Shock factor

Shock factor

29 March 2018

Is needling reactions out of audiences good theatre practice? asks Iona Cameron

From GCSE we are taught to be emotionally manipulative and abusive. We are taught to pick the topics which will most affect our audiences negatively.

Bullying / Cyberbullying / Drunk driving / Death of a loved one / Suicide / Self harm / Mental illness / Depression / Anxiety / 9/11 / Terrorism / Alcoholism / Drug abuse / Abuse / Child abuse / Domestic abuse / Sexual abuse / Sexual assault / Rape 

Pain and suffering are ‘in’.

The lines are blurred between acting and actual but so are the ones between actor and audience: both are now intended to be hurt, to be wounded and bruised.

I don’t have answers as to how to deal with this current ‘fad’ or how to change it for a better future of theatre but I do have some questions to throw out to anyone who just might hear them.

What is the aim of such work / To educate / To bring forth compassion / To make a change in society / To shame audiences for their ignorance / To be 'relevant’ and ‘modern’ / To show that you as a theatre maker thinks about important topics / To find out the sufferers and make them relive every moment of their pain - to make them see it so presented and to see how much it takes before we break them?

Who is such theatre for? I doubt it’s the audience. This type of theatre is never for an audience, not really.

It’s a form of therapy, a way in which a creator may purge themselves of the shit that goes on in their lives or in the world. A way in which they can distance themselves from what they’re saying through a medium of theatre, behind a veil of ‘pretend’, performing for an audience that is bound by the unwritten theatrical contract to sit, listen, watch and endure. Inescapable and demanding of the respect which as theatre makers we are due.

It’s a selfish use of the theatrical medium.

But it’s ok to be selfish, to make something for yourself. Of course it is. But why do we flip the board and make audiences the rats in cages; watch and see how much we can pump them full with, squirming and squealing until they give up, cry for mercy, break or explode?

Does it cause more harm than good? I would say so. What do audiences get out of work that seems to be aimed at torturing them? The time of actors portraying emotions for the pleasure of audiences seem past, now we see audiences writhe for the pleasure of the actors. It is a thrill to see how you can affect so many people. How you can break down their walls, make them believe it, see their tears.

How many can you raise to their feet at the end?
How many gasps can you rip from their lips?
How many can you get to leave the theatre?
How many panic attacks can you trigger?

It’s all well and good, wonderful even, that NSDF are able to provide such great support after shows with quiet rooms and comforting words to calm down panic attacks when they’re triggered, but what about during the plays? Leaving of their own volition is not always an option for some audience members. Freezing is just as much an instinctive coping mechanism as flight is. Should we not be thinking how we can make sure audiences always feel safe, secure and in control, at least of their own bodies and mental state during performances that are designed to hurt them?

Actors can be as guilty as writers or devisers. We too can take sadistic pride in just how much our own individual performances can traumatise spectators. Reaffirm in their minds how bad the world is, with no promises of improvement, or a rushed conclusion about a better future away from all this agony we weave together under the lights.

We highlight suffering as an inescapable part of life. We treat mental illness and victims of assault and abuse as case-files to be examined and analysed on a stage that may as well be an auction block. We isolate these parts of a person’s life experiences and make it their sole defining characteristic. Nothing matters except their pain and how it evokes pity and compassion. Trauma as a spectacle is without doubt a huge aspect of modern theatre and a huge problematic one at that. Work has to be done to make theatre safer, emotionally and mentally. Theatre plays many functions in society, we as students so tightly linked with drama have already spent years studying this, but I don’t think any of us wants one of those roles to be a function of torment.


@noffmag // [email protected]

Photo credit: Aenne Pallasca