Marissa Skudlarek, questioning.
The other week, British theater director Vicky Featherstone caused a stir when she claimed that plays with complex, flawed heroines make audience members uncomfortable. This led to a lot of online discussion, which I am not really interested in rehashing – except to respond to a comment that I saw several times. People suggested that Featherstone was ridiculous to complain about audience members reacting to plays with discomfort, because “the point of theater is to make people uncomfortable.”
People asserted this like a self-evident truth or an article of faith, yet to me it’s not self-evident and is in fact deeply problematic.
Let me be clear: I think there’s a place for theater that makes people uncomfortable, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing when an audience reacts with discomfort. However, I take issue with claiming that the purpose of theater is to make people uncomfortable – which implies that discomfort is the best emotion that theater can provoke, and that sowing discomfort should always be theatermakers’ goal. I take it on faith that theater ought to inspire emotion(s) in the audience, but why privilege one specific emotion, discomfort, over the whole broad palette of emotions that humans can experience?
Perhaps people who say that theater should be uncomfortable are operating from the assumption that we live in such a fucked-up, unjust world that discomfort is the only valid emotion. Down with joy, down with uplift, down with cheap and sentimental tears! Up with theater that jolts us out of our bourgeois complacency! It’s been a while since I read my Brecht, but this seems like a very Brechtian conception of theater. And, again, Brechtian drama has its place. But I would find it very difficult to go on living – and extremely difficult to go on creating art – if every single play tried to make me feel uncomfortable about my role in Western global capitalism.
Another problem with saying “the point of theater is to make people uncomfortable” is that often, it really seems to mean “the point of theater is to make wrong–thinking people uncomfortable.” Vicky Featherstone said that feminist plays made sexist audience members uncomfortable, and lots of people responded by saying “Well, good, they damn well should!” But would those people react with equal enthusiasm (“Good, theater is supposed to make you feel uncomfortable!”) if a theater produced a misogynistic play that made feminist audience members uncomfortable?
Again, I am not arguing that all theater should be insipid pabulum. But I believe that art can be challenging without necessarily being uncomfortable. Challenges can take many forms – intellectual, emotional, philosophical – and they can be a lot of fun. Indeed, it’s pretty easy to get people to do something they think will challenge them, but it’s very hard to get them to do something they think will be uncomfortable. Crossword puzzles are challenging. Video games are challenging. Getting a root canal is uncomfortable.
I would love it if 100% of the plays I saw challenged me in some way (currently, I feel like I don’t see enough challenging theater). But if 100% of the plays I saw attempted to make me uncomfortable, I would probably stop going to the theater.
True, it’s not always easy to negotiate the line between “challenging” and “uncomfortable,” because it differs for every audience member. But my general rule would be: strive to create challenging art, but know that some people may react to your challenge with discomfort. This is very different from creating art that deliberately seeks to make people uncomfortable.
For an example of what I’m talking about, take Hamilton. (Did you know that it’s illegal to write about theater in Fall 2015 without mentioning Hamilton?) Its allusion-filled, fast-paced lyrics are challenging on an intellectual level. And in casting people of color as the Founding Fathers, it challenges our ideas about American history and who has the “right” to tell this story. But, by and large, Hamilton is not making people feel uneasy and uncomfortable – that’s not how a show becomes a massive hit. Instead, people are rocking out to the cast album on road trips and sharing their favorite lyrics on social media. Some people say that Hamilton makes them feel inspired or patriotic (a friend of mine tweeted that listening to the cast album motivated her to update her voter registration); other people say that they can’t listen to Act Two without weeping. I bring this up in order to point out that there’s a difference between shows that make you cry and shows that make you feel uncomfortable. Crying is an emotional release, and therefore there’s something reassuring about it; discomfort allows for no emotional release, which is why it’s so, well, uncomfortable.
Probably, some bigoted people feel uncomfortable with the idea of African-American rappers playing George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. But it also seems pretty clear that Lin-Manuel Miranda didn’t write Hamilton in order to piss off the bigots; he wrote it for the people who find it cool and inspiring to see actors of color play Revolutionary War heroes. His use of hip-hop isn’t intended to unsettle people, it’s intended to make them feel more at ease, to “eliminate any distance between a contemporary audience and this story.” In that interview, Miranda also says “My only responsibility as a playwright and a storyteller is to give you the time of your life in the theater,” and talks about artistic creation as an act of love.
In other words, Hamilton may well make bigots uncomfortable, but that’s a side effect. The point of Hamilton – the most praised and talked-about show of the decade – has nothing to do with making people uncomfortable. Audiences hunger for emotions, for connections, for challenges, for community. What will keep theater alive is its ability to create those things – not its ability to create discomfort.
Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. The staged reading of her new one-act play Tethys is happening Friday, November 20, at EXIT Theatre as part of the San Francisco Olympians Festival. Find her online at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.