I recently had an article come to my attention, discussing London theatre company The Donmar Warehouse and their decision to begin listing warnings for potentially triggering content in their performances. While theatrical trigger warnings are by no means new (are advisories of violence, nudity, and staged smoking not the same concept under a different name?), their growing presence has been a hotbed for vehement detractors. The company’s choice has been put under scrutiny by a number of critics, Mark Shenton of The Critics’ Circle stating “You can’t protect people from everything. It will ruin the theatre.” While I understand the desires on either side of the argument, both the aim to not heap undue and unforeseen mental strife on individuals and the aim to preserve the ability of theatre to surprise in content and execution, I feel it’s a much less clear cut issue than some may make it out to be.
Immediately upon reading about the situation with Donmar Warehouse, my mind flashed to the most viscerally impactful and (purposefully) unpleasant performance I’ve experienced- Daughter, a play written and performed by Toronto based artist Adam Lazarus, that explores toxic masculinity in the context of modern fatherhood. The show is framed as an autobiographical tell all by the father of a young girl, his experiences navigating these uncharted waters, and trying to do a good job despite learned toxic and misogynistic values. And it is so very easy to side with this character to the point of forgetting this is a largely fictional piece of theatre and not a confessional. And it is so very easy to feel your insides twisted with dread when Lazarus turns the tables.
Without going into too much detail, the show slowly chips away at Lazarus’ pleasant veneer, as he offers more and more repugnant thoughts to the audience that had already sided with him, giving you a feeling of complicity in an ever increasing toxic tirade. Racism, violence, sexual assault. Countless audience members were weeping. Some behind me jeered. Many even walked out, long before a sharp lighting and sound change reminded the audience that the show is aware of what it is doing and gave some comfort to the worrisome thought that we had somehow actually paid to watch a man spew his bigotry and vitriol on us. It was poignant, important, and above all else, painful. When the show ended, I found my jaw and leg had actually gone numb from tensing them so much. And while I am glad to have watch and experienced that art, certainly those who needed to leave were not. So it comes to a messy question: what culpability do theatre creators have for emotionally damaging their audiences, especially when a performance verges on verbal abuse?
The friends I saw Daughter with discussed the concept for a long while after, and it has stayed in my mind since then. I don’t use or look at content warnings for the material I consume, but I know there are those who use them to avoid material that could trigger a vulnerable memory and be a huge detriment to their mental health. The Theatre Centre, the theatre where Daughter was performed, stated on the box office info for this show in particular “The Theatre Centre does not post trigger warnings for any of our shows”, which in and of itself gives a strong advisory tone without revealing any of the shocking twist of the performance, which is truly the crux of the show’s effect. But were an abuse survivor to have endured much of Daughter, only to have their latent trauma brought to the forefront and requiring them to leave the performance and make appointments with a therapist to deal with this unforeseen trigger, are the artists who caused this not accountable for the damage they’ve done without warning? Or if one has the potential to be affected so negatively by art that they are willingly entering into, is it not up to them to seek out the info of whether they will be able to endure a work’s content?
I don’t think there’s a clear cut answer about theatrical trigger warnings. In fact I don’t think there is an answer. I believe The Donmar Warehouse is completely valid in choosing to notify their audiences of potentially unpleasant or triggering content, and I believe The Theatre Centre is completely valid in wanting to maintain the impactful surprises of their performances. Easily enough, theatre attendees can seek out or avoid information pertaining to the performance at their own discretion. But to lambaste artists and audiences for wanting these advisories and call it a sign of “overly sensitive times” is silliness. People have always had concerns and sensitivities; it’s just that our society is finally giving space for these opinions amongst the emotionally hardened.