Where is the Office of Live Theatre Classification?

By Abbott Tout

Notwithstanding the reasonableness of this query, it is a trick question - there is no Office of Live Theatre Classification. Nor is there anything that either resembles it, or performs any of the functions that one would expect it would have assigned to it.

Therefore, when a producer considers bringing out an overseas theatrical or musical production, or presenting a local one, the producer is unable to gauge the suitability of the production - and indeed, the legality of it being presented.

This is in stark contrast to a film producer or distributor, a computer or video game manufacturer or a literary publisher. This is because every film, video and computer game that is legally available in Australia, as well as some publications, whether they are produced locally or come from overseas, have to be classified by the Classification Board of the Office of Film and Literature Classification.

To use the example of film, when a producer submits a film for classification, he may be advised that it will receive an R rating (restricted to 18 years and above). On the basis that he would be able to
reach a larger audience with an M+ rating, he may then decide to re-submit it having deleted scenes from it that caused it to receive the rating. This would obviously have commercial benefits to the producer.

Effectively, through the Classification Board, the producer is able to test the waters. However, this is a comfort the theatrical producer is not afforded.

There must be somewhere you can go for guidance?

Unfortunately, as there are no formal classifications applicable to the performing arts, the closest guidance is found within legislative sanctions under the Summary Offences Act 1998 (NSW) (the Act) which deal with offensive conduct, offensive language and obscene exposure in public places (which could include a theatre venue). There is also the need to consider the common law defence of "outraging public decency."

The problem with this "guidance" is that it is entirely subjective, that is, what is deemed offensive, or outraging to public decency, can only be determined by reference to the community's reaction to the behaviour (and not before).

Accordingly, a producer will only know that she has a Ken Park on her hands (a film recently banned by the Classification Board) once she has gone to the enormous expense of preparing the production, advertising it and presenting it (it may even be a few weeks into its run before it is deemed offensive).

Nor will the NSW Police, which administers the Act, give any preliminary advice regarding the types of presentations that may be liable for charges under the Act. This leaves the producer in a Shakespearean dilemma - to present or not to present, that is the question.

What steps can be taken to avoid coming under the scrutiny of the Police and the more conservative?

Notwithstanding the absence of either a formal classifications board or useful guidelines, there are still important considerations for a producer to ensure that his production, obscene as it may be, does not get closed down.

They are as follows:
  1. the content of the performance;

  2. the context of any potentially offensive material;

  3. the location at which the performances are to be presented;

  4. the target audience;

  5. the manner in which the performance is promoted; and

  6. the extent to which prospective audience members are warned of possibly offensive elements.
Essentially, the key element to preventing the Police from taking any action is the degree to which the
producer warns prospective ticket buyers of the confronting content of the work.

There can be no doubting that an audience member's claim to being offended loses a lot of its punch when it has been warned by the production's advertising, by the box office, by the ticket itself and by signs outside the theatre, that the production contains material that is likely to offend. Such warnings also discourage those that would be offended from attending in the first place.

Unfortunately, no amount of preventative measures will stop some from complaining. But perhaps this is why we should be lobbying for a Theatre Classification Board.


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