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.


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.


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.

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