Trigger Warning: A World Without Trigger Warnings?

Picture1By Kathy Ferolito

There is no phrase more emblematic of the disdain for women of the so-called millennial generation than “trigger warning.” As I, a college student, type these words— somewhere in America there is a man around my father’s age rolling his eyes at this latest “pussy-fication of America.” The rhetoric around trigger warnings has become increasingly patronizing as it has risen to the national stage of debate, so before we can even begin a productive conversation about theatre companies issuing trigger warnings to their audiences, we need to talk about prejudice.

As someone who is living with mental disorders (including PTSD) in addition to neurological disorders (such as chronic migraines), I am allowed to voice my stance in favor of warnings for strobe lights, but that is where the line is drawn. Talking about migraines is easy because there is no stigma attached to them, but when addressing PTSD, my age and gender are called into question as red flags that I do not have a legitimate medical claim.  In conversations like this, the cards feel like they have already been stacked against me. I would rather not use my diagnoses as a badge of qualification over others whose claims are not seen as valid. Nor do I feel inclined to drudge up personal information to help people understand the reality of my experiences. And I don’t want to feel like I have to tell people that I take the same medication they give to war veterans so I can also be deemed worthy of an accommodation.

I refuse to get caught in a cycle of arguing about freedoms of speech, how trigger warnings can spoil an artistic experience, or how my generation is being coddled from experiencing the real world. Instead, I would rather use these words for empathetic critical reasoning and imagine a way to restructure how trauma is performed, in addition to creating theatre that supports audience members with PTSD, with or without the use of trigger warnings.

So far the discourse on trigger warnings asks two main questions. First, if we don’t know what could trigger someone, why would we label every single thing in a production as cautionary? And second, if real life doesn’t have trigger warnings, then why would we spoil a plot point just to prepare someone for a situation they should know how to deal with if it happened while they were walking down the street?

To me, a trigger warning is a way of mentally preparing myself to enter an experience: in the same way one might casually warn a friend to prepare before watching a gruesome scene, or even upon entering into a performance that is going to be longer than expected. Male hysteria (yes, it’s your turn to be hysteric) surrounding trigger warnings has dominated discourse because systems of power, such as misogyny, equip the public with ways to diminish entire groups of people as too sensitive or even too feminine. In doing so writers are able to excuse themselves from critical inquiry, by dismissing the problem as unworthy of time and energy.

Artists want to keep doing the same plays and using the same audience structures without having to accommodate any changes. Now that mental health has finally begun finding a way into the spotlight of national discourse, we feel trigger warnings are either a sign of weakness, or for some, an easy way to say “Look, I care! I am here for you!” Theatre wants to keep talking about trauma, but doesn’t want to have to deal with the reactions and sensations that are unearthed when it does. Theatre-makers want to continue to theorize the effects psychological terror, but are quick to call out someone for acting like a “victim.”  Now that audiences refuse to be complacent with storytelling they find offensive, trigger warnings have become an easy short term fix. But everyone’s favorite young woman to hate, Taylor Swift, reminds us “Band-Aids don’t fix bullet holes,” just as trigger warnings won’t fix the system of prejudice contemporary theatre faces.

I don’t think we have to live in a world with trigger warnings, but that means people need to be willing to work on restructuring their preconceived notions of trauma, just as all theatre-makers do when working on a show involving any sort of experience not their own. If you are a director who wants to do a play that centers on any kind of trauma that you have not experienced, I encourage you to ask yourself at least some of these questions.

  • Is this based on a personal experience?
  • If not, has the playwright done their research?
  • Why this play?
  • Have I done my research?
  • How can I show a complex portrayal of trauma that does not victimize?
  • How could survivors of trauma react to this play?
  • Does my show allow room for response (e.g. snapping, crying)?
  • Is an exit easily accessible mid-performance?
  • How can I foster a healthy relationship between the audience and the content?

In classes at The Theatre School, the ensemble has been hailed above all else. Directors need to care for their ensemble of actors and creators when working with difficult subject matter. It is unfortunate that these discussions rarely progress into including the audience as part of the equation. What makes theatre special is the potential to gather a community of people and experiencing collective cathartic healing. When we ignore the audience’s relationship to the art and solely focus on performance and aesthetics, we lose a crucial component of what keeps theatre alive. It is not difficult for me to envision a theatre without trigger warnings, but until a greater cultural shift is made to restructure the way trauma is theatrically explored, I don’t have the desire to waste my time sitting at a production that is trying to tell my story or experience, but doesn’t want to do the work to make me feel welcome, understood, and engaged.

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