In theatre (and other arts), people often talk about wanting to “challenge” audiences.
This doesn’t mean what we think it means. “Challenging” can be dictionaried as “stimulating, interesting, thought-provoking” but that’s not how it’s used in the arts; when artists talk about “challenging” the audience, what they mean is “provoking them to accept points of view they’d otherwise dismiss” or “confronting them with things uncomfortable to them.”
People certainly do want plays to be challenging in the first sense – who would want to see something that’s not stimulating or interesting? – but I submit that no one -no one- wants to see something that challenges them in the second, confrontational, and more widely-used sense.
And no, I don’t think anyone “needs” it either.
People naturally hold very strongly to their beliefs. If a play challenges their strongest-held beliefs, and does so in a confrontational way, most artists like to imagine–
Well, let’s be clear. Most artists (but not all) are liberal, so what most artists imagine, when imagining their work being “challenging,” is a conservative (in either the ‘non-adventurous’ or the political sense) audience seeing a work that “forces” them to think about things they preferred not to think about it, with the aim of liberalizing them.
But this is not what happens. The reaction an audience member has to being truly challenged is not to open their eyes; it’s to roll their eyes.
The reason we hold strongly to our beliefs is because we, you know, believe them to be right. The kinds of issues that artwork aims to challenge tend to be ones that have a moral dimension. Sex. Freedom. Religion. Race. Family vs. national loyalty. Capitalism vs. socialism. The beliefs people hold about these issues are such that, if they see a play which disagrees with their notions, they react by deeming that play immoral.
To illustrate this, imagine the opposite of the typical political alignment in a theatrical situation. Imagine a liberal theatremaker encountering a play which thematically argues for, say, the anti-abortion-legalization (a.k.a. pro-life/anti-choice) stance. Will their reaction be to be challenged by it? Will they say, “Hey, this play challenges my strongly-held beliefs about a woman’s right to choose! I need to think about that more!”
No. No, they will not. They will roll their eyes at the play, they will dismiss it as immoral (probably the word they’ll use will be “disgusting” or “offensive” or “evil”), they will say that the play concerns or upsets them. It raises concerns with them, concerns about the author that would write such a thing or the theatre company that would present such a thing or about the society that would allow such a thing. It upsets them that other people are seeing this – this thing – this thing that is wrong.
A conservative playgoer will do the exact same thing encountering a pro-choice theme.
A conservative playgoer will roll their eyes at how juvenile the playmaker is if they see a “naked people and cursing challenges your standards!”-type play. They won’t be challenged, just annoyed.
A secular humanist playgoer will roll their eyes at a God-is-good religious propaganda play, thinking “do they really think they’re going to change my mind, just by saying ‘God is good’ for the millionth time?” They won’t be challenged.
I submit that any thematic point in any play that disagrees with its audience can equally be denoted “challenging” as “concerning.” There is no external difference. The only difference is whether the audience member, internally, doubts themself when encountering this thematic point (challenging) or doubts the play (concerning).
But no one – I again, submit, no one – ever goes for “challenging.” When we encounter a story that disagrees with us, we doubt the story, not ourselves. We find it concerning. We roll our eyes.
What we call “being challenged,” when we see a play and talk to our friends afterwards and say, “I loved it, it was so challenging, I love being challenged” is NOT actually being challenged. It’s being developed. Most artists like to say that they enjoy being challenged because, well, you sound pretty bad otherwise. But if this were really true, then our stages would have many, many more stories coming from a conservative standpoint; if this were true, than we’d stage Taming of the Shrew with its original, sexist bent intact instead of whitewashed, because that would challenge us. But we don’t, because such a version would concern us, or upset us. Why are they staging it like that? Don’t they know it’s wrong?
We don’t stage it that way because we feel, in our lives, that we’ve already confronted the question of whether women are inferior, and we’ve come to a resounding “Hell no!” We see no need to challenge that notion by playing the ending of Shrew straight, not even from a devil’s-advocate standpoint. But this goes for every belief we – and everyone – has.
What artists really mean when they say they “like to be challenged” is that they like to encounter thematic points which expand or develop the beliefs they already hold. If you are already anti-racist, and you see Clybourne Park, you will probably not be challenged. That play may expand on your beliefs, perhaps, by reminding you about the inherent troubles with gentrification, or by pointing out that there is buried racism even amongst progressive white people, but it won’t challenge you, since it agrees with you that racism is bad, still exists, and is a complex issue. For Clybourne Park to challenge you, you’d either have to have very unusual beliefs for a typical theatregoer, or it would have to be written differently such that it suggested instead something radical like “white people trying to be anti-racist is itself racist, so just give up.”
Being developed is good. Having your existing beliefs deepened, or expanded on, or added to, is better than them remaining static. But if your goal, as an artist, is to change people’s beliefs, it won’t happen through development. And it won’t happen by challenging them.
What does change people’s beliefs is pretty much the opposite of challenging – coaxing.
When confronted head-on with a theme that disagrees, a playgoer will fight, will knee-jerk, will be concerned and roll their eyes. We don’t just surrender our hard-wired beliefs.
But when those beliefs are nudged just a little to the side – coaxed – when the energy that goes into holding them in place goes instead into a redirection, a belief can change.
A religious-minded homophobe doesn’t see a play about how gay people deserve to marry and suddenly change their mind. But they can see a play (or a TV show, or a movie) featuring a gay character that’s a little bit humanized, and they can begin to shift. “I still don’t think homosexuality is moral,” the person may feel, “but I guess that one gay man isn’t such a devil. He’s just strayed off the righteous path.”
A number of small steps to the side like that can lead to an entirely new direction over time. This is how people’s beliefs change in their normal lives – how they change from liberal to conservative as they get older, or vice versa, or in any other belief. We have the occasional story of an epiphanic alteration, but for the most part change in belief comes from an accumulation of small adjustments.
So if a theatremaker or other artist wants to truly affect and open up the beliefs of the audience, in order to get them to consider different beliefs than the ones they have, they should, instead of looking to confront and “challenge” that audience, look to coax them.
This isn’t an argument against plays that are bold, or dangerous, or even against plays that are challenging. This is an IF -> THEN argument. IF you want to affect beliefs, THEN you should coax, not “challenge.” If affecting beliefs is not your goal – and it damn well doesn’t have to be – then go ahead and challenge, or develop, or neither. Plenty of plays have had a huge impact on history by not-challenging their audiences, but rather by outraging them, thus casting the truth of their beliefs into stark light. Plenty of plays have had a huge impact on history by in fact saying exactly what the audience already believed – but saying it in a way they had never said before, or never heard in public before.
I’ll sum up.
1) Challenging doesn’t change beliefs.
2) No one likes to be challenged.
3) When we write something which we think “challenges” someone else, it really only concerns or upsets them.
4) When someone else writes something which they think “challenges” us, we are really only concerned or upset by it.
5) When we congratulate ourselves for seeing something “challenging,” it didn’t actually challenge us; it only expanded our already-held beliefs.
6) There is nothing wrong with not changing beliefs, nor anything wrong with being actually challenging as long as you don’t expect it to change anyone.
7) Coaxing changes beliefs.
So… you do agree?