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Friday, December 7, 2018

Where does a playwright’s responsibility to the audience’s emotional health begin and end?

We like to proclaim proudly that “the best plays are the ones that move the audience, challenge the intellect, and serve as a catalyst for productive conversation.” Writers frequently produce socially critical work on serious and controversial issues based on a Pandora’s Box of tragedies including rape and sexual assault, drug addiction, war, gun violence, child abuse, and acts of racial or gender violence.
And we tend to applaud these efforts because we are progressive thinkers. We care about others and believe that in placing such critical topics on a public stage we bring wider attention to the issue and “effect social change” for the better. We hope that these plays will generate compassion, even empathy, and in doing so, increase understanding between disparate individuals and groups. We see theatre as an important tool to hold a mirror to reality and make the world a more hospitable home for our fellow travelers.
Each of the topics mentioned above carries with it the pain of millions of shattered souls. And each of those souls is a living, breathing person who has experienced the most catastrophic of trauma. Sometimes, in our quest to provide boldness and truth, artists forget that.
What happens when playwrights actually cross the line between what’s artistically appropriate for their particular script and gratuitous use of an incident intended solely to add more “weight” to said script? How do playwrights determine if their words enhance the examination of a social issue or are simply emotional gut-punches designed to shock? Where does “appropriate” end and “gratuitous” begin?
Some writers seem to think that the more emotional triggers they load a play with, the more powerful it will be, and therefore the better they are doing their job. For them, dramatic heft outweighs compassion.
There are no hard and fast easy answers to this. I realize that each play is unique. But I have seen plays that, to my mind, are chock-full of trigger material, and the playwrights failed to respect the subsequent fallout or see the pain they caused, however inadvertently, to audience members.
Without doubt, theatre for social change is a critically important part of our arts culture, at its best heightening awareness, compassion, and respect for “others.” Bravely addressing the spectrum of social ills, theatre for social change can be a critical and essential civic barometer.
Still, it must be managed with care and respect.
I recently became involved in a discussion in which an audience member took issue with a particular line in a play. The line in question quite blatantly referenced a violent attack that had happened to a well-known and beloved fellow community (and regular audience) member. That person suffered from severe PTSD, and will have substantially painful memories for the rest of their life. It literally hit home. As became clear, the line was not essential to the arc or story of the play; it was an additive line (comedically written) meant to increase emotional impact. Discussion ensued; the theatre’s artistic director theatre stood behind the line and maintained that it righteously added to the play’s emotional impact. After the complainant alerted the playwright to the pain that was happening to the collective community because of this one throwaway line, the playwright (an established and much-produced writer) readily agreed to excise the line from that particular production in that particular community. But not from the standard text. Presumably, the line will remain in all future productions.

(In addition, the line was a blindside; the the play itself was about Topic X, and the line came out of nowhere about Topic Y, which had nothing to do with the theme of the work. Certainly those expecting a production about one issue may have been confused when an additional issue had been entered into the work.)
Social relevance in theatre is not measured by how much it disturbs an audience. Anyone can disturb an audience. Social relevance is measured by how much it causes audience members to rethink their world, to experience the realities of others.
If you choose to disturb me with your content, be it a play concept or even just a single line, you’d better include a followup that is a thorough and serious treatment of the issue. You need to demonstrate to me that you understand theatre’s inherent power to disturb and that you have taken the time to flesh out your subject with respect and maturity. If you choose to disturb me with your content—or reference a well-known public tragedy—solely as a fly-by mention, or a toss-off joke, or to add on to some other issue and then ignore the fact that you might have just really hurt someone, you’ve just gratuitously disrespected not just your audience but every soul who’s been injured by that content.
Every audience member is a real soul, and you have no way of knowing what those souls’ histories contain. You simply cannot be cavalier when it comes to potentially painful subjects, not when someone in the audience might feel that you are using their nightmares for cheap effect. And if, by way of explanation, you cast the blame on the audience for either interpreting as you intended or not, then you are behaving immaturely and irresponsibly. Audiences do not either “get it” or “not get it.”
As playwrights we are solely and entirely responsible for our text, the choice of triggers we employ, the message(s) we choose to transmit, and the method used to transmit those messages.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Trigger Warnings

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.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Bad Decisions Make Great Drama.

It's a truth. Look at any great play and see what the bad decision was. Someone fucked up hugely. Someone got badly burned. Someone got irreparably damaged. Maybe someone got killed.
For various reasons, we tend to nurse on others' misfortune. I use “nurse” in its most beneficial definition. Not voyeurism, where we enjoy the vicariously tumultuous ride of a soap opera, but a lesson in which we witness a tragedy and its aftermath.
This is what art does. It holds a mirror up to life and shows what humans truly are, both at our most noble and heroic and our most despicable evil. That's its purpose. Good plays show us both at the same time.
But still. Bad decisions make great drama.
Like killing your brother then marrying his widow and stealing a throne. Like putting profit over safety and shipping faulty airplane engines to the war front. Like using driving lessons to sexually abuse your pre-teenage niece. Like seeking the imprisonment of a teacher who dares to teach science rather than religion. Like leaving your lover when he gets AIDS or denying the truth of yourself in the face of cultural superstition. Each of these is a tragedy. Each of these decisions destroyed people’s lives.
Somewhere in the theatre world there has been an argument about creating new art based on the current Ford/Kavanaugh hearings. I've seen arguments on several sides: why we should use this topic to create, why we shouldn't create something so unfair to men, why we shouldn't create anything new in favor of existing work on the subject, why only certain people should be allowed to create certain work because of who they are or shouldn’t be allowed to do so because of their ignorance of experience.
Someone, somewhere will create a work based on this. It's inevitable. I hope it's profound and sympathetic and above all, truthful. I hope it makes a statement so indelibly formidable that it cannot be ignored.
I hope it's written by someone with a compassionate soul.
And for those who see this as apology for scavenging a tragedy for personal gain, I offer the words of a  profound, sympathetic, truthful, and compassionate woman:

This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.

I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge — even wisdom. Like art.
—Toni Morrison