Updated: May 11, 2020
Content Warning- this article contains discussions and images of staged vomit and mutilation.
When I was a very small child, my grandmother took me to my first and last NRL game.
I must have been very young, probably only around 7 years old. I don't know anything about NRL. I don't understand the rules and I don't entirely know why I was brought to the game. But I so clearly remember one particular moment that occurred during this sporting event that I always think of it when I think about the magic of gross-out moments in theatre.
It was the Rabbitohs versus St. George. I remember watching the boys in their uniforms running around on the too-green grass, bathed in floodlights and sweat. And I watched as one of the players took a big swig from his drink bottle, swoosh it around in his mouth, and spat it all out onto the grass. Now, as an adult, I know why someone would do this. Well, I can guess- I do not know the intricate sporting reasons why that was necessary, but it makes some kind of sense. Not when I was a little girl it didn't. 7-year-old me was horrified.
I thought the man had vomited.
Why was he sick like that? He just kept running- why? Why was nobody helping him? Was he going to do it again? It wasn't so much that I was worried about his health; more that I was convinced he was going to be sick again, and I didn't want to see it. I followed him for the rest of the game, so totally sure that he had puked on the field and was just going to keep playing regardless. Even thinking about it now makes me feel a little queasy. It was one of those stupid childhood moments that has stuck with me, and I think part of it was the helplessness I felt. Sitting so far away, with no one around me who seemed to understand or care, I felt so disgusted that I had been made to watch a man vomit like that. I couldn't have looked away, I couldn't have stopped it, because it came without warning. I was forced to witness it, and it was gross and upsetting.
I'm reminds me of another story from my childhood.
I did dance as a child, and part of that involved several years of performing in Schools Spectacular. This is a ridiculous variety show in which over 5,000 child performers from primary and high schools in New South Wales sing and dance in one of the most bizarre and formative aspects of my childhood experience. In one of my first years participating in 'Spec', my mother opted to help chaperone a group of kids from my school to see the Friday matinee. The kids she was with were in Kindergarten. One of the segments during the show was a heartfelt, almost certainly hamfisted tribute to soldiers killed during war. It was a dance and singing medley that, at one point, involved several dancers dressed as soldier playing dead on the floor of the Sydney Entertainment Centre.
Unfortunately, I couldn't find any images of the performance. However, it seems this subject matter is popular fodder for School Spectacular, because here's a similar situation transpiring at School Spec in 2013-
So, the family legend goes that my mother is sitting with several very, very young children, who are watching a fun musical variety show that has taken a dark turn. And apparently, these children began to speak in hushed tones, about the welfare of the dancers. One little boy asked my mother-
"... Is he dead?"
Can you imagine the panic those kids felt? Can you feel the pit in your stomach or the prickling of your skin as if you were 6 years old and had to figure out if a bunch of 15-year-old boys were actually shot, right before your eyes, during a school excursion on a Friday afternoon?
These moments can serve to demonstrate how affecting a visceral moment can be. Theatre has the unique power to circumvent the logical reasoning of one's brain and instead implant emotions of panic and disgust where once there was thought. And yes, it is definitely easy to trick children into believing something is real- but it's hard to contend that theatre-literate adults are completely immune to the visceral.
Periodically, a production will be staged that becomes infamous for its notable effect on the audience. A quick Google search will bring you the gory details of shows like Lucy Bailey's 2014 Globe production of Titus Andronicus, during which over 100 patrons fainted or walked out during the season. One of these lucky audience members was theatre critic Holly Williams, whose review reflects the sheer power of a well-executed stage effect-
"I can’t vouch for Act III, scene ii - but if it’s anything like the rest of this vivaciously staged, blackly comic and dizzyingly unrestrained production, it was probably exceptional."
Sarah Kane's work is another famed source of audience blackouts and nausea, one example being Katie Mitchell's 2016 National Theatre production of Cleansed. Kane's work has inspired this audience reaction since her debut on the Royal Court stage with Blasted in 1995, which endured headlines like the Daily Mail's claim that the show was "...a disgusting feast of filth. " Mitchell contends that the horrified reactions are due in part to the gender and age of the playwright, arguing that “...we’re afraid of that dark female voice that insists we examine pornography and violence. We just don’t feel comfortable being asked to do those things, particularly by a woman.”
There may be some truth to the idea that audiences are refusing to listen to the revolutionary voice of a young intelligent woman- I would also posit, however, that it may be a matter of stage technology evolving to a point where the effects used to convey these voices have become troublingly realistic. Yasmina Reza's 2006 play God of Carnage presents a unique challenge to theatre makers looking to stage it, as it features a notorious scene in which one character lets forth what Reza terms "...a brutal and catastrophic spray of vomit." After leaving Broadway in 2010, community theatres across North America were faced with the bizarre problem of how to realistically stage vomit of the projectile variety. Seattle Repertory Theatre's solution involved a contraption that used compressed air to blast split-pea soup out of a hose that was run up the back and out of the sleeve of the actress. New York's Signature Theatre took this compressed air technology one step further by having the actress connect her wrist tube (filled with oatmeal and baby food) to a compartment hidden in the couch, which housed a compressed air tank.
And the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre abandoned their compressed air technology after malfunctions occasionally sprayed the vomit onto the first row of the audience; instead, they hid a hot water bottle full of stage puke in a throw pillow, which the actress would violently squeeze at the appropriate moment.
For shows like these, viscera becomes part of the mythos of the show. In my last post I discuss the paratheatrical, and how theatre makers can use and abuse the spaces that exist around a production. Show-induced syncope is one way in which a production may garner extra attention and interest, or at the very least some level of morbid curiosity. Lucy Bailey, director of the aforementioned production of Titus Andronicus, stated in an interview with The Independant that "...I find it all rather wonderful. That people can connect so much to the characters and emotion that they have such a visceral effect... I used to get disappointed if only three people passed out.” Reviews and interviews that make a point to focus on the disgusting elements of a play act as a warning and an enticement. This can be a useful tool to help those trying to avoid disgusting dramaturgy, or a beacon to those who enjoy their theatrical experiences to bring up more than just food for thought.
Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty can help explain why theatre makers may choose to go out of their way to disgust an audience. In his 1932 book Theatre and Its Double, director and essayist Antonin Artaud argues that viscera and extremity, including graphic depictions of violence and bodily functions, can create a more profound emotional experience for audiences. He states that “…without an element of cruelty at the root of every spectacle, the theatre is not possible… In our present state of degeneration it is through the skin that metaphysics must be made to re-enter our minds” (1958, pg. 99,). There is certainly an argument to be made that the evocative nature of violence and other gratuitous moments can cement the meaning and symbolism of a work more clearly in the mind of an audience. A play like God of Carnage, for example, is turned on its head with the projectile vomiting that happens in the first 15 minutes. As actress Vanessa Lock puts it, this gross display "...pushes us into another relationship, because I’ve exposed so much of myself... I sort of vomit all that out and, okay, now we’re going to show who we really are.” In a play concerned with exposing the thin veneers of polite society, vomiting at a dinner party is an excellent way to transition from a theatre of talking and contemplating, to a theatre of action and spectacle. Would Reza's thesis be as clear if it was conveyed through other means? Maybe. But viscera bypasses the intellectual and, as Artaud states, forces the metaphysics of Reza's point to be absorbed through other means.
Especially if you happen to be in the front row and the vomit robot backfires.
But, I think back on the most upsetting and graphic theatre experiences I've had, including my stint at the NRL, and I don't remember those moments as profoundly intellectual. For instance, every time I see a production of Hamlet I can't help but worry that Gertrude will vomit when she is poisoned at the end of the play. I mean, it is easy to fill her goblet with peas and oatmeal so she can beautifully spew it up in her final moments. I am always a little distracted in that moment, because as much as I love stage vomit in theory, I don't really want to see it. And for audiences with weaker stomachs and aversions to blood, they might not have a choice in the matter. The person sitting next to a sick audience member might be having a profound experience watching them faint, but the person doing the fainting sure isn't.
This is the dramaturgical question to ask of plays that have disgusting moments- is being gratuitous a help or is it a distraction? Is it fair to ask audiences to essentially agree to be rendered unconscious by a work? Does it ruin a great play, or add to the metaphysical experience of it?
At the very least, for those who can stay conscious, disgusting dramaturgy makes for an unforgettable night at the theatre.
What's your most disgusting theatre experience? How do you feel about disgusting dramaturgy? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Prokosh, K 2012, 'RMTC's attempts to create realistic stage vomit resulted in an embarrassment of retches', Winnipeg Free Press, 7 April, viewed 9 May 2020, <https://www.winnipegfreepress.com/breakingnews/thar-she-blows-146514105.html>.
Goldstein, J 2012, 'Projectile puking plays leading role in Signature’s ‘God of Carnage’', The Washington Post,12 June, viewed 10 May 2020,
Terry, M 2016, 'Five people faint due to violence in National Theatre's Cleansed', The Guardian, 24 Feb, viewed 9 May 2020,
Gardner, L 2015, 'Blasted was dismissed by a handful of critics but the conversation has changed', The Guardian, 12 Jan, viewed 9 May 2020,
Williams, H 2014, 'Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s Globe, theatre review', The Independent, 2 May, viewed 9 May 2020,
Clark, N 2014, 'Globe Theatre takes out 100 audience members with its gory Titus Andronicus', The Independent, 22 July, viewed 9 May 2020,
Artaud, A 1958, The theatre and its double, Grove Press, New York.
Blasted still © Luna Theatre Company
God of Carnage © still Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre
School Spectacular still © Seven Network
Titus Andronicus still © Nigel Norrington