If you grew up making theatre, you can probably remember the first conversation you ever had about content warnings—it was likely rushed, likely the week before opening, and likely came up in reference to a gunshot, a thunderclap, or a director’s enthusiastic last-minute decision to unleash the contents of your high school’s rusty old fog machine on the first three rows of the audience at a pivotal moment. “We should probably let them know that’s going to happen, though, right?” someone might say tentatively. “We want them to be surprised, but we don’t want them to be… surprised.”
Over the last decade in particular, the conversation about content warnings has become far more nuanced—and, in some cases, far more fraught. Every theater worth its salt will warn the audience if they’re planning on using potentially seizure-inducing strobe lighting, but what if their show hinges on the revelation of self-harm, addiction, or domestic abuse? As theaters have struggled to find the line between giving their patrons too much information and not enough, theatermakers of all backgrounds have come out in both vehement support of and passionate opposition to content warnings. We understand the conflict—many of us here at Book-It first fell in love with theatre precisely because of its ability to surprise, to take a group of disparate people sitting in a dark room on a journey and drop them off ninety-odd minutes later somewhere they could never have anticipated. But many of us have also had the painful and deeply alienating experience of being in an audience and feeling our stomachs drop as a play started to take us somewhere we weren’t mentally or emotionally prepared to go.
As we began planning our 2022 return to the stage, Book-It’s approach to content warnings became a frequent topic of staff conversation, especially given some of the heavy themes explored in Mrs. Caliban and The Bonesetter’s Daughter. For this season, and moving forward, we’ve decided to post a full list of general content warnings for each show on our website and by our box office windows, and we encourage those with questions about how a production approaches a specific topic to reach out to our Patron Services staff, so we can give them all the information they need to make an informed decision about attending. And for this week’s E-News, we spoke to two exceptional Seattle artists—who also happen to be Book-It staff members—about how content warnings have come to inform their own creative processes and helped them build community through their work.
What is your perspective on content warnings as a theater artist and theatergoer?
Gillian Jorgensen, Education Director (she/her):
Content warnings exist to help shape the framework in which individuals experience their information and art. They allow anyone considering reading or watching or listening to or otherwise consuming fiction, non-fiction, images, music, and sounds to be in control of how they will spend their time and energy. With those choices in place, imagination and perception ignite: people can focus on the content itself and experience it openly and fully, without worrying about how it might affect them.
Content warnings are different from a ratings system because they allow individuals to make decisions based on actual material rather than a more arbitrary structure set up as a way to determine what is “appropriate.” Ratings systems have that sense of who “should” or “shouldn’t” engage with something from an outside (and often judgmental) arbiter; content warnings give power to the individual.
Zenaida Smith, Company Manager/Casting Director (she/her):
My perspective is specifically informed by the work that I do. I want the actors and stage managers that we collaborate with to have as complete an idea as possible of the story that we are trying to tell before they consent to joining the process. Content warnings are a valuable piece of that invitation to collaborate: a shorthand means of communicating sensitive subjects contained within the stories we tell. Theatermakers have an utterly unique job that asks them to explore the most vulnerable parts of the human condition. No other workplace would ask that of them. And they need to decide if those vulnerable parts are something they can portray or watch for days on end in rehearsal and performance.
The same goes for an audience member. I believe it’s important that audience members consent to receive the story that we have chosen to tell. In live theatre, a story is not something that happens to or at an audience. The audience is an integral part of the story; and they are active participants, sharing space and time with the performers and design elements, reacting as it unfolds. We invite them to step into the worlds that we create, and content warnings allow them to give informed consent to participating in that world.
Gillian, how do you incorporate your content warning ethos into your work with students through Book-It’s Arts Education Program?
Gillian: After 26 years of teaching, I am much more likely to address issues and harm more directly—I think in my earlier years I was likely to avoid certain subjects or suggest that “difficult” topics be discussed elsewhere or elsewhen. I don’t do that anymore—I strive to create classrooms and shows where what comes up spontaneously in the room is what we discuss and explore (or sometimes consider, then decide to save for another time when there will be more opportunity to be sensitive and thorough). And after having spent nearly 15 of my 26 teaching years as a parent, my approach is, “Well, we’re all here together and we all know that humans are weird and strange and amazing and awful and unknowable and loveable, so let’s figure out what that means and why and take responsibility for our choices and actions while doing so.
There are multitudes of examples of adults wanting to limit what youth encounter under the name of it being damaging or a child not being old enough to be exposed to certain stories, but those examples are typically linked to banning of books, banning the existence of anyone who isn’t white, straight, cis-gendered, and able-bodied. In the words of author Ashley Herring Blake, “When we stamp terms like ‘appropriate’ and ‘clean’ on books, particularly those already written for a younger audience, we aren’t rating content. We’re rating experiences.”
Young people—and all people, but especially youth—need stories that reflect their own lives and become an entry point into the lives of different people and experiences. Access to a wide variety of content opens up conversations. And that’s what humans want—to engage with our own experiences and to understand the experiences of humans who might be just like us or different from us. That’s true for kids and adults of all ages, from the baby identifying shapes to the early reader to the middle schooler to the teenager to the adults who are always adults but at different stages within that adulthood: to understand the world, we need to see ourselves in it; to explore the world, we need to see everyone in it.
In my most current work, I’m trying to provide not just content warnings, but also content endorsements. I want the youth in Book-It’s programs to know what to flock toward, what to devour… as well as what they might want to save for another day or never.
And what would you say to someone who believes content warnings make it more difficult for an audience to be swept away by a story?
Gillian: I hope I would be able to share that our imaginations are durable and that content warnings are not spoilers. That knowing what we’re getting ourselves into and consenting to it means we can enjoy it or understand it all the more. As artists, it’s our responsibility to reflect on the stories we’re telling and how they resonate with the human experience beyond shock, because without that reflection, an artist is claiming the right to do whatever they want over an audience’s right to experience something in community that was made with them in mind. It’s important to remember that having an audience at all is a gift.
Finally, how do you think Book-It’s current approach to content warnings illustrates our values as a company?
Zenaida: Book-It’s mission is to transform great literature into great theatre through simple and sensitive production, and to inspire our audiences to read. I often come back to the phrase “sensitive production.” I think sensitivity is usually devalued or ignored in American culture. Sensitivity is a quiet practice that takes time; it means listening and careful consideration. It means difficult conversations and evolving ideas. It means reading a book several times and unpacking any potential harm its characters, themes, and relationships could perpetrate when amplified on a stage. Sensitive work is the work of readers and theatermakers! We are rapt in the face of empathy.
Thank you both so much for your time and thoughts!
Annika Bennett is Book-It’s grants coordinator & content specialist, as well as a freelance playwright, dramaturg, and writer for the fiction podcast What Happened in Skinner.
Photo of Brandon J. Simmons in Beowulf, ©Anthony Floyd.