Who is Being Triggered?
Consent, Power, and Trauma in the Acting Classroom
I doubt anyone involved in both theatre and social media has missed out on the perennial fracas over trigger warnings in the theatre, and whether or not our increased sensitivity to trauma and aggression spells doom for the art form. This conversation, though, seems to focus almost solely on the artist-patron relationship and neglects a much more fundamental place where these changes are playing out: our classrooms.
I have spent a couple decades in educational theatre and have found myself in dozens of hushed conversations (usually with people who, like myself, are white, male, and of a certain age) about how students are changing. Valued colleagues of mine (who, without exception, have had long careers and have legions of devoted former students) shake their heads about the aspiring actors who have refused to work on material they find harmful or otherwise objectionable. My colleagues sadly wonder how these students could possibly succeed. How, the argument goes, can we train students to become actors if they wish to insulate themselves from upsetting material? How can we inculcate the emotional resilience necessary for a professional actor if students are so afraid of any negative experiences?
This posture starts from the fundamental assumption that we teachers know what is best and our students know nothing. We can go so far as to convince ourselves—and I do not excuse myself in this regard—that when we give students upsetting material or provoke them to a particular emotional state within a scene, we are doing what is best for them. We congratulate ourselves, thinking that any emotional response students have is productive and that we have done a good job by pushing them through their own boundaries. If a student demurs or even refuses, it is further indication that their limitations exist and thus proves the need for us as teachers. After all, we are the experts.
My colleagues sadly wonder how these students could possibly succeed. How, the argument goes, can we train students to become actors if they wish to insulate themselves from upsetting material?
This type of thinking is, to my mind, a perfect example of what Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire, in his landmark 1968 work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, calls the “banking model” of education. In the banking model, knowledge is a fixed quantity that must be deposited from a knowing teacher to an ignorant student, like pennies in a piggy bank. The student’s job is to be a receptive object instead of an active participant. When we teachers decide on our own what a student is “ready” for and make it happen in the classroom, we become the active subject of the educational process and reduce the student to an object to be molded and shaped for a world beyond their control.
The reason for the banking model is always the same: to make forthcoming generations feel passive and helpless in the face of any dominant power structure. When we give our students harsh feedback because “that’s how the business works,” we teach them that we have neither the desire nor the belief that they have the capacity to shape that business to their own ends. We reinforce our own feelings of knowledge and keep our students dependent on our expertise. The result—intended or not—is to teach students “to adapt to the world as it is and to the fragmented view of reality deposited in them.”
I do not claim that we have nothing to offer our students; far from it. Instead, we should actively interrogate our own place within the banking model. We have knowledge that we can share, but this does not mean that we know best in all situations. We should avoid, as Freire puts it, “[confusing] the authority of knowledge with [our] own professional authority.” Instead, we should work every day to help students develop the skills they need to make their own art, not ours. This is especially true when our students need something that requires us, as teachers, to push our own boundaries. When my students make me feel like I am the one learning most in the room, I know I am on the right track.
When we give our students harsh feedback because “that’s how the business works,” we teach them that we have neither the desire nor the belief that they have the capacity to shape that business to their own ends.
The job of the artist is to confront difficult and complex material. Of course actors will have frustrations and disappointments. I do not argue for a moment that we need to sanitize our classrooms of anything that might possibly be objectionable—that would be thinking that the “piggy bank” of Freire’s model could be fixed if we only deposited the right coins! Instead, we should resist the banking model itself. Students of any age are capable of giving informed consent about their emotional health. Neither our students nor the art form are harmed by a teacher saying, “I think it might help if I provoked you now. Is that okay, or do you want to try something else?” If a student is crafting a particularly difficult or sensitive set of circumstances, we do not harm them by saying, “Would you like some help crafting this, or do you just want some space?” I find approaching the work in this way makes students feel safe enough to take risks and far more likely to find a moment I would never have dreamt of.
Our students want to learn from us. Our students want to push themselves. Our students want to be successful artists. If we browbeat them into doing so on our terms instead of their own, we reify the banking model and protect our own comfortable spot as teacher far more than we could ever protect out students’ futures. Instead, we should encourage our students to surpass us, and ask them to teach us along the way.