Language at LAMB’S
An open letter to concerned patrons,
Through its decades LAMB’S has received comments, emails, or letters of concern from patrons about the language used in this or that particular show.
In this last few years these have included WIT, CAMPING WITH HENRY & TOM, EQUIVOCATION, THE BOYS NEXT DOOR, 1776, THE EXPLORERS CLUB, BROWNIE POINTS, TRYING, and SMOKE ON THE MOUNTAIN.
And now the musical ONCE.
We find that these concerns tend to be the result of two different things: a mistaken expectation or a strongly held point of view. I want to briefly address both those expectations and our view on language.
We find that what some patrons expect from LAMB’S is simply “good clean entertainment.” They do so because they expect us to be a “family friendly theatre” or a “Christian theatre.”
LAMB’S has indeed enjoyed presenting a great deal of work that is “family friendly” over the years. We love good work that can introduce younger audience members to the unique power and imagination of the live theatre.
However, that has never been the exclusive type of theatre we present.
While we want all our work to be entertaining – to engage and stimulate heart and mind – our purpose has never been simply Entertainment. We are not a children’s theatre. We are not Disneyland.
We are a company of professional theatre artists seeking to Tell Good Stories Well. Some of those stories are intended to be part of an adult conversation, not appropriate for children.
Over the years we have noted this through age recommendations on our website, mailers and emails. Last year we simplified this through the generally recognized rating of PG13 when necessary, with further information for parents if this was for things such as grown up themes, frightening situations or strong language.
The non-profit theatre is an area where complex ideas and experiences may still be explored, where our lives and our choices as individuals and as a community can be considered. At times that exploration, that consideration, may be startling, searing, even painful. But for us it always ends with hope. That Hope is our worldview.
However, we are not a church. We are not, and have never called ourselves, a “Christian Theatre.” Indeed, I’m not quite sure what that would be. A theatre only for Christians? A theatre of only religious plays? A “safe” theatre?
As C.S. Lewis wrote “Christian Art can exist only in the way that Christian Cooking exists.” What is Christian Cooking?
The core of our company are people of faith who are committed to making good theatre.
We take language seriously. As theatre artists we understand the power of words. They are the foundation of the theatre and the centerpiece of our communication. We do not view words lightly or use them glibly.
All cultures, all languages have words that linguists call “intensifiers,” words that underscore strong emotion or a particular view of the world. Depending on their etymology these words may be coarse, vulgar or profane.
At the Theatre we are in an arena of pretending. Unlike with the “realistic” media of film and television, at the theatre the audience is aware of the artifice ¬– they see the lights, see where the set ends, see actors entering and exiting the playing space. Everyone understands that these actors are pretending to be something other than themselves. We understand that a story is being told.
In that telling, the stage – like the Scriptures – portrays all the sins of the human heart: pride, betrayal, murder, lust, deceit, greed. LAMB’S patrons have seen a man gunned down in cold blood, women murdered in a gas chamber, a scholar make a pact with the devil. They have witnessed people accuse their neighbors of witchcraft, frame a man for rape, and hang an innocent girl. They have seen friends deceived, spouses betrayed, children abused.
We do not receive complaints about these portrayals because patrons understand that these things are not happening in actuality but as part of a story. They understand that it is always the larger context and where the story goes that matters.
So it is with language. Whether it is lies, slander, derision, racial slur or words profane or vulgar. The words used on our stage, like the actions, are part of a story. They are scripted and rehearsed. The words, like the actions, are not delivered by “real” people, but by characters in that story.
The emotions of an audience can be profoundly affected by words. But while words can be enormously powerful they are not magical. The Christian faith is not superstition. The mere stating of certain words is not an offense to God. With language intention is all-important. To act the part of someone who uses the name of God glibly is not the same as doing so in reality.
We were honored that LAMB’S was the theatre company given the rights to present the first local production of the gorgeous Irish musical ONCE.
In a day where every story that comes out of Hollywood about love between a man and a woman must lead to romance and sex, ONCE is a startlingly different story. It is at its core a love letter to Fidelity. A unique affirmation of how love and music bring hope to individual lives and purpose to the larger community.
ONCE is set in a working-class neighborhood of Dublin. The language is rough, but it is not gratuitous. It is appropriate to the culture and the characters. It is part of the story.
Even understanding this, some patrons are simply upset to hear such words used in any context. It is their personal desire not to encounter that kind of language.
Each year a few Season Ticket Holders have written that before they renew for the next year they want assurance that they “will not hear these words in the future.” I cannot give that assurance.
What I do affirm is our commitment to quality, to truthfulness, to the moral imagination. And to an on-going rigorous artistic conversation with our audience.
We do not use strong language gratuitously. Indeed, LAMB’S patrons will hear significantly less than that used in the general culture or the larger entertainment industry. But just as with difficult issues and actions, stronger language will, on occasion, be found in the stories we tell.
I know that there are patrons who will disagree with our choices from time to time. Many remain with us because of a long-term relationship or because they trust our larger goals.
However, some will choose to no longer be a part of our audience. While we are very sorry to lose any patron, we also respect their decision.
I appreciate you taking the time to read these few thoughts. While you may disagree with our decision, I hope you have a clearer understanding of our perspective.
In closing I need to address one thing I have found a bit startling, and that is patrons begining a letter or a confrontation with a staff member by questioning our faith. As if rough words or actions on a small theatre stage had anything to do with the unfailing love of God, or the world-shattering, redemptive death of His Son.
We, and I seriously mean all of us, must be wary of the dangers in setting up our own cultural preferences as if they were spiritual absolutes. In doing so we weaken both our own understanding of, and our witness to, the truth.
I am cautioned by the fact that Jesus reserved his harshest words for the most outwardly religious people of his day. Those so concerned about appearances – cleaning only the outside of the cup, white-washing the outer walls of the tomb – that they missed the true heart of faith.
Thank you for listening. All along this five-decade journey with LAMB’S I have been amazed and grateful for the ways God continues to show his Grace to us.
With warm regard,
Producing Artistic Director