Features Essays Published 12 June 2019

Do trigger warnings ruin theatre’s power to surprise?

Alice Saville writes on theatre's uneasy relationship with trigger warnings, and the faultlines they reveal.
Alice Saville

A London night bus. Photo: Alastair Rae via wikimedia commons

For a good three days last week, I couldn’t open Twitter without feeling a bit sick, a bit unreal. One image patterned through my feed: an image of two women on a London bus, splashed with blood, visibly in shock after being beaten up in a misogynist and homophobic attack. At first, I was convinced it was staged; it seemed too artful, too accurate a distillation of every queer woman’s fears. A few nights before, I’d kissed my girlfriend on the top deck of a nightbus. Like them, we sat in the front seat. It’s clearly the best place to sit; the city stretched out before you in dark perpendiculars, damp streets glowing in the street lamps. The night, the city feel like they’re yours. That sense is an illusion, and every look at that image reminded me of that.

It was an image that gave necessary visibility to the specific threat that comes with being gay and female. It was a shock revelation to huge swathes of (largely straight) people who hadn’t been in similar situations, or been made aware early on that if you didn’t play by straight men’s rules, there were consequences. It was also traumatic, for the way it mapped violent imagery onto queer women’s daily experiences. The word ‘triggered’ feels too strong and specific for the way it made me feel, but seeing it over and over has lodged it in my brain, and has forced me into a caution that I don’t want to feel.

Comment journalism doesn’t always intersect neatly with the world it sits in. Last week, Libby Purves wrote a piece in The Times (one amplified by Mark Shenton, who’s also written on the topic) complaining about trigger warnings and the “whiny hypersensitivities of the age”, as manifested in complaints against AQA for including a excerpt of a story about a rape in a GCSE paper. As usual with these stories, the actual meat of what happened is wafer thin; two students complained on Twitter, and one also sent a letter to the exam board. Maybe teenagers are more sensitive today, or maybe (and I think this more likely) social media means that the voices of younger people finally have a platform; either way, they don’t deserve to have their opinions dismissed as “whiny” in a national newspaper.

But anti-trigger warning stories get clicks. Trigger warnings are controversial, whether they’re in schools or in books or in theatres. As well as generalised frothing about kids these days being oversensitive, one of the main objections is that they ‘spoil the surprise’ – language used both in the many articles arguing against trigger warnings in theatre, and by theatres themselves. In its policy on trigger warnings, The Old Vic boldly announces that “we aim to be a surprising, unpredictable, ground-breaking, rule-breaking, independent beacon of accessible, uplifting and unintimidating art”. The Royal Court uses the term ’emotive content’, on the grounds that it sounds less violent than ‘trigger warnings’ (the term ‘content warning’ is another increasingly common, and helpfully clear alternative). Its statement says that “it’s often the unexpected, shared moments and plot twists that capture the audience and create the debate and conversation beyond the performance.”

It’s hard to disagree with any of that, but it feels like some of this language of surprise comes from a confusion between trigger warnings and spoilers. Spoilers tell you what’s going to happen. Trigger warnings alert you to themes – like suicide, self-harm, or rape – a bit like the comments alongside cinema ratings, which no one seems to object to. I don’t think anyone in favour of content warnings wants six foot posters by the theatre’s entrance saying “there’s a rapey bit in Act Two Scene Three”. The Old Vic and the Royal Court both offer a broad invitation to get in touch by phone or email, but this creates a layer of potentially intimidating admin for people who might just want to make a quick decision about seeing the show.

It seems so much easier for everyone involved to make like Theatre Royal Stratford East, which has made the sensible decision to include an unobtrusive page with info for people who need it. But they’re currently in a small minority – new Twitter account TW: Theatre is providing a valuable resource for people who have specific trauma, mental health difficulties, or who want to make informed decisions about the work they see.

Eve Leigh has written about her decision to stop watching gendered violence on stage; she writes that “images have a nasty way of getting out of the grasp of context and creating meanings we don’t intend”. Some audience members are able to watch staged violence (or other triggering material) and experience it on a purely intellectual, debate-stimulating level – just as for a lot of people, that blood-splattered image of two lesbians is just a photo on a news story. But if it’s something that digs up traumatic memories or experiences, you can’t. I’ll never forget the rattling, gasping sound made by a man sitting next to me in a show about suicide, after a particularly biting line; like the sound of someone who’d been gripped on burnt skin. I don’t know what he was going through, but it didn’t feel like the theatre had the resources to deal with it.

Content warnings are new, and I think that’s why they’re met with resistance. But there used to be less conversation about the shades and nuances of mental health in general. The old binary division between ‘well’ and ‘mentally ill’ didn’t make much space to understand the low underlying levels of trauma, anxiety, and discrimination that a lot of people live with. People who were upset by theatre could be casually dismissed as ‘neurotic’ or ‘easily offended’ and wouldn’t return, and there wasn’t a public space where they could voice their concerns.

Purves didn’t relate her argument against trigger warnings to the stories of homophobia and transphobia doing the rounds this week, but I want to. Because seemingly innocuous frothing about trigger warnings in mainstream newspapers is part of something more insidious. Far right agitators, who gather on forums and websites like Breitbart and Spiked, have a deliberate policy of spreading blown-out-of-proportion stories about incidents involving ‘trigger warnings’, no-platforming and campus radicalism, as a way of stoking their anti-socialist, anti-‘social justice warrior’ worldview, and of gathering support for an agenda that’s also virulently misogynist, anti-abortion, transphobic, and probably anti LGBT+ rights full stop, unless they involve Milo.

The eloquent far right’s favourite strategy is to cast the older generation (who are largely the ones writing comment journalism) as free-thinkers and crusading iconoclasts, while portraying younger people as namby-pamby milquetoasts (wonderful American coinage that) who want to protect themselves from confrontational ideas. There’s an element of truth to it somewhere; economic insecurity, a rising willingness to talk about mental health, and the rapid dissemination of activist ideas on forums like Tumblr have all made their mark on millennial brains. But not in the unthinking, unnuanced way these commentators suggest.

In her article Generation Q, Tori Truscheit writes that: “For most of the LGBT rights movement’s history, we fought for the freedom to do things we hadn’t been allowed to do before: freedom to gather in gay bars, freedom to marry someone of the same sex, freedom to live as the gender we are without discrimination”¦.But a lot of the new conversations around sex are the “freedom from” kind.”

She highlights the #MeToo movement as evidence of a generation who mobilise around wanting an end to unwanted objectification and exposure to sexual content. This tension came out recently in debates over sexualised behaviour at Pride parades: younger people wanted to be free from unwanted exposure to nudity and kink, while older people wanted to assert their freedom to fight against the oppressive prudishness and conservatism of mainstream society. As Truscheit rightly highlights, pushing back can put younger members of the queer community on the same side as moral conservatives, religious groups and capitalist forces. No one wants a sanitised Coca Cola Pride. But the other extreme isn’t great either – without conversations around consent and comfort levels, there’s a risk that marginalised LGBTQ+ people quietly become absent from Pride.

I’m starting to see ‘freedom to’ and ‘freedom from’ as two sides of the coin.

“I want the freedom to kiss my girlfriend on the top deck of a nightbus”

“I want freedom from people shouting stuff when I kiss my girlfriend on the top deck of a nightbus”

“I want people to feel free to express their sexuality”

“I want to be free from people expressing their sexuality in public by objectifying me and my girlfriend”

As a community, we’ve all got to collectively navigate the tensions between making a space where people can express themselves in ways that mainstream society doesn’t make room for, and making sure that that expression doesn’t come at the expense of someone else’s voice – and that tension is as real in theatres as it is at Pride.

Activism is often described in terms of waves, each one crashing over and destroying the last. But maybe it’s more a process of feeling out: of sending divers down underwater to feel out the vast looming churning injustice that lives down there, each surfacing with their own theories on the shape it takes and the way it can be slain.

I wonder if ‘trigger warnings’ or ‘content warnings’ could be seen in a different way. They’ve often discussed as a kind of censorship. But they’re nothing like the Lord Chamberlain’s reign of terror, which until 1968 allowed a single British government official to expunge anything he didn’t like from new plays. Really, they’re about clarity: about putting things into words, owning the contents of a show, and thinking carefully about their impact on multiple audiences with multiple experiences and vulnerabilities. If a show directly addresses rape, that’s good and worthwhile and there’s no reason not to acknowledge it in some way – unless it’s being used as a chucked-in plot twist that the theatre would rather not own up to. The language of ‘surprise’ suggests, to me, a bit of coyness. I hate the idea that audiences have to be ‘tricked’ into being exposed to things.

And, perversely, this talk of ‘surprise’ can also become a prudishness of its own, when it means hiding elements that might put off potential audiences. On at Park Theatre, Napoli, Brooklyn sounds innocuous enough; “When an earth-shattering event rocks their Park Slope neighbourhood, life comes to a screeching halt and the sisters are forced to confront their conflicting visions for the future in this gripping, provocative and poignant portrait of love in all its danger and beauty.”

Nothing about this sounded queer to me, until I saw this tweet:

It’s great that individual actors are reaching out to queer women, but finding a wider queer audience by explicitly talking about the show’s themes would be better. Maybe the ‘ideal’ audience member goes around buying up tickets like it’s Black Friday, ready to be shocked or surprised or seen with each fresh visit. But most people can’t afford to. If you can stretch to one theatre ticket a month, if you’re persuading your friends to come too, you want some sense of what your experience is going to involve, whether that’s themes that draw you in, or trauma-rehearsing ideas that’ll ruin your night.

Live performances are never going to offer a familiar or predictable experience, and that’s why we go to them. But surprise can come in so many forms: not from what happens, but how it happens. Like performance that moves you. Like a dazzling way of expressing something you’ve felt but not understood. Like a back wall that vanishes or a stage that floods (okay, I can usually predict these but I see way too much theatre). If you can’t read a content warning without obsessing about where or when that element will take the stage, arguably the show isn’t working its spell on you anyway.

In a Telegraph interview, John Malkovich thundered that “upsetting people is the point of theatre”. I don’t think even he really believes that. Theatre can be a place of community, empathy and healing, as well as confrontation. As generational lines are sketched, sharply, by people with distinct agendas, making a statement for ‘inclusiveness’ over ‘upsetting’ is both simple and welcome.

For more on this conversation, read Eve Leigh’s 2018 piece On (not) watching gendered violence on stage


Alice Saville

Alice is editor of Exeunt, as well as working as a freelance arts journalist for publications including Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Raddington_B