Features Published 22 October 2019

Setting the Story Straight on Trigger Warnings

Ahead of CPT's Handle With Care Festival, Kaya Stanley-Money writes on how venues are approaching the heated conversation around trigger warnings.
Kaya Stanley-Money

Artwork for ‘Handle With Care’ at CPT

This month, CPT is hosting our all-new ‘Handle with Care’ festival, three weeks of performance exploring the hotly contested concept of the so-called ‘snowflake generation’ and all that comes with it – trigger warnings and safe spaces, microaggressions and no-platforming. You would imagine that, embarking on this season of programming, we must have our own story straight – on how, when and to whom trigger warnings should be administered in a theatre context?

Think again. We’re still working it out: that’s partly what the festival’s for. Our festivals – usually with a socio-political or campaigning agenda of some kind – come about for several reasons. Either we’re seeing a lot of work on the same theme and want to collect it under one banner to enjoy the synergies, tensions and lively conversations resulting from that. Or, we proactively want to encourage them to address a subject we feel needs a dose of the attention and imagination that artists uniquely can bring.

‘Handle with Care’ falls into the latter category. We weren’t aware of many projects addressing the media clichés and stereotypes that swirl around the millennial generation. But those clichés and stereotypes are getting louder and louder in the culture – becoming part of all our lives. We wanted to know what a younger generation of artists made of being perceived in these terms. In the world at large, that discourse is becoming polarised and acrimonious. Generations hurl abuse at one another. We wanted to create a forum in which the conversation could be approached from a different angle, and less divisively, using creativity and the imagination rather than the tired factionalisms of the tabloid and social media.

That’s what Eurotrash’s Trigger Warning does, with bells on. When we discovered this extraordinary new project (a pre-show waiver that never ends; a content warning that swallows its show whole), we knew we had a show to build a festival around. We’ve now been working with Natasha, Marcelo and their company for twelve months, bringing that show to fruition and – together with them – talking to people who’ve thought harder than we ever could about trigger warnings, triggering content, trauma – and how venues that present art and performance might deal with them.

When conceiving a content-warning system that suits CPT, of course we couldn’t co-opt another theatre’s practices wholesale. We’re a unique theatre operating within a unique set of circumstances, by which I mean:

  1. We are primarily a receiving house. So, while broadly we know what shows at CPT are about, we are not always deeply engaged with their creative process in a way that might allow full awareness of their content.
  2. We programme over 170 different productions every year – some for one night only, some for three-week runs. Any policy we put in place must work across the board and be sustainable within our limited resources.
  3. We programme radical contemporary theatre exploring socio-political issues. Challenging content is common. A substantial portion of performances at CPT may therefore require some sort of content warning.
  4. 71% of the artists we work with are in the first five years of their careers. So, it’s particularly important that we set an example for best practice, in this as in other areas.

This is what we must take into account when devising the right content warning practises for this organisation. As ‘Handle with Care’ has come together, we’ve discussed, we’ve thought hard. One of the researchers we met – Angela Bryan-Brown of King’s College – spoke with us about the fascinating, if still provisional, conclusions she’d reached about trigger warnings in contemporary theatre. Having surveyed dozens of theatres, she unearthed “an uncertainty [on venues’ part] on what audiences do and don’t want from trigger warnings”, and an ambivalence – again, on the part of the venues – towards the phenomenon generally.

On the one hand, Angela reported an “inadvertent prioritising of theatre-goers who wish to avoid spoilers” over those vulnerable theatre-goers who might seek triggers warnings. (As if these two are necessarily in opposition.) On the other, she raised questions as to what has prompted the trigger warning phenomenon in the first place. Has there actually been a significant demand from theatre-going audiences? Or it this driven by social media noise, and an anxiety on venues’ part to insulate themselves against criticism in our current censorious culture?

At CPT, we don’t want to prioritise audience members who’re anxious about spoilers (a small minority) over audience members who might be vulnerable to triggering content (also a small minority). It feels like more of a priority to us that as a venue we’re accessible and welcoming to all, and offer proactive care to the vulnerable. But equally, we’re mindful of the (lesser, but not negligible) claims of those who’d rather enter the theatre entirely innocent of what they’re about to see. The two are not incompatible. We’ve overhauled our approach by introducing a system of ‘Content to Consider’ – moving away from the concept of ‘Trigger Warnings’ or ‘Content Warnings’ which can allude to a “pre-emptive sense of shock and trauma” (Lou Platt – Artist well-being practitioner). ‘Content to Consider’ will still be listed on the show pages of our website, as we have done in the past, but audiences can now elect to download a more detailed synopsis of the show that focuses on the content and how it is portrayed in the show. We hope that this will avoids having to create highly detailed, scene by scene descriptions, but will still provide the context and enable an informed decision to be made. This is still an experiment, but it feels like we’re moving in the right direction.

And we’re not doing so in isolation. There’s a lot of heat around the whole idea of trigger warnings – because, for the mainstream media it handily crystallises all those clichés about flaky millennials. But we prefer to see content warnings as part of a wider movement to radically democratise theatre, to make it a more accessible place to a range of people who haven’t always felt safe here. As Angela found through her research – to us, and other likeminded venues, trigger warnings are part of a continuum of measures we’re putting in place to make sure CPT is an environment  welcoming to artists and audiences of all genders and abilities, ethnic and class backgrounds, neuro-types and sensitivities.

That’s a job that’ll never be done. It requires ongoing vigilance and openness, a readiness to embrace change and to walk towards those delicate conversations that it might feel more comfortable to avoid. That’s what ‘Handle with Care’ is all about. Whether you’d prefer to do so fully briefed, or in blissful ignorance (we’ll to make both options possible…), we do hope you’ll join us for it.

Handle With Care is on at CPT until 9th November. More info and tickets here. For more on trigger warnings/content warnings in theatre, read Alice Saville’s essay Do trigger warnings ruin theatre’s power to surprise? and Eve Leigh’s On (Not) Watching Gendered Violence On Stage.

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Kaya Stanley-Money is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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