Provoked and Triggered: Content Warnings and Student Spectators

By Christin Essin

As a theatre studies professor at Vanderbilt University, I regularly assign attendance at theatrical performances to my students, and this May I had the opportunity to design a course completely around live performance. Each summer, Vanderbilt offers a series of “maymesters”—month-long intensives held in international locations. During the spring, I spent many hours researching productions and booking tickets for the “Theatre in London” maymester, including performances at a variety of commercial, state-sponsored, and independent venues. Such a trip, I determined, required a full day in Stratford-upon-Avon to see the classical offerings of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC).

I landed nearly sold-out tickets for a Saturday matinee of John Vanbrugh’s The Provoked Wife, directed by Phillip Breen, and same-day evening performance of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Justin Audibert. I had familiarity—albeit no fondness—for Shrew, but I hoped that Audibert’s “reimagined 1590 England” as a matriarchy and casting “Petruchia” as a woman would generate a rich post-show discussion. While not familiar with Vanbrugh’s play, I was excited for students to see a Restoration comedy performed by such a skillful ensemble, and the RSC’s website promised that Breen’s “comedy Midas touch” would enliven this “romp that shocked seventeenth century society.

In my rush to book tickets, however, I did not think through the possible repercussions of Vanbrugh’s play. When I teach Restoration drama in my theatre history classroom, I regularly assign Aphra Behn’s The Rover; my syllabus includes a content warning (or “trigger warning”) because the plot hangs on the threatened rape of one of the female characters by multiple male characters. Teaching on a residential college campus, I am confronted daily with reminders that sexual assault and rape continue to be the lived reality of my students. If they are going to confront violence, even on the page, I want them to be alert rather than shocked, to be able to recognize early warning signs—a raised voice or grabbed wrist—so they can question the necessity of its deployment as a rhetorical or narrative devise. Still, if they find themselves triggered while reading a play, they can put it down or even throw it across the room (as I did in graduate school when reading Ben Jonson’s Volpone). But, as my students’ experience with the RSC’s Provoked Wife reminded me, escaping representations of sexual violence at a live performance means having to wade through a crowd packed into rows of seats, fielding glances of surprise or frustration from those disrupted.

Responding to Gendered Violence

Seven students, one teaching assistant, and I journeyed to Stratford-upon-Avon after a busy first few days in London; we had attended the revivals of both Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls and Stephen Sondheim’s Follies at the Royal National Theatre and Inua Ellams’s new play The Half God of Rainfall at the Kiln Theatre. As I settled in to the matinee performance of The Provoked Wife, I was encouraged. Actor Natalie Drew masterfully delivered Vanbrugh’s playful Restoration-era prose and threw mischievous glances even to those seated in the Swan Theatre’s second gallery, inviting us into the world of the play. Alexandra Gilbreath, playing Lady Brute, also dazzled and charmed as the wife of boorish Sir John Brute (Jonathan Slinger). Being familiar with Restoration comedy, I was not surprised when Vanbrugh’s plot used threats of violence against Lady Brute to move the action forward. But I was unsettled by the rough viciousness with which Brute took his wife by the ear and dragged her offstage in act one.

Escaping representations of sexual violence at a live performance means having to wade through a crowd packed into rows of seats, fielding glances of surprise or frustration from those disrupted.

To quell my rising anger, I made mental notes to address the violence in the post-show discussion with students. I could ask how the play presented actors and spectators an opportunity to reflect on questions of gender and power, or how Vanbrugh’s playful use of language—“Brute”—contrasted with Breen’s choice to physicalize the character’s brutality to such an extreme. I reminded myself to emphasize the purely representational nature of the stage violence and suggest that a top-notch fight director would choreograph the movement to give the actress control, despite its opposite appearance.

Certainly, the same discussion would give us an opportunity to contrast this production’s realistic violence with the more theatrical mode of storytelling used by actors in The Half God of Rainfall. Ellams’s play, performed by Rakie Ayola and Kwami Odoom, drew from oral traditions in Nigerian culture to tell the story of Demi, a half god born from Zeus’s rape of his mother, Modupe. Director Nancy Medina gave Ayola full control over telling Modupe’s story; she narrated rather than dramatized the violence, standing solo beneath a spotlight and emphasizing Modupe’s anguish rather than Zeus’s wrath.

Rakie Ayola in The Half God of Rainfall at the Kiln Theatre. Photo by Dan Tsantilis.

One of the students beside me had shed silent tears, clearly affected, and when the lights came up, they gushed their approval. I guessed that this student had experienced some level of trauma connected to sexual assault, and I was glad that the performance had given her an emotional outlet and safe space to grapple with the questions raised.

Unfortunately, I found the same student crying in distress against the back wall of the Swan during The Provoked Wife’s act two rape scene. The RSC’s promotional materials described Sir Brute’s character as a “tedious drunk,” evoking the classical image of a less merry Falstaff or less ribald Sir Toby Belch. But what we saw was a convincing portrayal of a belligerent, malicious alcoholic who staggered on stage before roughly throwing his wife on a table, bending her over, and ripping away her skirts. Performed hyper-realistically, the rape was shocking in its brutality, and the scene contrasted significantly with the playful theatricality that began the production. Writing for the GuardianMichael Billington praised both Slinger’s performance and Breen’s direction of the scene that “rightly does nothing to soften Brute’s attempted rape of his wife” to realize this “unsparing portrait of a soured relationship.” Rightly or wrongly, the scene became unbearable for my student and myself to watch.

While I was conscious of my next action, I do not remember making the decision to stand, knowing only that the explicit violence had provoked my fury. Despite being fully visible to others on the front rail of the second level, I left my seat, wondering only briefly how I would explain myself to my students before finding one crying against the back wall. “Do you want to leave?” I asked, worrying less about my volume because their distress was now more important than interrupting the performance. They signaled “No, I’ll be okay,” but instead of returning to my seat, I kept walking to the exit.

Being triggered is more than merely being offended by content or feeling uncomfortable with ideas that contradict someone’s beliefs; it is a physiological response to external stimuli caused by past trauma, seemingly uncontrollable and often unpredictable.

I paced the lobby for a minute before the door opened again, and my student, still crying, joined me, followed by two other students. As an authority figure who had walked out of the theatre, I had given them permission to do the same. Knowing my own tears were imminent, I suggested that we go outside for some fresh air.

Current statistics suggest that at least one of the eight students I had brought to the performance is a survivor of sexual assault. But in that moment, I had three standing beside me, expressing, through a mix of anger and tears, that the performance had triggered some level of past trauma. To the RSC’s credit, when I approached the box office to return half of our tickets for that evening’s performance of Shrew—giving students the option to skip a second round of domestic abuse—they were incredibly accommodating.

Content Warnings and Triggered Responses

Had the RSC offered a content warning, I might have made different decisions about my students’ viewing experience. In his review of The Provoked Wife for Broadway WorldGary Naylor wondered “how long it will be before trigger warnings are required for works like these—it would be a sad day indeed, but I suspect it’s coming.” Naylor’s sadness over trigger warnings echoes many sentiments I have encountered recently, alongside grumblings about political correctness run amok and the regrettable coddling of the millennial generation. The increasing prevalence of trigger warnings in professional theatres is a trend, argued Michael Paulson in the New York Times, “bubbling up from college campuses.” But plenty of my colleagues who teach in theatre departments around the United States remain skeptical about their use.

My department has raised the possibility of providing content warnings on lobby displays and in programs, but the issue remains unresolved. Faculty opposing their use worry about lessening the impact and spoiling the experiences of spectators. In Paulson’s essay, Joseph Haj of the Guthrie Theater argued: “As grown-up people, we should be able to grapple with difficult ideas together,” and Suzie Medak of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre asked: “What’s the point of experiencing art if you don’t expect to be surprised?”

What my students and I experienced at the RSC was not an aversion to being surprised or unwillingness to grapple with difficult ideas. Being triggered is more than merely being offended by content or feeling uncomfortable with ideas that contradict someone’s beliefs; it is a physiological response to external stimuli caused by past trauma, seemingly uncontrollable and often unpredictable. My past traumatic event not only radically changed my perspective on the world but also changed the biochemistry of my body, as I now manage symptoms of depression and anxiety. People’s experiences with trauma differ widely, but many suffer symptoms—growing tension, quickening of breath, tears welling in eyes—that make sitting quietly in a theatre impossible. Whether one stays or exits, disruption becomes inevitable, adding to that person’s distress.

The debates around trigger warnings largely neglect an acknowledgement of traumatic response as valid justification, focusing instead on less compelling excuses of ideological bias or discomfort. Do opponents believe that the relatively small number of potential spectators who legitimately need a warning does not justify inconvenience to a majority who want a performance experience sans “spoilers?” These critics perhaps need a reminder of the current statistics verifying high rates of sexual assault or a recap of the #MeToo movement that gained momentum from the shocking abundance of survivors who gave voice to their previous trauma.

The debates around trigger warnings largely neglect an acknowledgement of traumatic response as valid justification, focusing instead on less compelling excuses of ideological bias or discomfort.

Responsible Warnings and Ethical Staging

Had the RSC provided a content warning, would I have alerted my students? Probably. Would I or they have decided not to attend? Probably not. Would the warning have prepared us differently—preempting our distress or dulling our fury? Maybe. The Kiln Theatre posted a content warning on their website for The Half God of Rainfall. But my students and I ultimately felt this was unnecessary; the playwright, director, and actors had taken the care of survivors into account with the creation and production of the piece. Created in “solidarity with women who have spoken against or stood up to male abuses of power in all its forms,” Ellams’s play helped spectators “grapple with difficult ideas together,” including sexual violence, but in a manner that honored and gave voice to survivors. Is it unfair to compare representations of sexual violence from a dramatist writing in the seventeenth century against one writing today against a burgeoning #MeToo movement? Perhaps. But both were available simultaneously to the British public during this summer season, and Breen and Medina had the same charge to translate these stories for a contemporary audience. The production that provided a warning was the one that needed it least.

This is not to say that I specifically advocate for the use of content warnings in theatres, much less their requirement, as Naylor predicts in his “sad day” scenario. The current debate over content warnings obscures a more necessary discussion about the ethics of producing theatre for a changing spectatorship that refuses to turn a blind eye to abuse against the disempowered. The more significant comparison between these recent RSC and Kiln offerings is not who provided a content warning but who produced a compassionate representation of women suffering abuse: the classical text staged realistically to shock audiences into remembering a violent past or the new play staged theatrically to help audiences understand cycles of abuse through a retelling of classical mythology.

Clearly, I am partial to Ellams’s text, but I can also imagine a performance of a Restoration play in which a content warning is superfluous because the production team honored and gave voice to the perspective of the abused; I can imagine a season selection meeting in which producers give the same attention to the ethics of representing violence as they do to representing race, gender, and ethnicity; I can imagine a department meeting in which the discussion to hire a fight choreographer necessarily prompts a consideration of which characters continually bear the brunt of stage violence and whether our production choices contribute to the silencing of their voices or suffering. (Charlene Smith’s recent essay, “Staging Sexual Assault Responsibly,” gives productive shape to these imaginings.)

In the meantime, as an educator and—not insignificantly—as a consumer who purchases blocks of theatre tickets on a regular basis, I will show preference towards producers who provide guidance and warnings to those who need them. Because my courses regularly require attendance at performances, I feel ethically bound to provide my students with such information and give them permission to leave if that is how they need to take care of themselves. Unlike Naylor, finding a content warning posted on a theatre’s website would not be a sad day for me; it would signal that the organization’s artistic leaders are compassionate people with respect for audience members who need a different kind of viewing experience.