After seeing Ghosts in the Cottonwoods in NY, Sabrina Evertt (Artistic Director of 20-Something Theatre) wrote a blog post asking where the line is in what we portray on stage – are some things simply too dark and disturbing to put on stage? Are we appalling our audience and then abandoning them?
I’ve probably done more than my fair share of plays with dark and disturbing subject matter. There was The Woodsman which is mostly known for the film starring Kevin Bacon, but it is also a stage play (which the film was adapted from). The premise: A pedophile, recently out of jail, moves into an apartment across the street from an elementary school and begins his rehabilitation by making friends with an 11 year old girl.
There was Mourning Dove, a play based on a true story about a father who euthanizes his daughter who is wracked by unremitting pain. Frozen‘s main character is man who sexually assaults and murdered young girls, Refuge of Lies gives a sympathetic portrayal of a Nazi, Kindertransport is about children being shipped away from their parents during WWII, Memory is simultaneously set in the Holocaust of WWII and in the 90’s Israel/Palestine conflict, and (I Am) Nobody’s Lunch is a cabaret about fear in post-9/11 America. I’ve worked on three productions of Hamlet, and one of MacBeth.
In every situation I heard from people who wanted to see the show but wouldn’t. With The Woodsman & Frozen a number of people said they couldn’t see a show that might show a pedophile as anything other than a monster. That was a line they wouldn’t cross. For Kindertransport & Memory I heard from people for whom it would hit too close to home. Refuge of Lies was too sympathetic to a Nazi for some; Mourning Dove was too difficult for many parents to watch.
Having worked on these plays, I’ve been privy to a lot of conversation anticipating audience response and trying to figure out how to ensure that the audience is able to process what they are seeing. In the cases of The Woodsman & Mourning Dove the company presenting them decided to add talkbacks. The Woodsman had talkbacks every night after the show, hosted by myself and a volunteer from COSA (an organization that works with sex offenders after their release to re-integrate into the community). This gave the audience an opportunity to dialogue about the issues raised with someone who knew real world situations and with someone who knew the play inside and out (that’d be me). There was no requirement to stay – we had a 10 minute break between the end of the show and the start of the talkback for folks who wanted to leave to do so, but many chose to stay. Sure, there were nights where the talk backs were intense – I remember one woman who was increasingly angry that anyone would support a pedophile and work with them towards rehabilitation – but for the most part the audience was full of questions and searching to understand.
Similarly, Mourning Dove had talkbacks once a week, hosted by myself with Dr. Paul Chamberlain (professor of philosophy and ethics at Trinity Western University and author of Final Wishes: A Cautionary Tale on Death, Dignity & Physician-Assisted Suicide). Again, this gave the audience the choice to attend the show on a night when there would be an opportunity to converse with their fellow audience members as well as experts on the difficult ethical issues raised.
With other shows, however, there has been a conscious decision to NOT do extra talkbacks. With Refuge of Lies it was really important that the audience come to their own conclusions – we as a company didn’t want to tell them what happened – the ambiguity was important.
Of course, I am not only a practitioner: I am also an audience member. I have attended a number of shows that have pushed my boundaries and that have, at times, made me uncomfortable or angry. But here’s the thing: I don’t want them to stop. So often when I leave the theatre feeling uncomfortable or angry I end up having these amazing conversations either with my fellow audience members or else with friends at a later date.
I think of If We Were Birds at Tarragon Theatre this past May which I attended with Nancy Kenny and Brittney Filek-Gibson. That show was extremely dark – based on Ovid’s myth – and ends with an incredibly dark image. At the end of the show we didn’t want to clap – we even took a long time leaving the theatre as the imagery sat with us. But for the entire rest of my time in Toronto (and even after I returned west) we spoke about the show, digesting what we had seen (no pun intended for those who saw the show).
And that’s what I LOVE about theatre – it forces me to explore issues I’ve never been confronted with in my day to day life. Despite being faced with uncomfortable situations or plays, I’m always glad to be pushed.