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Nathan Thomas-Scene4 Magazine

Nathan Thomas

It would have been somewhat comic, if the gritty truth of the men wasn’t so sobering.  A silent movie of two men having a quiet conversation in what looks to be a military hospital ward, and suddenly – without warning – one of the men scrambles to hide under the bed.  The other man had simply said the word, “Bomb.”

I suppose that I’ve known people with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder most of my life without knowing it – women who were victims of assault of various kinds.  Men who had been in war.  Kids who had been beat or abused.  But I can’t say that I thought much about it.  I’ve lived a fairly simple life, and I’m fortunate that whatever trauma I’ve been dealt has been minor.

It was studying WW I that first brought me in touch with archival film of men with shell shock.  The archival footage, as I say, would almost be comic were it not for the deadly seriousness of the pain these men experienced.  It’s strange to see a man cower at seeing an officer’s hat.

Personally, I have a great deal of affection for the avant-garde theatre movements of the early 20th century – Symbolism, Expressionism, Surrealism – in a word, the “-isms.”  When I introduce the dramatic literature and theatre practice of these folks, I also show students archival footage of the horror of the Great War.  The suffering of war and the Spanish Flu pandemic that followed helps provide context for understanding the world in which these artists did their work. 

I was completely gob-smacked by the incredible work done by Peter Jackson and the teams of people who worked on “They Shall Not Grow Old.”  If you had seen this, you understand.  Jackson and his team restored hundreds of hours of archival film and digitized it.  The result is seeing the men of WW I as if they had been shot by a camera yesterday. As the title says, they shall not grow old.

One of the many challenges of mental illness is that its manifestation may not be obvious.  As a witness to the illness, you might be tempted to say, “Stop fooling around. Come on.  Let’s stop the playing.”  It’s an unkind thought, but it may run through the mind of someone who encounters mental illness in someone else.

Unlike many physical diseases, there’s no exterior rash or vomit or “production” that we can point to and say, “Oy, that person’s sick.” The person may otherwise look perfectly fine.  And, if we’re someone who hasn’t experienced mental illness, we think it can be thrown over as an act of will.  To a degree this is as unfair as expecting to mend a broken bone in an instant through an overt act of will.

I’ve been thinking of this as friends around the country have been talking about “Trigger Warnings” for performances. 

On November 18, 2018 The New York Times reported on “Trigger Warnings,” with a lead about a performance of Vietgone in Denver.  An accompanying photo showed a lobby sign warning patrons of strobe lights, sudden loud noises, fog/haze, violence, adult language and humor, and sexual situations.

Given that the story was in The New York Times, people from all over the country discussed the pros and cons of “Trigger Warnings.”  I’d read the story with my breakfast and then got emailed the story by one of my students. Later in the day I was contacted by another friend for my thoughts.

Part of the argument against warnings is that a fundamental feature of live theatre is its “liveness.”  As such, the reasoning goes, there should be an element of surprise.  Like life.  Some theatre depends on shocks, so these warnings are just another symptom of our “Politically Correct,” namby-pamby babying in our culture.  In our contemporary “NO SPOILERS” culture, any pre-show warnings should be completely avoided.

On the other side, people argue that people have legitimate reasons for not wanting to add to the genuine injuries that audience members have experienced.  For that reason alone, warnings provide an appropriate communication to help people navigate an uncertain world.

What are my thoughts about trigger warnings?

Well, I think some people can get their undies in a twist unnecessarily about spoilers.  The single most popular play in the history of theatre is Romeo and Juliet.  The very first lines of the play tell the audience with clear precision what will happen. And then the play delivers on that promise.

Some of our most popular shows depend on groups seeing the play again. I don’t care how many times you see Wicked, it’s going to end pretty much the same every time you see it.  The people who have watched The Sound of Music over and over know what’s going to happen to that nice Austrian family at the end.  And, as I delight in telling people, audiences came to Titanic knowing the boat was gonna sink.

Therefore, the “NO SPOILERS” argument holds no water for me.

A few years ago, I was at a theatre festival.  A company put on a play about a woman who’d been a soldier serving in a U.S.A. war – Iraq or Afghanistan or both.  The play was about this woman’s return to civilian life. Something was eating at her, but we in the audience and her family in the play didn’t know what it was precisely. As the play progresses, we find out that the woman had ben sexually assaulted by an officer, a man whom she had trusted early in her deployment.

The performance took place in an intimate, arena setting.  When the story became clear, but before the assault took place, three women from different locations in the house quietly got up and left the theatre.  I don’t know, but I’ve always presumed it was because the facts of the play were getting too close to their personal experiences in their pasts.

Should they have been warned?

I think there are two parts to this issue.

First, what is the goal of a particular theatre company?  Is part of the goal to assault the audience?  Sometimes it is.  Sometimes a company wants to give an audience a pretty hard shake.  That’s legitimate in its own way.  The challenge is to know how sensitive a given audience is to shaking.  Some people get shaken up at the merest hint of a finger to the shoulder.  Other people need to be thrown in a metaphorical Tilt-A-Whirl and tossed around like they’re in a giant blender.    Either way, the history of theatre has shown that shaking up an audience can be a good thing.   For example, think of the benefits of French audiences in the 18th century being shaken by the comedy of a servant hoodwinking a master in the Figaro plays.  World upside-down.

The obverse of the coin is this – is the goal to harm people?  I don’t have seizures.  But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be cognizant that strobes can lead folks to some real problems.  Better to let people know up-front than have someone fall out during a show.

That much probably seems obvious to most.  What is less obvious is to what extent these other elements can actively lead to real harm in our audiences.  If we haven’t experienced trauma, or if we’ve found ways to get through our trauma, that needn’t imply that everyone else in the world is just like us. 

My educated guess is that we do not want to harm our audiences.  The trick is knowing what to do and how to communicate that so that we can insure the audience’s safety in the same way we use safety cables when we put lighting instruments over the audience’s heads.

It’s this second part that provides wider room for different kinds of experimentation and response.  Some will go too far.  Some, not far enough.  And, like most things, we’ll worry through.

There’s one trigger warning I wish I’d see more often in this New Year, and have the promise kept.

“We’ll grab you by the feels, and we won’t let go.”

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Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor,
Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer,
and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, and is a member of the
theatre faculty at Alvernia College. He writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4. For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives

©2019 Nathan Thomas
©2019 Publication Scene4 Magazine




January 2019

Volume 19 Issue 8

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