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An Approach to Content Warnings in the Theatre Classroom

A year ago, I enrolled in a graduate course about Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) which required students to study several plays for audiences as young as two and up through their late teens and early twenties. All of the students in this class, including myself, were masters students in a Theatre Education and Applied Theatre program. Most of the students in that class intended to teach at the K-12 or collegiate level. And most, but not all, of the students in the class were white women between the ages of twenty-three and thirty-five.

One of the weeks focused on “Taboo Topics in TYA.” The instructor, a man of color, assigned plays with content intended to spark a discussion in the class about what is “appropriate” for various young audience groups, and one of the plays assigned, Good Kids by Naomi Iizuka, included a description of sexual assault. Some of my classmates told the professor they were upset that the syllabus didn’t include a content warning. The professor heard the students out and agreed to offer content warnings for all other plays in the course. He also pointed out that we had already read several plays in the course that included challenging content, and questioned why we had not asked for content warnings for those works. Many of those plays focused on the experiences of Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) characters. The professor highlighted that students of color are often asked to carry a heavier burden in the content that's consumed in the classroom than white students.

Personally, I didn’t have a problem with the play in question. Yes, it was hard to read, but I felt that the intensity of the Iizuka’s words matched the urgency of the problem and the need for social intervention. I was moved to discuss the play with people beyond my classmates and research local laws and school policies. Isn’t that the most ideal outcome—inspiring audiences toward action? Yet, I watched how that play caused one of my classmates to turn inward, and her engagement in the class never really rebounded after that incident. I started wondering: who really benefits from content warnings? What content necessitates a warning? How do the dynamics of content warnings change when a piece of art is assigned for a class, versus a performance that audiences can opt in and out of? And with these questions in mind, I wondered: what practices will I use in my own teaching?

A large group of people standing in a circle on a stage with one person crouched in the center.

Sofia Lindgren Galloway (center) facilitating a workshop for the Center for Comedic Arts at Emerson College with first year students and faculty, fall 2023. Photo by Sami Ahmad.

A Brief History

Content warnings (also known as trigger warnings and often abbreviated to CW or TW) are short statements informing audiences about the content in a piece of media that could cause a reaction in folks who have experienced specific trauma. In another HowlRound Journal essay, Sydney Isabela Mayer says content warnings “are about giving an audience the appropriate information needed to make a choice about what they want to be exposed to.” Proponents of content warnings argue that the warnings protect folks who are recovering from trauma from having a serious physiological response, like a panic attack, in classrooms, theatres, and other places of entertainment. The goal in using them is to protect the most vulnerable audience members. Educator Christin Essin argues that content warnings are an essential tool for educators in choosing and planning plays for their students to see.

In contrast, some critics of content warnings believe that they discourage students from engaging with content or viewpoints that are important, but may cause discomfort. Some believe that content warnings can reveal too much about a work of art in advance. Tiffany Antone recalls stifling an audience’s reaction to a piece by offering too much information in a content warning. Others argue that despite the fact that there are lists of common content that could trigger a reaction, it is difficult or even impossible to know what might trigger any individual on any given day.

It is worth noting that content warnings have been around for a long time in the film, video game, and music industries—just in a different format. Movies for children can be rated “PG” because a character dies. Video games can receive an “M for Mature” stamp because of extensive violence. Music can be given the label “explicit” on streaming services because of certain language. No systemic rating systems exist in theatre to inform audiences of the content they are about to consume, although some theatres are experimenting with rating systems. For example, A.R.T. has created a system of ranking things like language, violence, and sexual content on a scale of one to five.

Special Considerations for Educators

But what happens when the challenging content is in the classroom? If a theatre decides to put on a play, there is no requirement for anyone to join the audience. In a classroom setting, however, the rules are different. There is an assumption that if a play is assigned by an instructor, all students in the class will engage fully with that play and come prepared to continue that engagement in the classroom. There is also an assumption that the content for a course is selected in good faith, and that the instructor believes there is significant educational and/or artistic value in assigning that play. The power dynamic between the instructor and student raises the stakes for a student coming face to face with challenging content in a play. The student may fear that challenging the play’s content will be seen as a challenge to the person responsible for their grade. Not to mention, certain plays may be a requirement of the curriculum. High school educators are often bound by district or state mandated curricula, and I have a hard time thinking of an American collegiate theatre program that doesn’t assign at least one Greek tragedy filled with death, violence, and sketchy sexual encounters. But perhaps we also have some aesthetic distance from Sophocles. Maybe troubling content feels more “real” when we are engaging with contemporary playwrights who use familiar vernacular and whose storytelling may align more closely with our everyday experiences.

It seems like, in the world of content warnings, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

More Harm Than Good?

Around the time my TYA class was wrestling with content warnings, a preprint of an unpublished social science paper made its way around Twitter and rekindled the debate about content warnings. Written by psychology graduate students from Harvard and Flinders University, the authors set out to collect all of the published research about content warnings and analyze what effect they have, if any, on people’s engagement with challenging content in academic settings. The most incendiary finding claimed that content warnings do more harm than good, because warning students about challenging content raised their anxiety levels as they waited to encounter that content. The paper concludes with the following statement:

Existing research on content warnings, content notes, and trigger warnings suggests that they are fruitless, though they do reliably induce a period of uncomfortable anticipation. Although many questions warrant further investigation, trigger warnings should not be used as a mental health tool.

Though it’s worth noting that this meta-analysis has not yet been published via a peer review process, this roundup of studies does make me skeptical of the way content warnings are used in academic settings. These findings may explain why institutions of higher learning, like Cornell, fear policies about content warnings that could become litigious. In an article for the Atlantic titled “I Was Wrong About Trigger Warnings: has a national obsession with trauma done real damage to teenage girls?,” journalist Jill Filipovic hypothesizes that the spike in young people's desire for content warnings is related to the over-use of trauma language in online spaces, creating a generation of young people that is less resilient toward discomfort and overly perceptive of potential harm. As an older student in my graduate program interacting with undergraduates more than a decade younger than me, I’ve certainly noticed a spike in therapeutic language seeping into everyday conversations and a quickness to assume plays with challenging topics will trigger others. Are content warnings really preventing harm, or are they a slap-dash solution that cause new problems?

Three people standing on a stage with the backdrop of a house behind them, and a chest on the floor in front of them.

Sofia Lindgren Galloway, Chad Fruscione, and Sophie Beers-Arthur during pre-show educational programming for elementary students. Old Jake’s Skirts by José Cruz González at Emerson College. Directed by Joshua Streeter. Scenic design by Tim Scalzo. Costume design by Rachel Padula-Shufelt. Lighting design by Narissa Kelliher. Photo by Kayla Tomas.

Moving Forward, Best Practices

It seems like, in the world of content warnings, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. So, what can educators do?

Step 1: Check an institution’s policies and resources

Educators can first check to see if their institution has guidelines or resources already in place for when and how to flag difficult content. Folks in higher education can reach out to the academic and mental health centers or check with their chair to see if there are any policies to follow. If none of those people can provide an answer, it may be time to start a conversation about what policies the program or institution will or will not adopt and how a college or high school theatre department will communicate their stance on content warnings to students.

Step 2: Ask and Individualize

Theatre educators can also simply shift their practice by asking students “Do you have any access needs I should know about?” This could happen via email by the end of the first week of class, or students could fill out a little slip of paper on the first day. Similar to asking for access needs, educators can create a survey to send to students at the beginning of the semester. (Google forms has a decent survey collection process which is easy to set up, and pulls analytics for the user.) Allow students to share any content warnings they might want and how they want to receive them (such as verbally in class, written on the syllabus, an individual email, etc.). It’s a little more work, but it allows the educator to track the responses from semester to semester and it might reveal something about the students in that program. A friend who plays Dungeons and Dragons introduced me to a handy worksheet for players, from Monte Cook Games, LLC, that could be adapted for a theatre classroom. Based on student responses, educators can open up a dialogue with individuals about how they want to proceed with any content in the course that could trigger a serious psychological response, and tailor their practice to the unique needs of the group.

Step 3: Take time to teach about content warnings

It’s not an educator’s job to be a therapist, and it would be totally unethical to provide therapeutic support to students unless the facilitator is trained to do so and doing it in a therapeutic context. That being said, educators might try drawing on psychological studies to help young people understand the nuances of accessing challenging materials. In Theatrical Intimacy Education (TIE)’s “Consent in the Acting Classroom” training, Laura Rikerd introduced me to Dr. Dan Siegel’s concept of the “Window of Tolerance.” She uses the metaphor with her acting students to help them identify the types of content that may be uncomfortable, but are still within a zone of mental and physical safety, versus work that may trigger a physiological response. A TIE mantra that may help students understand what work is safe for them is: “Theatre isn’t always going to be comfortable, but it should work within your boundaries.” Educators can also share with students that the goal of the Window of Tolerance in psychotherapy spaces is to help the patient increase their resilience around a trigger and “open” the window a little more over time. And, if conversations with students get too close to the therapist line, educators should pause and look for resources at their school, institution, or community such as a school’s mental health center or local and national hotlines. All educators should set meetings with experts and partake in training to learn how to best support students who may unexpectedly stumble past their boundaries and need support, then help direct them to the professionals who can best serve them.

We all must remember to act in good faith, listen when called in, apologize if there has been harm, and make a plan to do better.

Step 4: Be willing to be wrong

There is no one size fits all answer here. Including or not including content warnings will not erase the trauma people have experienced. In many ways, content warnings are a band-aid to larger problems that theatre educators cannot solve themselves. Even with careful planning and communication, people will mess up. Even if an educator has a keen eye toward equity, sometimes a student will carry more of a burden than they deserve. We all must remember to act in good faith, listen when called in, apologize if there has been harm, and make a plan to do better.

At the end of the day, the debate around content warnings in classrooms comes down to pedagogical ethics. Ethics are personal and contextual, so I simply can’t tell anyone what is best for them or their community. Regardless of whether someone decides to use content warnings or not, I challenge all educators to think critically about the how and why behind their decision. When an educator uses or does not use content warnings thoughtlessly, they are smuggling in assumptions about their students and how their class works instead of listening to who is in the room and what they need.

Personally, I’m not ready to totally give up on content warnings. But I do think my classroom practices will shift. I’m realizing that the content I worry most about is situated in my experience as a white, millennial, straight cis woman who does not carry trauma into most of the spaces I occupy. I don’t think that slapping a label on a play will entirely fix the problem, but I do plan to talk with students early on about theatre’s ability to question, inspire, and critique the world. I intend to ask them to consider what’s gained and who is harmed when our worldview is challenged. I will listen deeply to their responses and encourage them to do the same for each other.

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Dear Sophia: 

Thank you for this timely article on Content Warnings.  Congratulations on being the author of one of the ten most read articles in 2023, an honor we share.

Last semester I had three students leave the classroom upset and/or crying because of the domestic abuse, pedophilia, and rape, depicted in Tennessee Williams' classic, A Streetcar Named Desire. As the Script Analysis teacher, I was rather stunned by the response.  The play had been on the syllabus for this class long before I started working there.  (I myself had read it as an undergrad!)  This was the first time I had encountered such a strong reaction to the text by students.  

After checking on the students who had exited to ensure that they were OK, I resumed class with those that remained.  We had had our quiz and general discussion of the work (before the exodus).  Now, it was time to read aloud and discuss selected passages from the play.  This is something the students enjoyed doing each week and with each new play.  To my surprise, and in solidarity with their triggered classmates, the remaining students unanimously objected to the reading any passages aloud.  They refused to read Tennessee Williams' work, another first for me. After class ended, a student came to me and said we need to put Content Warnings on Williams' play, and indeed, most of the plays we had read that semester because they all had been triggering in some way or other.  

Learning from what had happened in the previous class, when my next period class came in, I began by asking if everyone was comfortable discussing the play.  I said it was OK if anyone wasn't and that I understood, no problem.  I wanted students to know they could do whatever they felt they needed to do to take care of themselves. The class was thoughtful at first and finally said, yes, they were fine with it.  Two classes, two different responses, same play.

Another instance has come to my mind in the debate about Content Warnings. I remembered how, a couple years back, a student had come to me asking if she could miss class the week we would be reading A Streetcar Named Desire.  She asked if I could give her a different assignment--perhaps something she could write an essay on to make up for missing class.  She said that, for personal reasons, reading and discussing the play would be triggering for her.  In that instance, I got permission to switch out Streetcar for another play and did.  

Because there seems to be an epidemic of books being banned in our country, I would hate to see any plays removed from a Script Analysis reading list--or any reading list for that matter. We now have a hard-won mixture of classic plays (by white male playwrights) and newer works by BIPOC and women writers.  To supplement this, whatever group is not represented on the syllabus, we provide a platform for in an informal play reading meet-up group that anyone in the school community can participate in.  To preserve this growth, and to ensure diversity, equity, and inclusion, it seems to me that Content Warnings are the way to go.  

Thank you for sharing the words of the professor who said that "students of color are often asked to carry a heavier burden in the content that's consumed in the classroom than white students".  I would have liked you to unpack that statement a little bit, as I do have some students of color in my classes.  I thought of myself as a young student and how that statement seems to ring true as I reflect on it as an adult.   

I look forward to studying your article more, and to reading the links provided to help me sort out this important debate as a theatre educator and artist. 


Great essay, Sofia. In my experience, I have observed that content warnings can become the bogeyman. If you place too much emphasis on the warning itself, it can cause participants to brace themselves for impact or even start to panic. I have found that timing is also crucial in content warnings. Offering a warning right before the content appears may work because folks don't anxiously wait for the sensitive content to appear.

Additionally, proactively establishing language and expectations around tricky content with your participants is essential (as you allude to). So long as everyone is on the same page about the protocol of the warning, I have found that content warnings are an effective tool to help set a thoughtful, respectful, and brave tone around sensitive dialogue.