I wouldn’t normally feel the need to justify the use of trigger warnings in theatre, if it weren’t for the fact that recently I’ve had some short online conversations where people didn’t understand or agree with me that a Fringe show I saw this month containing references to suicide, self harm, representations of child abuse, sexual abuse of those who can’t meaningfully consent and so on, needed trigger warnings (of which it had zero).
Now, because they were short conversations – I engaged with replies, but didn’t really get anything in response (either agreeing or continuing to disagree) – I don’t know the full range of reasons people might disagree with the above, but I feel compelled to at least spell out what I think are undeniable reasons for being conscious of trigger warnings.
*Trigger warnings are essential to making theatre accessible*
Now, the above might seem anti-intuitive, if you interpret trigger warnings as things that tell people to ‘stay away’ if they don’t want to see x/y/z. I’d argue trigger warnings are tools given to audience members ahead of seeing a show that enable them to do one of the following:
- Avoid seeing the show if they don’t think the content will be suitable for them to watch
- Ensure they attend the show with someone who can act as support if necessary (this might be a hand to hold during the show, someone to speak to afterwards, someone to let them know when it’s okay to look back at the stage, someone to help them leave if necessary – to generally accompany, support and aid if needed)
- Potentially buy tickets in areas that make it easier to leave and re-enter the space (prices and venue flexibility allowing)
- Choose on the night whether they’re in a suitable position to watch the show, or whether to wait for a different day (ticket availability allowing)
- Prepare coping mechanisms for when they see the show and the immediate period after it
- And, I’m sure, many other routes of action (I’m listing any I can think of and some instances I’ve seen in action)
So it’s not about telling people to stay away from shows. It’s about enabling people to enjoy shows without fear of being triggered and undergoing serious emotional and mental distress; in my mind, nothing’s more likely to prevent someone from going to the theatre than being unexpectedly triggered by a show and left in a position where they don’t know if another show is going to put them through the same experience.
Access isn’t just about being able to get people in the room to see your show, it’s about them being able to enjoy/understand/appreciate the show – and if you put them through significant emotional and mental distress during it, there’s no way the remainder of the show is genuinely accessible to them.
Now, I know trigger warnings are difficult for certain styles of performance – a lot of what I’m working in right now is improv-based, and we don’t always know precisely what’s coming up. But there are at least other measures in this case that can be implemented – recently I’ve been researching a lot of guidelines on how to talk appropriately about a variety of potentially triggering subjects (suicide, self-harm, domestic abuse, and suchlike) to at least make sure that if improv ever drifts into mentioning such subjects, suitable, respectful and non-sensational language is used, only a non-damaging level of detail is given, responsibility is shown to be firmly with aggressors and not their targets, and suchlike. It’s been incredibly revealing and already come in great use.
There are other arguments used against trigger warnings I’ve heard – that it risks spoiler-ing the show (to which I’d respond: in any good show with moving performances, creative direction, interesting design and skilful writing, knowing a general detail about its content shouldn’t render seeing it pointless; also, trigger warnings do not tell you exactly what happens to whom, and when, under what circumstances – they do not give away the full plot), that part of theatre’s role is to expose the audience to trauma (to which I’d respond: theatre can present trauma but shouldn’t risk traumatising its audience and trigger warnings don’t prohibit the presentation of trauma onstage but simply allow audiences to make informed judgements about what to watch) and that they’re the start of a slippery slope (to which I respond: slippery slope is a fallacy. All it takes is, fundamentally, common sense, empathy and the will to look outwards to others’ needs and experiences, to judge trigger warnings appropriately).
A note: the Fringe show I saw that started these conversations was a piece of horror theatre. I do not consider this to excuse companies from posting trigger warnings. Yes, I expect to be shocked during a horror – I expect jump scares, I expect special effects, I expect gore, I expect someone to die in some fashion – but the fact is a show can still be an effective piece of horror theatre without any of the subject matter mentioned above. So it’s not a given that that will be included and audiences deserve the basic respect of being forewarned. (And: knowing these things beforehand wouldn’t have impacted the show’s ability to scare. The atmosphere created by the design, performance, direction etc would still have held.)
So, naturally, I don’t think any anti-trigger-warning-arguments bear up. I think it should be shouted more loudly that trigger warnings are a matter of access – a lack of them makes it impossible for some people to safely and easily watch theatre. So I deeply hope I never see another example of them being so desperately needed and so painfully absent from performance.