Chekhov’s trigger warning

In which I’m still very afraid of loud noises.

I didn’t question the warning attached to Our Dear Dead Drug Lord, now enjoying an extended run at the Women’s Project Theater, though I was a little startled by its specificity: “Our Dear Dead Drug Lord contains depictions of graphic physical and sexual violence.” My tickets arrived at a curious time for me, a moment when I’ve been thinking a lot about trigger warnings for theater, and how to balance subverting expectations with, well, not traumatizing an audience. I won’t retread the recent talkback drama at Slave Play — if you know, you know — but one of the woman’s complaints (vague spoilers for the play ahead!) was that the show contains a depiction of sexual assault without offering any trigger warnings. (UPDATE: See correction below.)

Let’s chuck out the rest of that woman’s opinion about the play being “racist toward white people,” because it’s absurd. I’m really just using this to talk about trigger warnings, even though Slave Play is a unique and imperfect entry point into this conversation. (Again, spoilers follow.) You could argue that the show contains multiple depictions of sexual assault; that the majority end up being part of consensual roleplay (and occasionally border on farce) does not mean that what is being depicted (though contextually part of a performance!) isn’t assault. ...Does that make any sense? And then there’s the scene that this audience member interpreted as an actual sexual assault — as opposed to play-acting — but that moment is incredibly tricky on the question of consent. That is not to say the scene, or any of the preceding scenes, don’t have the potential to trigger or otherwise distress an audience member. The question for me is, how do you write that trigger warning? And, with apologies for the cop-out, I can’t say that I have an answer.

As will hopefully become apparent in reading this, I am not remotely anti-trigger warnings in theater. I will say that for a show like Slave Play, I feel like the title and basic plot description are content warnings unto themselves, but I recognize that not everyone goes into that theater with the same base level of knowledge, and it’s also not my place to speak to anyone else’s experience. On the whole, I think trigger warnings are essential, but that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, and the question of which shows require warnings and what that language should look like can only be answered on a case-by-case basis. I also think there are unique artistic challenges that are worth articulating and negotiating. That’s certainly something I felt when it came to Our Dear Dead Drug Lord, a play that desperately needs its trigger warning, but that then has to wrestle with it.

There’s an important discussion to be had when it comes to the effect these warnings have on audiences. I call this “Chekhov’s trigger warning,” because I am cheeky and pretentious. But it’s a real thing based on personal experience. As someone who is terrified of loud noises, I feel a tremendous amount of anxiety every time a play warns me about gunshots. I spend the entire time waiting for the bang: who needs to even see a gun onstage when you know the shot is coming? Surely that undermines my enjoyment of the play, and takes away from whatever surprise I might have felt without the warning. And if anything, I’m even more startled, because I’ve spent however many minutes on edge waiting for the gun to go off. But if I hadn’t been warned, I’d be upset! I’m both grateful for and resentful of the heads-up.

And certainly it’s different when the warning is about graphic sexual violence, as in Our Dear Dead Drug Lord, because here it’s less about loud noises and more about serious trauma. (With the caveat that for many people, including of course victims of gun violence, gunshots can be both!) The result is the same, however, in the sense that I spent so much of a play that is largely a comedy on the edge of my seat, waiting for something terrible to happen. All the time leading up to that moment is so suffused with dread that it can be difficult to let go and laugh when you’re supposed to be laughing.

When the moment came, I wasn’t actually prepared, because it’s an appalling scene of violence. It works in the context of the play — which I thought was great, on the whole — but it’s objectively one of the most upsetting things I’ve seen onstage. That trigger warning 100 percent needs to be there. I would have been deeply fucked-up (like, more so than I was just by virtue of seeing the play) if I hadn’t known that something was coming. And I say all of this not because I think I have any real answers here (clearly I do not!), but because these are things we should be talking about when it comes to making theater that’s relevant and provocative while also keeping it accessible. The conversation around trigger warnings is so fraught: some people treat them like a punchline, an easy joke about the frailty of the younger generation. There’s also a defensiveness that comes from the idea that being transparent about content will completely ruin the dramatic effect of theater that intends to startle and unnerve.

I can only speak from personal experience when I say that the trigger warning did change my experience of Our Dear Dead Drug Lord. But I still really liked it. And even if it was uncomfortable for me to sit through — uncomfortable before it was supposed to be uncomfortable — I don’t think I would have liked it nearly as much (or been able to recommend it) if I’d been entirely caught off-guard. Is it possible that the trigger warning takes something away from the play? Yes. Is it worth it? Absolutely. Ultimately I hope theatermakers are willing to have tough conversations about the benefits (and yes, the potential drawbacks!) of including more trigger warnings, whether that’s for Our Dear Dead Drug Lord or Slave Play — or Jagged Little Pill, which I know has shocked some audience members with its depiction of sexual assault.

In my mind, there is a compromise, but it’s not a universal one. And that extends to the audience as well. At some point, it’s your responsibility to decide what you want to subject yourself to, using the information at your disposal. That might mean you think carefully about any trigger warnings — and it might mean that you seek out scripts or spoilers posted to message boards. (You can, for the record, read up on what happens in Our Dear Dead Drug Lord, if you’re weighing whether or not you can handle it.) This is messy terrain to navigate, but it’s worth the struggle. In the meantime, I hope playwrights continue to push theatrical limits, and I hope audiences continue to establish their own boundaries.

CORRECTION: Slave Play, in fact, does have trigger warnings. They have been attached to the show from the beginning. I apologize for the error.

Photo via Jeremy Daniel.