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How to make theatre a safe space.

Performing Arts
Safe Spaces

Note: This is pretty heavily modelled on a Facebook post I wrote, so if it seems plagiarised: it’s self-plagiarism, which is fine. Nobody’s paying me for this.

So, if you live in Australia, and haven’t been living under a rock, you’ve heard about how Craig McLachlan, darling of period crime drama aficionados, has been accused of being a sex pest in his run of Rocky Horror Show. As someone who spends a great deal of her spare time pottering about in the performing arts, this is pretty close to home for me.

Theatre, by its nature, requires us as performers to make ourselves vulnerable, emotionally and (sometimes) physically. A great performance requires you to trust your director, and the person you’re playing off, and never more so than in a show like Rocky Horror which is full of raunch. What McLachlan is accused of is not only a breach of appropriate behaviour, but a gross breach of the trust that is required for the performance to actually work. While I’ve been lucky enough to never have experienced this kind of thing personally, I know those who have, and I’ve seen how it has affected them. It’s vital that we all work on making theatre a safe spaceawhen I say safe, I don’t necessarily mean comfortable. Theatre is sometimes uncomfortable, both physically and emotionally. What I mean is a space where you feel like you can do the work despite discomfort, knowing that when you hit the point where it’s not acceptable to you to keep going you can say so and have that respected. so that we can give the best performance we can. Let’s talk about how that works.

Actors

If you’re one of the people up on stage, you have a responsibility to the people you’re playing off. When you perform, remember to consider those who you are working with, and treat them with respect and give them space to exercise their autonomy.

Don’t change blocking or physical interactions without clearing it with your compatriots, not just the director. Watch your fellow performers closely for any sign that they’re not OK, and do whatever you must to make them feel safe. That means that if you think someone isn’t OK with something that another actor is doing, you should speak out. Ask them in private if they’re OK, and if there’s anything you can do to help. Something like “I noticed that you looked uncomfortable with what [person] was doing, are you OK?” is a good way to open the conversation. Offer specifics when you talk about helping: “I’m happy to come with you if you want to talk to X” or “I can talk to X on your behalf if you’re not comfortable with talking to them yourself.” Remember, if you (as witness or the uncomfortable person) aren’t OK with speaking to the problem person directly, you can speak with the director or the production team, or whoever is designated to deal with things like this. It’s their job to support you in a good performance, and part of that is you feeling safe.

Directors/Choreographers

If you’re in charge of the action on stage, take that responsibility seriously. Don’t ask your actors to unnecessarily expose themselves (physically or emotionally) to others. If the role or scene requires that exposure, check in, and where possible develop your stage work in consultation with your actors.

Be proactive: if there’s a scene you’re working on that has the potential to go sideways, make it clear from the very beginning what your expectations are, and discuss with your actors what they are and aren’t comfortable with. If we collaborate, and we have some control over what happens, we will feel safer. A great example of this is the show I’m currently involved in: Wicked, with Zest Theatre Group. In “What is this feeling”, a boppy tune sits under some pretty feral bullying. Our choreographer sat us all down before she started working on the song, and told us what she saw happening and made sure we were all comfortable with what was going on, and told us who we could talk to in the production if we felt uncomfortable. 

Another great concept I found out about is the “intimacy choreographer”. A friend recommended an episode of a podcast called Weird Work off the back of my Facebook post, where an intimacy choreographer talks about her work and how it provides safety nets and protocols to ensure a safe working environment on stage.

Keep an eye on things: don’t be afraid to smack someone down if you think they’re pushing to hard, or too far. You are ultimately responsible for what happens on stage in rehearsal and performance, so make sure that whatever happens, it supports your actors in creating a better performance, not in making them fear the stage.

Production Team

If you’re a producer, or a member of the company’s committee, consider ensuring that there is a designated member of the show for people to approach with their issues. This person should not be the director/choreographer, as some people find it difficult to raise issues with the final authority, and they should be a trustworthy member of the production company. Consider making it someone who isn’t closely involved in the day-to-day of the show in rehearsal, such as a producer, a designated committee member, or a member of the crew.

Final thoughts

Theatres are full of a lot of vulnerable people, so let’s protect each other. Don’t assume that “it’ll never happen here” or “our group would never do something like this”. These things can happen inadvertently, from people with the best of intentions. In community theatre especially, new performers are constantly cycling in and out of companies and we rely on unspoken norms to keep things safe. Lets make these norms clear, public, and firm, and have specific processes in place to deal with breaches.

It’s when we feel safest that we can risk the most. It’s in safe spaces that our best performances come because we know that if we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, our directors and fellow performers will keep us from falling, not push us from a height. Don’t let down those who rely on you.

References   [ + ]

a. when I say safe, I don’t necessarily mean comfortable. Theatre is sometimes uncomfortable, both physically and emotionally. What I mean is a space where you feel like you can do the work despite discomfort, knowing that when you hit the point where it’s not acceptable to you to keep going you can say so and have that respected.

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