Should we warn our audiences?

Daniel Hunter in Metamorphoses, 2012

Daniel Hunter in Metamorphoses, 2012

Apocalypse Theatre's 2012 production of Metamorphoses depicted scenes of violence, rape, sex, cannibalism and torture. And then there were the four occasions of partial or full nudity, several litres of stage blood and a live incest scene between father and daughter. So it’s not surprising that the article about theatre warnings in Sydney Morning Herald this week captured my attention.

Provoked by Griffin Theatre’s Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography, Elissa Blake questioned whether or not theatre should come with a content warning (Read the full article here). It’s a hard question that every producer of contemporary work wrestles with.  I can see both sides of the argument but my instinct is to avoid warnings in our foyers and to let theatres be dangerous places and here’s why:

The theatre was never meant to be a safe space. It’s more dangerous than parliament cause anything’s on the agenda. It throws protected private spaces – like our bedrooms – onto centre stage and invites voyeurism. It brings together each night an audience of different individuals who all share different experiences and backgrounds to respond to the same theatrical event. All of these things, and many more, make it a dangerous experience. And yet, we have trained our audiences to sit comfortably in the dark and not talk for X amount of time. There’s even a growing expectation that the seating should be comfortable.  If we now start to provide detailed content warnings are we not destroying the necessary danger?

Every part of a theatrical event is part of one continuous thread. From the first moment a new production is announced, it becomes loaded with meaning. Even questions of ‘who’s presenting’ and ‘where’s it on’ immediately inform expectation. It’s what political performance academic Baz Kershaw would describe as the pre-performance framing. We don’t have to be academics though. We all know how much every image, which actors are cast, publicity stories and so on all feed into our expectations of an event. In the Independent sector, we’re often forced by commercial constraints to release more show images and glimpses than we’d love, in the attempt to rouse an interest and guarantee bums on seats. So what is left after warnings? 

My program note to Construction of the Human Heart was a single quote by Peter Brooks: ‘The theatre is a place where (a) Something must happen (b) Anything can happen.’ For possibility to be infinite, we need to create more immersive and resonant experiences, ones that require the audience to work as hard as the performers.  And this work can happen days after; it doesn’t need to be immediate. I am most fulfilled as a director when an audience member tells me that they have still been thinking about a show days after they had seen it. And my experience has been that the shows that do this are always the ones that are stylistically and/or thematically dangerous.  It’s when expectation is subverted, it’s when a show taps into an unspoken world that the audience member identifies with and it’s when theatre throws our social taboos and those things we’re not meant to talk about or see onto a stage for everyone to talk about and see.

So is there any warning then? For me, this is marketing and not a creative question. Any successful marketing campaign should at the very least hint at the tone of a production. One look at our Metamorphoses flyer and you would’ve guessed that it was a bold and dangerous play. And as for Griffin, a promotional trailer (opposite) set in a bed and a title reading ‘Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography’ should be enough for an audience member to read the tone and set their expectation. No one should have been expecting a drawing room comedy.

When all else fails, just as we choose to go to the theatre, we have every choice to leave. Provided the marketing campaign sets a realistic tone and we deliver production values consistent with expectations, then there’s little more we can hope for. And if someone were offended beyond that, I’d argue the production served him or her the most. 

Theatre should be dangerous. 

- Dino Dimitriadis