Last weekend during our final performances of Come to Your Senses, we had an audience member share feedback with us that they were disappointed that some of our plays used the “F-word”. The audience member shared that we should be thinking about where we want the universe to go, and encouraging the use of the multitudes of other vocabulary words that exist in the English language. The audience member noted that if Phamaly continues to make the choice to put this sort of language on stage, they would stop attending performances, and would also go on Facebook and publicly encourage others to stop attending as well.
Yes, for the record, two of our plays in Come to Your Senses used the F-word (and an additional one mentioned a hand job).
I wish the audience member would have allowed the space for a dialogue, as I would have liked to share in one. Since we didn’t get that opportunity, we at Phamaly would like to share a thought about the F-word.
We realize that language is powerful. Every individual in our audience has particular experiences that have imbued any number of words or phrases with charged meaning. In particular, the F-word elicits strong responses. Some folks may have grown up with the F-word being used fluidly and culturally in noun, adjective, or verb form; for others it may have been forbidden, and representative of obscene sexual acts or lazy word choice.
A few years ago as a graduate student, I attended the VASTA Conference (Voice and Speech Trainers Association). It is a convening of instructors who teach voice and speech across the world in a variety of contexts, often delving into the function of language in our society.
One particular research presentation left an imprint on me. The presenter had been researching the primal voice as it is expressed in humans. For those of you who are not voice instructors, humans do possess the ability to tap into a primal voice. The primal voice is animalistic, powerful…reminiscent of the most ancient ancestral sounds that arise from deep in our bones. The researcher had discovered that, for humans, we mostly access our primal voice through sounds. Think: moans. Sighs. Gut laughter. Vocal expressions of exasperation. We do NOT tend to access our primal voice through spoken language.
Save one exception. DING DING DING!
Humans DO tend to access their primal voice through curse words. In particular, words like the F-word.
Historians propose that the F-word dates back hundreds of years to a Germanic term meaning “to strike or penetrate”, and was originally considered quite an acceptable word before being regarded as vulgar in the 18th century (likely because of its connotation of sexuality). And by the way, from a voice perspective, the sound combination makes it a near perfect word. It starts by gearing up the breath (FFFFF), moves to a wide open vowel sound (which can be extended in a moan or wail, if you like – UUUUUUU), and concludes with a definitive plosive (CK!). Essentially, the F-word gives us access to a pure, unadulterated, emotional segment of our voice that we cannot reach through other language.
Despite our civilization, we humans have primal roots. Currently, we live in a time where much of that primal energy is boiling over, through anger, hatred, violence, politics, frustration, outrage, walls, and an inability to communicate, dialogue, and move to understand and connect with each other. In the worst (but not isolated) cases, it emerges through a student walking into a school and unloading bullets into fellow students; through hate-filled massacres of reverent people at churches, mosques, or synagogues; through domestic violence; or through pent-up cultural frustrations that play out between law enforcement and alleged criminals.
For centuries, artistic disciplines like theatre have functioned in societies as an alternative for this boil-over. Through a communal experience of storytelling, theatre artists – including playwrights and actors – serve as an instrument through which an audience can empathetically go on a journey with a character through any number of complicated circumstances. And in lieu of flying fists or bullets, the voicing of a wail – or a well-placed, contextual F-word – can give the entire audience a bit of release from our primal tensions. Hashtag catharsis.
We therefore do not consider the F-word as “bad” language, but rather, useful language with potentially primal underpinnings. We understand that it has been contextualized by some cultures as vulgar, and do not encourage its frivolous or gratuitous use. In Come to Your Senses, it showed up quite intentionally in one play about characters who were so overwhelmed by their lives they had no choice but to transform an Applebees into their vacation destination, and another that commented on the lack of taste exhibited by greedy entrepreneurs arranging an event a la the infamous Fyre festival.
We understand that the F-word may be loaded for some of you, and if you object to Phamaly’s choice of artistic works that incorporate it (as some also object to our incorporation of sexual or adult content), we respect your right to feel as you do. But we hope you will at least try to understand why we may choose this content on occasion: for the purpose of sharing someone’s story and voice, tapping into a different culture, humanizing people with disabilities beyond the saccharine, and eliciting catharsis.
We encourage you to resist building an impenetrable wall between you and the F-word. Instead, lean in, dig a little deeper. Why is it being used, or even repeated? What does it say about the person/character? And how is the use of the F-word achieving some sort of healthy primal catharsis for the person voicing it, and for those experiencing it?
We at Phamaly are certainly thinking of where we want the universe to go. If it means occasional exasperated F-words and a few less hateful slurs and bullets, we’re down with that. We invite you to be, too.