“Potosí” – why I didn’t include a trigger-warning, & why I will next time (SPOILERS)

(Note: this piece contains massive spoilers for my show Potosí – there are still three shows left, so if you intend to see any of them & do not wish your experience to be coloured by these remarks, desist reading immediately. Otherwise, carry on.)


I didn’t know Potosí was particularly violent until people started telling me it was. Other than the British avant-garde tradition of the 60s & 70s, the theatrical lineage of which I think of myself as being a part must include the 90s of Sarah Kane, the novels of Cormac McCarthy & William H. Gass, all of whom wrote brilliant & impassioned – & controversial – studies in violence. Of these, the most salient is doubtlessly Kane; Blasted was by the far the work most on my mind as I wrote what would become the final drafts of Potosí.

Set against such a backdrop, my own opus seemed somewhat tame & toothless; even no less a mainstream Toronto theatre than Buddies in Bad Times had recently staged the relentlessly violent Pig, & there seemed to be a vogue in the intellectual culture for artistic discussion of what constitutes violence, sexual or otherwise (q.v. for example the success of Kat Sandler’s recent Cockfight, which was itself more-or-less about the inherent violence of males).  When the reviews for Potosí began coming out last week, it was a surprise then, that critics appeared to be deeply struck not only by the darkness of its subject matter – all of which is based on true events – but also the graphicness of the physical violence put on stage. In part this is contextual – after all, the Fringe has not historically been the most conducive venue for dark or challenging subject matter – but it may very well evince hubris on my part.

This is not to say that I apologize for or regret the violence in Potosí. I don’t, & never would. Nevertheless, recent reviews (in particular this one, dispiriting & bewildering as it is [how the critic seemed to miss any of the themes of race, colonialism, & free will which run rife in the piece is rather beyond me, as is the phrase “act like a man” for reasons I won’t have to explain to you feminists reading this]), have – here comes this gross phrase – “called me out” for not including trigger warnings on the marketing materials for the play.

There are plenty of perfectly good reasons to assume that this omission was a lack of thought or sophistication on my part. Men have not, I think you’ll agree, historically been the most sensitive or intelligent of beings. Nevertheless, the decision to not include a trigger warning was a conscious one, & I think perhaps I owe an explanation as to how I made it.

For the uninitiated – all two of you – “trigger-warning” is a term which originated in feminist circles to describe a written or verbal warning that content containing “triggers” for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) –related hallucinations or episodes is forthcoming. The term has recently become ubiquitous on the Internet & the focal point of significant academic controversy.  The idea is that if a book, novel, play, story, anecdote, movie, speech, whatever, is going to contain references to the kinds of trauma which cause PTSD – including, but not limited to, sexual assault – a trigger-warning be issued in advance to mitigate the potential suffering of those who have the disorder. A common misconception is that this is about steering the afflicted person away from the material – it is not. In fact, recent studies indicate that avoidance of “traumatic” material can actually be detrimental to long-term recovery.  Rather, a trigger-warning can, the idea is, allow the PTSD-sufferer to mentally prepare for what he or she is about to encounter, & decide for his- or herself if they are able to face it. Hypothetically, a trigger-warning should make the work more accessible to such an individual, not less.

So why didn’t I include one? Well, for artistic reasons, mostly, though it was justified by a survey of the evidence. Others –notably, Mr. Charlebois himself – have written lucidly about the various problems of including trigger-warnings in works of art, especially when such warnings might tarnish the viewer’s experience of the piece. With Potosí, I felt it important to set up a certain kind of expectation on the part of the audience, with respect to the play’s protagonist, LeBlanc. I wanted them to enter the theatre believing they were going meet one kind of character, & only too late realize that they were encountering another. (Obviously, audiences will judge for themselves whether I achieved this).

With LeBlanc, I wanted to establish a female character who was – to the extent that it didn’t become absurd – stripped of any victimhood. Though she has, by virtue of no fault of her own (her sex) been victimized by men in her past, she uses these traumas as advantages, as ways of achieving her own ends. In this case, blackmailing her rapist (her boss). This does not, I don’t think, mitigate or trivialize the wrongdoing on the part of the men – in fact, quite the opposite. It throws (I hope) into stark relief the cowardice & the depravity of male lust for power (because that is, really, what rape is about) against LeBlanc’s own strength of character, her utter will to survive.

That she is later sexually assaulted, first by the Soldier, & later, we learn, by the paramilitary troopers, was meant as an illustration of LeBlanc’s own radically deterministic worldview.  I worried that if the audience knew or suspected her fate when they first entered the theatre, that this would dull the psychic blow of these events, & thus dilute some of the ideas I was hoping to convey. A spoiler, plain & simple.

How did I justify sacrificing the potential well-being of a PTSD sufferer for a vague artistic bug-bear? Well, I thought long & hard about it, & read some of the salient texts on the matter. On the one hand (& as Mr. Charlebois remarks) “trigger-warnings” of various kinds already exist – for strobe lights, for example (for epileptics), & smoke (for asthmatics & those with breathing problems). & like these conditions, PTSD is a physiological condition – a miswiring of the brain, a problem with the neurons which store memory in the appropriate place.

Unlike asthma or epilepsy, however, there is little correlation between any one thing and a post-traumatic episode. There is virtually no evidence that I’ve been able to find which suggests that mention of violence or its depiction necessarily is more likely to “trigger” than anything else – a smell, a sound, anything. Triggers are not logical, & totally unpredictable. As the philosopher Mary Catherine MacDonald notes:

“As someone who studies PTSD from several different perspectives and works with people who actually have PTSD, I think what is interesting about this conversation is that it seems like a basic understanding of trauma and PTSD is almost entirely missing. People who truly have PTSD are ‘triggered’ all the time. By many things. Most of which are not directly related to their trauma. Noises, smells, tastes, phrases, tactile experiences, thoughts, etc. etc.”

Thus it seemed to me to be absurd that my play was uniquely worthy of a trigger-warning than any other. The argument is slippery-slopeish, but perhaps apt: if anything can be a trigger, shouldn’t all plays have trigger warnings? & if they all should, does this not negate the efficacy of such a thing?

It’s possible that this is an absence of evidence, & not evidence of absence. From what I gather, PTSD is notoriously difficult to study in controlled tests, mostly because such a thing would abut uncomfortably with torture. Nevertheless, I made my decision not to include a trigger warning on the basis of the evidence I had.

I would not do this in the future.

Although I remain dubious about the actual efficacy of including a trigger warning, the truth is, it costs me comparatively little. Despite the fact that most of the evidence regarding trigger-warnings is purely anecdotal, there seems little at stake in including a benign “TW” in the corner of poster, or program. I might object, in certain situations, to anything more discursive than that – but Mr. Charlebois, again suggests a rather elegant solution:

“I would suggest a warning simply saying, “Trigging Warning: please call our box office at (phone number) to see if you may be affected.” The box office would then have a list of all possible TW’s. This way, TW’s don’t turn counter-productive – become a list of spoilers – and the responsibility for possible catastrophic effects of triggers are shared by both vulnerable spectator and artists.”

Given the fact that a list of “all possible TW’s” is manifestly impossible to devise, the solution is easily amended by simply having the box office explain the nature of the traumatic content. It seems only fair, after all.

The most important reason I think I would include a TW in the future is the one I listed above: they exist (in theory, if not in practice) to make the work more accessible to sufferers of PTSD, not less. It’s not conceptually much different than including a wheelchair ramp – why alienate audiences from my work? Why prevent them from enjoying the piece as much as anyone else?

I don’t know if TWs work or not – the evidence seems scant. But hey, surely something is better than nothing?

I haven’t heard that anyone who has seen Potosí has been triggered by the piece. If anyone has, my heart is with them. It is not my intention to traumatize anyone with my work. It never would be.

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