The Perils of Self-Revelatory Performance
I began to ponder the considerations of safety in the performing arts more than ten years after I started performing. In 2018, I was selected as a grantee of Goethe Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan Refunction grant. For the first time in my life, I had out-competed colleagues for the privilege of creating original work. That project was Unravel, an ensemble piece that explored the therapeutic effects of improv games and exercises on mental health. To accompany an inflated visit from imposter syndrome, I was also hugely concerned with being able to speak to the medical validity of what I was presenting. “Is playing improv games really going to help with your depression and anxiety?” was a question I wanted to find an answer to. With initial support from a medical researcher at Lady Hardinge Medical College, we researched case studies where yoga and improv had been offered as “relief measures” for symptoms of depression. With precedent on my side, I then proceeded to explore the games and note their effects on the participants over the building period of the play.
The problems started during our second run of the play in 2019. After an initial successful run of 3 performances at Siddhartha Hall in New Delhi’s Max Mueller Bhavan, the performing team was starting to develop problems after performances. While many of these symptoms appear like the natural stress of working long hours on a production, there also seemed to be something making all the performers edgier, pricklier and pointier. The play included portions where the performers would reveal true personal incidents dealing with depression, anxiety or even caring for people suffering from the same. The actors had all consented to sharing these stories with an audience. Initially most of us judged the process to be cathartic. And when a performer broke down during a performance they would insist on continuing out of “the best interests of the production.” Everyone was lauding the performers as brave for sharing their stories, holding them up to judgment from an audience and mostly finding support. We thought we were doing well and the community was widely supporting the destigmatization of a difficult topic.
Then we realized we were doing everything wrong. The realizations came slowly. If an actor feels unsafe while telling their story, to do so may be an act of bravery for them, but a failure on the part of the director to keep them safe. If an actor wishes to harm themself in the process of pursuing a performance, then guidelines, and an immediate authority, must state that they are not allowed to.
We realized we were working on a production where the actors were placing themselves in harm’s way, and willing to do so to please their director or even to challenge themselves. However, behaving in harmful ways has harmful consequences. The dynamics that kept the team together were shattering, the time we enjoyed in each other’s company was now tense and irritating. The worst part was we really could not tell what we were doing wrong.
Establishing A Safe Space; Unravel Run 2.0
The first time we invited a consultant drama therapist was at the request of one of the performers. There were several who were not happy about the prospect of having an outsider as part of the process of a production. There were more who were uncomfortable with the idea of an analyst evaluating them. But all had consented to her mediating a way forward for us to complete our second run of shows. We had 4 more performances scheduled over the next two months and needed a solution.
The first question she asked was, “How is this a safe space?” We had told her that we envisioned our production as a safe space for people dealing with mental health issues to come to a space free of judgment and share in our experience. She was quick to point out that we had not established rules that would keep the space safe (is anyone allowed to say anything? Are there limits, physical and verbal on performance?) nor had we designed rituals into our practice. The rituals would allow a performer to mentally enter into the process of a performance. What we were doing in Unravel is classified as self-revelatory performance. The actor shares real incidents of their life, but it remains a performance. If the actor is not able to separate himself between performance and reality, he risks damaging his perceptions. In order to do that, the actor marks ritual when he enters the space of practice, e.g. breathing and stretching. This ritual marks the beginning of a separation from himself and the character.
We instituted three check-ins during our next 4 performances. They involved three points in the play where the performers stop, step out of character while still in view of the audience and perform a ritual together. If any performer was feeling overwhelmed they had designated a physical “safe space” outside of the staging area that they could go to too and the performance would continue.
The second run was eye-opening. Not all our problems were solved, but some changes occurred. Our level of empathy and engagement with each other increased. We were less affected by the presence of the audience. But we also, unfortunately, were not able to resolve all the conflicts that emerged from the group. While those were disappointing, we did notice that the creation of safety guidelines for ourselves had also strengthened our control over the craft. The practice of safety has given us ways to protect ourselves and express our discomforts. Each performer had the knowledge that there were resources available and they had self-agency to take actions to keep themselves safe. More than the occurrence of a possible incident, it was the availability of a course of action that created a stable working environment for the performers.
Soon after our second run, as we went on to different productions, we noticed the stark lack of safety standards at other organizations. I accepted the post of Artistic Director at the Little Theatre Group Auditorium (LTG) Repertory for the 2019-20 season. Along with performance and production training, I insisted on the creation of safety guidelines for the group. It was at LTG Repertory that I learned that safety consisted of three considerations: performer, space and audience. Often venues will have rules that govern the usage of a space: the disposal of garbage in marked areas, removal of shoes, signage towards restrooms; but they seldom included rules to govern the safety of performers.
Establishing Safety As A Practice - Directing The LTG Repertory
One of the first safety tasks of the LTG (Little Theatre Group) Repertory was to populate a first aid box. The Repertory would decide what the first aid box would contain. This is the list they came up with (see link). What stood out was one female performer’s request to add sanitary napkins to the list. While all other items had been happily covered by the administration, this item drew contention. The assertion was that now the students, “may be asking for too much.” It was odd that this one item, specific to female performers needs, was the only item that raised concern. At that point it was evident that the entire staff of the auditorium was male. From box office and custodial duties to administration there was no single female employee. The female repertory members decided to pay for the napkins themselves as long as they could keep them in the box. The simple rule for all items in the first aid box was that if you used something, you replaced it the next day. The placing of the sanitary napkin also had the knock-on effect of destigmatizing the usage of sanitary napkins by female repertory members.
However, this emphasis on safety also came with consequences. A male repertory member, who had not been attending a free optional course I offered to study Forum theatre, once angrily declared to me, “I do not need to know about safety! I know how to stay away from women!” I understood his anger. It came more from the defensiveness that he might, one day, be branded negatively. There was a fear in discussing the matter. My immediate response was, “But what will you do when your character has to go to the female character?” I realized that there was still a wide disconnection between how a performer conducted himself during his performance and outside of it. There seemed to be many things actors allow themselves during a performance that they would not allow themselves in ordinary situations. The problem was what they decided to do on stage was happening without the consent of their co-actors, and no one knew how to address that. The most common example would be a disagreement between two performers. As isolated incidents they were argued and forgotten or, over time, a performer singled out as a trouble-maker but the others were forced to continue to work with him.
Too much safety - LTG Repertory
One of the complaints about me at the LTG Repertory was that I talked too much about safety. During my time there, the challenge was to see that a repertory of members could achieve more if they clearly demarcated their rules. The rules then also work as responsibilities they held towards each other, the space and the audience. But, by the end of my tenure there was more comfort in not discussing it and continuing to work than to define it and achieve more.
What the above two specific case studies advocate is that any research study on instituting consent and safety guidelines universally for the performing arts, starts with individual stories. Each case study opens up a different understanding into the socio-cultural context of safety in the performing arts in India; or the conscious and unconscious silencing of the rights of female performers in the theatre workspace; or even the re-definition of safety standards over time. Conversations and actions that were deemed acceptable before are evaluated as inappropriate now. However, incidents such as the acting teacher who would non-consensually grope his female students chest during breathing exercises is not simply a reflection of evolving values, but a concerted effort to not consider female voices in the discussion on safety.
This study will focus on studying the patterns that have existed in the Indian context safety in the performing arts, propose safety sessions at various organizations across India to establish safety guidelines, and advocate for safety as a continuous practice, not as the establishment of never-evolving rules.
Past and Ongoing Research
There are ongoing conversations on the topic of safety practice with several groups and institutions. We have already conducted sessions with a few, while others are still in the pipeline. Recently, Kaivalya Plays celebrated the one year anniversary of their Project ‘Headspace - Applied Improv for Mental Wellness’ which is a collaborative attempt with Oddbird Theatre & Foundation, New Delhi to explore elements of mental safety by assessing therapeutic effects of improv on symptoms of mental health issues. To mark the occassion we asked participants who attended regularly to help us conduct our first safety survey.
By the time Headpsace was completed, we had conducted 24 sessions over 12 months which saw a total of 600 participants. We conducted a review survey of our past year attendees on how useful they found their experience with us and how we could make it better. Of the 290 odd unique attendees, we received 60 responses. 54 of those agreed to having picked up helpful takeaways from our sessions and applying them to their professional and personal lives to receive positive results. On a scale of 10, the average rating of them wanting to come back and explore safety and mental health through applied improv with us was at 8.74.
Announcing The Safety Research Project
We are announcing a new research study by Kaivalya Plays that evaluate the current state of physical, mental, legal and financial safety in the performing arts in India.
Safety can be physical, emotional, mental, financial or legal, in the context of performing arts professionals. We also identify the difference in approach to safety as an individual, a group, an organisation or an institution. Safety in a rehearsal room, in a performance space, in a meeting, outside of a physical workspace are also different elements of safety one intends to be mindful about. These safety guidelines work primarily in a preventive capacity but can also have some retributive directions including direction to the adequate recourse in law if needed. Safety measures for different genders are different. Safety measures for respecting time are different from those ensuring hygiene. Essentially, it depends on the immediate needs of the individuals concerned. That informs the practical decisions regarding the details of our interaction and involvement. Bottom line being that safety is always a continuous persistent practice.
This project aims to investigate the current landscape of safety practices for performing arts practitioners, collectives and institutions in India. One of the outcomes of this project will be an open-source resource of practical tips, tools and knowledge that can be accessed stakeholders in the performing arts to institute, maintain and cultivate safe environments for individuals.
Through this survey, we seek responses from individuals in the performing arts industry. If you're a collective or an institution, please get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org so that we can schedule a discussion to hear your thoughts.
You can learn more about the safety research project here.