As the artistic director of a live performance venue, I’m often asked how we handle content warnings, and ensure a safe space for our audiences.
While the theatre’s policy is not to offer a comprehensive list of possible content warnings for each show, we let our audiences know that warnings are available, and invite them to tell us if they need to know about anything in particular.
We know it is impossible to predict everything that might be triggering for an audience.
The most frightening experience I’ve ever had in a theatre was during a preview performance of Daughter, by Adam Lazarus, at the Theatre Centre in Toronto in 2017.
Sitting in the back row with the artistic team, we had this sense that the audience could revolt at any moment. I had experienced the piece in workshop performances and felt passionate about what the artists were endeavouring to achieve in their searing look at toxic masculinity, but suddenly, in our theatre, it felt different. We felt different. Responsible. It was terrifying. It also felt incredibly alive.
For our run at the Edinburgh Festival in 2018, as tickets were taken each day, audiences were advised that I was on-site and ready to provide specific information should anyone request it. Only rarely was I asked for a detailed description of the work, but when I was, it was by someone who knew exactly what information they needed to take care of themselves.
We also decided to add a post-show conversation after every performance. This was an opportunity for me to clearly address one of the most difficult aspects of this piece; we walk a razor’s edge with Daughter: we want to demonstrate harm, not to cause harm, and sometimes we fail.
We walk a razor’s edge with Daughter – we want to demonstrate harm, not to cause harm
One of the most difficult conversations I led involved a young woman who’d had a significant emotional response to the work and asked: “Why were there no content warnings?”
I asked if she had seen the warnings online, and if she’d heard I was available to talk before the show. “Yes,” she said, “but I didn’t think the warnings pertained to me. This isn’t surface stuff.”
I couldn’t agree more – this isn’t surface stuff. We’re not interested in surface stuff. In fact, I can’t help but think that the extreme responses to the show are in large part due to how much ‘surface stuff’ we regularly see in theatre.
It’s unusual for an artistic team to decide they’re okay to leave the audience feeling awful at the end of a show. But isn’t that where we’re at? Aren’t we in the muck? So how do you provide safety for someone who doesn’t realise they need it? We can’t. The theatre is not, and cannot, be a safe space. We can, however, endeavour to be an accountable space.
I watch every performance of Daughter. I believe that if I’m going to lead our audiences through these incredibly difficult conversations, then I have to go through what they go through before we meet.
What this means for me is that I watch each performance through the lens of the previous day’s conversation. This makes the show more difficult to watch, and it truly does make me reconsider, every single day, whether we should still be doing it.
This isn’t surface stuff, and while I keep coming back to yes, I think it’s important to keep asking.
Aislinn Rose is the artistic director of the Theatre Centre in Toronto, Canada and producer of Daughter, which runs at the Battersea Arts Centre in London from March 3 to 28.