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.