How to Handle Microaggressions in Theatre
“Where’s Lashad? I can’t see him in the dark.” Everyone laughs. This was one of the first times I experienced a microaggression backstage during a show. It was one of my last performances in undergrad, and this was said by a few of my colleagues. It was one of the hardest things to swallow coming from people I trusted and I had no one to turn to. When I expressed to my fellow actors how this hurt me, I was dismissed and told that I shouldn’t take it so much to heart. They didn’t really understand the pain and the hurt that it caused and the amount of personal work I had been doing on my self-image.
We as actors are trained to take things personally and put that on stage. But what happens when it’s not lines being said to you that hurt, but the words of someone that you know, or even respect?
Being an actor of color within the theatre community comes with a lot of challenges, such as finding your voice within a role that isn’t specifically written for you, or trying to find a way to relate to actors who do not share similar experiences. One of the hardest issues we encounter is trying to deal with everyday microaggressions that arise from another colleague without them even being conscious of its impact on you. During undergrad, I was also working at a small theatre company that was modeled after the Chicago ensemble scene. They were a welcoming group of people that aimed to be socially conscious and accepting of how different actors are. Something that really stuck out to me was how the company handled hard topics, especially ones that made others uncomfortable. Though they were not successful all the time, something that I took from them were a few ways that we can address many issues, especially ones involving micro-aggressions. What were three that were important to me?
1) The first and most important thing to do is address it. So many times as artists, we are afraid to bring up how we have been affected by the words that have come out of another artist’s mouth. Sometimes actors who are not of color do not know how to relate to you and jokes are made, which of course are totally fine, but if it’s something that hurts you. It’s OK to let them know, “What you said to me was not appropriate or nice.”
What if you are dismissed and you are told that you are being too sensitive? Then:
2) Go to a stage manager. The stage managers are your best friends and liaisons when there is a very big issue that has come up, and there is really no way to talk to the actor about it. Your stage manager is also a great resource if you don’t want to directly address the situation to your fellow actor. Stage managers are trained to find ways to deescalate issues that come up in the rehearsal rooms and make it so that it’s anonymous, but also bring to attention that some things are better left unsaid and not made out of a joke.
What if you’re afraid that people will look at you differently?
3) Don’t, you fabulous bitch. The person’s sanity most important is yours. In an ideal world it would be fantastic if we could all be great friends and there was never tension in the rehearsal room. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. You should never apologize for being who you are, and how proud you are of the person that you have become. As a person of color on stage, especially if you aren’t with people who share your experiences, it can be a hard and a challenging situation. Personally, I will never apologize for being Black and what that means.
In the end, we have to find ways to be able to open up about what hurts us most. We as actors are trained to take things personally and put that on stage. But what happens when it’s not lines being said to you that hurt, but the words of someone that you know, or even respect? We have to identify microaggressions and face them head on. Sometimes you will be told you are being “too sensitive,” or that it’s “just a joke.” Yet, if it isn’t a joke to you, then let someone know. We aren’t audience members waiting for a comedian to crack a joke at us, we are actors waiting in the wings. We are storytellers, and vessels expected to reflect society. We can’t do that if we are afraid and uncomfortable around the actors we work with. Speak up, say it loud, and don’t take it’s “just a joke” as an answer, or response.