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?

actors in rehearsal
KCC Theatre rehearsals for the college’s fall play.

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. 

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Thank you for this post. I'd love to see this start a much more detailed conversation. I'm sure many of us are thinking about the #NotinOurHouse guidelines in relation to these issues. As we—I hope!—keep integrating our theaters with an increasingly diverse staff, we will make all kinds of mistakes. It can feel deeply dangerous to "report" when you are low on the totem pole, and I know not everyone can bring themselves to do it, so ultimately, it's easier if the micro-aggression cessation policy comes from the top (all the more reason to make sure we have a broad range of people at "the top"), but even if that doesn't happen directly, it is incumbent on the leaders—directors, producers, ADs, etc to be upfront and explicit about the environment being one that is meant to be safe for everyone and that we will support discussion and problem solving around any incident that comes up. Theaters are weird spaces—much of what we do would be considered inappropriate in any other setting; I'm doing a show right now about intimacy and we are constantly trading explosive levels of sexual innuendo and commentary because it's actually helpful to the process, but we are also doing a lot of other work to make sure people do feel safe around that because there are really sensitive issues being addressed. And it's very possible something might hit someone just a little wrong now and then. We're challenging ourselves and may hit boundaries harder than we expect. So... helping people navigate what's okay at any given moment and notice/look out for others may be a process, but it's what decent people do for each other every day, and when everybody knows they are safe, the art improves. Totally worth the attention to detail. Thanks for starting the discussion.

First off, I would like to thank every response and comment that has been given on this article. I have noticed a few of you disagreed with my use of the phrase "Don't, you fabulous bitch." I first would like to say that I completely am aware of the loadedness of the word "bitch" AND what it means for women. I would also like to apologize if I have offended someone. However, I would like to explain my use of it. It was used as a way to lighten the mood of a very serious article. I am a Black gay man and so yes, it happens to be a part of my vernacular that I do not use to belittle anyone. I chose to change the tone towards the end because this is my first article on Howlround and I don't plan on it being the last, and it's a tone that I believe should be set. I understand the discrepancy of the use of the word, I understand the background, and I also know my intent. To Mr. Brad Burgess who believes I have destroyed my intention of the article I believe that is on you. I would like people to really pay attention to the most important aspect of this article which is its approach to microaggresions. I would also like to point out calling someone a "bitch" to belittle them is not a microaggresion it is just pure rudeness. Microaggresions which I don't believe I need to define are a lot more subtle than that. To the women who read this article I am by no means trying to belittle you. And if you feel that I way I am sincerely sorry.I hope that overall we can truly embrace the fullness of this article rather than boiling it down to a phrase that was used as humor.

Manners are the art of making people feel comfortable. it is extremely bad manners to call attention to someone's race or an issue that they are uncomfortable about. It is not "nice" to make fun of someone's race or disability or to call attention to a matter that they are obviously uncomfortable discussing. For instance, if a person in your group had suffered through a rape (and, it was known to the group), would it be uncivil to make a rape joke in their presence? I think it would be both unkind and uncivil. If I were the SM here, I would address the company and remind them it is rude and unkind to call attention to someone's race, disability, sexual orientation and the like and that so-called "jokes" can be deemed thinly disguised aggression at best and offensive at worst.

It can be difficult to handle this situation vis a vis burning bridges.

Recently at an improv class, a very respected teacher said some very idiotic and offensive things, and when I tried to call her on it, she shut me down in a very dismissive, whitesplainy way. When I brought this up with the organizers of the program I was in, they said she's the kind of person who would be open to further discussion about it.

Frankly, I'm uninterested. I already tried, and was shut down. I have no desire to engage in something negative like that again. It's not my job to educate this woman about why she's oppressive. I'm just going to avoid her. She's heard my piece, and she didn't want to listen.

I want to out her, and I have to my friends, but I don't want to damage my relationship with the building she works in. Not her, I don't give a fuck about her. But who she works with. She's so entwined in the world I'm trying so hard to be a part of, that calling her out could hurt me too. And I hate to admit it, but I'm also afraid of generally being seen as a complainer/difficult to work with/whatever. There are few enough opportunities for actors of my demographic as it is.

The irony of all this is the program I was a part of was specifically designed in the name of promoting diversity in comedy.

Okay, I'mma take the advice of this article and speak up about something:

I really wish you hadn't used the word "bitch" in point 3 because it's kinda loaded. Because lots of times women get called "bitch" in a not-so-good way when we speak up about stuff. I know that I got called that a couple times when I was a stage manager and I had to crack the whip on some actors who were being jerky.

You didn't mean it badly and I understand. But if I didn't say anything you wouldn't know later on.

Thanks.

I also wanted to chime in on this phrase. As a straight white male ally from the suburbs, turned nyc artistic director of the oldest transgressive ally theatre company in the country...it's important for me to point out that muddling the lines like this does not help here at all.

Many of my friends who are people of color enjoy having a laugh in the way you mention at the top of your article. Also many times, I've been told I've been inappropriate. So even for very experienced, and immersed folks in diverse and more equitable situations, it's confusing, and we need to be constantly checked, while checking ourselves as much as possible. BUT...

After an entire article where you are talking about creating a safe space and strategies for confronting the opposite...you dismantle the entire tone of the article and abandon your responsibility to consistency, as a person communicating with other people, in favor of your own personal comfort with an ambiguous term.I'm surprised it made it through editing to be honest...

Unless your point is that in general, everyone should just have a lighter tone when addressing this issue...which might be a good point...but again is off tone with the whole rest of the article...It signifies a true problem of this issue which is whether or not people are interested in really figuring out ways to get through to folks that are not exposed and do not understand people of color or lgbtq folks and are hurting them...as opposed to just looking to write something to make yourself feel better, and get cheerleading comments like "yas" in response to what is a serious problem.Brad BurgessArtistic DirectorThe Living Theatre

Thank you for an excellent article on an important topic. I share the reaction of the previous two posters. When I read the word "Bitch" in your third point, I had the following reaction / dialogue with myself: "Huh. Bitch. That's the word that women get called sometimes when they're trying to stand up for themselves. It's the word that is sometimes reclaimed by women and by allies and used to indicate a powerful and sassy retort. But not always. Sometimes it's used (appropriated? borrowed? from whom exactly?) with a queer slant, although in that context in the theater community, when accompanied by the word "fabulous" it usually just makes me feel self conscious, as though I am merely a biological bitch which is clearly less fun / less desirable. Reading the word here distracts me from an otherwise scholarly discussion, as to me this is a "swear word"...a mean word, and feels very much out of place. Maybe my opinion on this doesn't matter. Still, it would be ironic if an article about microaggressions contained a microaggression...no, I'm probably overthinking this. I'll just go read something else, maybe that nice safe article where I agree with everything the author says. Maybe I am the wrong audience for this article. All of the comments are positive. Maybe I shouldn't say anything, although it's still bothering me. I don't think Lashad Beck is trying to be mean. I want to support his ideas and share them with others! I should probably just laugh it off, ha ha, bitch, good one. But what about that baritone who couldn't deal with having to contend with (God forbid) BOTH a female director and conductor? What did he mean by "bitch"? Or that actor...the one who refused to take any notes until I gave up and sent another dude in the cast to try to communicate with him? What did he mean? And then there's that image that keeps coming back to me, rooted in the original meaning of the word "bitch"...the image of a female dog, a mother with pups, fur matted, long ears askew. For me, it makes me feel sad and sick that I can't conjure this image without it being warped by language and years of experience into a dismal scene, an insult to women. I see the dog lying in a dirty corner, far away from whatever dog knocked her up, who has long since left to piss on other hydrants. The dog's female body is stretched and contorted as small puppy versions that resemble both her and the dog who abandoned her try to suck life out of her body. The shadow of her owner looms just out of sight, as he figures out which of her kids to sell and which to drown.

I read this word, and I think all of these things. And then I think... "What if you're afraid that people will look at you differently?" Beck's advice here is sound. Well...Don't be.

Speak up. Yes it is uncomfortable, yes, you run the risk of hurting people, or of being accused of "Taking things too seriously." But it is serious.

Uh, well...sometimes you're the stage manager, you still have no idea what to do, and bringing it up carries a high risk of making people look at you differently in ways that are a danger to the perception of your ability to do your job.

Any ideas for what then?

Tell the cast/company to knock it off (in your own words) and, depending on how they respond, figure out a better way to say it next time. Watch how other people deal with company etiquette and issues. Check to see if the situation is addressed in the company handbook, If so, all you have to do is remind the company about it.

Wise words. No SM is perfect and the best ones own up to their foibles and move on. Addressing your question, below, Page, you can raise the issue as "one that has come up which has made members of the company feel uncomfortable. We need to find a safe place in the rehearsal room to do our best work- a place of mutual respect. Remarks like the ones made to Lashad don't belong in this space. I just bring it to you as something we need to do better about." Being as direct and transparent as possible. Know that the tone in the room is up to the SM to see to.

I'm not sure I was clear about the situation (that arises rather commonly)...

What has my "foible" or "mistake" been when, as a stage manager, something pretty microaggressive has been said in a rehearsal room about a group that *I* belong to (without the person who said it or did it necessarily knowing that I do, i.e., I have an invisible disability)?

This article recommends going to the stage manager--not wrongly--but I, as the stage manager, don't necessarily know what to do when *I* am the person hurt by a comment that was made with no ill intent.

This isn't about SM's not being perfect. I know that. I don't actually know much about what my options are when certain prejudices against a group that *I* belong to are seen as widely acceptable, and come out in rehearsal....

If you're willing to "out" yourself as a member of the community being disparaged or mocked (or whatever), then speak up. If not, then say nothing, but ask yourself if you're missing an opportunity to educate your colleagues about your disability, or if you're letting down the other invisible members of your community.

"If you're willing to "out" yourself as a member of the community being disparaged or mocked (or whatever), then speak up."

I am actually out to a very high degree in my theater community, but not in every situation, depending on a lot of factors.

"If not, then say nothing, but ask yourself if you're missing an opportunity to educate your colleagues about your disability, or if you're letting down the other invisible members of your community."

Please don't think that I don't think about this stuff--pretty much constantly. Yes, those are the trade-offs. I am *well* aware of them.

(FULL DISCLOSURE: I'm an actor, not an SM. I have no idea what the actual rules and policies are - my HR experience comes from the corporate side).

Emily - You can still address the room as if "the complaint" (which it isn't, truly, I'm just using it for lack of a better word) had been given to you from another actor. You wouldn't call out the "complaining" actor - there is no need to call out yourself either. That is your private business. However, because it IS your feedback, it still might feel very difficult to deliver, which is TOTALLY UNDERSTANDABLE. It definitely is a little easier to give "notes" like that via email - as part of daily notes/calls. If someone responds asking who - that's not even an appropriate question and you just respond with "I can't divulge that information". If you must give the feedback in person, maybe write it out and home and practice it a few times until the wording feels right and manageable for you? Hopefully that's somewhat helpful. I'm sorry that you've been put in that uncomfortable position. You might also seek some advice from other SMs. The SM community (at least in Chicago) is very supportive, especially with matters like this. I could put you in touch with someone trustworthy if you want to talk with someone more about the proper way to handle the situation.

You should be able to go to the Director, the Producer, or the Artistic Director. Speaking up is hard, and I wish you didn't have to do it, but do. I'm concerned for you since you say this is happening a lot. If you don't feel safe in your work space, I hope you can speak up and be taken seriously, but if not, there are other theaters, so please keep searching until you find one that is more hospitable. It can seem dangerous to do so, but you can always simply say you are not available when the offending company calls. If enough people stop supporting and working for a company, it does fall down. But it falls down (or improves itself) much quicker with direct conversation than through ghosting. Most companies get things wrong a lot of the time, but that doesn't necessarily mean they are not open to feedback, and I hope you will find your workplace is open to learning. I can not speak for others, but when I have done something that has offended someone, I want to hear it as soon as possible so I can make sure it doesn't happen again. People do get defensive because we are not taught in this country how to accept feedback, so be kind if you are able, but don't avoid directness and don't apologize for what you need because it allows people to shrug it off. Keep it simple and assertive, and, if at all possible, be ready to walk. It can help to lead with, "I really love working here and want to make sure we're always on good terms, so I need to tell you about something that is making me uncomfortable..." Good, good luck. This is so hard.

No, it doesn't, necessarily...but constant microaggression can contribute to a hostile working environment, and all employees have a right to not work in a hostile environment.

Besides that it's just not good for people. It's not good for morale and it's not good for artistry if someone feels constantly low-level on guard for being insulted or made fun of.

I feel saying it "can't be construed as anything but racist" is broad. When working with other people in an environment where it's already nearly completely dark and it Really Is very difficult to see people, it's the sort of statement that could come out of a person's mouth innocently.

I do though think it's either negligent or ignorant of the effect that and similar comments can have, and such comments should be avoided for that reason.