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Anti-drag law could be death knell for theater industry in SWFL

On May 17th, 2023, Governor Ron DeSantis signed the “Protection of Children” law, otherwise known as the "Anti-Drag" law. This legislation prohibits admitting anyone under the age of 18 to an “adult live performance.”

While its sponsors claim that the statute is aimed at preventing children from seeing sexual content at drag shows, its broad language has many theaters around the state reconsidering the content of the plays they produce and their front-of-house admission practices.

Right now, the Alliance Youth Theatre is performing Stephen Sondheim’s "Assassins," but one of AYT’s greatest triumphs was its 2019 production of "Pippin." In addition to revealing costumes and suggestive dance numbers, that musical included a simulated orgy that would seem to run afoul of the new law.

For that production, AYT Executive Director Carmen Crussard had the parents of each of her three dozen underage cast members sign off on having their children take part in the show.

Carmen Crussard
Carmen Crussard

“We always include the parents immediately. Right at the audition, if there is something that … we call them 'advisories' … so if there is something that warrants an advisory, whether it be language or religious commentary or themes that might be a little more mature, we list them out,” said Crussard. “We don’t necessarily include the exact text from the script, but we list out the things that parents might want to know about.”

Crussard and her team repeat the process once they’ve cast the show, handing out scripts early and directing parents to read them from cover to cover so that they know exactly what their child will be saying and hearing.

Patrons are provided the same advisories prior to purchasing their tickets, and are cautioned again about language or mature themes in the curtain speech that’s given prior to the performance.

“I think the key is really communication as much as possible so that everybody is on the same page and aware of what is happening,” said Crussard.

Over the course of her 12-year-career, Crussard has never had a complaint from either a parent or a patron. But her precautions are irrelevant under the new law. If a show falls within the ambit of the statute, no one under the age of 18 can be admitted to the performance, even if accompanied by a parent.

Annette Trossbach
Photographer: Mila Bridger
Annette Trossbach

This is something that Laboratory Theater founder and Executive Director Annette Trossbach finds particularly reprehensible.

“Parents will no longer be able to make those decisions for their kids,” said Trossbach. “The State has made the decision. The State has made the mandate. So that parental right is taken away with this statute.”

While the new law only prohibits the admission of children 17 and under to adult live performances, out of an abundance of caution, Trossbach and casting directors around the state will no longer include kids 17 and under in either the cast or crew of plays and musicals that might potentially fall within the ambit of the statute — like the regional premiere of Ride the Cyclone, which Lab Theater is producing February through March of 2024.

“It’s about high schoolers, so normally there might be some interest in having high schoolers portray those roles – maybe 17 and up or even 16 and up,” said Trossbach. “But because of the statute, we’ll only be casting adults, younger adults that can pass as high schoolers.”

In addition to "Ride the Cyclone," shows like "The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife," "Rent," and "The Legend of Georgia McBride" are suspect under the new law. But, Trossbach said the statute’s language is vague and there is an exception for shows that, taken as a whole, possess serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.”

“The language of the law is vague, and some of the language is so open to interpretation, like ‘predominantly appeals to a prurient, shameful or morbid interest.’ And this one, in particular, is quite subjective ‘patently offensive to prevailing standards.’ Whose prevailing standards? … Who decides that a show is ‘without serious artistic value’? It’s vague enough that anyone could say I’m offended by this material. I don’t think it has artistic merit.”

It is the local state attorney, judge and jury who will ultimately decide whether a show like "Matilda," which Island Coast High School produced this past March, constitutes a live adult performance. In making these decisions, they’ll be guided and governed by the case law decided under Florida’s 1986 child pornography statute, from which the new law’s language was imported.

Even if a theater prevails, it will be out of pocket for tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees. And if a judge and jury decide, for example, that "Rocky Horror" falls within the ambit of the statute, each person, from the theater owner to the ticket taker and ushers, could be convicted of a first degree misdemeanor for each person under the age of 18 they admit into the show.

Given this risk, theaters like Lab have no choice but to deny anyone under the age of 18 admission to shows that might fall subject to the new law.

“As you know, the language of the statute doesn’t make any allowances for us not knowing the age of a person, somebody sneaking in,” said Trossbach. “There are no allowances for those kinds of errors. The onus is completely upon the establishment to make sure they’re within the letter of the law. So that will involve carding people.”

While a theater’s regular patrons might have no objections to its programming choices, it might find advocacy group members or even undercover state agents in the audience, something that happened to the Orlando Philharmonic Plaza Foundation when it presented Drag Queen Christmas this past December. However, even carding youthful attendees might prove inadequate. What if a teen presents a fake ID, and does the theater have to photograph driver’s licenses and student ID cards in order to prove that it didn’t knowingly admit someone under the age of 18?

While carding patrons may protect our local equity and community theaters, the quality of the young actors we’ll be producing is sure to decline. Clearly, middle and high school theater programs will be compelled to curtail their programming. This will put aspiring young thespians at a disadvantage when they apply to out-of-state universities to pursue theater degrees.

“Kids want, just as we adults want, to explore the themes and challenges that are going on at this time in our lives, at this time in the world today,” says Trossbach. “That’s what we want to be exploring. That’s why the art form exists and why it’s valuable. So to take that away leaves us with a very, very small, sanitized playbook from which to choose. And if that were to happen, it would be the death of the industry and that’s very frightening.”

Several Southwest Florida theaters were either unaware of the new law or declined to be interviewed for this story for fear of retaliation.


  • Section 827.11(3) provides that “A person may not knowingly admit a child to an adult live performance.”
  • Presumably, the word “child” is coterminous with “minor,” which Florida’s child pornography statute defines as “any person under the age of 18 years.”
  • “Adult live performance” is defined by the new law to include “any show, exhibition, or other presentation in front of a live audience which, in whole or in part, depicts or simulates nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement or specific sexual activities as those terms are defined in s. 847.001 [namely, Florida’s 1986 child pornography statute], lewd conduct or the lewd exposure of prosthetic or imitation genitals or breasts when it (1) predominantly appeals to a prurient, shameful or morbid interest; (2) is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community of this state as a whole with respect to what is suitable material or conduct for the age of the child present; and (3) taken as a whole, is without serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value for the age of the child present.”
  • The reference to exhibitions has some museum, art center and gallery curators reconsidering the content of their art exhibitions and related shows. Even before the new legislation was signed into law, Hope Carrasquilla was forced to resign from her position as Principal of Tallahassee Classical School after a parent complained that photographs of Michelangelo’s statue of David that he child viewed during a Renaissance art lesson were pornographic.
  • Carmen Crussard is a uniquely insightful, stage savvy and immensely talented actor, director and instructor. As the Youth Theatre Director for the Alliance for the Arts since 2012 that she is perhaps having the greatest impact on the future of community theater both here in Southwest Florida and across the country. In this capacity, she has directed such wondrously ambitious, wonderfully-staged and densely-packed musical productions as "Pippin," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," "Calvin Berger," "Monty Python’s Spamalot the Musical," "Heathers the Musical," "Almost," "Maine," "Peter Pan, Jr." and "Xanadu, Jr." She also directed adult productions of "The Hatmaker’s Wife" and "Smell of the Kill," among others. But while bringing out the best in adult actors may indeed be satisfying, what makes Carmen’s heart skip a beat is helping children develop into young actors, directors and stage hands.
  • “I’m really up front about everything with parents, so I don’t … I think we cover ourselves in that way … because we don’t want someone to be shocked when they get here,” says Carmen. “We certainly don’t want to offend anyone or to make somebody feel that in order to be involved they have do something they don’t feel comfortable with.”
  • Regarding programming, Crussard often checks in with her young actors and their families. “Sometimes I survey the kids and their families and ask what shows would you like to see us do …. But mostly it’s just finding something that is … entertaining, but also challenging for them so that they can grow to the next level, elevate their craft to the next level. I want to challenge them enough so that they grow, but not so much that they’ll break. And, of course, it has to be a show that can afford [to produce] and is not outside the realm of possibility.”
  • One of WGCU’s "50 Makers: Women Who Make Southwest Florida," Annette Trossbach is founder and Producing Artistic Director of the Laboratory Theater of Florida. Over the past 14 years, Annette has resolutely built The Lab into a bastion of innovative, groundbreaking theater productions, creating a safe environment in which artists and audiences can explore, discuss and expand personal horizons and raise their collective social consciousness. Born in Germany and educated in Great Britain (she has degrees in both acting and directing from the University of Essex in England, whose campuses are located in and outside of London), Trossbach strives to make people think deeper and feel more through theater.
  • To ensure that local theater buffs have an opportunity to experience the finest that theater has to offer, she essays each season to strike just the right balance between classic plays (think Arthur Miller’s "The Crucible" and "Death of a Salesman," David Mamet’s "Glengarry Glen Ross," Bernard Slade’s "The Same Time Next Year," and Gore Vidal’s "The Best Man"), brand new productions (many of which have recently just closed on and off Broadway), and cutting-edge offerings that carry actors and audiences far beyond the realm of escapism and pure entertainment like "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" and "The Legend of Georgia McBride."
  • In addition to "The Crucible," Trossbach’s directing credits include Save Hamlet (on stage now through June 24th), "Botticelli in the Fire," "Death of a Streetcar Named Virginia Wolf," Neil LaBute’s "The Way We Get By," "Visiting Mr. Green," "Wings," "Diary of Anne Frank," "Miss Witherspoon," "Glengarry Glen Ross," her own adaptation of "Romeo & Juliet," "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf," and "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot." On the acting side, Annette has starred in Sarah Ruhl’s "Stage Kiss," "My Brilliant Divorce" (a one-woman show in which she played 20 separate characters), "Intimate Exchanges," "The Wood Demon" and "Cavalcade."
  • Classically trained at the innovative East 15 Drama School in London, Annette has worked with Margaret Walker (What a Lovely War), international combat choreographer Mike Loades, director Terry Johnson, Alasdair Ramsey and actor Tony Scannell. Trossbach is also a 2010 recipient of the Gulfshore Business 40 Under 40 Award, and is a two-time Zelda Fichandler Award nominee (conferred by the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation, this award honors directors and choreographers who are making a deep and extraordinary theatrical contribution to a particular region of the United States).
  • As of this writing, Trossbach is not considering any changes to the cutting edge programming that Lab Theater brings to the stage. “But there will have to be changes made in the house, in terms of the production and front of house in order to stay within the guidelines of the new law,” including changes in the language included in the tickets they promulgate for each show as well as the marketing that goes out to publicize each production.
  • Trossbach mentions "Ride the Cyclone" as a show for which Lab Theater will be constrained to make changes. Although it was written several years ago, it recently became a viral sensation among teens on Tik Tok. It’s a dark comedy in which a group of teens die in a roller coaster accident. Each character takes a turn singing about who they are or how they'd like to be remembered. It's so popular among teens that the creators are in the process of writing a version that high schools could perform. But with drag show bills like Florida’s, that could be a problem, says co-creator Jacob Richmond. “There's a whole drag number that we're trying to figure out how to do in a way that you could do in a high school setting.” That drag number is by a young gay man who works at a Taco Bell. He loves Jean Genet and film noir and fantasizes about being a sex worker.
  • Besides limitations on casting underage actors and crew members, Lab Theater expects to make changes to who can volunteer as ticket takers and ushers at shows subject to the new law, which will also affect its intern program. ”We’ve had high schoolers in intern positions involved in the theater,” Trossbach notes. “They may be working backstage as running crew or assistant stage manager or learning about costumes or maybe even assisting with tech or technology or helping usher. That’s also happened. So when we have those shows that involve that kind of material, that’s going to limit the people we can bring in as part of our teaching theater theme.
  • Trossbach has worked assiduously to advance the art of theater since arriving in Southwest Florida more than 15 years ago. So it’s completely expected that she would rise to theater’s defense in the face of the restrictions imposed by Florida’s anti-drag law. “Is not the whole art form about growing, accepting, seeing other people’s points of view and walking in somebody else’s shoes?” Annette asks. “We talk about empathy being one of the most important skills that young people learn; being able to think in somebody else’s perspective; being able to walk in someone else’s shoes and expanding our horizons by being exposed to cultures other than our own. If someone is offended by viewing a culture that is different than their own, how far should theaters go in safeguarding everyone’s potential offensiveness to the material? If we do that, there are very, very few shows that we could ever present and that brings about the death of the art form. It’s really antithetical to what the art form is.”
  • Trossbach raises the specter that a patron can find something objectionable in just about any show. “In "Noises Off," for example, there’s a woman who is scantily clad for much of the show, and there is some foul language. Is the fact that there’s a scantily-clad woman, a man whose pants fall down repeatedly, and foul language, and, oh, a depiction of alcoholism, are those things then falling under the umbrella language of the law as prurient and objectionable, and who makes that choice?
  • The Bob Graham Education Center, a K-8 school in Miami-Dade County, was recently forced to restrict access to Amanda Gorman’s poem “The Hill We Climb,” which she read at President Biden’s inauguration, after a parent issued a formal complaint that the poem includes indirect “hate messages.”
  • Other shows that have been cited as potentially problematic under newly-enacted FLA. STAT. 827.11 include "Frankie & Johnny at the Claire De Lune," "Cabaret," "The Full Monty," "Veronica’s Room," "How to Transcend a Happy Marriage" and "Sex Tips for Married Women from a Gay Man."
  • The restaurant chain Hamburger Mary’s is suing Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida over the new law, claiming that the state is depriving it of its First Amendment right of free expression. The suit, filed in federal court in central Florida, alleges that the law the governor signed into on May 17 is so broad that it has “a chilling effect on protected speech.”
  • The ACLU has also filed suit in federal court challenging the new law.

To read more stories about the arts in Southwest Florida visit Tom Hall's website: SWFL Art in the News.