Art Can Be Painful. Let’s Welcome the Challenge.


During my first semester at Tufts—back in the pre-COVID dark ages—I was lucky enough to be assigned an upperclassmen peer mentor through a since-retired program run by the theater organizations on Pens, Paint, and Pretzels (3Ps). I hit it off with my mentor, Megan, almost instantaneously; they were on campus for orientation week working as a director for the orientation show for 3Ps—a play called The Realistic Joneses by Pulitzer-winner Will Eno. I was delighted to be invited to grab coffee with them before classes began. 

At this coffee date, Megan’s phone buzzed repeatedly. It was the production manager of the show, confirming the content warnings the play would receive in its digital program. I was a bit confused; having read the play in high school, I did not recall any instances in the show of rape, overt displays of physical violence, nudity, or any other challenging content I had previously understood to be subject to content warnings. Megan informed me they were being asked to include a content warning for “divorce and adultery.” 

For those who have not read the play, this warning would essentially give away the entire twist of the show in the program. 

Let me be the first to state that content warnings play a critical role in our media consumption, particularly as digital media and depictions of violence become more realistic (and often disturbing). Additionally, content warnings play a useful role in combating censorship; during the days when the Hays Code ruled over Hollywood, most mature content could not be displayed at all. With content warnings, creators and artists can include these topics while still limiting some audiences with age-related ratings and allowing viewers to opt-out of seeing gratuitous violence. 

However, as a theater maker and sociologist interested in media studies, I am increasingly concerned by the lack of distinction between content that can be traumatizing and content that is discomforting.

Here is the thing about theater: generally speaking, for the spectator, there are no consequences. That’s what makes theater different from real life. On stage, Julius Caesar gets stabbed with a fake retractable knife, and fake blood oozes out of a pristine white shirt; an hour later the actor comes out to bow. It’s not real violence. It is pretend violence. It is the representation of violence. Depictions can inspire real feelings if done well, but there will always be the reveal at the end—the lights come up, the ushers tell you to go home, and no one gets permanently injured or hurt. By design, the theater is a safe space to experience challenging and disturbing scenarios; you can learn and be provoked and horrified and disturbed all within the walls of the theater, because at the end of the show, everything is reset. 

Not only can you be challenged within the safety of the theater, but I also believe that you should allow yourself to be challenged by the theater. 

There is no universal standard for content warnings; every theater company makes the determination for themselves, unlike in film and television, where national standards dictate age and rating restrictions and generally inform at least basic content warnings (violence, sex, “adult language”). Particularly in amateur settings like colleges, in my experience, theater groups veer on a side that can only be described as extreme over caution, including warnings for content such as “depictions of religious figures,” “descriptions of violence,” and foul language. The list of “triggering” content seems endless, seemingly covering every instance of human experience in which one feels emotions other than contentment or calmness. Some companies also interpret the play for the audience through the content warnings, making explicit what is intended to be interpretative or left open: a scene in which a man behaves creepily towards a woman is tagged as sexual harassment; a scene in which the protagonist slowly leaves the stage in a pool of white-toned light is labeled as death; a scene where actors gleefully clutch rolled up teabags tied with dental floss is termed “drug use.” 

This interpretive warning system can easily change how an audience experiences a piece of theater. In HAIR: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical, recently produced by Torn Ticket II (and co-directed by yours truly), there is a moment in which the script calls for three members of the cast “dressed as KKK members” to chant a parody line: “What do we think is really great? To bomb, lynch, and segregate.” In our version of HAIR, instead of putting these cast members in white hoods, we put them in white dunce caps and immediately followed that moment with the entire rest of the cast pretending to kick and beat them to the floor. I should hope that anyone with the media literacy of a 12-year-old reads this as satirical and understands this not to be an endorsement of the KKK nor of any of the disturbing things depicted by the lyrics. Regardless, we were asked to include in our program “KKK iconography,” along with a whole host of other warnings. 

In another moment in the show, a Black member of the cast sings the iconic song “Colored Spade,” which mostly amounts to a list of slurs and stereotypes historically used to denigrate Black Americans. The song is intended to shock a white audience with its proud reclamation of these disturbing words, using rhetorical violence to call attention to real-world material violence. The purpose of including the song in the show is to confront audiences with this discomfort and demand that they hear their history repeated back to them and answer for it. We were also asked to include a content warning for racial slurs, which severely undercuts the shock factor of the song, and therefore the purpose of the song in the context of the show as a whole. 

The content warning for racial slurs gives the audience the opportunity to opt-out or recuse themselves from this confrontation. In real life, however, there are no opt-outs. Especially with a piece of historical fiction like HAIR, I worry that the freedom to opt-out presents an opportunity for sanitization that is unfair to the story itself and the real people it depicts. To pay respect to their stories and the real hardships they experienced, I believe it is incumbent upon us to face these depictions head-on and allow ourselves to feel the weight and effects of them fully and learn from them. 

Returning to The Realistic Joneses for a moment: if you know the divorce is coming, the play is ruined. The twist is revealed before the tension can be built. What, then, was the purpose of the carefully crafted storytelling from the playwright, director, and performers?

Ultimately, I fear we have all become afraid to feel in the presence of others. We have become so mortified by the thought of being publicly vulnerable. We are afraid of being affected by things in the presence of our peers. Thus, we have lost our ability to truly experience theater and art in their purest form because we have lost the willingness to deeply connect with our community. 

So I ask: if we cannot allow ourselves to grieve, cry, be terrified and heartbroken, how can we expect to laugh, be elated, and experience the euphoria and catharsis that follow tragedy?

I fear that words are losing their meaning—in particular, a word that is becoming seemingly meaningless is the word “trauma” (see also: triggered). Trauma is a medical term that, according to the American Psychological Association, describes “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster.” Trauma is the consequence of unimaginable horror: the loss of a loved one, the violence of assault, the grief of natural disaster. It must be intentionally distinguished between the experience of sadness or rememory when confronted with a situation that is familiar and painful to you. My parents underwent a messy divorce when I was 11; I am not traumatized, and I am not triggered when I see depictions of divorce in art. Do I feel deeply affected by these depictions due to my familiarity with the emotional toll of divorce? Of course. Does seeing these depictions cause a deep emotional response or release, like a catharsis? If the art is well done, hopefully. But I do not believe I should be shielded from these depictions, as often they can be just as healing as they are painful. 

Because again, art is not real. Art can be a vessel through which you process grief that was too immediate in the moment to understand. Art can be the space in which you confront your past, without the consequence and pain of the present. Art can heal wounds and help mend what was once broken. I hope that we can all unitedly step forward to experience and be challenged by art and the power of theater, and allow ourselves to be broken and healed again in the process.