The Theater Has a Consent Problem

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consent

We don’t do enough to talk about consent, particularly sexual consent, in the context of the theater. Sean Douglass wrote this excellent piece for the CFR that lays bare much of the issue. In summary:

On June 8, the Chicago Reader printed a lengthy investigation by Aimee Levitt and Christopher Piatt exposing a history of emotional and physical abuse at the acclaimed storefront company Profiles Theatre. The treatment, according to the article, was primarily at the hands of co-Artistic Director Darrell W. Cox, whose alleged aggressive behavior, sexual harassment and refusal to follow safety precautions for fight choreography led to an often-unsafe work environment for more than 30 former cast and crew members who were interviewed.

In reading both Douglass’s response and the original article in the Chicago Reader detailing the abuse, I recognized that we, the theater industry, have no idea how to talk about consent when dealing with difficult or explicit work. If we approached actual sexual activity with the same mindset with which we approach “artistic” sexual activity, we’d all be considered rapists.

That’s a bold statement. Here’s why I’m making it.

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LoveIsRespect.org is a nonprofit whose mission is to “engage, educate and empower young people to prevent and end abusive relationships.” They have this handy guide entitled “What is Consent?”. This is an excellent (and short) read, but I want to focus on four “red flags” that do not respect consent:

  • They pressure or guilt you into doing things you may not want to do.
  • They make you feel like you “owe” them — because you’re dating, or they gave you a gift, etc.
  • They react negatively (with sadness, anger or resentment) if you say “no” to something, or don’t immediately consent.
  • They ignore your wishes, and don’t pay attention to nonverbal cues that could show you’re not consenting (ex: pulling/pushing away).

Those seem like pretty straightforward boundaries: anyone could spot those red flags. Now, based on that information, highlight the red flag:

  • “Let’s try this again anyway. You’ll get comfortable eventually — that’s what rehearsals are for!”
  • “There are people who would kill for this opportunity.”
  • “I’m disappointed. I thought you believed in the work we were doing.”
  • “No more questions. Let’s just keep rehearsing until we get it right.”

Trick question. All of them are red flags.

Each of those statements would be a red flag within the context of sexual consent. Why, then, do we allow them in the context of performance? Performers should have no less agency over their bodies just because they are performing, particularly when we ask them to perform something explicit, dangerous or both.

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Legally, we do offer consent forms and we do try to disclose whether or not nudity will be required for a role, but we do very little to address consent proactively and continuously. Signing a form weeks or months in advance that says you consent to partial nudity is far different from actually exposing your body to a room full of strangers eight times a week. This is especially true as works get more explicit and require more of the performer. When the piece we’re working on requires a character to fellate a piece of fried chicken, for example, we need to remember that some actor is going to have to perform that act in real time. As an industry, we frequently talk about the impact of a work on the audience. We rarely discuss the impact of a work on the performers and practitioners who make that work come to life. Difficult work can take a toll on all the artists and technicians involved. We all must be responsible for protecting each other.

Consent, again, is not some initials on a form. Consent is an active, engaged, uncoerced “yes” at the moment of activity. The story of Profiles Theatre is a cautionary tale of what happens when we do not actively engage with, and practice, affirmative consent.

I recognize that performance is a unique environment. We are telling stories that often highlight the parts of humanity that are unseemly. By shedding light on difficult topics, the performing arts can affect monumental change. Nudity, sex and violence are frequently used to expose taboo subjects precisely because theater can tackle those topics in powerful ways. As Uncle Ben told us, with great power comes great responsibility.

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So how do we continue to do challenging work while respecting our artists’ agency by seeking enthusiastic consent? Luckily, a group has answered this very question; the BDSM community:

The word itself is an acronym, but unlike most acronyms, the letters in it are a set of smaller abbreviations, interlocking to define — broadly — a group of concepts that can mean something as brief as a good night out or something as rich and varied as a lifetime’s experience….

Generally, BDSM denotes a set of erotic preferences; it’s a form of sexual expression (although you can, without trying too hard, find splinter groups who will say it’s not about sex at all) that involve what’s called “power play”, or the taking of complementary roles that set two or more participants at different levels of power.

The core question of BDSM practice is remarkably similar to the question I posed above: how can two (or more) consenting adults engage in activities that could be harmful in a way that protects all involved? Here are four practices that the performing arts can learn from BDSM to create a safer environment for everyone:

Safewords

A safeword is defined as “a word serving as a prearranged and unambiguous signal to end an activity, such as between a dominant and submissive sexual couple.” This is particularly useful if you are in a scene where “no” can be ambiguous based on the context. The performing arts can use this concept of a safeword to allow performers to end a scene in progress if it is getting out of hand. Safewords can also be “safe actions” — the dropping of an item, the moving of a prop — that signal the action in progress should end immediately.

For example, the actors involved in the aforementioned Killer Joe production at Profiles Theatre discussed a safeword:

Another night, Cox squeezed Benson’s throat so hard she says she began to see specks. She tried to squeeze his thigh and say the safe word they’d agreed upon to let him know he was hurting her, but he didn’t respond to the signal and held her throat so tightly she couldn’t make a sound.

The problem in this case is that the actors on stage were the only ones responsible for enforcing recognition of the safeword. That leads me to the next practice.

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BDSM
Great prop table or greatest prop table?
Photo: David Shankbone.

Collective Responsibility

Encouraging a culture of consent is everyone’s responsibility. The playwright, actors, director, choreographer, stage manager, costumers, janitors — everyone — should be empowered to call out a lack of consent and/or dangerous condition. I will also put a particular onus on the playwright: If you’ve created this world and these actions, you should also create protections for the actors. I think playwrights are uniquely equipped to provide safe words, lines or actions that can support the story while also allowing the actor to stop or divert a scene.

In the case above, if Benson’s safe action was to drop a prop she was holding, her cast and crewmates would be able to see that. If Cox ignored the signal, the light operator could immediately go to blackout. Or another cast member could enter the scene using parameters provided by the playwright or director. Abuses become less likely when the entire community is responsible and authorized to act.

Counterintuitively, this is where shame can play a positive role. In the BDSM community, it is not uncommon to ask for referrals when meeting new partners. It is also common to name names and share stories of partners who disregarded safewords or hard limits. People who don’t play by the rules don’t necessarily get to play for long. The community recognizes it is only as safe as its most dangerous participant, so it does what it can to collectively monitor itself. The more people are watching and reporting, the more people are motivated to respect a given boundary.

To be clear, no one should ever be shamed or questioned for using a safe word. If you can take less today than you could yesterday, you don’t have to explain yourself. The only discussion should be around ways to adjust the scene, if necessary, for next time. Consent needs to be given consistently.

Check-Ins

And that brings us to check-ins. One cannot and should not be expected to provide blanket consent. Conditions change, capacities change, intensities change. Regular check-ins to renegotiate the terms of the action and safewords while also reaffirming consent are crucial. Productions evolve over time and so do performers: agreements need to adapt to allow for that.

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Aftercare

Last, but certainly not least, is aftercare:

Aftercare is, very simply, the time you and your partner take after play time to recover and also to see to each other’s emotional and physical needs. Certain role plays and kinky acts can be both physically and psychologically taxing, so this time is a great for relaxing, as well as getting “back to reality.”

In our current environment, we rely on the artists to take care of themselves. More specifically, we have a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy around whether or not they are taking care of themselves. There is also some basic evidence to suggest connections between creativity, mental illness and drug use. So, if performers are taking care of themselves, they are not necessarily doing it well.

Developing and discussing aftercare plans before the show starts allows for everyone in the production to understand that taking care of themselves and each other is a priority. Possible aftercare options might be ten minutes of group meditation after the show ends or awareness that an actor wants fifteen minutes of solitude in a designated spot. It might be as simple as making sure there are water pitchers available in all of the wings so that no one is dehydrated. Prepping for aftercare before and during the process will keep people safer and more resilient.

Ultimately, I hope that engaging with these practices will allow theater practitioners to participate in more explicit and challenging work. There are deeper conversations to be had about the artistic roles of unsimulated sex or staged violence and I want us to have them. What I don’t want is to sacrifice the personhood or safety of our artists to do so.

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Courtney Harge

Courtney Harge is a producer, director and professional arts administrator originally from Saginaw, MI. She is the Founder and Artistic Director of Colloquy Collective, a theater company based out of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. She has worked for the several arts institutions specializing in institutional fundraising, crowdfunding and fiscal sponsorship. Her artistic focus is on work that complicates the popular narratives surrounding race, identity, culture and community and their collective impact on the art we experience. She holds a Masters of Professional Studies, with Distinction, in Arts and Cultural Management from Pratt Institute and a Bachelors of Fine Arts with Honors from the University of Michigan in Theater Performance. Her credo (#HustlingKeepsYouSexy) is not merely a hashtag; it’s a way of life. On Twitter: @Arts_Courtney

  • Mike Werckle

    Courtney, you bring up a lot of very good points. I’m wondering, how do you recommend balancing the needs of the production with the needs of the actor if an actor were to suddenly become unavailable in the middle of a run due to consent issues? At what point does consent supersede commitment or vice versa?

    • Thanks Mike! I appreciate your response.

      The goal, for me, would be that the regular check-ins would minimize that type of surprise exit. If all involved are having real conversations about the impact a role is having on a performer, the team would be more likely to develop solutions that support that performer before it gets to the point where an actor would leave a production.

      I also think that consent should reign supreme. If someone is so uncomfortable that they can’t continue, they should be able to walk away: shows can recover in ways that people may not. And audiences can see if a performer doesn’t feel safe – they start worrying more about the people on stage than the story. No one is really served by forcing people to perform beyond their limits.

  • Jimtaryon

    Long overdue article.

  • Pingback: Day 27: The language of safety and consent | DirectorsLabChicago()

  • Neal Reynolds

    Excellent essay Courtney! Especially about how playwrights can incorporate into the play safe “words” (actions) that can cue the other actors and stage manager that an actor needs immediate assistance.

    Did you see the essay I wrote a couple of months ago? (I got a lot of hostile commentst. I’m glad to see you haven’t gotten any… so far least.) http://howlround.com/do-the-playwrights-share-the-blame-for-the-extreme-abuse