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Responsible Theatremaking

Content Warnings and Beyond

Treating audiences and fellow artists with care and respect is paramount when it comes to creating theatre. In an age when every production has the capability to reach and impact large groups of people, artists need to be mindful of how their choices affect the public—especially with regard to sensitive content.

When confronting this issue, theatremakers often turn to content warnings as a solution. In order to use them most effectively, artists need to examine the successes and failures of these warnings and make modifications to improve them where necessary. On top of that, to embody responsible theatremaking to its fullest, artists should also investigate other ways they can treat their audiences and collaborators with care throughout the entirety of the theatrical process.

Content Warnings

Content warnings orient audiences to potentially disturbing material that appears in a show. As these warnings have proliferated in use, the controversy surrounding them has grown. Although well intentioned, warnings carry their own problems, including possibly diminishing someone’s theatrical experience.

Before addressing their nuances, I want to explain the reason I am using the term “content warnings” as opposed to “trigger warnings,” which is what they’re often referred to in theatre. While the word “trigger” is a legitimate medical term that has no inherent stigma attached to it, modern meme culture has created a new connotation around it: shame.

illustration of family at picnic, entitled Liberal Trigger Pic

An example of the way meme culture has cultivated a negative connotation around the idea of triggers. Original source and title unknown as it was removed from social media platforms on which it was originally circulating.

Many images trivialize triggers and frame them negatively, as if they represent an over-sensitivity or weakness. In extreme cases, people who appreciate or need trigger warnings are actively ridiculed as “feminazis” or “liberal snowflakes.” Although there are individuals fighting against this inaccurate connotation, the stigma is still prevalent. Changing the language to “content warnings” serves to bypass the stigmatization and focus on the sensitive material in the show rather than the sensitivity of the individual.

That said, content warnings aren’t about treating audiences like they are incapable of handling the material a play presents. Instead, warnings are about giving an audience the appropriate information needed to make a choice about what they want to be exposed to. Ultimately, this is about respecting audience agency. Part of being a responsible theatremaker is trusting the audience to make their own choices about their exposure to certain topics.

An informal survey I conducted with students from various schools, including Carnegie Mellon University (where I study), the University of Arizona, the University of Colorado, and the University of Miami, looked at the respondents’ stances on content warnings, experiences with them, alternative options, and more. Of the twenty-five respondents, 72 percent had a positive view on warnings, 20 percent had a negative view, and 8 percent were not sure.

There were three key complaints from the group that did not like warnings. Firstly, many individuals took issue with the usage of the word “trigger”—which is still the prevalent term—for the reasons outlined above. Secondly, some people conveyed that they personally did not have any triggers, so they did not see the use in the warnings. Finally, and most significantly, nearly all of the people against content warnings criticized their propensity to spoil the show.

Warnings are about giving an audience the appropriate information needed to make a choice about what they want to be exposed to.

The reasons given for those who supported content warnings were more varied, with one respondent saying, “I don’t have any triggers myself, but [content warnings tell] me that I’m seeing a production that treats their audience members with care and respect.”

Through the surveys I conducted and conversations I had, people shared both negative and positive stories about their experiences with content warnings. One individual mentioned that at a production of Gloria by Branden Jacob-Jenkins, the content warning was phrased in a way that not only gave away information about a surprising moment in this show, but also left audiences waiting for the sensitive content. This meant they couldn’t truly go on the journey intended by the playwright. Ultimately, the unintended consequence of the well-intentioned content warning tainted this audience member’s theatregoing experience. This person acknowledged they understood the need for the content warning for sensitive material but wished it had been constructed in a way that did not affect the audience experience for anyone who didn’t want to be exposed to the information.

Another person shared a story about a time they attended the theatre where content warnings were needed but not provided. This person had had a miscarriage at a young age, an experience that had traumatized her, and while attending a performance soon after was startled to discover that one of the first scenes dealt with miscarriages and used victim-blaming language. She was forced to sit through the scene, quietly suffering from a panic attack, since there was no way for her to politely remove herself from the space. This damaged her experience, and she avoided seeing a show at the same theatre in the future.

Every audience member comes to the theatre with different life experience and realities, and everyone may have different feelings about warnings. But responsible theatremaking takes each person into consideration. In order to ensure this happens, there are certain modifications artists can make to content warnings and alternatives that can be used in order to most comprehensively be mindful of audience wellbeing.

Every audience member comes to the theatre with different life experience and realities, and everyone may have different feelings about warnings. But responsible theatremaking takes each person into consideration.

Making Modifications to Content Warnings

One way to provide a satisfactory experience for both audiences who are not interested in content warnings as well as audiences who would like to be informed of sensitive content—and make a choice for themselves around whether or not to see the show—is to create a “click here for content warning” option on the website for when people are purchasing the tickets. In addition to this, there can also be a directive on a sign or in a program at the theatre that suggests audience see the box office if they are interested in learning more about sensitive content in the play. This way, the warning is accessible but not mandatory. Audiences who know they have certain sensitivities can check a content warning and make the proper call for themselves, while audiences who don’t want a warning don’t have to see it.

Another option is to create a rating system for potential triggers to indicate to audiences how prevalent that specific subject matter is in the play. For example, if the content warning is about sexual violence, and violence is only mentioned in the play once or twice, the rating would be a 1. If the entire play centralizes on sexual violence, the rating would be a 3. If an act of sexual violence is depicted, the rating would be a 5.  

Alternative or Supplementary Options

On top of content warnings, there are other ways theatremakers can be mindful of audience well-being, like having counselors on site or including talkbacks after a show. For example, in a 2015 production of Steubenville by Eleanor Bishop at Carnegie Mellon University (which is currently touring in an altered form under the title of Jane Doe), taking care of the audience was a top priority from the piece’s conception. The play tells the story of a 2012 rape case from Steubenville, Ohio, and examines the ramifications of rape culture. The creators understood that the importance of telling this story and the importance of audience wellness were not mutually exclusive.

In order to create a space that was conducive for audiences to deal with the sensitive content, the creators chose to have counselors and mental health professionals available for audience members before, during, and after the performance. They also conducted a talkback after the performance so the audience could work through the challenging issues in a community setting if they were not comfortable speaking to the mental health professionals individually.

performer in foggy blue light dancing in front of chairs

2015 production of Steubenville at Carnegie Mellon University. Photo by Louis Stein.

Process Counts Too

Responsible theatremaking extends beyond offering care and respect to audiences—it is important for artists working with sensitive material to take care of themselves and others working on the project, too. That starts long before content warnings for performances are implemented. Some ways to be mindful of healthy inter-artist relationships include requesting sensitive content directors or intimacy directors in the rehearsal room, generating and implementing guidelines for how artists want to handle sensitive content, and a group effort to create a “collaborator contract” that outlines boundaries among all artists in the space and that can uphold the ideals of care and respect with one another. 

It is an artist’s obligation to take care of themselves, their collaborators, and their audiences. And when it comes to responsible theatremaking, crafting content warnings thoughtfully and ensuring sensitive material is handled properly throughout the entire process are important elements that shouldn’t go unnoticed.

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This issue comes up a lot in my work, and I like your idea of using content warnings instead of "trigger" warnings since there is a negative connotation to the phrase now. In spite of the Atlantic article, triggers do exist (see Trauma and Recovery by Judith Hermann), and people can be harmed and re-traumatized. I have seen an actor suffer a seizure while performing "triggering" material - this seizure was similar to what the Yazidi women who were raped by members of ISIS have been experiencing recently in the news, and it was a terrifying experience for the performer and the audience. I have a trigger warning on a script of mine that suggests readers get support lined up if they think they will need it before reading the script. A dramaturg supported my decision to put it in. I have found that people who are interested in the kind of work that may need content warnings, especially around trauma, are the same people who could be re-traumatized by it. Trauma is real, and it's important that we recognize it and offer support to those who need assistance. 

I absolutely understand that concern! That's actually part of why I suggested modifications to warning and the process. First, calling them content warnings serves to remove some of the concern around infantilization. Second, making them a process that people elect to opt into instead of being mandatory helps it so that audiences who do not feel a strong need for it aren't subject to increased anxiety but audiences who know that the trigger warning will help them, like the many of my survey respondents reported, will have access to them. While the Atlantic reports that warnings might have no significant effect, it is still important that warnings are accessible for those who do need them - regardless of the number of people that need them. Even if the number of people for whom warnings would help is small (and on that, the jury is still out), we need to take account for them in our conversations around audience care. That's also why I suggested the "click-here" option so audiences can have the agency to make the proper call for themselves at individual moments and if somebody doesn't need or want one, then they don't have to see one. I also hope that my offerings about alternatives to warnings and a process infused with the ideals of care and respect will alleviate issues about negative effects of warnings like infantilization. I hope this response helps ease your concerns!

My understanding of the research that was done is that warnings overall had no significant effect and was found to increase anxiety in only some of the participants. Still, I believe some of the reason they have been found to potentially increase anxiety comes from when warnings are being constructed less mindfully, made mandatory for all audiences to see, or had other flaws I referenced in this article. This is why I offered suggestions for modifications to warnings that might change the effects. Also, from my own research, I found that people have both positive and negative reactions to them which is why we need to modify warnings to make them about the choice to opt in. People who want them and believe they do need them have the right to see them, but they shouldn't be mandatory for audiences who don't want it or think it might increase their anxiety. Really, it's about making it accessible but not compulsory so audiences have the agency to make the choice for themselves. Although they have been found to potentially be counter-productive for some audiences, we still need to account for the audiences that do need them. This is why I referenced that responsible theatremaking takes everyone into consideration and makes options available for everyone. I believe if we make a concentrated effort to improve how we construct, deliver, and make warnings available (including giving individual audience members the choice to decide for themselves whether they want a warning), then it will not be a risk. 

But I've already produced evidence that no audiences need them as they do not work. You insist there still is need for them because some audiences might need them. Where is the research that some audiences might need them? And you insist that audiences may need them while claiming the anxiety they produce are only caused by poor design. What proof do you have of this? And why downplay the admittedly small chance of causing anxiety? 

Look, you seem like an earnest person, but the research is clear. They do nothing. You've been sold a bill of goods. This is the problem with social justice ideology, it appeals to kind-hearted people like yourself  but provides you with non-functioning solutions to non-existent problems. Don't you feel a little betrayed by your ideology if it has led you to promote ideas that don't work?