Shock and Awe
Updated: Nov 17, 2020
Jan Wahl: Why the need for so much gruesome, graphic violence?
Quentin Tarantino: Because it's so much fun, Jan!
So plays out the viral clip of Quentin Tarantino being interviewed by Jan Wahl on KRON 4 News. Tarantino may be film's godfather of shock and awe, but what about shock and awe on stage? Is it useful? Necessary, even? Perhaps shocking elements push our boundaries to a point of discomfort, causing us to question our concept of reality. Or maybe they're a cop-out, offering theater makers a cheap way to stun audiences.
Over time, we as audience members can become desensitized to evil, bored of pain. Especially because we are only witnesses to the action. We try our best to be sympathetic, at times even claim the word “empathetic.” How do we as theater makers stop audiences from letting a play's trauma wash over them and off of them, like Pilate washing his hands? In “The Necessity of Violence,” Winnie Song writes that after a while, for her, the violence in video games feels like “we’re not even thinking about what we’re doing, we’re just getting points.” I’m not condemning video games; I enjoy video games with and without bullets. Theater often offers these same cheap thrills, with and without bullets. After a while, anything that shocks simply becomes an accessory to move along the story, themes, and plot.
Do we believe the shocking stuff we see onstage? If something unsettles us, can we ignore it as fiction, as stagecraft? Richard Gilbert on HowlRound notes that "even a chair on stage is pretending to be a different chair." If everything we see on stage is simply representative, only metaphor, how do we make theater that audiences will believe is truth? Playwright Martín Zimmerman writes in the New York Times article “3 Playwrights on How Mass Shootings Forced Them to Write:” “I have yet to see realistic violence rendered onstage that didn’t take me out of the experience: I’m so aware that what I’m watching is not real. We do ourselves a disservice when we try to make theater a literal space. It’s always way more effective to enlist an audience’s imagination.” When theater makers put shock and awe in their plays, there is a high risk of losing the audience to disbelief and numb disregard. That's not to say, “don't use it,” but to say, “use with caution.”
I am originally from Minneapolis. I love the Minnesota Fringe Festival. There is a particular writer and performer whose name is infamous in the Minneapolis theater scene: Sean Neely. “To some, he’s a daring artist whose bold entries stand out at a festival dedicated to challenging pieces. To others, he’s a publicity-hungry miscreant whose foul 'art' doesn’t fit the term” Mike Mullen writes for City Pages. I first came across Neely's work when I saw his 2011 Minnesota Fringe show The Great Midwestern Drug Circus, a play in which an actor “actually” commits suicide. In Neely’s 2014 Fringe show “Kyle and Sean are Lovers,” Mullen describes that “an unsuspecting audience watched him read from a ‘journal,’ dropping racial epithets and sketching a plan for a mass shooting.”
Mullen had an email conversation with Neely, writing that “Neely wants his performances to convey ‘the horror’ of despicable acts by bringing audiences into the mind of the ‘actual perpetrator.” Neely explains: “Some people don’t care to hear from those people….and that is where the controversy, I guess, begins.” Neely's work reminds me of David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Near the start of one of Wallace’s “interviews,” the narrator asks, “Was the Holocaust a good thing? No way. But did you ever read Victor Frankl? Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning? [N]ow think about it, if there wasn’t a Holocaust there wouldn’t be a Man’s Search for Meaning.” And that’s where that interview starts.
We are faced with tough questions: How will using shock and awe affect an audience? Does employing it serve a legitimate purpose, or is it just for kicks? Will it be effective, or did the playwright stick a gun in scene five because things were getting a little slow? An artist shouldn’t focus on what their intent for a piece is, rather they should put their main effort into the impact their work will have on others. Artists must take responsibility for what they create. Their creation is not for the void. It’s a matter of free speech: you can say what you want, but you must be willing to face the consequences for what you said.
Not everyone “presupposes that theater's primary value is as a call to social action,” writes Phillip Andrew Bennett Low in his review of Kyle and Sean are Lovers. Theater's main purpose could be for entertainment, or even for shocking people out of their skins. However: everything a person does sends a message, and theater is a megaphone. Of course, show reviewers send a message back.
As I write this article about theater, I wonder about my own plays. If I employ shock and awe, I hope it will not be to sensationalize. I also believe that theater's main purpose is a call to social action, a call to create change, a call to inspire greater empathy. Theater is political, just as everything we do in our lives is politics. Politics isn’t just the people we vote for, or voted against, politics is the relation between people living together in society. We don't live in a void. What we do and make affects other people. And that's the point, isn't it?