Studying Artaud at college taught me a lot about my boundaries. Probably because I was being incessantly told to forget them. The constant constructive criticism was that our performances weren’t shocking enough. Always that same weighted, emphatic word: SHOCKING. We were taught not merely to subvert expectations, and surprise audiences, but to provoke a strong emotional reaction, to create something visceral. This meant there was a lot (seriously, a lot) of scenes featuring pain, sexual violence and madness –it is referred to as Theatre of Cruelty after all. But its power derived not only from its content, but the speed that it escalated, which gave an audience no time to prepare, to accept or divert their gaze. Artaud sought to write something “which would drive men mad, which would be like an open door leading them where they would never have consented to go”.
As a performer, although encouraged to explore beyond my limits, I always had the choice. I always knew what was about to happen, and I always got to give my consent. Audiences do not have the same foreknowledge. And, although the online medium of theatre during Covid-19 places audiences in a new position of power, in conventional theatre we cannot merely pause or mute or walk away unnoticed.
Writer and director Alexander Zeldin’s work, although not in the extreme realms of theatre like Artaud or Sarah Kane, tackles difficult and emotionally charged themes. In a festival Q&A on Saturday, he was asked how he safeguarded the emotional welfare of his audiences. Cautiously, he explained how theatre, for him, is about confrontation not comfortableness, and the same word which preoccupied Artaud so much emerged as Zeldin explained: consent.
Primarily, I think theatre is a medium of empathy, because it allows us to understand other people’s experiences. But watching theatre can also be a process of understanding ourselves. Not merely in the sense that it is a mirror for us to see ourselves in, but rather that it is a doorway, that opens into a deeper, maybe undiscovered or maybe ignored, aspect of ourselves.
Yet you cannot predict whether deep effect, will also be damaging, and surely creators have a duty of care to prevent their performances having a negative impact on their audience’s emotional welfare. Content warnings are certainly a step in that direction. But does this prevent theatre’s capacity to shock, or test boundaries, or discover a deeper darkness to what can sometimes feel like a superficial society? Is this concern over welfare a wheel-clamp, not a stabiliser?
Some plays have a distinctly complete narrative arc, and they therefore can feel self-contained. They may lead us into a new space, but they offer a different doorway out of it. Zeldin explained how he wants to move away from this solution-based format of creating, in that theatre is not an end in itself, but rather a means to an end. He hopes to create theatre that provokes new emotions and thoughts, which may not be fully resolved within the span of the run-length but will challenge the audience as they leave and maybe months or years later.
I suppose it is this subjectivity around what theatre can or should be, and how it should effect as well as affect us, that means we never know what we are consenting to when we sit down in that darkened room. And it seems that is both the gift and danger of it. Perhaps the solution is to be there to support all audience members after performances, rather than warn them before it begins, but logistically that seems untenable.
Until then, and maybe even then, I think theatre must be more cautious than books or films in what and how it approaches emotionally charged issues. Or it must give its audiences an easy way to walk out, by telling them in advance that they can do that, and so making it socially acceptable. If a play doesn’t offer a door out of this new space of discovery, then it must enable audiences to retrace their steps and leave as they entered. When we sit down to watch theatre, we consent to watch, to experience and open ourselves to be affected by it, but we do not consent to stay. The darkened room must always have a lit exit.