The flip side of trigger warnings

Can art maintain its impact without the element of shock?

Last month, I attended U of T’s Drama Festival, which showcases new work acted, written, and directed by students at U of T’s various colleges. I saw the two shows that played on the last day of the festival, and before they began, the audience was provided with a trigger warning for the second play: footage of needle use would be projected during the performance. This was in addition to the trigger warnings already provided in the program, like violence and discussion of sexual assault.

I’ve become used to the warnings I see when I go to the theatre: usually strobe lights and mature language. Occasionally there will be a warning for full frontal nudity (don’t judge me—I saw a production of Hosanna by Michel Tremblay once). I respect that kind of warning. But what happens when we have to warn theatre patrons about every single aspect of a show? Does a production of The Wizard of Oz get trigger warnings because there’s a live dog? Produce Angels in America, Equus, or Spring Awakening, and your list of trigger warnings will be three pages long.

I believe that in an educational setting, trigger warnings have a place—if you have to get that English credit, it’s your right to know if there’s something in the books that qualifies as sensitive material. But in the world of live performance, I’m not sure that holds up in the same way.

Showing footage of needle use was a choice that the director and/or playwright made with certain outcomes in mind. Maybe they wanted shock value. I’m not a big fan of needles. Do I have a phobia? Not officially. But even so I’d rather not spend an extended period of time watching someone else prepping a syringe. With the warning, though, I wasn’t really even surprised by the images. Knowing about them beforehand killed any kind of emotional response beyond, “Eww. I’m glad that’s not happening to me right now.”

I’ll admit that I don’t really get to talk about trigger warnings since I don’t feel like I particularly need them. Although I was grateful for the warning before Hosanna—I was young enough that I hadn’t read the play, and I’d also never seen a fully naked adult man.

But here’s the other side of that argument. When I was in grade 12, I took Writer’s Craft, which was taught by one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. I’m not sure how much of what we studied was TDSB-approved, and I’m also pretty sure my teacher didn’t care. So one day I found myself putting a copy of a novel called Bastard out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison on special order from Chapters and Indigo.

Bastard out of Carolina is about a girl named Bone growing up in wrong-side-of-the-tracks South Carolina. Bone’s father ran off before she was born, and her mother Anney remarries a man named Glen. Glen is abusive in many ways, leaving Anney to choose between her husband and her child. And Glen, jealous of Anney’s love for Bone, takes out his anger on his stepdaughter.

You can see where this is going.

The final scene in the book is absolutely harrowing and has never, ever left me.

My Writer’s Craft teacher told us before we read the book that it would be tough, but didn’t give us any specifics. And honestly, I’m grateful for it. Because if I’d known what was going to happen, chances are I wouldn’t have finished the book. That would have been a problem, and not just for my coursework. Arguably, Allison’s book taught me how to write. I learned the value of short sentences, of not giving the reader any more than they absolutely need. I would have missed out on some truly great art.

Was I shocked and disturbed? Absolutely. But I’m pretty sure that was the point. I don’t believe in violence for violence’s sake, but sometimes shock value is the only way to get your message across.

I don’t know where the line is between not enough trigger warnings and too many, and I’m not going to pretend I do. But I do think that art, even in the U of T Drama Festival setting, needs to be allowed to maintain some element of surprise in order to do what art does: change people’s minds.

Kate Cattell-Daniels
Arts & Entertainment Editor