Trigger warnings should exist in the Cambridge theatre scene

Image credit: Daniel Karaj

Trigger warnings and content notes have become a mainstay of many student talks, film screenings and discussions. Despite previous pleas for their introduction, they are still missing in student theatre in Cambridge and I’m calling on the ADC management to step in.

I recently had to leave a performance of Peter Grimes at the ADC during the interval as a result of unexpectedly discomforting scenes of sexual grooming and assault between Peter and a younger man. As a rule, I avoid productions that include this type of content and would bring a friend if I risk going at all. Theatre is not like an online article or a discussion group; it is very difficult to leave quickly and subtly, and impossible to offer warnings during a show itself. It is therefore vital that ticket holders are made aware of unsettling scenes before being seated.

And I’m not the only one who holds this opinion. One student director told me that she raised the issue after a show billed as a comedy had a vivid description of non-consensual sex. “I wrote to the production team after a friend had to be escorted out. They basically said no to trigger warning on the grounds of it ruining the plot.”

As theatre editor last term, I edited countless reviews which included warnings to potential audience members about graphic scenes and potentially discomforting content. One email I received from a reviewer explicitly asked me to trigger warn the article itself, as she felt that a brief discussion of a sex abuse scene was enough to warrant a warning to readers. The play itself had no such warnings attached.

Many argue that the purpose of art is to move, excite and shock its viewers, and that trigger warnings would act as plot spoilers to those who wish to experience the twists and turns of a piece authentically. However, this stance fails to take into account the fact that not all viewers need be exposed to warnings that may act as spoilers if they wish not to. Click-through links to trigger-warning and content note pages, along with announcing to theatre-goers that stewards are equipped with information on potentially triggering content (following the example of ‘Bare’), are two highly feasible solutions. Hopefully, this type of leadership from the ADC will result to a culture of similar click-through options on all Facebook events.

The ADC, by law, must warn audience members of nudity, open flames, strobe lighting, haze effects, mock firearms and gunshots in performances. Elsewhere, theatres such as the Barbican and the West Yorkshire Playhouse age-rate their material. We are willing to shelter epilepsy sufferers from having seizures, and children from sex, drug use and violence. Why can this not be extended to wanting to protect survivors of particular negative life experiences from being triggered?

Of course, people can be triggered by all manner of things, but there are certain elements of performance - such as scenes of assault, sexual abuse and suicide - that simply must be made known to viewers; an opt-out system should exist prior to entering the auditorium, where leaving can be difficult, embarrassing and even impractical. I disagree with endangering the physical and mental safety of viewers for ‘art’s sake’; we should have more autonomy over the concepts and themes that we expose ourselves to in the stalls.

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