Harm Reduction in the Storefront Theatre Community

A collaborator of mine, the poet, playwright, and activist Kristiana Rae Colón, once asked me: “What would a people-centered theatrical process look like?” As a director, it was definitely one of those record-scratching moments. I had thought my process was great, that the rehearsal room was a joyous one. And while it did have its moments, I realized it didn’t truly center people; I was focused on telling the story. By operating from the assumption that everyone in the room was there to tell the story at all costs, the rooms I created required a sacrifice for the good of the play both, from myself and those working with me. After all, the show must go on, right? I have harmed people, or, more specifically, I have allowed those under my leadership to be harmed by the steadfast practicing of this adage that every theatremaker is taught as Truth.

As Maya Angelou once said: “When you know better, do better.” I am no longer willing to sacrifice the artists I work with or myself on the altar of the theatre, but Chicago, Illinois storefront theatre, the community I work in, is still built to propagate the product at all costs. With the help of my collaborators, inspired by the work of harm reduction within activist communities, I’ve sought out a new rehearsal process that reduces harm and centers people. 

I was first introduced to the term “harm reduction” when working with playwright and dramaturg Tanuja Jagernauth. While it is often associated with social policy practices like the needle exchange program, harm reduction has become a more broadly used term across industries. I understand it to mean tools, agreements, or policies that are designed to lessen the negative social or physical consequences associated with various human behaviors. Basically, how can we plan for harm? And, when it is impossible or undesirable to eliminate the harmful behavior, situation, person, or environment, how can it be managed and reduced?

In the theatre, we engage with traumatic and potentially triggering subject matter on a regular basis, and often with relative strangers, too. As our shared consciousness around the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements increases, when equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) initiatives sprout up at every organization, we have begun to use certain terms—like safe spaces, accountability, and restorative justice—before gaining a practical understanding of the concepts and how to navigate them. In our quest to create “safe spaces,” we’ve forgotten that what’s safe for one person is often unsafe for another.

The only reason I even questioned the term myself was because I was the director in a process where I did everything I could think of to make the space “safe” and harm still occurred. There were check-ins and check-outs, a non-equity deputy, a complaint path. I tried so desperately to get it right but was impossible for me to know everything that could potentially harm everyone and my failure to plan for that reality left everyone vulnerable. My sole ownership of our collective safety compounded that harm. I set myself up to believe that I alone could and should be responsible for every person’s mental, emotional, and physical well-being. I have found this kind of well-intentioned and overly controlling leadership to be unsustainable and unsuccessful.

In my practice, I’ve been seeking to collectively define “harm” in our spaces. This first step is vital. Once the definition is established there are tools we can all use to help reduce the possibility for harm. Most importantly, we can create a structure for how we collectively manage it when it occurs.

 How can we plan for harm? And, when it is impossible or undesirable to eliminate the harmful behavior, situation, person, or environment, how can it be managed and reduced?

The Tools

Extended Rehearsal Schedule

In my particular theatre community, the Chicago storefront one, most artists get paid stipends for their work. A large stipend is $500 for actors and $750 for designers, directors, and stage managers. This is nowhere near minimum wage for the hours spent actively in meetings/rehearsals/tech/performances, not to mention the time spent outside of those hours preparing, memorizing, designing, etc. If an artist spends forty-ish hours a week at a day job and twenty-five to thirty hours a week working on a play, when are they making food for themselves, doing laundry, going to the grocery store, commuting, and sleeping? Producers and directors can alleviate some of the stress by creating schedules that work better with these realities.

My proposal is to reduce the number of hours we rehearse weekly but extend the number of weeks we rehearse. I’ve been experimenting with three rehearsals per week, with a day off in between each—two evenings, one weekend day. This allows for fourteen to sixteen hours per week. For example: over the course of six weeks, we rehearse Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6 pm to 10:30 pm and Saturdays from 10 am to 4 pm. This yields us a total ninety rehearsal hours. These hours tend to be more productive because the artists have a chance to think about the play, memorize lines, absorb notes and changes, and get some rest. It also means if someone is sick, they’ll be more likely to miss one rehearsal instead of two or three. Most non-equity companies aren’t paying artists a weekly fee and they rent rehearsal rooms by the day or hour. It costs producers no additional money to make the lives of their artists more liveable.

group of artists

Check In during rehearsal for How to Pick a Lock by Tanuja Jagernauth. Photo by Vivian Delgadillo.

Check-In & Check-Out

Artists often come to rehearsal stressed from a full day working a day job and tend to be tired and hungry, and check-ins are a way of bringing the group together to prepare for the work in the room. The work that happens during rehearsals often asks folx to be very vulnerable and remove everyday walls that protect them in the world. Check-outs at the end of the day help make sure that everyone knows what they need to protect their energy on their way home. These moments also act as ritual or ceremony, which can help everyone bring their minds to the work and each other.

For a check-in, everyone in the space—not just performers but also the designers, directors, assistants, observers, stage managers—stands/sits/exists in a circle to see others easily. Each person states their name, pronouns, what they’re bringing into the space with them that day, and an optional icebreaker of their choice. Cross-talking should be limited when possible to give the speaker space.

For check-outs, everyone in the space stands/sits/exists in a circle to see others easily. Each person states their name, pronouns, and how they’re feeling at the end of rehearsal. Cross-talking should be limited when possible to give the speaker space. 

Acknowledgement of Power Dynamics at Play

Everyone in the rehearsal room is operating within certain power structures, from title (director, actor, designer) to demographics (age, race, gender, ability, sexuality, socioeconomic status, education) to relationships within the theatrical community (artistic director, company member, casting director, husband of managing director). These powers all have an effect on the interpersonal communication of the group. Some people will feel comfortable speaking up if they don’t want to do something, but others may not. 

To begin to address power imbalances in the room, the rehearsal process can start with each person naming their areas of privilege and areas of marginalization. For example, I am a director (privilege) and fat person (area of marginalization). I often suggest going around the room in a circle twice because people will be awakened to additional points of power (or lack thereof) by listening to the group. For those with more perceived power, take note of those who may have a harder time disagreeing with you.

 The only reason I even questioned the term myself was because I was the director in a process where I did everything I could think of to make the space “safe” and harm still occurred.

Collective Agreements & Expectations 

Share the term “brave space” with your collective. Introduced to me by Colón, brave space is useful as an ideological replacement for “safe space.” #LetUsBreathe Collective, co-founded by Colón, posits that the notion of total safety in any space is harmful and illusory. “There is no space in the real world where harm can be prevented 100 percent of the time,” Colón says, “and while we can collectively struggle for physical and emotional safety, the revolution lives in handling conflicts, even, and perhaps especially, violent conflicts, lovingly and bravely.”  This term is born out of activist spaces that center Black liberation and prison abolition. I encourage you to learn from and integrate the tool, not co-opt its usage and erase where it comes from.

Out of respect for criticism that I’ve received from colleagues within activist communities of how terms can be co-opted, misrepresented, and rendered useless, I do not use the term brave space to title our shared agreements but instead call these “collective agreements & expectations.” These are a set of defined terms, rules of how we engage together in our spaces, and clearly established goals for the process and product. I encourage all groups to read the Medium article “A Celebration of #LetUsBreathe’s Brave Space Agreements” when creating collective agreements and expectations for their rehearsal processes.   

Ideally, everyone involved with the production should be a part of the creation of the agreement. Yes, this includes designers, technicians, stage managers, directors, assistants, the artistic director, etc. If you’re a part of the process, you should be there. There should be a note taker and, when possible, a shared document and/or someone writing the notes on a board for all to see. When it is impossible for everyone to be in the room, folx can join remotely, or at least be allowed the opportunity to ask questions and consent to the agreements.

I begin by acknowledging the #LetUsBreathe Collective and the term “brave space,” and from there I start asking the following questions:

  • Define: harm
  • How do we hope to work during rehearsal?
  • Define: impact vs. intent
  • How do we navigate when harm occurs in our space?
  • Define: discomfort
  • Is it possible to navigate discomfort through the lens of curiosity? To champion discomfort towards growth? How?
  • Define: microaggressions
  • How are microaggressions a precursor to harm?
  • Define: ways to take a moment—these can be words, gestures, places in the room, or people.
  • What does care look like in our space? What are the expectations of self-care? Community-care?
  • Define: sensibility vs. accountability
  • What does personal success look like for this process?
  • Define: calling in vs. calling out
  • What is our shared vision of success for our play?

If this list feels overwhelming, know that the search engine is your friend. There are articles on these topics. If you have the funds there are also consultants like Jenna Anast, an emotional consultant, educator, and activist, who you can hire to assist you in building these agreements. Ideally, the collective agreements and expectations will be posted in the rehearsal room and given to every member of the team. When there are moments of transition or high stress, seeing if anything needs to be added to the list is a great way to navigate potential tensions. The agreements are ever-growing and changing, and I encourage others, when making the agreements, to create space for folx to bring in additional questions. This process can take about four hours depending on the group’s familiarity with these tools. I know that time is a valuable resource, and I believe that what we are willing to spend our resources on is an indicator of what we prioritize in our process.

Continuing to Adapt and Learn

This list of tools is incomplete, and I know there are other artists engaging these conversations in our community. I hope they’ll share their ideas and help grow this list so that it’s better. This kind of change isn’t going to happen overnight, but if you can even only employ one tool, it helps.

We artists are going to keep making art. We’re going to work for too little money and with fewer resources than we truly need. And I’m not here to shame that. I’m just done pretending that cannibalizing each other is the best way to yield a vibrant artistic community—that artistic soylent green is all we need to feed Chicago theatre. Harm reduction is about engaging with our communities, asking for and acknowledging their needs, and including them on cultivating solutions to create a better situation. It is a living thing. Let’s imagine different possibilities and a new vision for Chicago storefront theatre, and all theatre communities that operate in a similar way. Let’s try to do what we can.

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Tara, thank you so much for your thoughtful writing here. You have me re-thinking my own rehearsal practices.