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TBA Online: News & Features: September 2018

The Business of Show Biz: Swearing In Rehearsal

Tuesday, September 18, 2018   (1 Comments)
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
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by Velina Brown

Q.  I've experienced recently directors who swear a lot. And not just sh*t, or damn but the f-word, b-word, c-words and the like. It made me wonder—if the theatre is our workplace and they liken themselves to being professional (or non-union professional) shouldn't the language used in rehearsal reflect that? Or, does the theatre give us carte blanche to express ourselves any way we like, including swearing?

Actor and career consultant Velina Brown.

 

A: Is swearing in the theatrical workplace different than swearing in any other workplace? I would say no. In my opinion, it’s not the theatre that gives us carte blanche to swear in the workplace. People swear in all kinds of workplaces other than the theatre. 

The tone of any workplace is set by the boss of the workplace or leader of a project. It’s also set by what type of workplace it is. There are contexts, such as any type of customer service, where it is understood that if you aren’t able to speak with customers without dropping the F-bomb you will be fired. No matter how much swearing goes on in the back room, when dealing with the public or giving press conferences you will be expected to maintain the appropriate demeanor. 

The rehearsal hall is one of the theatre’s “back rooms”. As such, it does end up being a space where some may feel free to get super raunchy. The idea is “it’s just us here,” which doesn't take into account that some of “us” may not care to take a stroll down f-word, b-word, c-word lane.

 There aren’t really any specific rules or laws regarding the use of foul language in the theatre. Actors Equity Association has no rules around it. However, if the language creates what would be considered a hostile work environment there are laws regarding that. For example, if the swearing is particularly sexually charged and is experienced by employees as sexually aggressive or feels like sexual harassment or if the foul language includes racial or ethnic slurs then there could be some legal recourse. Also, if raw language is being used around child actors, parents would have good reason to complain. Note: If the script is raunchy then everyone in the rehearsal hall presumably has read the script and knew the nature of the material when they took the job. Still, everything that’s in a script is not necessarily appropriate to say outside of the script.

Generally, unless someone is brave enough to speak up, I suspect the person doing the swearing often has no idea how uncomfortable they are making some of their team members. Sure, some, if they knew, wouldn’t particularly care and might dismiss the issue with an eye roll and an “Oh grow up! We’re artists and we need to have full freedom of expression to access our creativity!” But I believe some would care and adjust accordingly.

Personally, I tend to avoid swearing because it can become an unconscious habit and all of a sudden you have no idea how expletive-full your speech has become. I’ve seen people who are trying to be a teaching artist for children or who work in corporate training environments and are sweating—can barely think straight—because they have to focus so hard on not dropping F-bombs everywhere and getting fired. Sort of like the person who spends so much time alone they’ve gotten used to loudly breaking wind at the dinner table. So, it’s become a completely unconscious activity. And then when they’re finally out on a dinner date, suddenly: “Burrrrraapapap!” Oops! They forgot where they were.

Anyway, there are currently no set rules around swearing in the theatre workplace, and I think rightly so. But I would agree that, in general, it’s wise to maintain language suitable for a professional environment. As an actor, you may choose to share your feelings of discomfort with the potty-mouthed director or not. But like the #MeToo situation, it does smack of an abuse of power to simply not care how one’s speech or behavior affects those who work for you. Perhaps, like asking folks to say their preferred pronouns, it could be useful for a director to invite folks to state their language preferences and say at the beginning of rehearsal, something like, “I tend to swear a lot. If such language makes you uncomfortable, let me know, and I’ll do my best to tone it down.” I don’t know. That’s just a thought. But I do know no one is perfect. And though the world is feeling a bit harsh and raw right now, when we are in the studio we don’t have to be that way to each other.

Velina Brown is an actor and career consultant. Send her your questions at velina@businessofshowbiz.com.

Comments...

Charles Lewis III says...
Posted Thursday, September 27, 2018
As both actor and director, I often hear nothing BUT swearing. I usually only watch my language around kids, as I feel adults should be familiar with adult language (especially if it's in the script). Having said that, I no longer abide unnecessarily provocative language. I can think of many shows where I didn't speak up when directors when on racist and/or misogynist rants and considered anyone objecting to be a prude. These days I don't abide it in my directors or my actors. The point is: you have a voice and it contributes to the production. You don't have to be silent around someone who loves their own voice.