Using Content Warnings in Educational Theatre

By Jessica Harms posted 04-08-2018 17:37


Theatre should be accessible for everyone, and content warnings are an essential part of accessibility as our goal is to engage, not isolate. As theatre-makers, we see the value of challenging art, but we also need to take on the responsibility of making it thoughtfully: with an eye towards accessibility and effective audience experience.

Movies and television have had content warnings since 1968, and even today’s amusement park rides and funhouses have warnings. Content warnings give you a general range of content to expect and then can list specific warnings for things that are possibly more upsetting or require further thought.  

As theatre-makers, we strive for our art to be the beginning of the conversation, not the end. We work hard to find the shows and create the moments that make our audience think. But the audience members who can watch a reenactment of a traumatic event and walk away engaging in dialogue, thinking about their own experience, those audience members are not the target audience of a content warning. Our audience members who need content warnings often need them because they are not able to think in those surprise situations.

If there was a veteran or sexual assault survivor in your audience who suffers from PTSD, that patron has no way to prepare themselves to relive their own experience or take necessary precautions before the show to ensure their mental health isn’t affected.  Content warnings are not a way to keep “sensitive” people out of seats, but a way to be respectful of our patrons who can suffer from panic attacks or anxiety. Working in educational, this is especially important as our primary audience is students and families. You never know who is has happened to, and not posting warnings can “out” victims unintentionally.

When many patrons have a strong reaction to content in a show, they often feel trapped in the house because they have no desire to disturb the show. To leave the theatre, they often have to climb over the other patrons in their row and whether they leave or choose to stay, they must manage to control their reaction in a way that is not vocal and does not disturb other patrons. Being triggered by content often causes people to relive past traumatic experiences, which can be compounded by the fact that they now feel like they are reliving it amongst the public by being surrounded by the audience.

One of the primary arguments against content warnings is that these warnings can often be spoilers.  If a content warning for a traumatic event would ruin the surprise, what value does that event have beyond shock value?  It might be a good idea to examine what other value it has to the narrative. Spoilers in this context mean that plot points no longer have the element of surprise. By arguing that knowing a show’s plot points makes the show less enjoyable, you also are arguing that a show should be seen only once and never revisited. Does knowing a piece of theatre ruin the experience? Other arguments against content warnings say that some audience members are now waiting for that moment and that anticipation may have taken away from enjoying what comes before that.

We ultimately have to use our best judgment communities, and maybe err on the side of caution. Ultimately is the plot of your story or the mental safety of your audience more important to your theatre’s core values? If you are not supporting your audiences, they will not continue to support you.

Actors Equity Association makes it mandatory to post if a production is using strobe lights. Can you imagine a scenario where there isn’t a warning for this and you have to stop the show because someone is carried out in the audience? Using content warnings like we use strobe warnings sends the message to your audience that as a theatre maker, you deem their mental health to be as important as their physical health.  Your audience deserves to feel safe, and that means being upfront about what kind of story you are telling them.

Now, what is the best way to communicate your content warnings to your audiences? The key is to give people enough information so that they can ask questions about what specifically will be depicted to keep themselves safe. Some ideas to communicate content warnings include:

  • Posters used for advertising could include an informal rating or warning
  • Content warning posters in the lobby
    • As an option: a poster in the lobby that has a lift-the-flap warning so that those who would need the warning have access to it
  • Content warning signs at the box office and will-call
  • Content warnings or informal rating on your show’s website page
  • As part of the pre-show announcement
  • In your program
  • Facebook event descriptions
  • Information on available resources to help audiences process their emotional reaction
  • Train your box office staff to be able to answer questions about show content because they are often the first representatives of your theatre your audiences will interact with.

Using content warnings or informal ratings will also protect your theatre program (and you as director and educator) from any potential complaints or content. It sets the expectations for your audience members and makes the decision to see a show with more mature content on the audience member because they are fully informed.

In what ways do you communicate content warnings to your audience members?