The Playwright’s Trigger: Thoughts on Warnings in the Theater

This past week, having an opinion on whether or not there should be trigger warnings on academic syllabi was de rigueur. The New York Times did it. The Atlantic did it and then did it better. The New Yorker even weighed in, publishing a novelist’s opinion which I found very compelling. Ultimately, all of this opinion telegraphing – juicy fare for a slow news week – could be traced back to a formal request from a group of Oberlin students. An excerpt from a draft of the request was published by the Times; it reads:

Triggers are not only relevant to sexual misconduct, but also to anything that might cause trauma. Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression. Realize that all forms of violence are traumatic, and that your students have lives before and outside your classroom, experiences you may not expect or understand.

Now, typically, trigger warnings in Feminist circles serve to warn readers that a post online would contain references to or descriptions of violence or sexual assault. The expansion of these warnings to systems of privilege and oppression (see: all the listed -isms) is so far beyond usefulness that I won’t approach it in this post. How boring to slam something when I know you’ll probably agree with me? Trigger warnings in an academic setting, for me, could be problematic in that they can pervert how a student might absorb a topic or text and create a hostile environment for professors. However, for those who need it, trigger warnings for the classroom can be developed in a way that is therapeutic and not obtrusive to learning through an agreement with a professor or a system of personalized warnings.

As I read through all the thoughts and anecdotes in Facebook comment threads, I was astonished that the subject of trigger warnings for performances did not come up. Ratings systems for movies did, but nothing for the theater which so many of my digital friends adore. Though I feel strongly about how trigger warnings should be used in the classroom, I am much more unsure of how best to use them in the playhouse. Can we have trigger warnings for plays – where audiences’ might need them most – without disrupting the playwright’s intention?

Now you might ask why I would consider trigger warnings possibly necessary in the theater when I think they are a roadblock in academic settings.

Damnit, I love that play.
To start, “Titus Andronicus” is regularly produced …

Live theatre has a unique set of social and artistic contexts that could make it a particularly intense experience for audience members dealing with trauma.

Typically, performances are held in a dark, confined space. In this dark space – for most plays – the pressure is on the audience to disappear into the world of the play; to truly experience it as if it were reality. Plays that seek this effect are performing, in theory, what Aristotle called mimesis in Poetics. Mimesis can be defined in broad terms as presenting an imitation of life versus Aristotle’s diegesis, the telling of a story by a narrator. If diegesis tells, mimesis shows. Mimesis, as a live reality reenactment of sorts, is a much clearer cousin to trauma than reading. If you are triggered by the sound of gunshots, reading about them or hearing them in a movie can be much less affective that a blank going off from a prop gun, for instance, because you can simply turn off the program or close the book. The social conventions of remaining quiet in your seat in the theatre coupled with its nature as something you experience with a crowd makes it an especially oppressive place to have an episode or panic attack.

Further, as opposed to an academic environment, in a performance the director and playwright are not able to create a long term relationship with their audience through which they could develop systems and coping mechanisms. Part of what I like about the drama as a form is that you have one shot to forge your relationship with an audience: the thrust of the play either hits them or it doesn’t. The nature of the relationship between play and audience, then, can be very tenuous. Would not providing trigger warnings isolate those with trauma issues in the house? Let’s be honest: the damaged flock to the arts. Isn’t it brutal to have the hand that nourishes you simultaneously cold cock you with a violent flashback, no warning?

And it could be simple: provide a warning up front saying “This performance contains [material]” much in the way that pre-show signage often warns of haze, smoke, and flashing lights. It would only be serving a percentage of theatregoers, but it would also protect many from psychological unrest without any damage to artistic integrity … right?

Though I’m personally compassionate towards people with trauma and I can put forward the arguments I just have, I think what keeps me from embracing them wholeheartedly is the brutal subject matter I continue to tangle with in my plays.  As a playwright, I’m driven to deal with subject matter that is blunt, dark, violent, and sometimes sexual. My plots typically involve women as both perpetrators and victims of violence, both physical and sexual. Examples include a fratricidal and patricidal ghost, a female school shooter who threatens a female classmate, and a violently unstable young poet. I like to punch an audience in the gut by forcing them to sit in a room with disquieting scenes of women as violent aggressors and women who enjoy violence being enacted upon them. Does a warning ruin my dramatic intentions? In a sense it does. If an audience knows that my women will become violent or be attacked, my ability to subvert their expectations is neutered. I want to protect those who require these sorts of accommodations, but I would not want to alter the experience for the rest of the audience and that’s not to say anything of how the intention of my work gets completely sidetracked.

One of the biggest problems with applying trigger warnings to art is that you have to make an objective judgment of what is being portrayed. My latest play, TAME., wrestles with the ambiguity that can exists in violent manipulation between men and women; something is, indeed, potentially triggering about that, but is it as simple as “violence” and “sexism” and “abuse”? Can the complexities of live performance and literature be diluted down to constituent parts? A related example: Is The Taming of the Shrew a play that should warrant warnings about domestic abuse, rape, and sexism? Doesn’t that depend on the director or is that inherent in the play?  Who is given the authority to make that judgment and what does that authority indicate about what kind of people in the audience we privilege? Can warnings, as I fear, alter the absorption of a performance’s meaning with prescriptive framing devices?

Good 'ol girl on guy fights!
“The Taming of the Shrew”

So we come to find that it is not so simple as “we need to protect the traumatized,” after all. If only it were so. But, then the performing arts and theatre would not be the deliciously complicated organisms that they are.

One such complication that intrigued me in that past week’s conversations is retraumatization. For those with PTSD or PTSD-like symptoms, an interaction with materials or situations that include their particular triggers can lead to a psychological rerun of their trauma, hence retraumatization. Though I have no doubt that this phenomenon is very real, I couldn’t help but wonder if retraumatization could be a form of catharsis. Not to bring up a dead Greek guy again, but Aristotle gave us some good vocabulary with which to discuss how theatre interacts with audiences. Catharsis, for those of you who don’t pull terms from Greek philosophy out of your back pocket, is the purging or cleansing of emotion, typically through a transformative experience like great theatre. Theatre provides a socially acceptable, safe space for a person to work through troubling emotions and memories and experiences. While it is not physically ideal for panic attacks, the environment is conducive to and invites the expulsion of tension and bad feelings.

It is at this point that I descend into anecdotes. A number of years ago after I went through a deeply traumatizing experience of my own, I saw a production of Dead Man Walking at American University. The production was incredibly moving. When the play came to its emotional climax – the family of a death row inmate sees their son off to his violent staged death – I began to experience something that I could only describe as a panic attack. My vision became a blurry tunnel focused on the action. My legs began to shake. My breath became shallow and stilted. Tears rolled down my face, though I felt very distant from them. As soon as the actors took their bows, I grabbed my friend and raced to a restroom so I could clean myself up.  This is the part where I tell you how I wish I had been ready for it and that I was upset about being put through the emotional ringer, right? Wrong. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I was retraumatized by my experience with the play, I was certainly transported to the throes of my trauma and I felt very grateful. As cliche as it is, I would say that the physical sensation I felt was cleanliness. I felt light. I was given the permission to feel in that black box what I didn’t think was appropriate to feel in my classrooms, with my friends, or even alone in my apartment.

Could retraumatization through performance be a sort of therapeutic experience? Might it be, in fact, part of the effect of theatre to do so? I think that is an important question to ask even though I would firmly argue that it has no easy answer.

Ultimately, when it comes to the practical realities of production, I believe in compassionate care for people and, therefore, warning my audience that something in the play might disturb them. “If you have concerns, contact us,” as they say. In theory however, I must admit that my wish is that every performance could be its own contained universe. No pretense, no synopsis, no marketing, no warnings.

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