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Point-Counterpoint: How Uncomfortable Should Audiences Be in the Theater?

Our critics debate where the line exists between telling a story and torturing the audience.

The theater isn't like a spa or fine restaurant, where you pay good money to be exposed only to luxury and comfort on a stage. Some plays deal with uncomfortable topics and require uncomfortable design to convey that. Still, how far is too far when it comes to making your audience feel the pain? TheaterMania critics Hayley Levitt and Zachary Stewart discuss what responsibility theater makers have to put their audiences at ease, and what responsibility audiences have to grin and bear it through aggressive lighting cues and gruesome imagery.

TheaterMania critics Hayley Levitt and Zachary Stewart debate the limits of uncomfortable stage content while seated in the audience of the Vineyard Theatre.
(© Seth Walters)

Zachary Stewart: Hayley, would you ever avoid a show just because you heard it was an uncomfortable experience for the audience?

Hayley Levitt: It depends. I'd have to be convinced that my discomfort will be paid out in some kind of insight. I'll definitely avoid a show if I'm expecting my senses to be accosted for no reason beyond spectacle or (what I hate even more) the abstract idea that being uncomfortable in the theater is somehow objectively valuable.

Zach: I agree that gratuitous discomfort is not valuable on its own. Still, I think different people draw that line in different places. For instance, I feel that the current Broadway production of 1984 thrillingly uses design (abrupt sound cues, aggressive lighting) to put its audience in the paranoid, jittery headspace of the subjects of Oceania. I've never experienced that story at quite such a gut level. Were you not as taken with it?

Hayley: I wasn't. I understand and can respect the intentions behind those design elements you mentioned. But in my experience of 1984, the physical pain of bright lights in my eyes and loud screeching noises just made me paranoid about the next cue, not about the looming presence of Big Brother. If anything, those elements took me out of the play and trapped me in my own head. I know theater students learn all about Artaud and his "Theatre of Cruelty" — the idea that if you assail an audience's senses, it'll draw out subconscious emotions. But I'm solidly unconvinced by that philosophy. I think there has to be a stronger link between stimulus and response for a sensory assault to be justifiable.

Hayley and Zach view a particularly shocking onstage moment.
(© Seth Walters)

Zach: I appreciated how irresistible the barrage of light and sound in 1984 was. We can read Orwell's book and think to ourselves, "I would never cower in fear the way these people are," but the play betrays the truth: We're just as susceptible to physical discomfort as Winston Smith. By admitting how eager you were to make that discomfort end, aren't you just proving the point of the story?

Hayley: I can appreciate that argument...although to be fair, our pain threshold is not being weighed against our moral principles, so all we're really proving is that our limbic systems work. But let's put 1984 aside and think about the idea more broadly. When you push audiences to their comfort limits, you might be making a point as a creator, but you're also pushing your audience away. You can't ignore that half of the equation, because you're ultimately not expressing anything at all if no one's listening.

Zach: I think we should give audiences more credit. In a healthy theater, the audience shouldn't be a gathering of medieval sultans, sitting on cushioned seats and demanding to see only pleasing sights. Some stories are unpleasant and require disagreeable images, sounds, and smells. I think most theatergoers are smart enough to recognize that. Engaging with art cannot just be a hedonistic expression of consumer culture.

Hayley: Sure, theater can't always be light and fun (though I'll freely admit that Mamma Mia! has gotten me through some dark times). But that doesn't mean theater should be turned into a game of mercy. And I mean that not only in the cases of productions that bombard you with strobe lights and fake blood. Long, dry theater can be just as painful, and yet, we've fallen into this culture of believing that pain (of any kind) equals quality. No matter how difficult, or intellectual, or emotionally strenuous, I think we should always, at some level, be enjoying theater — not just choking it down like ipecac.

Hayley doesn't even want to look at the stage, but Zach thinks she shouldn't miss a moment.
(© Seth Walters)

Zach: I certainly don't subscribe to the puritan notion of theater, where it's only worthwhile if it feels like a chore. I'm also sympathetic to the idea that audiences won't be able to focus on a show if all they can think about is their very real physical pain (see my position on intermissions). Still, I think some amount of physical exertion can be integral to the storytelling process. For instance, Sleep No More has its audience on its feet, wearing masks, and walking through a 100,000-square-foot space for the entirety of the three-hour production, and that is an absolutely crucial choice. It wouldn't be the most memorable, exciting, thoroughly unconventional show in New York if we were all confined to numbered, plush red seats.

Hayley: One hundred percent. And in that situation, the physical discomfort is simply a pesky side effect of something truly innovative — which I agree we shouldn't sacrifice for the sake of an audience's comfort. If we did that, most of our best theater would never have made it to the stage. It's when discomfort is the end goal that I jump ship — and I think the visceral reactions that kind of theater elicits can often be mistaken for substance.

Zach: Looking honestly at the world is uncomfortable. Experiencing the perspective of another person is uncomfortable. Grappling with the thought that you might be wrong about everything you know is uncomfortable, but it is absolutely necessary and the reason we go to the theater. We emphasize the comfort of the audience at the peril of good art.

Hayley: I'm just saying – sometimes pain isn't beauty. It's just pain.

Zach consoles Hayley following a particularly harrowing theatrical experience.
(© Seth Walters)