A colleague recently posted a New York Times article about trigger warnings with the comment “Nothing ruins a magic trick more than telling the audience you are about to perform one.”
Trigger warnings have become more prevalent in theatre in the past few years, and for good reason. Americans have become more sensitized to personal, physical, and social issues, in respect to both their own anticipated reactions to certain stimuli and to whatever adverse reactions their audience mates might experience.
Fifteen years ago I self-produced one of my plays. A woman I had known for several years asked me if there were instances of gunfire in the work. It was at that point I remembered that she had experienced the tragedy of a family member committing suicide. Everyone in the family had heard the fatal shot. I assured her that the show was free of such effects, and learned something new: that my work could have more of an impact than I'd realized, and a negative one at that.
I'm fairly conservative when it comes to social mollycoddling. I think that in many ways we've oversensitized ourselves to every minor speed bump in the Highway of Life, and that sometimes we take it too far. I also believe that theatre can be a master tool for public enlightenment; it often makes use of powerful revelatory material.
But I further recognize that the world we now live in has fewer places of safety. Gunshots are not what they used to mean to the privileged: abstract sound effects that had no meaningful relevance except to let the hero cowboy slaughter another sixteen “Indian savages.” But now there are shooters walking into schools, churches, malls, cinemas . . . everywhere, almost . . . without any preventive safeguards whatsoever. It's an almost everyday occurrence. Gunshots have been brought into the mainstream. If you have or care about a school-age child, you know what a gunshot may mean. Thousands of people have survived mass shootings and many more thousands have served in war zones as members of the vast U.S. military. That’s a whole lot of gunshot trauma.
Sexual abuse has also become commonplace. We see instances of it every day, from the White House to the Catholic Church to every daytime TV talk show. Real people, not just invented characters, have been through a certain kind of hell—and more and more of us are realizing that it's no longer something that happens to someone else. Precise facts and figures vary from source to source, but even if you’re looking at the most conservative estimate, the percentage of women who have experienced a personal/sexual violation is astrofuckingnomical.
And we see instances of sexual abuse all over the TV, every day. Rape is the great leveler, and TV writers seem to use it arbitrarily and all too frequently. Need a female character to have a life-changing horrific experience? Rape always works, because that is what many people think is the only substantial (read dramatic) adverse experience that an audience will react to. Rape is cheap in entertainment.
As character craftspersons we always think in terms of the pushes and pulls, the whys and hows, the stimuli and effects upon our characters. In comparison we have rarely thought of what we might do to our audiences.
I favor trigger warnings. Life in modern USA is much too violent to begin with, from our blockbuster movies with denouements featuring ultra-cataclysmic CGI to our jingoistic fascination with settling things with macho violence. We exploit physical and sexual abuse for emotional effects and money. I think it's right to warn rape victims that the show they are about to see contains a scene of sexual violence. I think it's necessary to let the mother of a shooting victim know the play will contain gunshots. I think it's important to warn epilepsy and migraine sufferers that the show will have a strobe light effect. I also think it is a courtesy to people across the spectrum that the play will or may contain strong and possibly offensive language. Some of our friends, neighbors, and relatives may live a hard enough life just being who they are without being surprised at a $47/seat show.