It hit me hard like a slap in the face. My cheeks stung, my neck felt hot, and my stomach churned icy and nauseous. I gripped the edge of my seat. “I can’t believe they just did that” my partner whispered in my ear, but it sounded hollow and far away. My mind was racing looking for a way out of the theatre without drawing attention to myself, but there was no way out.
This is what a panic attack feels like. As an artist with a penchant for provocative material this sort of visceral reaction might have been something I would welcome had it been intended to serve the work rather than for cheap laughs.
Satire (noun) the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.
Often I hear that we’ve done our job as artists if our audience leaves the theatre having felt something, good or bad, the worest thing is to leave your audience impartial. But what is our responsibility then to take care of our audience after we’ve put them through this emotional rollercoaster? How do we as artists create a space that is safe for our audience in order to build trust in our ability to lead them to these scary places in the work? And when is it ok to use potentially buried trauma to illicit a reaction, good or bad, from our audience to satisfy our own egos?
I left the theatre as quickly as possible. I wanted to get out of there and away from these people who were laughing and joking to their cars in. How did that make it in to the show? Why are people laughing? What year is it? “It’s like blazing saddles except it’s not the 70s anymore that shit isn’t funny” my partner was fuming. I couldn’t think, I could barely speak. Every touch, every uncomfortable silence, every cutting remark flashing through my mind. I wanted to scream. I didn’t scream then it’s too late to scream now.
Depending on what statistics you are looking at either 1 in 4 to 1 in 6 women and 1 in 6 to 1 in 8 men will experience sexual assault in their lifetime. The number is significantly higher for the aboriginal community, trans folks, and sex workers. But we also know that a lot more go unreported so the number is likely higher. As a theatre artist looking at even a small 100 seat theatre it is basically a given that there are several people in the audience who have directly or indirectly through a close friend or family member experienced sexual assault. To flip that number on it’s head there are probably several people in the audience who have sexually assaulted someone whether or not they identify their actions as rape. So the question becomes not only how do we honor the silent survivors in our audience, but what kind of example do we want to make of the aggressors?
“I want to keep creating comedy that is, as my old improv teacher would say, at the top of our intelligence or higher. It’s easy to fall into the trap of just cranking out things that are good enough to sell.” – Tina Fey [Oprah, 2009]
It’s hard to write good satire. No surprise, Tina Fey knows a thing or two about how to do it right. As stand up comedian Selena Coppock says “[rape jokes] must be written with imagination, thoughtfulness, and awareness of societal systems and privilege. Some rape jokes are great — they don’t re-victimize the already-victimized characters in a rape dynamic.” By offering that element of surprise not only is the punchline more interesting, but less problematic by shifting blame away from the victim. It is important to note that there are still folks that will find it triggering regardless of how progressive the rape joke is.
The next day I woke up angry. If I had been made to feel that way how many others had suffered through in silence? Why did I feel like I owed the show an air of good humor? It had not been good humor. It had been incredibly damaging and out of place. I had made the same sort of excuses for the production as I did for my original attacker, but I didn’t have to. In the dark theatre I may be held witness to any sort of awful thing, but in the real world I had a voice and I could start the conversation to create change.
Theatre artists are dependant on our audience; therefore it is important that we are concious of their experience through out the creation process, and allowing that space for critique and discussion throughout. I acknowledge that this experience is unique to me and this incarnation of this production, but it stands that the questions raised are applicable more broadly. I don’t have answers yet. I’m not looking for an apology. I would like to see us collectively tackle these difficult questions and hold each other accountable in the work as colleagues, and as a community in how we care for one another.