Graphic by Daniella Mazzio
By Adam Elliott, Guest Writer
I would define myself as a sadist. I make art to expose communities to real emotional trauma and to incite a truthful reaction. I enjoy making audiences uncomfortable by triggering real danger in my productions.
The theatre should not be considered a safe space. It is not a place to escape your daily stressors. A meaningful theatre is one that demands we face our problems, where we are reminded how fickle life is, where we are reminded that we are not alone.
This should be a comforting idea. The theatre has the capability to bring different communities together through shared experiences and this allows the audience to become part of something larger than itself. In this sense, art can be very powerful.
Freud argued that our enjoyment of art stems from our own “compulsion to relive trauma.” A crazy idea, sure, but by indulging ourselves in our past failures, we are given the opportunity to change our outcome. Theatre allows us to fix ourselves through art. And why wouldn’t we enjoy that?
A few weeks ago I came across a shocking video exposing the horrors of the meat industry, specifically its treatment of newly hatched chicks and how it raises them to provide the chicken we consume on a daily basis. Since my initial viewing of this viral video, I have not been able to escape these disturbing images.
Chicken hatcheries are equipped with industrial incubators and miles of assembly lines, where 51.4 billion chickens are artificially hatched each year and immediately sorted into viable or nonviable candidates. Those that pass inspection are vaccinated and transported to growing farms, while those that fail are thrown into trash bags, still alive, to await their eventual death.
Yes. I know. Unsettling.
So, I began to wonder. Could I create a performance art piece that forces spectators to see the cruel treatment of animals? To perhaps teach the world about this issue and encourage them to take action?
Luckily for me, there are many productions currently ongoing in Chicago that attempt to shine a light on such issues.
American Theatre Company’s regional premiere of Kill Floor (currently running through May 1) revolves around Andy, a single mother who attempts to rebuild her life and reconnect with her son after five years in prison. The only job opportunity, however, is on the kill floor of a local slaughter house. The playwright, Abe Koogler, avoids staging the actual kill floor. Instead, the audience experiences the horrors of the inhumane slaughtering through Andy’s faltering dialogue and a lot of fake blood. The play cleverly creates a heightened sense of danger when a live goldfish is introduced, trapped in a plastic bag. During a discreet fellatio session, however, one teen accidentally spills the fish bowl, daring audience members to lean forward to see the struggling animal on the stage floor. Imagine my surprise when I notice the fish on the floor is nothing more than a stuffed animal. All danger was immediately deflated from the scene when you realize the characters were chasing a prop. No amount of acting could convince me to care for the limp fish being pushed around by the actors. This regional premiere is brimming with identity crises while also attempting to shine a light on the inhumane and unsafe conditions in the meat industry, encouraging audience members to be “conscious consumers.” But that is all it does – it skims the surface, it takes a snapshot, it misses this point.
Take another recent Chicago production, Mary Paige Marlowe, currently running at Steppenwolf Theatre until May 29. During previews, which I was lucky enough to see, there was a scene that involved an actual infant being rolled onto stage while the parents fought and threw objects from offstage. Talk about inflating the sense of danger in a scene. The audience gasped as cruel words flew from the mouths of the offstage characters and the adorable, innocent infant sat in the crib. Now fast-forward to opening night, where director Anna D. Shapiro pulled the infants from the scene because audience members were becoming distracted and distressed. The audience was uncomfortable witnessing a scene that I am sure has been played out in real life more times than we like to admit. GOOD. As artists, we should not be pampering to our audience. Instead, we should force them to see the cruelty of our day-to-day lives.
I began to do some more research into the theatre of cruelty, specifically using Maggie Nelson as my foundation. In her book The Art of Cruelty, Nelson argues that there is, “No substitute for the visceral unease provoked by such bloodshed, either in representation or in reality.” I have to agree with Nelson.
When I reference a theatre of cruelty, I am not necessarily referring to actual violence on stage or the use of real blood. My purpose for delving into this subject can best be expressed by French dramatist Antonin Artaud, who wrote, “cruelty signifies rigor, implacable intention and decision, irreversible and absolute determination.”
And it is because of this ideology that I had a problem with American Theatre Company’s production of Kill Floor. The production as a whole lacked rigor, intention, and determination. The same goes for Mary Paige Marlowe. The treatment of these two subjects is, simply, laughable. With an opportunity to highlight the cruel atrocities and dangerous conditions of American life, these productions hide from their responsibility as artists by creating a counterfeit sense of reality.
I am arguing for truth. I am urging theatre artists to use our power as storytellers to tell the entire story. To not only provoke audiences to think about what they are watching and why it is important, but to be consistent in our treatment of the material and to encourage audiences to be proactive once they leave the theatre.
I want my art to create a desire for future knowledge. I want to represent, with authenticity and honesty, the dangerous and unimaginable atrocities happening right now in our own communities. The theatre has the ability to comfort audiences by uniting us through universal struggles. But that does not mean the subject matter, or the stories we tell, should be comfortable subjects for spectators. As artists, we cannot be afraid of the uncomfortable. If we shy away from the uncomfortable, what can we expect from our audience?
We must carefully toe the line between what we do and do not show on stage without compromising the power and honesty of the piece. We must constantly strive to serve the action of the piece. Unfortunately, I’m not sure what that line looks like yet. Much like art, cruelty on stage is treated subjectively. We must be responsible not only for our audience, but also for our subject, our muse. The chicken hatcheries are emotional and traumatizing places, but that does not mean I can shirk my responsibility as an artist to tell this story. Quite the opposite.
We mustn’t let the difficulty of the subject matter prohibit us from telling these stories. We have the power to make the world a better place, to provoke thought and action, and to help our audiences. Why would we waste that to make people comfortable?
To see the video referenced in the above article, click the link below:
WARNING: Graphic Content