Saying what's what

15 April 2019

Sam Ross reflects on the importance of trigger warnings at NSDF

The moment I realised I had gone too far was when I noticed one of the audience members on the front row. She was in tears, which was not an unexpected reaction for the show I had taken to the National Student Drama Festival last year, can’t stop can’t stop – a highly emotional exploration of living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). What struck me suddenly in the middle of performing was her dissociated stare into the space. Her eyes were glazed in shock; her body was stiff and shaking. It honestly scared me. It was obvious from her gaze that I had pushed too far. Earlier in the day of the second performance, I had decided to tweak it a little. The moment in question was towards the end of the show, when I emulated a mental breakdown onstage. The scene’s power lay in the uncertainty as to whether it was really occurring or not (it wasn’t – the scene was carefully rehearsed). After a technical fuck up on stage during the first performance, during which my sound operator came on stage to rectify the issue, I foolhardily considered that having a member of tech walk on stage would add a further dynamic of uncertainty to the image of my breakdown.

What I had failed to consider was whether people of a nervous disposition would react badly to this. It didn’t help as well that the show was staged in-the-round which allowed little room for audience members to walk out. Nor that my explanation of my intrusive thoughts also included discussion around sexual abuse. As well as that traumatised woman, a couple of other audience members were also severely affected. One walked out towards the end. I felt like shit immediately after that performance. I knew in advance that the scandal from that performance would reverberate around the festival. The next few days saw widespread discussion about the lack of trigger warnings and the prevalence of provocative issue-based theatre. Ava Wong Davies’ response critiqued the management of NSDF for failing to signpost triggering content within shows. Iona Cameron’s opinion piece meanwhile bemoaned the pervasive and problematic culture within theatre of “trauma as a spectacle”. As for me, the following day I had extensive discussions with the Festival Director and Technical Officer about how to reduce the emotional weight of my show without dampening its impact. First off, the onstage tech member bit was cut. The performance space was widened to give the audience more room. Most important of all, a comprehensive content warning was drawn up by management to be read out before each performance, which listed the triggering element of the show, stressed the performative aspect of my onstage breakdown, and gave audience members who felt uncomfortable an excuse to leave the space.

Looking back on last year’s festival, I find it a shame that it was my show that provoked this discussion about trigger warnings. My show was far from the shock-for-the-sake-of-shock genre of theatre. The challenging staging of can’t stop can’t stop was as a way of evoking the internal trauma of mental illness and was not intended to be this distress-inducing. I have taken this notion to heart more deeply in further developing and performing the show, especially when I took the show to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe last year.

This feeling of awkwardness around this issue resurfaced in me when the subject of trigger warnings was brought up at this year’s Festival induction. Clearly the NSDF management team have also learnt tough lessons from the incident: they’ve made sure that the selected shows at this year’s festival provide advance notice of the potential distressing content that may be found within them – although you still need to ask at the welcome desk if you wish to get a comprehensive content warning.

The creative teams of the more challenging shows at NSDF '19 are also keenly aware of their duty of care towards their audience. Process Theatre, for example, provided a brief content warning within the NSDF programme for their show Things We Do Not Know, and the stage space is decked out with blankets and cushions, providing a sense of comfort to help their audience be in the right frame of mind to take in the discussions of sex worker exploitation. It’s great that these discussions are increasingly taking priority within the festival, and certainly deserve to happen across the theatre industry as a whole. Mistakes do happen however, and it’s important that we admit to them when they happen and endeavour to learn from them. But to that woman that my show affected: I’m sorry that I made you feel this way. I take responsibility for my mistake and for making it better. I hope you are okay.

@noffmag / [email protected]

Photo credit: Beatrice Debney