What’s Problematic, the Play or the Process?

Pushing Back on Traditional Post-Play Discussion Models

What comes to mind when you hear the word “problematic?” Offensive? Non-PC? Upholding white supremacist/patriarchal value systems rather than interrogating or dismantling them? That’s certainly a common definition, and definitely something I’ve used a lot in the past.

However, when looking at the official definition, “problematic” means something a little different. It is defined as “difficult to solve or decide,” “not definite or settled,” and “open to question or debate.” This last definition is the one I find most compelling. I would wager that a lot of artistic directors and producers aim to produce work that is open to question or debate. Wouldn’t they then welcome “problematic” plays?

If we continue using this definition, we find that problematic art is subjective. It contains specific content presented in an ambiguous way. For example, perhaps a play features a character who espouses misogynistic rhetoric, and their ideas are neither endorsed or condemned by the playwright, leaving audiences to debate the play’s purpose, merits, and thesis: It’s a brilliant play! It’s an offensive play!

People who operate as gatekeepers (producers, literary managers, foundation officers) can make or break a problematic play’s fate. Rose Oser, the associate artistic director at Z Space and the co–artistic director of Fault Line Theater, both located in San Francisco, is a gatekeeper. Oser is a champion of provocative theatre—most recently of #bros, a new play by Jake Jeppson, which was denied foundational support due to “problematic” elements. Through conversations with Jeppson about the tension that exists in the American theatre around “problematic” work and how we individually define the term, Oser created Z Space’s inaugural Problematic Play Festival, which was held on 12-14 October 2018.

The festival aimed to investigate why certain plays caused gatekeepers to turn away from them in favor of other material. I was one of many readers for the scripts submitted to the festival; as a gatekeeper myself—I am the literary manager for the Bay Area Playwrights Festival—reading for this festival made me more aware of my personal biases against certain plays, like comedies whose light tone could be read as dismissive of the topics they engage in.

In the submissions, the playwrights were required to articulate what made their work “problematic to themselves or to others,” Oser said, and it was just as important for those who would be involved to be “open to having a transparent and generous dialogue with the audience.” While the submissions for the festival I work for do require cover letters that include developmental goals, what Z Space was asking for gave me access to the playwrights’ full intentions and allowed me to assess whether it succeeded.

With all that in mind, I was much more receptive to plays that might have made me hesitant or offended me in different circumstances. Of the 175 submissions, three were carefully chosen to be presented in staged readings: Phosphorescence by Cory Hinkle, Ripped by Rachel Bublitz, and Refuge by Rachel Lynett.

The three playwrights agreed that submitting their respective plays was a no-brainer. “It was one of those moments where I could say, ‘I have the perfect play,’” Hinkle said of Phosphorescence, which depicts the soldiers and torturers at Abu Ghraib. It was written ten years ago and has never been produced. Bublitz said she typically submits her work to as many places as possible, but sending Ripped, which is about gray areas in consent and sexual assault, to the Problematic Play Festival “felt like fate.” And while Lynett knew her play Refuge fit the festival’s criteria, she had some submission reservations related to the Bay Area audience: it would be a queerer one than she was used to, and the play addresses transphobia and polyphobia in the queer community. “I’m an emerging playwright,” she said, “and I didn’t necessarily want this play to be people’s first exposure to me.”

I would wager that a lot of artistic directors and producers aim to produce work that is open to question or debate. Wouldn’t they then welcome "problematic" plays?

Prior to the festival, I had asked Oser and Radhika Rao, a member of the steering committee who co-facilitated each post-show discussion, what audiences could expect of the entire experience. I heard things from both of them about trigger warning paddles and tomato throwing stations. I had no idea how they were going to work or feel.

hand holding two paddles and a sheet with discussion guidelines

Photo by Maddie Gaw.

The paddles were real. In the program, and during Oser and Rao’s opening remarks, it was explained that there were two of them: one yellow, which you would raise to say “yay!” and one red, which you would raise to say “nope!” in response to certain moments or dialogue in the play. “So often in theatre we are asked to sit back and accept what is in front of us,” said Oser. The paddles allowed the audiences permission to “blurt” (to borrow Oser’s phrase) their immediate response. Yellow paddles were often raised on humorous lines, especially the kind where a character was dropping a witty truth bomb. Red paddles were raised during stage directions describing a violent act, when a character suggested something that clearly made another character uncomfortable, and in other moments of serious discomfort. 

The use of the paddles also influenced how audience members responded to the play. Some said they learned something new when they saw people raise their paddles during specific moments. For example, during the post-show discussion for Ripped, one person said they had been surprised to see red paddles going up during moments they had perceived as innocuous. Some said the paddle usage increased their anxiety. Some said they felt pressure to find something problematic when they noticed others raising their paddles. I was equally watching the play and watching the paddles; I personally never raised mine due to a tendency for delayed response times in my own body.

After the staged reading concluded, audience members were given various options to release whatever energy they had pent up. There was a Zen Zone were people could relax, a whiteboard where people could write or draw any thoughts or responses, and a tomato wall where people could let out a more visceral response. If none of these felt cathartic, there were also volunteer counselors who people could talk to privately.

The playwrights were required to be fully engaged in the audience’s post-play experience, which included facilitated discussions. Bublitz said that because there aren’t universal definitions of assault and consent, she hoped to give space to the audience to discuss these differences. In Lynett’s case, her biggest fear wasn’t that people would be upset by the content, “it was that they were going to say, ‘so what?’”

I have led many post-show discussions in my career. And while they were possibly informative and entertaining, especially when I was joined onstage by a cast member, I bet less than half were productive. When I say productive, I mean that the playwright’s intention has been clearly conveyed and challenged in a constructive way, and that the audience has been perhaps guided through a moment of catharsis, or anger, or something more thoughtful than pat compliments about the acting and the set. I know now that the tools I had to handle thorough discussions about emotionally and intellectually complex topics were inadequate. I have learned that a style of talkback that works for one play doesn’t always work for another. Theatres cannot continue producing work that invokes or portrays certain traumas and not offer a post-play discussion designed to allow an audience the space to unpack and process this specific trauma.

Theatres cannot continue producing work that invokes or portrays certain traumas and not offer a post-play discussion designed to allow an audience the space to unpack and process this specific trauma.

Knowing this, the Problematic Play Festival went to lengths to foster the right environment for the talkbacks. Some things they focused on were:

  • Dramaturgy of space. The co-facilitators, playwright, director, actors, and audience members who chose to stay (the vast majority) all sat together in a circle on stage. This eliminated the power imbalance of traditional talkback structures, where audience members seek to learn the objective truth or gain validation from a moderator who sits onstage or need to talk louder or more forcefully to be heard by the whole room.
  • Dramaturgy of language. Clear guidelines were given to the audience at the start of the facilitated discussion on how to express their thoughts while in this group dialogue, including how to challenge the idea another person presented rather than the person themselves, and that they were to only speak about their own experience rather than generalize a group they do or do not belong to. Some theatres assume all people recognize these as unspoken rules—they are mistaken.
  • Dramaturgy of healing. The audience was given permission to be emotional and inarticulate in their responses, as well as permission to leave the circle and talk with a counselor if that’s what was needed. Counselors also participated in the conversation, discussing both physiological and psychological trauma. While I have led and been to talkbacks where some of these elements have been present, it is not the norm.

As an example, let’s take Ripped. When I read the script, my heart ached. It’s a play that asks us to empathize with the victim and the perpetrators of a sexual assault—all three teenagers still learning how to be adults. The men in the play are fully realized characters who you like and want to see succeed. They also have violated a woman—also a fully realized character who you like and want to see succeed.

In the post-show conversation, the group explored how countless societal factors affected the behavior of both the victim and the perpetrators. People said they were fond of the perpetrators while not absolving them of culpability. People discussed current sexual assault education criteria at higher education institutions. Some survivors chose to share their stories, and some individuals identified moments in their life when they might have contributed to creating a gray area around consent. It required tremendous vulnerability from everyone to participate in the discussion, and everyone who did share and speak up did so with the utmost empathy and integrity, which is difficult considering the topic is one that usually leaves someone feeling hurt.

My biggest takeaway from the Problematic Play Festival was that perhaps it’s not the plays themselves that are problematic, it’s the way theatres handle the audience’s experience outside of the performance. Does the theatre feel obligated to have a pre- or post-show discussion? Who facilitates those discussions? What space will those discussions be in?

Oser believes that if more producers create this kind of container and context for these discussions and emotions, our whole industry—playwrights, audiences, producers—will be able to move our art forward. “I do not necessarily think we need to produce more ‘problematic’ plays,” she says, “but I do believe we need to keep creating spaces for rigorous discussion around work that may scare us.”

I felt I had witnessed the impossible with the discussion around Ripped: thirty-odd people listening to one another and understanding each other in a brand new way. It made me cry. This is what I will carry with me to move our industry forward, and I hope other individuals and institutions will consider it as well.

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Fantastic piece, Maddie! Thanks for sharing those ideas.

(P.S. I'm struggling to think of anything that doesn't need a tomato wall.)

The other problem with post-show talkbacks is that most audiences are fairly homogenous in terms of political views and/or cultural make-up.   I find most post-show discussions just end up being manufactured disagreements between a bunch of fellow progressives who basically agree. 

I'm more interested in what non-typical theatre goers would think of a show...or what people who have no connection to the industry would think.  And lots of times those people don't stay for talkbacks.

This I also agree with, with the addendum that I think the example from the Problematic Play Festival that I highlighted creates a space where dissenting opinions can be shared in a safe and productive way. If your audience is homogeneous to begin with, then there is still a baseline problem, but I think that there can be genuine disagreements between "likeminded progressives" and that if one voice is loudest and dominates the conversation, then people don't feel so free to speak out. With the style of talkback at this festival, the guiding principles of "step up/step back" were used so that the space was filled with different ideas from several people rather than a few ideas from the same three people who want to get called on.

I'm curious about how we can market a post-play experience to get non-typical theatregoers to stay!

The problem with most post-show discussions is that many plays make a clear unambiguous point.  There is little reason to discuss at the end unless you're just looking to manufacture some disagreement. 

As a theatre artist, I rarely feel the urge to participate in a post-show discussion when I attend theatre.  Most of the time, I leave thinking "Yep. I get it.  I know what this playwright is trying to say.  There's not really much for me to unpack here."

It takes a lot for a play to really prompt me to want to talk about it in public.  

I definitely agree that not all plays need a talkback, or at least need a talkback for the same reason. If it's a talkback where the director or the actors come out on stage and the audience can ask production-related questions, that's different than a talkback geared around discussing the meaning of the play, per se. I also rarely stay for talkbacks for productions or companies I'm not involved with, since I can pass on my feedback one on one to the director or playwright or producer if I know them.