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Dismantle the Hierarchy: Best Practices for Creating a More Equitable, Consensual Theatre Classroom

Think of a time someone in a position of power asked you to do something that made you feel physically or emotionally unsafe. Did you feel empowered to tell them “no”? Now, imagine you’re a teenager in a theatre class or drama club where the consequences for speaking up may be academically or socially damaging. Would you feel the same way?

What might that classroom be like if the teacher had the resources and skills to prioritize student safety and emotional well-being?

As a director of youth theatre, this is a topic of utmost relevance to my students and me. I seek not only to better my own practices but work alongside other educators and artists to create safer and more equitable practices for youth artists. Last year, I invited high school theatre teachers and students to share their experiences with consent and staging intimacy. With their generous contributions in mind, I have developed a guide for directors of youth theatre to prioritize consent and safe practices for staging theatrical intimacy. These steps should be viewed as suggestions, ideas, inspiration, or a guide. This is a starting point, not a manual. As with all artistic practices, I anticipate these will continue to evolve over time.

An instructor siting on the ground with a young actor who's holding a script titled Matilda Jr.

Matilda Jr. at the DC Ranch Homestead Playhouse. Photo by Lindsay Vanegas.

Set Intimacy Expectations

Set the intimacy expectations in the audition announcement. It is critical to ensure students are informed about the work they will be asked to do, such as kissing. There should be no surprises here. This allows students plenty of time to make an informed decision about which roles they want to be considered for and mitigate surprises about the staged intimacy when it comes time to block. This protects the students and the director, as nobody wants to have to recast during rehearsals. Just because an actor is uncomfortable kissing a scene partner doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be cast in that role—perhaps there is another way to stage that moment that still serves the story without the actors attempting the dreaded stage kiss.

Decide what is best for your population of students and community when determining how to communicate the intimacy expectations.

Get Student Feedback

After the show is cast, consider providing a brief questionnaire to students about their boundaries and physical and emotional safety. As a tool, questionnaires make space for student concerns and expectations to be heard, as well as set the director up for success throughout rehearsals. For a production of The Crucible at Arizona State University, actors and the production team were asked to complete a questionnaire that asked things like:

  • Do you have any health concerns (mental or physical), injuries, or physical limitations that you want to share with us that you feel will help you be more successful in this production?
  • Are there any specific places on your body that you do not want to be touched, in addition to the bikini area?
  • Do you have any safety concerns/fears that we need to be aware of, such as heights, stairs, ladders, claustrophobia, rotating floors, or anything else?
  • Is there any other information you wish to share with us that will help us support your learning and success in this rehearsal process?

Understanding and respecting students’ boundaries will factor not only into blocking, but design choices as well. For example, some students may be afraid of heights or will have cultural reasons for not wearing immodest clothing.

Demonstrate to students that their safety and emotional well-being is important and will be honored in the classroom.

What might that classroom be like if the teacher had the resources and skills to prioritize student safety and emotional well-being?

Create a Community Agreement

In an early rehearsal, take the time to create a community agreement with the cast and production team. Instead of presenting students with a list of expectations and rules, build them together. Include students in the process to level the power structure of the rehearsal room. Give students ownership over how they will work together.

The community agreement should include some basics, such as behavioral expectations, respect for boundaries, and any specific considerations that students need to feel comfortable or heard. Setting procedures for how to handle the breaking of the agreement can be hard but is a necessary part of the process. How are students expected to manage conflict? How do they report if they need assistance in managing a conflict? What safety measures are in place to respect student boundaries?

Post the agreement in the classroom or rehearsal room for easy access and a visual reminder for yourself and students.

A list of guidelines for community members to work best with each other.

Community agreement for Matilda Jr. at the DC Ranch Homestead Playhouse. Student signatures omitted. Photo by Alli St. John.

Discuss Consent and Intimacy with the Whole Cast

Talking about consent and staged intimacy should not be reserved just for the actors directly involved in the intimacy. Consent affects all students and they will have questions about how certain moments of the play will be handled, even if they are not in those scenes. Transparency is key—this is a good time to return to the community agreement and go over behavioral expectations for the rehearsal. Students might ask: What type of intimacy will be included in the show? Who will be involved? What will the intimacy look like? How will we stage it?

Have this conversation upfront to avoid confusion or stress later in the rehearsal process.

Cast Consent and Intimacy Training

Rehearsal processes in educational theatre vary from luxurious to extremely tight. It is necessary to include consent and intimacy training at the beginning of the rehearsal process. This can be a thirty-minute session, an hour session, or discussed over the course of a week, depending on the students and the production’s needs. The purpose of this training is to get everyone on the same page about their rights as students and their power to exercise autonomy. Practice saying no and offer alternatives, establish and respect boundaries, and play with the power dynamics of the space.

Some great resources for activities to include in consent and intimacy training can be found in Chelsea Pace’s book Staging Sex: Best Practices, Tools, and Techniques for Theatrical Intimacy and Adam Noble’s Extreme Stage Physicality Method.

Feedback I received from students who have gone through this training included a desire to move through partnered exercises with everyone in the cast. Depending on cast size and time constraints, this isn’t always possible.

Schedule this training into your rehearsal plan to ensure enough time.

Two actors lifting another one from the top of a pile of hay.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Solon Center for the Arts. Photo courtesy of Solon Center for the Arts.

Develop a Safe Word or Gesture for Rehearsals

The use of a safe word is not new and is included in many other practices for staging intimacy and combat. However, students are not always comfortable speaking a word while in a heightened state of emotion or panic. In conversation with the cast of The Crucible, we determined that a hand gesture felt more comfortable and useful for them. We worked together to establish what this gesture would be, and eventually landed on using the ASL gestures for “two minutes” and “five minutes” to indicate how much time the student needed away from the room. Establish boundaries so students can be outside the room while taking the time they need but where you can easily check on them.

Practice your safe word and/or gesture (you can have both!) often, and encourage its use.

Demonstrate to students that their safety and emotional well-being is important and will be honored in the classroom.

Identify the Moments of Intimacy in the Script

Read through the script again to identify moments of intimacy. More than just the scripted physical intimacy, emotional intimacy and vulnerability should also be on your radar, as they can impact students in a similar way. Prepare to converse with students about how they can do this kind of vulnerable work without putting themselves at risk of harm and how you plan to support their learning through this process.

Be prepared to talk about the different moments of intimacy with students.

Frequently Revisit Intimacy Exercises

Noble’s “Permission and Touch” and “No-Fly Zones” exercises from the Extreme Stage Physicality Method are easily repeatable exercises throughout the rehearsal process. Consent is something that’s always in flux—it can be revoked at any time. Remind students that just because they gave permission to be touched somewhere on Monday doesn’t mean they can’t change their mind on Tuesday. We are different people all the time, changing from moment to moment throughout the day, and something may have happened between Monday’s rehearsal and Tuesday’s rehearsal that has changed what a student is comfortable with.

Respect your students’ autonomy and right to change their minds; remember that they have lives and experiences beyond your classroom/rehearsal.

Three actors in the foreground on the floor with one actor standing in the back and placing their foot on one of them. Another actor stands on the far left while one more stands in the background on the far right.

25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at West Geauga High School. Photo by Alli St. John.

Discuss the Staged Intimacy with the Actors Directly Involved

Having another discussion about consent and intimacy may seem like a lot of talking and not a lot of doing, but these conversations are necessary. After the whole-cast discussion about consent, intimacy, and expectations, a second conversation with just the actors involved in the intimate scene offers another level of support and an opportunity for them to ask questions and feel more comfortable before blocking begins. In an effort to level the power dynamics in the classroom, these conversations demonstrate to students that you are listening to them and that their experience matters. Without this conversation, they may feel that there is no wiggle room on the blocking and you are demanding obedience rather than collaborating in an environment of consent.

Provide students with a more direct conversation and opportunity to be heard and express concerns and ideas.

Respect your students’ autonomy and right to change their minds; remember that they have lives and experiences beyond your classroom/rehearsal.

Choreograph the Intimacy

There are a couple of different approaches to take when it comes to choreographing intimacy, but the general agreement is that it should be choreographed with as much precision as a dance or a fight. I stage collaboratively with my actors so that they have a sense of control and ownership over how the scene will look and over the story they are telling with the intimacy. If they have an idea, they describe what they want to try, receive consent from their scene partner, then move through the proposed blocking slowly, beat by beat. If it feels good, we try it again at a faster pace. If someone else has another idea, we will try that, too, and then decide what we want to commit to.

There are different considerations when staging intimacy in a virtual format. We must create a safe and supported space even when working from home. We lose the physical separation of moving between a rehearsal room and a personal home. Recognize the difference and allow students to feel comfortable about the weirdness. Some factors are impossible to eliminate or ignore, like not knowing who might be listening on the other side of the door or the noise happening outside. Once you and your actors figure out what looks, sounds, and feels good, write it down as choreography. Even though actors may not make physical contact with each other, this is still highly emotional and vulnerable work, and eliminating any chance for surprise allows them to work without worry.

Include actors in crafting the detailed choreography of the intimate scene to give them a sense of ownership and control over the situation and increase comfort.

Two actors with a bright light shining on them standing in front of a bookshelf. The actor on the far right has their hand up to merge both actors' shadows.

Filming virtual intimacy for Light Switch at Arizona State University. Photo by Kristina Friedgen.

Create and Use a Closure Practice

A closing ritual at the end of an intimacy rehearsal can be useful to seal the work. Especially if actors are working from home, there needs to be an opportunity to shake the work from the body before moving on with the rest of rehearsal or the day. Even when working in person, leaving the physical rehearsal space does not always release the interior feelings built up during rehearsal.

A series of different sensory practices help to ground actors back in reality and leave the world of the play behind. We might shake it out, yell into the void, drink water, take some calming breaths, power clap, or any combination of those things. Closing ritual can be anything and should be developed as an ensemble, but it becomes most effective over time, as our brains begin to associate the act as a marked transition between literal or metaphorical spaces. Conclude by thanking the actors for their work and vulnerability, recognizing the parts of themselves they have shared that day.

Use the closing ritual every time you meet.

Consider Your Audience

When staging intimacy, consider who will be attending the production. A large contributing factor to students’ discomfort with these scenes comes from personally knowing their audience. In educational theatre, the audience is mostly made up of family, friends, classmates, and teachers. It feels much different to perform on a professional stage in front of strangers than to perform in front of peers.

Consider the emotional and social impact the intimacy scene will have on the actors performing.

Moving Forward

As theatre educators, we set the bar for how young artists and humans will expect to be treated and how they will treat others. We have a responsibility to demonstrate what a safe and consensual workplace looks like so that students may recognize potentially harmful environments as they go out into the world. When we treat students with respect and recognize that they have lives beyond the classroom, the classroom environment becomes a community that values reciprocity, safety, and mutual respect. Many teachers are struggling to follow through on statements of change and equity in the classroom. Part of dismantling the hierarchy includes recognizing our own toxic habits, holding ourselves accountable for change, and listening to students when they speak up.

There is still so much work to be done, and this is just the beginning of the conversation. What are you doing to build a culture of consent in your classroom? What is working for you or what do you want to try? What resources around this topic do you wish you had, either for yourself or your students? The development of best practices cannot successfully be done in isolation—we have to do what teachers do best: share resources and talk to each other! I want to hear from you.

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Thanks for the article! It's wonderful, as far as it goes. This really focuses on rehearsal processes and not the classroom. I find it much more challenging to figure out the difficult lines of respecting students' autonomy while challenging them to be emotionally open in actor training. With such an inherent power imbalance, how do we get genuine consent for emotionally vulnerable work? I'm I would live to hear other teachers' ideas.

Hi Jen! Yes, I agree that the classroom definitely poses unique challenges from the rehearsal room. It can be difficult to find the line between encouraging students to move outside of their comfort zones and violating their autonomy. Similarly to the steps suggested in this article, I think a lot can be accomplished through careful and thoughtful conversation with students who are hesitant. I also think a scaffolding approach, working up to the more intense emotional intimacy, could be effective. Using exercises such as the ones linked in the article can help to build trust in the classroom and start to level the power dynamics between teacher and students so that students feel more empowered to speak up if they are uncomfortable. I also think a lot of what you're asking comes down to assessing the levels of risk. Is the emotional intimacy/vulnerability possibly triggering trauma in a student, or are they nervous to be vulnerable in front of classmates? If the groundwork has been established to build a brave classroom space where students trust each other and the teacher, some of that hesitation might be more easily assuaged. There's a lot to discuss here and I would also be interested to hear from other teachers!

Thank you for this insight and guidance! I was looking at doing the first-ever Shakespeare at my school and chose "Romeo and Juliet" as it is my favorite. The students were passionate about it, but I struggled with managing the intimacy; these are beneficial guidelines and resources.