Essay: Seeing violence on stage and media – sensitisation

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It is definitely worth looking further into Sarah Kane’s statement, and discussing whether it is true or not. How several factors such as ethnicity, experience, age, etc can affect this, and it is my hope that expanding on this will not only help us to gain a further understanding of how complex an audience can be, but also help to remove some stigma from talking about mental health. I have also found that there are few books that talk about this subject matter in theatre, most generally talk about media as a whole. I will study Sarah

Kane’s productions and the effects it had, and any other theatre companies who have performed any controversial pieces. I will also look into verbatim theatre and how it is used today. During the dissertation I aim to stay unbiased as much as possible and find arguments for and against the statement using secondary research. This research will be gained by reading online articles and books. I will talk about scare acting and how it is used today; Scare acting is when an individual is paid, or volunteers, to dress and act as a certain scary character i.e. zombie, clown, werewolf etc and work in horror/Halloween attractions. They follow strict rules and guidelines to intensely scare the public in mazes, haunted houses etc to ensure the safety of the public and themselves. Some rules/guidelines are: always have eye contact, no physical contact, if someone is too scared move onto someone else. I found that people’s views on this matter do vary and that different situations can change someone’s views. I will look back at how violence was portrayed in Shakespeare’s times and how the public felt then and how it has changed and evolved over the years as we gained more skills and technology and how the audience now feels when viewing similar scenes but portrayed in a different way. When Shakespeare performed his shows the use of pigs’ blood was common whereas now it would cause more controversial arguments. Another major difference between then and now is the gender of actors. It was only men that were allowed to perform in Shakespeare’s era now we have males, females and even now transgenders. Once again this was a subject that hasn’t been talked about, most books focus on Shakespeare himself and the plays, there context.

LITERATURE REVIEW

In my literature review, which can be found in the appendices. I discovered two books which gave an in-depth discussion on how race, age and experience can affect an individual’s views on seeing violence on stage and media and how it makes them feel. These only explore the portrayal of violence, whereas in my dissertation I am hoping to investigate other controversial topics such as sex, religion, racism, etc. Reading these books gave me more insight into this topic and therefore the statement Sarah Kane makes. I had always been aware of experience and age being a factor in changing individual’s perceptions of different things, but I had never considered ethnicity as such.

In ‘Women Viewing Violence’, chapter 8, Pg 79-106, the scenes showed different forms of violence in several ways; some being more symbolism. One chapter focuses on an episode from EastEnders that depicts a couple of different ethnicity. The results were separated into two bar charts, one showing ethnicity, and the other showing experience with violence. The results found that those that had personally had some experience with violence found the episode more realistic, believable and offensive. When asked if it helped to address the social issues that occur there was not much difference in opinion of the experienced and those without experience. Further results showed that out of the three ethnicities Afro-Caribbean’s were more affected by the scene. After the viewing they asked the groups of women on whether TV soaps like EastEnders should be made; two Afro-Caribbean’s and one Asian said no. When asked why they thought this there was two replies. One reply was no violence should be portrayed and the other said she thought they tended to depict racial stereotypes. The couple depicted on EastEnders was a mixed-race relationship; a lot of the

Afro-Caribbean’s and Asians found that the domestic violence could be a racial attack, this portrayal was not affected by whether they had experience.

‘A Cognitive Psychology of Mass Communication’, Chapter 9, Pg 257-290, was the second book which I read for information. This book focused on children and younger adults and explains how age has a factor on how we can perceive violence and all of the long-time effects.

DISCUSSION

The effects of exposure

Sensitization is when someone becomes less likely to imitate violence because of perceived traumatized reality. People who are most likely to have this effect are those who are highly empathetic. This is because they can imagine themselves in the victim’s position and therefore feel all the negative feelings and responses.

Desensitization is the opposite of sensitization. Someone can become un-phased or insensitive to stimuli after prolonged exposure to it. There is a treatment, unimaginatively called “Exposure Therapy’, which a lot of psychologists use to try and help people with phobias. It allows anxieties to be eased and the stimuli less feared by putting the patient in close proximity of whatever it is that sets of their fear, anxiety or panic attacks, but within a controlled environment. An effect like this can also naturally happen when we expose ourselves to something for a prolonged time.

Modelling is when someone sees a violent act in the media and later behaves more violently themselves than they otherwise would. It could also teach new behaviours. There is an example of this that occurred involved a 9-year-old girl, Olivia Niemi. She was assaulted and raped with a bottle by three older girls and a boy. Four days before this a film called ‘Born Innocent’ aired, showing a scene of a girl being raped with a plumber’s plunger. NBC was sued $11 million for alleged negligence in showing it in prime time, by the mother. (Liebert & Sprafkin, 1988). TV showing violence can bring down inhibitions making people more likely to act out.

Fear response research to violent media mainly comes from the laboratory of Joanne Cantor who concludes that ‘transitory fright responses are quite typical, that enduring and intense emotional disturbances occur in a substantial proportion of children and adolescents, and that severe and debilitating reactions affect a small minority of particularly susceptible individuals of all ages’ (Cantor, 1996, p. 91). Research has found that age has a factor on what is found fearful, this is down to their awareness of reality dangers. If you showed a film that depicted a natural disaster, such as a tornado, or a nuclear war an older child/ adult would fear it, but a younger child wouldn’t however if you showed a film with a fantasy monster a child would fear it more so than an older child/adult. Responses to fear also change as you get older. Pre-schoolers eat, drink, cover their eyes or clutch a beloved object when scared; a school aged child use and respond to verbal explanations, reminder of the unreality of the situation, or instructions to think about it in a less threatening way. Most adults will remember a scene that scared them as a child. It is believed that viewing violence as a child can be the reason behind some phobias. Viewing violence activated parts of the amygdala and right cerebral cortex which is involved with arousal, threat detection and unconscious emotional memory. Emotional memories often endure long after the

associated cognitive memories have faded, which explains why someone might still be afraid of swimming many years later after watching Jaws (Cantor, 2006).

Cultivation theory was developed in the 1960’s by Professor George Gerbner. The theory suggests that television/media in general is to blame for changing the publics conception on social reality. There are heavy viewers and light viewers, this theory focuses mainly on the heavy viewers as they will be more likely to believe in what is being showed to them, things which we call ‘mainstream’. This can make viewers more fearful of different things.

Catharsis comes from the word Katharsis which is a Greek word which means cleansing or purging. It is the process of venting aggressive emotions. The issue with this effect is if a child views violence as they grow, they may start to think that violence is a normal way of life. The catharsis theory comes from Aristotle’s work Poetics.

There is a correlation between the amount of television viewed by a person, and how much anxiety, depression and even post-traumatic stress a person is susceptible to. The book explains how age is a factor as pre-schoolers fear monsters and mutants, mythological beasts, whereas older children are more scared of natural disasters and assaults. A pre-schooler cannot anticipate danger and its consequences, so they fear things they do not like. Reality dangers become more feared than fantasy dangers as you grow up. Reactions to fear are different between individuals; a pre-schooler will eat, drink, cover their eyes or cuddle a teddy bear tightly as a way of coping, whereas an older child will cope by verbal explanation, realising it is unreal, or instructions on the danger which makes it less threatening. Do you remember a film or episode that scared you as a child? Most adults do, this is because fear is difficult to remove from a young child and causes nightmares.

Shakespearian Theatre Audiences

There was a lot of illiteracy in the Elizabethan era, with between only 50%-75% being able to read (this was a period of increasing literacy, due to the Puritans of the country pushing for more free education), so it would make sense that most entertainment came in the form of visible art and performances. In contrast to today’s society where we have the technology to make things seem real and believable despite knowing it is fake, Elizabethans would only have had their imagination to rely on, and because of this, their imagination would have been more open and vivid. When we see things on a regular basis, the lines of reality can begin to blur causing fantasy to appear like reality and the Elizabethans ability to wholly believe what is on stage would have been greater than ours. The audiences would have been rowdier and will have been moving as there was no real theatre etiquette. The physicality of audience responses to a play was the most prominent feature of the amphitheatres and audiences would freely applaud or hiss during the performance; the emotional power shared by a crowd is more powerful than an individual’s response. Entertainment today has the objective of removing self-awareness and make audience members, momentarily, believe what they see is real. This phenomenon is known among psychologists as “The Willing Suspension of Disbelief”, and is a powerful mechanism in the enjoyment of watching any visual artform that has elements of reality. It was first coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and has since been defined as “the willingness to suspend one’s critical faculties and believe something surreal; sacrifice of realism and logic for the sake of enjoyment”. This is not to say they that if they witness a murder within a play on stage, that they are going to run for the police and report it, but that we are inclined to put ourselves into a state where we know that what we are seeing is entertainment, but yet suffer emotionally similar feelings to that which we would have done, if we were witnessing an actual crime. The better the story, or the more invested the viewer is in the play or show, the higher this effect can be, with people shouting, or even screaming and crying, at events on screen or stage. For disturbing depictions, even though they are in a safe space, sometimes surrounded by people they know, and know what they are watching is a work of fiction, they are still having a psychological threat response, or disgust response. There were anti-illusionist practices due to a reaction to the pulpit diatribes which claimed any deliberate illusion to be Satan’s work and people were mocked for believing what they saw on stage (Gurr, 2008).

Belief and fear of the supernatural was common in Shakespearean times. The King of Scotland, King James VI, even believed in witchcraft and that a coven was going to murder him. It was this that caused him to study into the crafts publishing some of his studies in a book entitled Demonology. Scenes that contained witches will have caused a mixture of feelings through the audience such as fear, anxiety and fascination; due to this they would have paid closer attention to what the witches were speaking.

Theatre Audience in modern society

‘What there is to see is very clearly exhibited: Spectacle implies a distinction between the performers and audience. Performers are set apart and audiences asked to respond cognitively and emotionally in predefined categories of approval, disapproval, arousal or passivity. Audience interaction with the performance may enhance it, but it is not meant nor allowed to become part of its definition.’ (Dayan and Katz 1985: 16-17)

An audience is not monolithic (uniformed without any difference). Within today’s society we can’t just produce plays anywhere, they must stay within certain limits; a notable example of this is the presentation The Romans in Britain by Howard Brenton, performed at London’s National Theatre. The reaction to this presentation was outrage ostensibly caused by the portrayal of homosexual rape on stage. The audience was sensitive to the openly shown sexuality as it brought awareness of the real presence of the actors. At the outset of a performance the audience is likely to read the stage as a whole structure. The perception of an audience is influenced by societies ideological views but independently the perception can change due to personal reasons such as passions, hobbies, experience etc. (Bennett, 2003)

Audience importance

Each audience brings a series of assumptions and preconceptions, its own concerns and its own ways of making meaning to a performance. The interaction between what an audience already knows (or thinks they do) and what they see on stage is what creates a play’s meaning. No audience is homogeneous (the same): various parts of a play can be aimed at various parts of an audience, or diverse levels of meaning at various levels of understanding. This can be seen when Hamlet stages his version of, The murder of Gonzago. Claudius has particular knowledge which he brings to the performance to ‘catch the conscience of the king’ of which he will read in a particular way; an ‘innocent’ member of the audience won’t understand as it will only have meaning to him. (Mangan,1991)

Issues included in Shakespeare’s plays were socially accepted by the audience but in today’s modern society the same issues are not accepted. An example is Othello; it was among other plays within the same era to first introduce women as possessions. As a

society we find it hard to appreciate the impact of women speaking out. Unlike today slavery was widely accepted in the Elizabethan era, today it has laws against it.

Special effects for violence in the Globe Theatre

Elizabethan audiences loved special effects the gorier and bloodier the better. They would hide packets of concealed fake blood on the actor that would break at the opportune moment. One of the bloodiest plays was Titus Andronicus and King Lear which involved eyes being gauged out. The bags of blood where created by using animal blood that was placed inside an animal bladder; If the play was especially gory they would throw pig’s intestines. This caused a lot of excitement in the Elizabethan audience and was important for the globe theatre as it increased their profits and ensured that they could compete with other theatres.

Scare Acting

Scare acting is a form of acting with strict rules, that is solely done to scare people. Within this type of acting each actor is given a role to play. Different techniques can then be applied to suit the actor’s preferences, as long as they stay within the rules there is different methods that can be effectively used.

The sharer is someone who tries given the audience something that they do not want, for example a snake or syringe, and almost force it on them. An example would be ‘You want my spider? Take it, TAKE IT NOW!’ or ‘wanna try this new medicine? It won’t hurt, promise’, these phrases don’t seem harmful but match it to a crazy clown or a zombified doctor and the phrases have a sense of uneasiness.

An actor who tells someone to do something that they clearly do not want to do is known as The Dominator. If you do take this approach you have to be prepared that the audience will listen to orders. Ben explains, in Hauntworld magazine issue 3, that they commanded the audience to get into giant cages, one year, and they were not allowed out until the end of a song they sang. 99% listened to the commands. (Scary Visions, 2018)

The questioner asks questions that the audience doesn’t want to answer, these can be really uneasy questions like ‘what do your insides look like?…lets see’ or they can be personal like ‘what’s your name?’. This is a difficult one as most audience members will have their heads down to try and power through the event, if you want a response you need to find creative ways to prevent them from moving on too quickly and to try and get an answer.

The pleader begs the audience to not do something, sometimes playing the victim. This is reverse psychology as you are kind of letting them know of a warning. For example, you could have an actor in a corner who has a gaping hole in their face, as the audience enters they have there head down and could plead to the audience not to look at them as they are disgusting, then all of a sudden, they could jump out at the audience showing the face. Lighting can really help with this style of scare.

The Threatener is an actor who constantly threatens the audience, it is important that something follows up after the threats, otherwise the threats seem anticlimactic. An example would be saying ‘I’ll get you’.I’ll get you when you least expect it and I’ll take your legs’ and then have a blast of air shoot up between the audience members leg.

All of these are key to being a good scare actor but it is vital you follow the rules.

You need to ensure that you have an easy escape route in case an audience member reacts badly, but you should be able to read the audience and gain an idea of what approach to use. As a major rule, actors are not allowed to touch the audience in any way this prevents

any accidents. There are usually one or two rehearsals before the night and it is important you attend them as it will show you the route or position you will be in and many important points will be made. Eye contact is important as it allows you to read the audience and pick up on any personality changes, this could prevent any arguments or fights. If someone appears to be too scared, move on to a new audience participant, this stops anyone from being too scarred. Always be professional, if anything does happen, make sure you respond in a professional way to ensure the audience and yourself remain safe, as safety is priority.

Certain Curtain Theatre Company

Certain curtain theatre company focus on domestic violence and have performed their plays in front of public audiences, survivors, women groups, magistrates, etc. that have had experience with this matter. The people who run it write their own plays keeping it original and they have undertaken domestic violence training. They have also spoken to thousands of victims and survivors. They help get across the hidden tactics that abusers can use and do it in a way that gets across the message without upsetting any viewers.

Edinburgh Fringe Shows

Our Glass house was performed at the Edinburgh Fringe and is a play about domestic abuse. The writers Evie Manning and Rhiannon White wrote it for their company. It is performed in a local community rather than a theatre, this is to make the scenes seem more natural and real. White had experience in domestic abuse so found the play a promising idea, as she found it to be a taboo topic. Their aim with this play was to make the audience realise what goes on during domestic abuse and to urge victims to speak out. Many abuse charities have joined the show since its many viewings as they believe it is very helpful. A gender-based violence adviser with NHS Lothian and chair of the Edinburgh Violence Against Women Partnership, Lesley Johnston, says “Theatre is a really powerful tool,” she says. “We’re hard-nosed professionals ‘ we’re working in this field day in, day out. We go along, and we hear presentations, and [the language] is quite cold, quite clinical. Seeing something visual like this gets you at a much deeper level.” (Barnett, 2018)

‘The Factory’ was another Production shown at the Edinburgh Fringe and was performed by Badac Theatre. The production was set in the newly- discovered cellars underneath the pleasance. Audience members are lead through the last moments of a gas chamber camp, from the gas chamber to the crematorium. It hopes to recreate the true moments of a family being forced towards their death at crematorium 2 and gives the opportunity for the audience to gain an insight on what happened on a physical, emotional and phycological way. The production was 50 minutes long and involved nudity and loud noises as well as violence. At the beginning the audience is forced to form two lines with the three actors who eventually become naked. Steel sheets are banged for 10 minutes of the play with shouting’s throughout. After this everyone is packed into a tiny room with the three naked actors who start crying and shaking and singing in Yiddish.

Reading some of the reviews on this production a lot of the audience members felt like hey were prisoners themselves and no longer spectators. They have all said it was a harrowing and very daunting. Some audience members fled from sheer panic and others listened to orders as they couldn’t stop themselves from believing it was actually happening.

A journalist from BBC Scotland speaks of his experience; ‘I was rooted to the spot and I remember trying hard not to flinch, or even breathe, in case my movement caught their attention. I tried to reason with myself by thinking, ‘they are just actors’, but they were just

too convincing, and I could actually feel my heart pounding. The noise and the intimidating men enveloped me, and I became more and more anxious until I suddenly managed to make a run for the door, which was being opened for a man who was also fleeing. And then I just started to cry from the sheer shock of the experience.’ He then goes on to say ‘I have since learned from a leading clinical trauma psychologist, Dr Matthias Schwannauer of Edinburgh University, that my reaction was not weak or wimpy as I have feared people would think. He said: ‘If you flood people with noise and move towards them it increases their physical threat as the brain is subjected to a multi-sensory impact.’ This does not evoke sympathy because there is acute threat and, instead, the reflective part of the brain is shutdown and you can’t reason that it is not real. ‘The extreme noise causes the brain to feel confused and I know some people who would be tipped over the edge from this show. Your reaction has been similar to that of a trauma victim.’ (Badactheatre.com, 2018)

Sarah Kane

Sarah Kane is a playwriter who causes a lot controversy due to her plays. One of her shows caused four people to faint due to the extent of the violence and gore as well as how it was graphically portrayed. In 1995, January, her career began but it sadly came to an end when she decided to take her own life by hanging in February 1999. ‘Blasted’ was the first production she created and there was a lot of critical outrage that arose. This was due to the play containing raw language, powerful images of rape, eye-gouging and cannibalism. The first half of the play was portrayed in a naturalistic way, but the second half was eerily nightmarish and highly symbolic. People who support her work believe that people can learn from her plays, also learn to be courageously theatrical. The main issue, that people worry about, is that it will teach young writers to live in despair and to become more

profound you need to end your own life. This is an extremely dangerous message to portray as it is endangering young lives. Kane’s productions focus more on imagery and movement rather than dialogue. She wanted to stay true to how violence was and decided that portraying it in such a shocking way was how it should be done.

What I can do is put people through an intense experience. Maybe in a small way from that you can change things.

– Sarah Kane (Sarah Kane an ethics of catastrophe, 2001)

Due to her show being non-realistic, which does affect the portrayal as explained previously, the violent imagery was stronger; this ensures that the audience isn’t passively watching, it shocks the audience. Her plays don’t have any meaning within them, so it forces the audience to think about the violence more but in their own way. Kane portrays evil in an unusual way to most people, she doesn’t portray it as if it is within the person but rather forced on them by society. Torture is presented as something that is ordinary and justifiable not something that needs to be to be explained.

During a revival of ‘cleansed’ an audience member collapsed shortly after a certain scene. This scene consists of someone cutting another person’s tongue off with some large scissors, the victim then opens his mouth, full of blood, and waves his arms as no sound is made. This is within the stage directions. Five people fainted and 40 more walked out within just the first week of the show running. The play’s shock levels where enhanced as the tongue cutting scene came shortly after a pole had been inserted into a man’s anus; incest, electrocution, rape and force genital reassignment surgery scenes followed shortly after. Shock was also enhanced because the play was not only written by but also directed by a

woman. This raised a lot of questions on why? do we still somewhat expect the violence to be less graphic.

Verbatim Theatre

Verbatim theatre is a documentary form of theatre that is based on the spoken words of real people. Exclusively real people’s words are used in it’s strictest form. However sometimes invented scenes are mixed with interview material or they will use reported and remembered speech instead of using recorded testimony.

This form of theatre is being used as a cure for violence in Chicago and a few other cities. Young adults tell their stories and explain the trauma they went through and the effects it had on them. They believe that violence starts in young adults, so they perform the plays to young adults for free. The stories are expressed and performed, and they will sometimes get the audience involved. The images are not graphic, but the stories can be, and the stories are from real events that had taken place. Emotional attachment is increased because there is more empathy and sympathy, this is mainly due to knowing the stories are real.

Theatre Censorship

Five years before Shakespeare was born, 1559, queen Elizabeth stated that no play which dealt with matters of religion or the governance of the estate of the common weal, should be performed. Censorship was concerned with profanity, heresy and politics. Shakespeare had to get license from the Master of the Revels to be able to perform any of his plays.

In 1968 on September the 26th, theatre censorship was abandoned by Britain. Any play that wished to be licensed for public performance no longer had the worry of Lord Chamberlain censoring their play as he was striped of that power. The first Broadway production uncensored was performed the very next day; it was the musical production called Hair that included nudity. In 1998 John Nathan, a reporter for the telegraph, went to see a production called Shopping and F—ing. The play is about a teenage rent boy’s life and includes explicit scenes of anal, oral and violent sex. He followed two New York women out of the auditorium and said ‘the two New York ladies appeared almost unmoved by the shocking scenes. Eventually, one said to the other: ‘Well, there wasn’t much shopping’ (Nathan, 2018).

There is somewhat a pressure in modern day society for playwrights to self-censor their plays. In 2008 a playwright called Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti had a play that caused a lot of protests. The play was called Behzti (Dishonour) and one of the controversial scenes included rape in a Sikh Temple. The protests were very violent, so much so that Bhatti had to go into hiding in fear of her life and stop the play entirely. During the protests actors were locked in the changing rooms for their safety as bricks were thrown through plate windows; there are even unconfirmed reports of protesters with swords drawn running through the building. Richard Bean, a playwright, agrees with John Nathan that most of the pressure to self-censor comes from Right-wing religion (Nathan,2018).

CONCLUSION

Unfortunately, I was unable to gain primary research which would have consisted of surveys, questionnaires and interviews. This would have allowed me to gain my own first-hand research on the topic and gain more of an understanding and I believe if I was to redo this I would certainly incorporate it into my decision. It may have changed my views on

whether I agree with Sarah Kane or not or it may have solidified and backed up my current views.

After looking into all this research, I have mixed views on whether Sarah Kane’s statement is true, but I find myself leaning towards agreeing with her. A lot of companies or productions that do portray scenes of a graphical/sensitive nature do so for various reasons, which most commonly is awareness of these sensitive topics. I do believe that viewing violence, especially of such graphic content, can leave bad psychological effects but I do also believe that it can also be beneficial psychologically too. I believe by giving better warnings of the content that will be shown within a production, and in some cases consider age limitations, a lot of psychological effects as well as protests can be prevented. Possibly explaining the worst visual throughout the production will help people decide whether they can or cannot withstand viewing it and then it is down to the individual audience member’s decision. Considering Sarah’s statement about denying the existence of violent issues if you cannot represent it, I believe that shows should have the right to be able to perform what ever they want on stage, as long as there is the correct warnings. By having the violence appear so real there is more of an emotional connection to the character and they are able to fully understand the extent of the horrors of which certain violent acts can consist of, without a visual representation, or emotional connection, the audience could passively watch and therefore the message of the play would not fully come across. I believe that it can truly benefit people in a positive way, as it will not only show how awful it can be it but can also teach people the signs and language that may hint towards it happening, allowing them to prevent it, or how to deal with the situation if it was to ever arise. I also believe that young ones can watch it, depending on the content and their age, but I believe if it does in the correct way it can be more beneficial due to it helping them, not only understand the

feelings of the victim, but also the victim’s friends and family; it would also show them the consequences that will and can occur when you do the actions. Verbatim theatre is already on its way to teaching various people about different violent issues such as abuse. I believe it can not only be beneficial to teach the audience, but I also believe it could be a fantastic opportunity for victims to have their stories be told and their voices heard without them needing to reveal who they are. Religion has always been a sensitive topic, even before Shakespeare’s time, I believe its because it is what people put their faith in. This is the only topic I feel should be delicately thought about when being performed as it could upset a lot of people and as mentioned in a previous chapter, it can also cause serious harm. Religion is something that a lot of people have faith in and there are many different forms with different rules, and some people are more true to their religion than others.

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