No, You Don’t Actually Like Being “Challenged”

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?

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14 comments

  1. Agree! Directors especially have a hard time understanding while their “revolutionary” new play is neither liked nor applauded by the audience. You can’t get away with everything in the name of art..

    1. And I think sometimes, some artists can take being unliked and unapplauded as a sign they’re doing the right thing! But if that’s the case, I think they’ve lost sight of what was presumably their original intent: to influence people or expand their minds.

      1. Anonymous · · Reply

        You could be right.

    2. Anonymous · · Reply

      Glad that I’m not the only one who disagrees.

  2. I’d disagree – I think challenging people can absolutely change their beliefs, I think you just have to go about it differently in theatre than you would in real life. I’d also disagree that no one likes being challenged – if anything, I’ve seen more evidence that people will take any opportunity to explain and defend their worldviews.

    And maybe you’re right that it’s more of a ‘coaxing’ process that goes on in theatre – as you pointed out, often by the introduction of sympathetic characters holding views different to that of the audience. But that’s definitely not true of all theatre. In-yer-face theatre was definitely challenging and often not well received at the time (and I guess is you’re getting your ideas about people being upset rather than challenged from theatre similar to in-yer-face, which is a fair criticism of that kind of theatre), but in the long term it was very successful in changing people’s opinions, even if it was only people’s opinions of what is/is not acceptable to show onstage.

    You say that ‘We have the occasional story of an epiphanic alteration, but for the most part change in belief comes from an accumulation of small adjustments.’ I think you’re right, but perhaps it’s because people are too afraid to offer others the kind of challenge that causes the epiphanies. I’d rather be involved in making theatre that aims for big epiphanies rather than theatre that aims for small adjustments, personally. :)

    1. Can I just say I’m so happy to be disagreed with? It’s awesome. It’s why I write this stuff on the internet and not locked away in some private journal.

      I think I could sum myself up in this post by saying “I’m really cynical about this.” I think that explaining and defending one’s own worldviews is very much not the same as being challenged. To be challenged is to consider the possibility that your worldview is wrong at least in part, and the other worldview is right. I guess you can say defending your own worldview incorporates that, but I think there’s an important difference between “I thought this play was wrong, and here are my explanations for why,” which isn’t being challenged, and “I never thought about it this way, and I need to figure out how I can still hold my previous position in light of this,” which is being challenged. How often do people leave even a very provocative piece going, “Oh my god, maybe I’ve been wrong this whole time?”

      I’d say that in-yer-face theatre had that effect because it was both challenging and coaxing. (I’m modifying my viewpoint here based upon what you’ve said.) I think it’s possible to be both – or maybe to have an unintended coaxing effect. Being exposed to the mere existence of a point of view someone had previously dismissed coaxes them a little bit into, well, acknowledging its existence. So a “challenge’ play can still, eventually, have a coaxing effect in the right direction, if people had not otherwise been exposed to the point of view before. Even being exposed to the controversy surrounding it might help. But I don’t think every challenge play does this, because if people feel they already “knew” about the challenging idea, they’ll just dismiss it. I saw a play this week where someone had such a reaction (which I might blog about in more depth) – instead of going “oh, I never thought of these types of people as complex humans” they said “I am tired of these types of people, I hate encountering them.”

      I totally admire you on the last point, and like I said I think I’m mostly just really cynical about it. I prefer the subtle, sneak-up-on-their-brains approach because I feel that most people will just reject the big challenge, even if its more likely to cause an occasional epiphany. To use a bad metaphor (can’t think of anything else), you can call mine the “war of attrition” approach, and yours the “direct strike” approach, maybe? Something like that?

      Either way, while I disagree with and (clearly) will argue against your approach, I’m genuinely happy that you (and others) go for it. :)

      ::long reply is long!::

      1. Well, I’ve never been afraid to disagree with people. :) Disagreements are great, as long as people can do it respectfully, so I’m really relieved you responded so well.

        Overall, I reckon that once you get someone explaining and defending their views (either by talking to them directly or through a bit of theatre that inspires discussion afterwards), you get them to actually think about their ideas more clearly, and maybe start to re-evaluate them. The act of putting an ingrained idea into words can often make someone reconsider it once they hear it out loud.

        See I don’t even think, as a playwright, I go for particularly direct strikes! I just think there’s room for all types of theatre and all types of theatre-makers, and any piece of theatre that’s of a good quality, challenging or not, has the opportunity to reach an audience.

        And yeah, I’m definitely a bit of an idealist. :)

        1. Anonymous · · Reply

          Well, I’m different. And if people don’t like being challenged, don’t force them to change. Instead, let them be unadventurous all they want.

          1. Nobody can force someone else to change. That said, people can be *influenced* towards changing. And everyone has a right to try to influence any other person. (Hopefully in ways that are meant to make that person a better neighbor and citizen of the world.)

            And everyone has a right to ignore, resist, or turn against anyone else’s influence. If someone wants to be unadventurous, they are free to do their darnedest to try to stay that way. And I can offer up challenges or sneaky coaxing arguments meant to influence them towards being more adventurous. So long as I’m not violating their boundaries – and doing something like writing an article on the internet, or putting on a play, that nobody has to read or watch, tends not to violate anyone’s boundaries – I am free to do that.

    2. Anonymous · · Reply

      Nobody has to change is he or she doesn’t want to.

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  6. Excuse me for my English.
    But why being views’ challenged is somehow equal to changing beliefs of a person? Using this logic the goal of dangerous situation in extreme sports is to be dead.

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