Tiffany Antone is a playwright, director, educator and producer. She is co-founder of The@trics and runs Little Black Dress INK, a female playwright producing organization. She writes here about the temptations and dangers of using trigger warnings, and how such warnings can limit both artistic freedom and an audience’s artistic appreciation. It was published first in Howlround.
Trigger warnings and artistic freedom
In 2014, Little Black Dress INK’s ONSTAGE festival lineup included a powerful little ‘rape comedy’ by playwright Jennie Webb that both challenged and scared me. At ten minutes, Rebecca on the Bus, managed to make me laugh and squirm every time I read it, and yet I knew that it was going to be a hot spot in our festival lineup. In a bid to be responsible to audiences who may take issue with a play about rape using satire to deliver its message, I included a trigger warning in our program:
This play deals with an account of rape that may be troubling to some people.
Because we had presented the play in two earlier staged readings and an open dress rehearsal, I knew that the playwright’s raw humor and pathos worked. Unfortunately, the trigger warning seemed to serve as a muffler for our audiences during performance, as though it left them stifled with responsible notions of what is and is not allowably laughable, preventing them from indulging in the play’s humor. The result was an audience both quiet and uncomfortable before the play had hit the gut-punch point that was supposed to leave them squirming.
This experience left me with the distinct impression that I had erred on the side of ‘covering my bases’ rather than trusting the audience to understand what the playwright was trying to show them. In my desire ‘Not to offend,’ I had cheated both the playwright and my ‘delicate’ audience of an effective and satisfying catharsis, which left me wondering if the recent trend of doubling down on political correctness is cheating both us and our audiences of creative freedom.
I’m thinking specifically of recent decisions like that of Mount Holyoke drama students to cancel their annual production of the The Vagina Monologues and Stanford’s recently cancelled production of Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson. In both instances, the decision-makers felt that the potential for alienating audiences outweighed the possibilities of cultivating constructive post-show discussion about the play’s controversial issues.
In an email sent to Holyoke students, the theatre group gave the following explanation for their decision not to go ahead with The Vagina Monologues:
At its core, the show offers an extremely narrow perspective on what it means to be a woman. Gender is a wide and varied experience, one that cannot simply be reduced to biological or anatomical distinctions, and many of us who have participated in the show have grown increasingly uncomfortable presenting material that is inherently reductionist and exclusive.
There’s no doubt that the intention of Holyoke students to be more inclusive is admirable, but in labeling Ensler’s play ‘reductionist and exclusive’ they’ve completely missed Ensler’s point. In a recent Time op-ed penned by Ensler, the playwright explained that ‘The Vagina Monologues never intended to be a play about what it means to be a woman. It is and always has been a play about what it means to have a vagina. In the play, I never defined a woman as a person with a vagina.’
In their zealous pursuit of political correctness, the Holyoke students behind this decision see Ensler’s play as outdated and trans-averse, and decided to remove the play altogether rather than offend the trans community, even though Ensler had recently penned an additional trans-friendly monologue for the show.
With Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, officials at Stanford cancelled the show after concerns were raised about the play’s representation of Native Americans, along with its treatment of issues of depression, alcoholism, and suicide. In an interview with Stanford Daily, student director Benina Stern – who received both a Spark! grant from the Stanford Arts Institute and funding from the student group At The Fountain Theatricals (ATF) to put the show on – said ‘I don’t do theatre just to say we put on a show, I do theatre to have a conversation and to learn.’
Which brings me back to my experience with last year’s controversial ONSTAGE Project entry, Rebecca on the Bus. For those who aren’t familiar with Little Black Dress INK, we utilize a peer review selection process in which every submitting playwright reads and evaluates a portion of the submitted plays. During the review process Rebecca on the Bus received scores both extremely high and stunningly low, which told me I had a polarizing piece on my hand that needed additional attention. After reading the play, I knew I had to include it—it was powerful! But I also understood that the satire used to deliver the play’s message was what was causing some people to label it ‘inappropriate’ and ‘a very volatile trigger’ in the review process.
When I asked Jennie about her use of humor to address rape in the play, she admits that it’s a bit of a test:
Yeah. I often refer to the play as ‘my little rape comedy,’ and it’s pretty much always to be provocative. People tend to laugh, but it’s an uncomfortable laugh. And honestly? After that opener I don’t get a lot of ‘Tell me about that, why don’t you!’ Which is all fine with me, because if the idea of a little rape comedy makes people nervous and the conversation shifts, I take that as cue that I’m on the right track; I’ve written what for me is the right play.
Rebecca on the Bus takes place in a coffee house where two women, Jane and Lynne, argue about scones while they wait for their terribly late friend, Rebecca. When Rebecca finally shows up, she explains that the reason she’s tardy is because she got raped on a bus. Jane, replies ‘Again? You were raped again?’ as though sexual violence has become such an everyday occurrence in this world that it’s not a valid reason to be late for anything.
The play is an obvious response to ‘rape culture’ (a term for a society in which rape is not only pervasive but normalized due to attitudes about gender and sexuality) and—more specifically— the brutal New Delhi gang rape of twenty-three-year-old Jyoti Singh Pandey who was raped by five men aboard a bus in 2012. Pandey later died of her injuries.
‘I remember reading an online article written by someone who lived in the city, or had lived there growing up,’ recalls Webb. ‘She stated something to the effect that ‘Rape is an everyday occurrence here; it’s something women just live with.’ Webb goes on to explain, ‘Statistically, rape is an everyday occurrence all over the globe, which we may not stop and think about until we hear a horrifying news story. So I just took the situation to an All-American, most absurd (or is it?) extreme.’
Webb’s intentions with her script were readily apparent to both myself, and the directors who worked along with Webb during the play’s trajectory through our ONSTAGE development process. As a semi-finalist the play received a reading with Red Earth Theatre in Sedona, Arizona, before moving on to the finalist reading stage in Los Angeles. Red Earth Theatre’s artistic director, Kate Hawkes, recalls that their reading of Rebecca was a successful one.
I liked (the script) immediately and was both amused and moved and knew it would work. I just needed the right actresses and I had them.’ Said Hawkes. ‘(The audience) laughed and then got very, very quiet. No one left.
That poignant laughter transitioning into silence was exactly what I felt Webb’s piece had intended: to draw the audience into what at first feels like a completely normal sitcom scenario, only to then hit them with the gravity of the dangers inherent to treating sexual violence, and specifically rape, like it’s just another part of being a woman. I witnessed the powerful effect the play had on the audience myself at our Los Angeles reading; the play’s satire was quite effective. Rebecca’s director for the LA reading, Sara Israel, had approached the play with great insight into its complex nature.
My first thought – and I still think this, even more so now – is that Rebecca on the Bus is a thoughtful, telling, timely, funny as hell, and appropriately tragic play. Yes, it is also provocative, and yes, it also delves into emotionally fraught areas, which is what satire – and hopefully all theatre – ideally should do. The responsibility always, but more overtly so when the emotional and socio-political temperatures are high, is to execute really, really well. My first reaction—and still my reaction—is that Rebecca on the Bus executes wonderfully.
And yet, there were still those whose initial reactions to the play were polarizing enough that I felt myself struggling with my responsibility as producer. One director I had approached about the piece in particular felt, as a victim of sexual violence herself, that the play could be very upsetting for victims of rape that might be in the audience and that to produce the piece without any warning about the play’s content would be irresponsible.
As we neared production, I mulled over the options presented to me: make a counselor available at the festival (which felt a bit overboard for one ten-minute play in an otherwise noncontroversial lineup) or add a trigger warning (verbal or in print) before the piece. I ultimately decided that I should err on the side of caution, because what if there was someone in the audience for whom the play would be too disturbing? Although I very much believed in the piece, I didn’t want to ‘upset’ anyone ‘too much.’
However, during our open dress rehearsal, there was no program to warn audiences with. I held my breath as Rebecca played, totally without warning, to our early audience, and braced myself at the close of the evening for pushback, but none came. I felt relieved that the evening’s audience had let out some of those uncomfortable laughs before settling into Webb’s piece with understandable heaviness, and I felt confident that including the piece was the right decision. But I stuck to the plan to include the trigger warning in our program, and from then on, our audiences failed to laugh at all.
With one cautious sentence, I had neutered the play, telling the audience that the play they were about to watch was about (cue ominous music) RAPE. And everyone seemed to agree that they couldn’t go into the piece knowing it was about rape and still allow themselves to laugh. As Webb told me, ‘It’s my intention that humor helps us find a way to draw back the curtains and take a closer look at something we don’t want to talk or think about.’ But by prepping our audience for the reveal of the piece, I had deprived the play of its delivery mechanism.
Which brings to mind the recent success of Tina Fey’s new Netflix comedy, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. The series centers around one of the ‘Indiana Mole Women,’ a group of four women abducted by a crazy apocalyptic cult leader named Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne. Abducted in eighth grade, Kimmy is forced to live in an underground bunker as one of Wayne’s disciples for fifteen years. In one episode, Kimmy blurts out that ‘Yes, there was weird sex stuff!’ and part of the show’s humor shows up not only in Kimmy’s reintroduction to the ways of the world, but in her struggle to move past the scars of sexual trauma she experienced at the hands of the Reverend.
In a recent article for the New Yorker, television critic Emily Nussbaum applauds the show’s choice to use sexual violence as a launch pad for comedy, arguing that ‘by making horrible things funny, it suggests that surviving could be more than just living on. It could be a kind of freedom, too.’
But not everyone agrees. When I shared Nussbaum’s article on LBDI’s Facebook page, someone commented, ‘I don’t like the feel of the whole thing. There’s nothing funny about rape of captivation [sic]. I’m rapidly going off Tina Fey.’ For some people, it seems that laughter is too closely associated with advocacy. As though, in laughing when Kimmy tries to strangle her roommate during a nightmare in which she is once again trapped in that bunker, you are endorsing the cult that had enslaved her. Similarly, it seemed that audience members who were warned about Rebecca on the Bus’s content were afraid laughing would somehow mean that they thought rape was funny.
But employing humor does not mean the writer (or audience) endorses the thing being satirized—just the opposite! Many powerful forms of effective satire exist that move us to think about the very issue being lampooned; so why should sexual violence be off limits? As Nussbaum states in her article, ‘When women’s lives are taken seriously, sexual violence is going to be part of the drama.’
I would add that it’s not only sexual violence, but all of our ‘difficult’ women’s issues coming to fore that will be the true test of creative revolution. From my own experience I can say that we have run into challenges with placing another play this year simply because it involves a talking vagina.
Which leads me to suggest the following: rather than shying away from controversial plays or musicals, I believe it’s a theatre’s job to lean in. Because there’s protecting your audience and then there’s protecting your assets, and unfortunately it feels like the two have been getting conflated into one large mess of avoidance in the name of safety. But is it really a theatre’s job to protect audiences? Plays like Rebecca on the Bus are designed to spur thought and incite change—and change shouldn’t be comfortable, which is why we need to embrace the inherent pain in such work, rather than try to ‘soften’ or curb the show’s delivery of its message.
In response to Stanford’s decision to cancel Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Stern and ATF’s artistic director Sammi Cannold created a cabaret of controversial songs in musical theatre. The lineup featured songs from Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, as well as Rent, and The Book of Mormon, to name a few. In discussing their decision with Stanford Daily, Cannold said ‘We weren’t really content with cancelling the show and moving on, because we had tons of questions left, like what can we present in art, and what’s offensive and what’s not offensive? So that’s where ‘Did We Offend You?’ came from.’
For myself, I have to admit that although the process of producing Webb’s piece was challenging, I can’t imagine not taking the risk. The only thing I would do differently, were I to present the piece again, is that I wouldn’t include that trigger warning. In setting an audience up with a pre-positioned apology, I had in fact told them to be afraid of the play – because, let’s face it, the piece scared me – instead of allowing my audience to come into the piece on their own and engage in their own unbiased conversation with the play, the playwright, and our production team.
Instead of censoring or sanitizing content that ‘might offend,’ theatres should look at such works as opportunities to engage their audiences in critical public discourse about important issues in the play, because if we approach theatre as something that should be feared or approached cautiously, then we’ve robbed it of it’s power before the actors have even said a word.