Camden People’s Theatre Handle With Care festival, exploring issues around no-platforming, safe spaces, offence-giving, micro-aggressions and sensitivity, couldn’t have landed at a better time.
It comes with a tongue-in-cheek, yet deadly serious, headline piece called Trigger Warning, which is playing just as two other shows – Clare Barron’s Dirty Crusty at the Yard and Anupama Chandrasekhar’s When the Crows Visit at the Kiln – have yet again raised issues around the availability of content warnings. Both include depictions of gendered violence.
As I reported earlier this year, the theatre industry is finally facing up to responsibilities around the need to better look after both artists and audiences than may have been the case in the past. But warnings of emotive content are still a contested area, with some commentators claiming that telling people in advance about show content is an unforgivable act of spoiling that panders to those who just need to buck up a bit. Content warnings are now being more widely adopted by theatres, but they take many different forms – some are way easier to find and more user-friendly than others. The argument against them often goes: “I grew up without being told in advance what happens in Titus Andronicus and I am none the worse for it.”
It is a position that aligns with other deeply flawed arguments along the lines of: “I was regularly caned at school and I still became prime minister/a high court judge/the artistic director of a major theatre.” Or all those women who, in response to #MeToo, declare that in their experience, a thunderous Aunt Agatha tut and firmly removing a hand from their knee is guaranteed to make any predator desist.
The theatre industry would have collapsed long ago if after seeing, say, A Doll’s House, audiences decided they never needed to see it again because they know Nora leaves slamming the door behind her. It is abundantly clear narrative surprise is not the prime reason people go to the theatre. Or return again and again to see the same show, whether it is Waitress or Dr Faustus.
Theatre shifts as society shifts. I’ve a theatre guide dating from the late 1960s that assures me that evening dress is an absolute must when planning a theatre visit. Strobe lights were once sprung on unsuspecting audiences without any thought for those with epilepsy. Wheelchair users don’t always find their needs fully accommodated, but there has been progress.
But some things are slower to change. It is time that we see people’s mental health in exactly the same way as we see their physical needs. That includes relaxed performances, and I suspect the Battersea Arts Centre model of making every performance relaxed could, and should, become the norm sooner than many expect.
It also includes content warnings that allow people access to the information they require to make decisions about whether or not the content of a particular show is or isn’t for them. It is perfectly possible to challenge an audience without traumatising them.
There may be a particular school of thought – espoused by John Malkovich, who declares that “upsetting people is the point of theatre” or which has Ned Bennett announcing: “I want people to shit themselves and throw up” – that makes theatre sound like a combat sport in which the audience has to be wrestled into submission.
But content warnings allow prospective audiences to take personal responsibility for what they do and do not want to encounter in the theatre. It is not censorship, which is when somebody else decides what is and isn’t suitable for audiences; and it is not self-censorship, which is when programmers lack courage, fearing they might stage something that will offend the audience. Rather, it allows theatres the possibility of staging their most challenging work in the knowledge that they have made the information available so audiences can decide what they do and don’t want to see.
Wouldn’t it be good to see theatres working together on content warnings to ensure across-the-board best practice throughout the industry?
So, I have a proposal. Just as recycling would be much easier if it was the same across the country, wouldn’t it be good to see theatres working together on content warnings to ensure across-the-board best practice throughout the whole industry? Bodies such as the Independent Theatre Council, Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre could work together in conjunction with mental health charities to come up with ways that content warnings could work for the widest possible number of people.
At the moment, how content warnings are displayed – or not displayed – by each individual theatre, where those warnings might be found on their website, and how many layers you must click through to reach the information you are seeking, is entirely idiosyncratic. Both the Yard and Kiln websites carry content warnings for Dirty Crusty and When the Crows Visit, but it requires effort to find them. More standardisation across websites would mean such warnings would be easy to ignore by those who don’t want spoilers, while everyone else can seek them out with minimum fuss and trouble.
Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner