I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of social justice theatre and the general concept of using art of a means of expression, healing, and communication. The first time I found myself really drawn to exploring this more, I was sitting in my eleventh grade English class with one of my favourite teachers, who was also my drama teacher. He had us read Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” out loud, and, naturally, I read for the role of Nora. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this play, it’s the story of a woman (Nora) who leaves her husband and children to find herself. In 1879, when the play premiered, it was pretty scandalous.
My first week of university, I walked through the University Centre, carefully scouting out the various tables all the clubs had set up. I came across a booth that said “Vagina Monologues”, and, as a women’s studies major and theatre studies minor, I was sold. I spend that year directing Vagina Monologues’ sister play, “A Memory, A Monologue, A Rant, and a Prayer”, a collection of monologues about stories of violence against women in girls that raised money for the Panzi Hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Guelph’s local Women in Crisis Centre. It was a heavy play. Over my university career, I performed in “The Vagina Monologues” and directed “A Memory, A Monologue, A Rant, and a Prayer” for a second time.
When I moved to Port Hope, a small town on the other side of Toronto from where I’d spent my life so far, I produced two collective creation performances, “The Performance and Disability Project” and “The Performance and Disordered Eating Project”, which raised money for a local charity I have since become heavily involved with, Green Wood Coalition. These shows were created over a 5-8 week long workshopping process and a 3-5 week long rehearsal process, each with two performances at the end. The intention of these projects was to give people the opportunity to share their story, on their terms, in a way that utilized the healing potential of performance.
Now, I am acting as the liaison between Green Wood Coalition and the production team (lead by director, Dave Clark and producer, Mary Elizabeth Clark) of a play that Dave wrote called “To Shut the Mouths of Lions”, which is being remounted for one show to raise funds for Green Wood Coalition. From the press release: “To Shut the Mouths of Lions explores themes of social justice, fairness, freedom of expression, and family dynamics. The scene is set on a Boxing Day, when the McBride brothers gather in the home of their mother and father, a patriarch with some very specific ideas about how men (and women, for that matter) ought to be. One son, a left-leaning, gentle soul, is invited to bring his wife, while the other son, an athletic, career-oriented man isn’t welcome to bring his husband, due to their father’s heterocentric family values. The play’s title, a reference to the biblical tale of Daniel in the Lion’s Den, quickly proves its accuracy.
The play follows the family’s interactions throughout this setting, revealing tensions, differences in values, varying conceptions of masculinity, gender, and sexuality, uncomfortable attempts at communication, and expressions of love. The dialogue is witty, gritty, and honest, keeping audiences engaged through a story that is both dramatic and comedic.”
An issue that was come up for me time and time again in the time I’ve been involved in social justice theatre has been that of trigger warnings, content warnings, and caring for both the cast members and the audience so that it is a positive experience for as many people as possible. Sounds great in theory, right? Generally, when people are involved in creating any type of performance, one of the main goals is to provide entertainment and enjoyment for as many people as possible. No, you’re never going to be able to please everyone (or provide a “safe space” for everyone) because everyone’s needs, interests, and values are different… but the goal is to give people a good time.
When I was involved with “A Memory, A Monologue, A Rant, and A Prayer” and “Vagina Monologues”, it was very clear that a trigger warning or content warning ought to be used, since the plays deal directly with sexual violence, include explicit descriptions of violence, and the shows were produced by an activist organization, not a theatre company. When I was involved with “The Performance and Disability Project” and “The Performance and Healing Project”, again, the content was extremely sensitive and contained specific accounts of violence, struggle, and oppression and was also produced by a charity rooted in social justice principals, not a theatre company. In both cases, actively caring for the cast, crew, and audience were central roles of the production team.
Navigating “To Shut the Mouths of Lions” has looked a little different, since it was originally produced by a theatre company and is not a straight-up social justice play, but rather a play containing social justice themes. This has brought up some really interesting and important discussions for those of us involved in this particular production, and has made me think a lot about trigger warnings, content warnings, and care in the context of not just social justice theatre, but theatre in general. Although the content of the play is not nearly as blatantly upsetting as some of the other more straight up social justice plays I’ve worked on were, I could certainly see watching a gay son triggering some intense shit for someone who grew up queer in a heterosexist household. There are many aspects of the play that may bring things up for people, so I feel as though it’s an important thing to consider, given a dedication to caring.
Initially, I called for a meeting of anyone who wanted to be involved in the planning of the remount and was joined by 3 members of the board from Green Wood Coalition, one of whom is also performing in the play, as well as one member’s sister. At that meeting, in that context, with that group of people, I brought up the idea of whether or not to include a content warning. I stopped using trigger warnings a long time ago, since I don’t think it’s useful to attempt to identify what a group of peoples’ triggers may or may not be, and instead opt for content warnings, a broader kind of heads up about the subjects approached in a performance, tv show, movie, article, essay, book, etcetera. The response from that group at that time was “yes! Absolutely include a content warning on all promotional materials and on the day of the performance!”. Honestly, even given how social justice oriented that group of people was, I was kind of surprised. I wrote up a specific, clear content warning: “This play discusses subjects such as family dynamics, various types of family relationships, heterosexism, sexism, childhood trauma. There will be peer support available”.
I’m the kind of person who loves to hear other peoples’ input on projects. I love collective creation, and I truly value differing standpoints. I emailed my updated planning list to all involved parties including this content warning and the plan to include it on all promotional materials and at the performance. The play’s writer and director emailed me back with some concerns that the content warning may be a bit of a spoiler and might deter people from coming to to show out of fear that it will be upsetting more than entertaining. I could see why that was a concern, and feel as though it’s really important to keep this event within the integrity of the vision of the director of a play. So I reached out to my friends and colleagues, David Sheffield and Jillien Hone, the Community Outreach Coordinator and Community Outreach Coordinator Assistant of Green Wood Coalition to get their thoughts. We had a really valuable conversation where David echoed Dave Clark’s concerns, focusing on the potential of folks not being interested in seeing the production based on their concern that it would be more upsetting than entertaining. (As usual, Jill was on the exact same page as me, coming from a similar background/standpoint regarding content warnings and social justice.)
This gave way to a conversation about content warnings in general. To me, content warnings aren’t about recommending that people opt out as much as the ability to consent and take care of one’s self accordingly. A content warning doesn’t encourage me to opt out of a performance/essay/book/movie etcetera about 98% of the time I see one. However, some days where I’m already struggling to convince myself that not every man I come into contact with is going to rape me I don’t always feel up to engaging with anything to do with sexual violence. It doesn’t mean I won’t ever see that performance/read that book/see that movie/read that essay…it just means that in that moment, I do not consent to engaging with something that will probably make me feel not okay. OR, maybe I really want to engage even though it will probably make me feel not okay, so I give a friend or two a heads up and ask them if they’re willing to provide some support if I do end up feeling triggered by specific content. Or I’ll make sure to engage at a time where my partner is around and I’m not home (to freak out) alone. Or I’ll accept that it’s worth being not okay because it may contribute my healing process…or simply be entertaining. And that’s valid. I think that art can be healing and that there is a place, both in healing and in art, to be triggered. But it ought to be consensual. When you look at content warnings this way, it seems to follow pretty logically to me that, as a person who is invested in caring for myself and other people, content warnings make a lot of sense in working towards a community that is caring, supportive, and autonomous.
I’m part of some communities where this is kind of the general consensus. I’m part of some communities where some people do not choose to ever engage with anything that they may find triggering. That’s where they’re at, and to that, I say: good for them for knowing themselves and their capacity in the moment. In Port Hope, I am situated in a rural context where content warnings are rarely looked at this way, but instead as a warning that this whatever you’re about to experience IS going to feel fucked up. If that’s the interpretation, I don’t blame people for feeling deterred by it. And if two very socially conscious men are concerned about this, you better believe I’m going to take it seriously.
When David Sheffield, Jill, and I had our discussion, we ended up realizing that what it came down to was deciding whether to prioritize keeping as many people feeling safe and okay as possible or getting people to actually come see the show. In the context of this community, that seems to be the way it is. (I’ve gotta say, nothing has challenged my activism more than settling in a small, rural town). We decided on a middle ground of sorts that we felt straddles this line decently. On the posters that are posted around town, there is a brief content warning that isn’t identified as a content warning: “This play may contain some subjects that may be upsetting to some”. On social media, there is a more specific content warning right at the very bottom of the poster.
In the press release, I wrote, “The connection between To Shut the Mouths of Lions and Green Wood Coalition is easy to see, given the shared themes between the play and the organization regarding community, communication, family-based trauma, and caring as the characters discuss issues such as poverty and equality. Given the potentially sensitive nature of some of the topics involved in the play, there will be peer support available during and after the show, as well as a question and answer period with cast and crew following the performance.” Is this too much? Will it deter people? Will it simply be seen and ignored and chalked up to some young radical because it’s a small town and enough people know I’m involved in the planning and this is how I roll? Or will it allow them to make a consensual, informed choice about what they’re about to engage in and give them the knowledge that the community in that space and time will be caring and supportive?
I don’t think there’s any one right answer, and this whole experience has taught me a lot about idealism and activism in small, rural communities-and especially theatre communities within those small, rural communities. The standpoint of most people here is different from my standpoint. Is it more conducive to change to get as many people to see the play (and raise as much money) as possible, or to radically care for the community in a way that will only be useful to some people at this time? Should I leave that paragraph out of the press release before I actually release it to the press? I have no idea. But this is the way I’ve been thinking about it.