Creating Safe Spaces

First Published 19th of May 2017

Like anyone who has been acting for a while, I have some horror stories. The director who would routinely grab me on the ass, or bend me over and thrust into me, as a demonstration to my scene partner. Then immediately afterward ask me, ‘Oh, wait, Jess is that okay with you?’

Or the fourteen-hour rehearsal days, in the heat, with maybe a lunch break if you’re lucky. I remember being told that I wasn’t coping with the schedule because I hadn’t been professionally trained. I had flagged at the beginning of the process that I have a chronic illness and will need to take breaks, but I doubt anyone would have found that level of rehearsal sustainable. With or without professional training.

Then there are the atrocities I have committed as a young director finding my feet. Choreographing a push without a qualified fight choreographer in the room, or encouraging young actors to go to intensely emotional spaces to ‘find their character.’

Of course, for every negative experience, I have incredible examples of empowering, collaborative and egalitarian processes run by clever people who have looked after the actors in the room. And after learning from my early mistakes, I have endeavored to create safe rehearsal rooms as best I can.
Certain that I am not the only one who has endured the costs and benefits of both sides of this coin, I began speaking to local Perth artists about their stories.

Some common themes began to emerge. The pitfalls of ‘method acting’, women feeling unsafe or disrespected physically or sexually, long hours, low pay, and a general reticence around speaking up because work is scarce and competition is plentiful. For every person who won’t put up with being treated badly, there are dozens of others who will.

It wasn’t all negative, the artists I spoke to were all able to articulate very clearly what made for a safe working environment. Simple ideas like clear lines of communication, mutual respect, establishing boundaries and expectations at the beginning of a process, checking in and checking out at the end of each day, and creating processes for dealing with conflict resolution before conflict arises instead of dealing with it on the fly when it occurs.

I began my career in the arts working for a theatre in education company called Fine Edge, that toured to high schools and primary schools. The company was a part of Scripture Union of WA, and SUWA literally wrote the manual on ‘Child Safe Practices’ for volunteer organizations working with children and young people. So along with learning to act, we were taught how to be ‘safe’, with the audiences we interacted with, and with each other.

Over the years I have attended many business forums run by wonderful organizations like The Blue Room, that explore the importance of treating art like a business. Lectures and workshops on marketing, branding, networking, applying for funding through grant processes, and developing philanthropic partnerships. And in the Eastern States with the inauguration of the Arts Centre Wellbeing Collective and the work of postgraduate researcher Mark Seton, we are starting to see a larger focus on self-care.

However, if we can borrow the marketing and financial strategies of the business world, perhaps it’s time to borrow the leadership, management, and pastoral care training as well. Yes, absolutely train artists to run their lives like small business owners, and of course teach artists strategies for building sustainable careers with a focus on self-care.

I would like to see the training courses teaching directors, producers, large scale and small scale arts organizations, and arts managers how to create safe places, clear lines of communication so that we can build a healthy culture of mutual respect and physical and psychological safety.

If you would like to read some of my interviews, and the research I have done on this topic, my article ‘From Toxic Theatre to Safe Spaces’ has been published on Artshub.

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