfather still has them.  
Q: What sort of collaboration do you have with the Directors Traci Brant and Jonni Pera?
Traci and Jonni and I have worked really well together.  They would either send e-mails or we would talk on the phone as questions arose and I sent them many links and research documents to help the cast.
Q: Chicago Street first presented this play in the form of a staged reading more than a year ago. Did that experience and the audience response prompt any editing on your part?
Yes.  The play as it stands now is quite a bit shorter.  It was easy to see during the reading what parts were too long and confusing.  The play is streamlined quite a bit, but the meat is still there.
Q: What is your connection to Chicago Street Theatre? 
Three years ago, Jim Henry read American Rex as a mentor at Chicago Dramatists and we have stayed in contact ever since.  I'm really happy with the work they are doing and excited to see this world come to life.


'American Rex' Cast List Announced


Directors Traci Brant and Jonni Pera have announced the cast for the new original work  by Joshua Rollins, "American Rex." The story takes place in a small town in West Virginia and follows a family under siege by a corrupt coal mining company.

Tickets for the show are now on sale and may be purchased by calling the Box Office at (219) 464-1636, Ext. 1 or by going online.

Performances are scheduled for Feb. 1 - 16, 2013.

The Cast:

David Pera - Cambel

Jim Henry - Daniel

Jason Utesch - Hunter

Jason Kaplan - Johnson

Kelly Price - Faith

Lindsey Elderkin - Molly

Josh Eggleston - John Paul

Daena Sisk - Tracy

Dona Henry - Annette