In my mailbox today, I found a press release from my friends at FLIP Publicity. It was to promote the upcoming Coal Mine Theatre production of Killer Joe, an edgy play by Tracy Letts about a guy who kills his mother in order to collect money needed for gambling debts. But what really caught my attention was the blurb at the bottom of the release. It reads:
Good Lord. Have we reached the stage in human existence that audiences need to be coddled in advance? I can understand the logistics of some things. Strobe lights could trigger an epileptic fit, which would certainly ruin the show for everyone, and a gun shot might wake up the guy snoozing in the back row. But it is 2016 - do we really need to warn people that characters, on a stage, performing a play that was written years before, will be depicting scenes in which the actors smoke and drink?
When I go to the theatre, I expect to see intense adult themes and strong language, and I usually hope to see some nudity. As for sexual violence and physical violence, isn’t this what drama is all about? Will trigger warnings be necessary for Lysistrata or Titus Andronicus or A Long Day’s Journey into Night? What kind of person is so frail that they can’t stand to watch actors portraying violence on a stage?
It all started over 20 years ago, when broadcasters started issuing warnings before certain contentious, edgy television shows, usually comedies. As the cable nets grew in power, audiences expected their entertainment to reflect the world around them, a world full of sexual and physical violence (even if it isn’t happening to you, it is still happening somewhere). I recall the CBC pasting their silly warnings before broadcasts of The Larry Sanders Show (because they said ‘fuck’) or The Kids in the Hall (because some of their characters were gay or horny). This was to prevent people from suing. If you have been warned, you don’t have a case. All you could do was complain to the CRTC, which would then issue an alert or some such nonsense, and life carried on.
Now we have a play, an edgy one, warning its potential audience that some of its content might upset them. Are theatre companies worried that some nutbar will sue them because they were upset by watching actors on a stage pretend to rough each other up? (The play’s big moment is when Joe forces a girl to fellate a chicken leg.) Or is the whole thing a ploy to attract audiences hungry for visceral theatrics?
Clearly, I hate trigger warnings and the people who believe that they are a requirement of today’s entertainment. But on the bright side, Coal Mine Theatre is excited to present this play, by one of the best playwrights today. This production of Killer Joe is going to be a killer. Let’s hope its presentation does not require that any of its audience members be forced to leave in an ambulance, a cop car or a hearse. If you require a trigger warning before going to a movie or a stage play, you’re obviously too weak to deal with the real world.