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.”

Actor covering another actor's mouth from behind

Tiger Lily (Isabel Autor) and Wendy (Violette Trotter) in The Wendy at the Interlochen Center for the Arts, written by Scott Harman. Costumes by Risa Alecci. Photo by Scott Harman.

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.

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"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."

As someone who's currently participating in the educational system as a student, I think and discuss this subject a lot with my peers. The tension between this changing dynamic is evident. There is so much more research and sensitivity surrounding the topic of mental health that can change the way that we can approach work as actors. Getting to a particular emotional state as an actor has never been a one-size-fits-all kind of deal...why else would we have so many various methodologies and books still being written about acting? Creating a space in the rehearsal room or the classroom for an actor to have the agency to explain how their process works, even at a time when that process is still being shaped, is something that I don't think we should ever be afraid of. I even think this debate could be more positively reframed as a way to give young actors agency over their craft. 

It's probably near impossible to create a world in which boundaries are never accidentally crossed in theater, but I think more often than not it comes from the conversation being one-sided. Bringing up a subject matter that people aren't comfortable discussing. Putting people in situations they aren't prepared for. If we were to include young actors in the conversation, and my favorite educators have been the ones who've done this, then I think it would be easier, not harder to speak to the mental blocks and challenges that we're asked to overcome to let a story work through us.


I feel the need to comment on your essay here, because I fundamentally disagree with the entirety of it.  I feel this Intersectional approach to theatre education to be quite cultish.  My partner and I were accepted into graduate school a few years ago at Humboldt State University.  We performed as part of a theatre company we created there, Harold Pinter's "The Lover", Howard Barker's "Judith" and Joseph Chaikin's "The Serpent."  Judith required nudity and I directed my partner and other actors in this.  The cast and crew was mostly female.

This school also used the cultish theories of Paulo Friere which created a bizarre situation where the best and brightest students from every background were pushed ahead for the least talented, while they pattered on and on about their "oppression" in this crazed glossallia.  Instead my partner and I took all the students from outside the theatre department that had quite a bit of talent and did quality work.

Throughout all this my partner and I were accused of "White Privilege" "Rape Culture" and they told me, even though my intimate scenes were directed by the women, that I had "bias" and that even though I said nothing, my very presence in rehearsal was questionable because I had "white male privilege" and no matter what, even as someone whose work is about magick, tantra, and goddess power, I am still "sexist" and by putting on Harold Pinter, Barker, etc. I am promoting white male privilege and rape culture.

Well, needless to say I am not teaching.  Well, I thought I could just work in tech, and do my fine art and theatre.  Well on 10/10/2017, during the anti due process MeToo garbage, I was force resigned from my tech job in LA, because someone went to my website here, and decided that my artwork was "male privilege" and "rape culture" and she "didn't feel comfortable working with me and that my art was creating a hostile work environment for women."  Never mind that my partner helps me on this, never mind that my mentor in art school was a woman.  My boss who said they liked my art when they saw it, said they couldn't take any risks in this climate.

This trigger warning safe space culture is killing spiritual and erotic content in art.  It is trying to say that male artists cannot paint the female nude due to "invisible power dynamics."  It was not good to trust Mr. Friere as he promotes communism.  My painting mentor was a visiting artist at Minneapolis College of Art and Design.  She was disturbed by a few socialist students there because her great uncle was a Russian Jew sent to Gulag three times for "class privilege"  She was a Russian Jew who was one of 10 girls chosen to be a painter by her East German Government.

Now, this intersectionality has ruined my career, both as an academic and in tech.  Straight white men (funny I am Roma Gypsy) are now being told that their erotic content, which may have been feminist 15 years ago is now "harrassment."  Can you explain this to me???  I am now a background actor and making money, but can you go to my website here and explain to me what I'm doing wrong?  www.joshuaruebl.net.  Seriously.  I need help navigating this stuff.  Audience members, just so you know are sick of it.  So if I follow everything here correctly, we cant have Sarah Kane or Howard Barker or Antonin Artaud anymore because their art rapes women in the mind?  Is that the theory?  Help me understand.

That all sounds difficult, and I won't pretend I have all the answers for you (or a clear picture of what your interlocutors objected to. You'd have to ask them.) As far as the theory behind feminism, I can only suggest you read and listen to the various (and far from homogeneous) thinkers that are already out there, including the people in your past who have objected to some of your choices. The last thing the internet needs is another straight cis white guy explaining "what feminists mean" to another guy. I do know that I don't have any business telling other people when they are and are not being harmed by something I have done. 

The biggest thing I have to point out in your comments, as personal and clearly felt as they are, is that they support my overall thesis rather than resisting it. I claim that most reactionary responses to trigger warnings and informed consent in the classroom are there to protect the teacher and not the student. Your comments would seem to suggest that, rather than disagree with that, you believe that protecting the teacher should be first and foremost. I think that is a perfectly valid point of view even though I do not share it. 

You start out with an unnecessarily self-flagellating statement: "This posture starts from the fundamental assumption that we teachers know what is best and our students know nothing." As a theater/speech/vocational teacher with as many years under her belt as the author, I find this is reductive and am glad you walked it back a bit. I know it's still the trend (as it has been for 30 years) for educators to be servile about their talents, skills and experience. I hope the pendulum swings back a little more toward the middle. Students know more than nothing, but they are not nearly as intrinsically wise as we have been told to believe they are and educators are not as clueless.

I have a different perspective. In addition to theater, I am a vocational educator who has been training young and older adults who have barriers to employment. This experience has inspired me to form some definite opinions about preparing people to enter the world of work.

The one thing that theater education, in my opinion, spectacularly fails to prepare its students to do is to compete and thrive in the real world of theater, be it on screen or on stage. While teachers fawn and apologize, question themselves and equivocate, the casting directors and production directors are not nearly so concerned with triggers and drawn-out emotional processes. They are professionals producing a product. They are about time constraints and work ethic and effective collaboration and deadlines.

I think we do a massive disservice to young people (of any vocation) when we do not teach them that a) yes, they have a right to be treated with respect and sensitivity in the workplace, but that b) they cannot expect to indulge in every self-centered whim and still be highly employable. (At least not until they prove they can bring in millions in revenue.) 

The real world of work still mostly rewards those who put their heads down and do the job. My feeling is: not being able to handle seriously upsetting emotions, but still wanting to act is the same as genuinely hating children but wanting to teach elementary school. You might be able to fool some people for a while, but ultimately the people who are willing to wade through the tall weeds are going to surpass you. Isn't it the educator's job to prepare students for this?   

And remember that "bullying" is highly subjective and prone to be re-interpreted with each generation. (I'm not talking about or condoning behavior that reaches the level of legal definitions.) But I have a suspicion (hope?) that the porcelain psyche's of today will soon give way to sturdier souls in the near future.          

I can't agree that students are somehow more fragile these days. I still work with plenty of students who are absolutely fearless in both their art and their learning; it is the opposite of an act of cowardice to self-advocate to an experienced teacher about what one needs. I honestly think the thing we see as fragility these days is just the logical outcome of a generation of students who have come to believe that the so-called "American Dream" of financial stability is a long shot in any industry and even worse in the arts. It is a fairly predictable outcome that students who live every day with the knowledge that they will probably not live as full-time artists think that any harsh criticism as evidence that they will not be among the chosen few to "make it" (whatever that means anymore). 

I absolutely agree with you that we should not paint an inaccurate picture of the business side of professional acting. I routinely tell students as young as twelve what the sacrifices and realities are to the business of using your art and your body to pay the bills. What I don't agree with anymore, however, is that the best and only way to prepare students for those ugly realities is to embody those attitudes ourselves. I just can't believe that my treating students harshly in order to "toughen them up for the real world" constitutes anything more than hazing. 

As an acting professor who herself studied with a number of teaching artists/directors who felt it was their job to "agitate" students into learning, I completely agree with your perspective here.  I work largely with Viewpoints in the classroom, and I allow students to select their own material for monologues/scenes.  Of course I want them to feel empowered to tackle challenging material - but I also believe that if they don't want to work with Mamet or Kane in the classroom, those aren't the gigs they're going to be pursuing professionally either. It's not a profesor's job to bully students into working in ways that doesn't add value to the student experience or empower the actor.  I have worked with directors and teachers who are only able to direct/mentor actors via emotional/psychological manipulation... Oftentimes they think their methodology is THE ONLY WAY to operate, and the results can be wildly damaging.  Acting faculty/teaching artists/directors need to have an array of techniques in our toolbox in order to adjust training to suit the room—and an understanding that we are working with human beings with minds/opinions/learning styles all their own.