When the Bergen County Players produced Douglas Carter Beane’s script, “The Little Dog Laughed” in 2011, they might not have anticipated the reaction. The play, nominated for a 2007 Tony Award, contains nudity and gay characters. The theater told The New Jersey Record that they warned patrons about the content. The company even issued an R rating in their advertising.
Still, the gay themes and nudity proved too much for some audience members, who walked out as the show progressed. One patron even tried to launch a boycott of the advertisers listed in the theater program.
The Bergen County Players aren’t alone. The growing cultural divide in America, coupled with the aging demographic of theatergoers, is sometimes proving difficult for community theaters to navigate. Small town patrons want to see popular shows; however, theaters might have trouble drawing a crowd with something local, new and unknown. These companies depend on hit productions from New York and Chicago to complete their seasons.
But those cities have different community standards. While some areas of the country are more liberal, other parts of the country are becoming more conservative. How small towns and communities might react to explicit themes and nudity can be hard to predict.
In October 2012, The Naples Players in Naples, Florida, made headlines in their conservative community for staging “Les Liaisons Dangereuses.” Naples News theater critic Chris Silk noted the scant nudity in his review; yet even that small amount attracted regional media attention. In a WZVN ABC-7 news report, Naples Mayor John Sorey, a Republican, defended the nude scenes in the play. He also sits on theater’s board of directors. In media reports, the theater claimed their show was well received.
Julie Crawford, Executive Director of the American Association of Community Theatre (AACT) acknowledges that nudity in theater is probably becoming more commonplace. “Community theaters are doing ‘The Full Monty’ and ‘Wit’ but they aren’t flaunting it (nudity),” she says. “They aren’t doing ‘Hair’ too much.”
AACT doesn’t take a stand on nudity onstage. Instead they believe theaters should look closely at their communities and audiences. “We are a proponent of non-censorship… It depends on who your patrons are,” says Crawford.
But who would’ve thought that a community close to New York City would’ve had such a strong reaction to adult content? After all, “The Little Dog Laughed” appeared on Broadway. Some people speculate that The Bergen County Players, touted as one of the country’s oldest community theaters, might have stepped out of character.
Crawford suggests that theaters look at how such a risk might affect their organization. They need to make sure that the productions serve their mission and their audiences. Community theaters also need to check their survivability. Can your theater financially survive the risk of doing a play with nudity?
For all theaters, it’s a good reminder to know your audience.