Student theater groups must use physical trigger warnings

As an avid theater fan, I try to attend as many shows as I can. Student theater groups make it easy for me to catch performances right on campus. But I’m also a supporter of theater that is both economically and physically accessible. And multiple times now, student shows that promise to be accessible are only accommodating on a superficial level, and not for people like me.

As a person with epilepsy, certain changes in light, like strobe lights, can cause me anything from a mild headache to a seizure. I tend to stay away from video games or action movies where fast light changes are the norm, but otherwise I live like everyone else. With theater though, strobe lights are not commonly used, and it can be distressing and even dangerous for me to be enjoying a show and then suddenly see rapid light changes.

But strobe lights are not where it ends. It is clear that at these shows, accessibility is not the main concern. For instance, the use of heavy fog – which can be hazardous for people with asthma – is also used without warning at these shows. Multiple theater events are also located in hard to reach places, like Lisner Auditorium’s downstage black box, where you have to go down stairs to reach it, or on the Mount Vernon campus, where the Vern Express shuttle is not always wheelchair accessible. Although some of these hurdles are not controllable by students, like the lack of options for where theater groups can set a production, there are elements they can control – like the usage of strobe lights. Using strobe lights is not the problem, but rather the issue is that there aren’t any warnings given that the shows will include this potentially dangerous technology. It’s important for student theater groups to take into account their audiences’ needs and place physical trigger warnings before the production takes place.

In the past few years, the idea of trigger warnings, specifically about content that can give people a post-traumatic stress reaction, has gained popularity and has been both disputed and loved. Some view these mental trigger warnings as either childish or coddling, while others view them as a benefit to those who feel unsafe when exposed to certain content. But in the midst of this fight, other uses for trigger warnings have been pushed under the rug. Trigger warnings are necessary for those with neurological disorders, such as epilepsy or those who experience sensory overload, like people on the autism spectrum. Students with neurological disorders need the physical content warning to know whether to avoid specific content or take precautions.

Ignoring physical content warnings is a widespread, global problem. In the traveling, national play production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog at Nighttime,” a story about a child with autism, the director Marianne Elliott tried to showcase what it was really like to have sensory overload. But Elliott missed an important aspect of the story by making the show inaccessible to those who have sensory overload problems and light sensitivity. Not only that, but in multiple of its venues, the show was not advertised as having heavy usage of strobe lights and loud sounds. When the show toured my hometown of Charlotte, N.C., I bought a ticket. But I was unaware of its physical content until I had already entered the show. Only then was I given a verbal warning. I ended up leaving the show midway through because of the extensive use of strobe lights.

For me personally, as long as I have a warning, I can make sure to block my eyes from fast light changes, preventing a migraine. But within neurological disorders, there is a wide range of reactions – from mild headaches and migraines to seizures. Although I am able to react and block the light from my eyes, many don’t have the opportunity to do that. There is medication available that can help placate or prevent the reactions, but the responses are different for every person and some people aren’t able to take precautions.

I have seen at least 10 plays at GW, and most of those didn’t advertise their content warnings until after I had already bought a ticket and was seated at the show. I’m not mourning my five dollars as much as I did with the pricey “Curious Incident” tickets, but it’s not about the money. More than anything, I wonder why – in a place where students are so accepting of emotional trigger warnings and where content warnings have been previously placed in show advertisements – it’s still so rare to see physical content warnings at these student shows. With the show Bare, put on by student theater group Forbidden Planet Productions earlier this month, mental content warnings were put on their posters, but physical content warnings were only advertised through social media, making the warning ineffective.

If the reason why content warnings for strobe lights is not being advertised is a financial one, then theater productions shouldn’t worry. Seeing content warnings for elements of a show that affect me won’t stop me from going. Instead, it prepares me. I will know what to expect and can take the required steps to be safe. theater groups can even go above and beyond by marking specific times or scenes where strobe lights will be used, which would help potential audience members with neurological disorders, like me, better prepare.

It’s time for theater groups to take action and start using physical content warnings beyond those commonly used. They must start to promote them in their posters and before ticket sales to create a safe environment. It’s disheartening that an issue so easily solved prevents me and other fans from fully enjoying theater at GW.

Alejandra Velazquez, a freshman majoring in journalism, is a Hatchet opinions writer.

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