Performance occupies a space somewhere between literature, film, visual art, and music. It is like the physical manifestation of a poem or the extension of a painting beyond the frame and into time and motion. And like all of these media, when theater touches on such hot topics as religion, sexuality, or politics, emotions are inflamed and battle lines drawn. The Catholic League and other conservative religious groups have attacked plays exploring or criticizing religion, such as Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi, which contains a gay, Christ-like character.

Perhaps it is the “live and in person” quality of performance that makes it so controversial. It is one thing to have a photograph of a nude hanging in a gallery, but it is something else completely to see a nude person on stage before your eyes. This lends theater and performance art a more real, tangible, and immediate quality absent from other art forms. Or perhaps it is the element of voyeurism, in the feeling that the audience is witnessing an event and not merely gazing at the result of the event of producing art. Is it the element of action, of “being there” that makes theater more present … and therefore more dangerous?

Community theaters are especially vulnerable to restrictions tied into funding. Government agencies, federal or state, or other entities that provide financial help to theaters and performance centers have the power to exercise control over those spaces through a tightening or loosening of the purse strings. Governmental agencies that provide money for performing arts particularly are responsive to controversial issues, as taxpayer money concerns the sensitivities of the community. Outspoken and politically active constituencies may be able to persuade funding agencies to reconsider their tax-money allocations by raising objections to controversial performances.

Theater and performance are artistic expressions that enjoy the same First Amendment protection as other forms of art. If someone finds the content of a play or the nudity in a performance piece objectionable, they merely need not purchase a ticket to see it. Trying to shut down a production or threatening physical violence on any person involved is an inappropriate attempt by one group to suppress the viewpoint and free expression of another.