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Returning to Theatre with Enthusiastic Consent

“I’m fully vaccinated” is shaping up to be the phrase of the month among members of my communities. As of April, everyone in California ages sixteen years and up became eligible to receive their shots, so now those three magic words sneak their way into every text, email, or casual encounter on the sidewalk. I utter this not-so-secret password to set others (and myself) more at ease while simultaneously unlocking doors to previously risky and forbidden experiences. As exciting as this new power is, I have to admit I’m also a little anxious. With the United States racing toward a complete reopening, I can’t help but feel:

  1. like I no longer have the endurance required for a life filled with commutes, small talk, and enticing people to support my latest project;
  2. confused as to why the “new normal” we’ve all been discussing is shaping up to look a lot like the “normal” we left in February 2020; and
  3. that my post-pandemic value set no longer aligns with what’s hurdling down the pipeline.

All of this is to say that, as a person whose identity is entrenched in live performance, I’m worried. Am I ready for a return to live theatre, whether that be as a maker or patron? Do I want a return to live theatre?

The short answer is: Yes, of course. The theatre is my home. It is my favorite place to research and learn about myself and my craft. It’s my watering hole. It’s my church.

But the more complicated answer is: Not if my relationship to theatre is expected to be as it was—a relationship complicit in harm and inequities as outlined in We See You White American Theater and statements by many additional BIPOC-led performance makers and organizations. A relationship in which fame, success, and popularity so easily warp notions of quality, validity, and social value. A relationship in which “remaining relevant” is a thinly veiled threat to trade curiosity for productivity, authenticity for branding, and community for patronage.

Instead, what about a new relationship—or “a new dream” as the September 2020 article “How to to Birth a New American Theater” suggests—in which mutual satisfaction is the cornerstone connecting artist, producer, and audience member?

The existing conversation on consent in theatre begins and ends with (the very necessary) question of, “What keeps us safe?” without further investigating, “What makes us come alive?”

Consent and the Theatre

How would one even begin building this new love affair? As with any new relationship, it’s important to start from a place of consent. By entering this relationship, what are our desires? What are our boundaries? What are our agreements? Though this post-pandemic relationship is new, the conversation on consent within the theatrical arts certainly isn’t. In 2016, in an article for Six by Eight Press, T. Chase Meacham spoke about surprise performances in which audiences have not consented to participate, such as guerrilla political performance, improvisational happenings, and flash mobs. They write: “To perform for an audience that does not consent is not inherently unethical. But there must come a point at which it’s clear a performance has ended, even if [it] wasn’t clear when it started.”

Perhaps this is part of what I’m craving: an acknowledgment that a prior era has ended before rushing into a performance season lacking the sobriety needed to offer thoughtful permission. Instead, the pressure to “make up lost for time” (or, understandably, make up for lost revenue) seems to perpetuate old habits and expectations. Perhaps a bit more caution should be considered—after all, we are all post-pandemic virgins.

Two people facing opposite directions with their hands on the back of each other's heads.

Andrew Pearson and Taylor Sweat in Bodies in Play for the LA Dance Festival. Choreography, costumes, and light design by Andrew Pearson. Original music by Kevin DeKimpe. Performance venue: Diablo Space, Brewery Arts District, Downtown Los Angeles. Photo credit: Ginger Sole.

With this in mind, some awkward fumbles are to be expected, which is all the more reason consent should play a factor in how and when theatremakers, venues, and patrons re-engage with one another. Immersive theatre is certainly no stranger to this concept, providing opportunities to learn from past mistakes. With immersive or interactive performance, both audience and performer have consented to some level of participation prior to the event, but with the absence of the fourth wall, the level of engagement can sometimes be blurred or even abused—by both sides. Theatrical Intimacy Education (TIE), a leader in the development of ethical standards for stage intimacy, nudity, and sexual violence, understands the dangers of this on a fundamental level with consent-based practices imbedded into their rehearsal process. However, Chelsea Pace, one of TIE’s founders, recognizes that “Even under the best of circumstances, the power dynamics of production are such that artists are often unwilling or unable to say ‘no’ or establish boundaries, even if the opportunity is presented to them.

In other words: Is it ever consent if an artist’s livelihood is dependent upon saying “Yes”? Pace goes on to say: “In the midst of a global pandemic, consent is nearly impossible.” For artists out of work and audiences craving a theatrical experience, when does providing cogent consent once again become viable?

Clearly, consent in the world of theatre is multilayered and ever-present, and the post-pandemic landscape makes it all the more complicated. Even so, the conversations I’ve been a part of seem to solely revolve around physical and emotional safety. While this is an immensely important conversation and provides a solid framework for which to identify the nuances of mutual consent (beautifully outlined in this animation by Emmeline May), in the case of performance, this rarely extends beyond an annual sexual harassment training for theatre staff, a checklist of COVID-precautions for artists and patrons alike, or a rudimentary trigger warning for audiences about to hand over two hours of their lives.

In other words, the existing conversation on consent in theatre begins and ends with (the very necessary) question of, “What keeps us safe?” without further investigating, “What makes us come alive?”

So what if we threw out the existing performer-audience contract entirely?

The Performer-Audience Contract

Beyond protecting one another, the contract between audience and performer usually includes a series of implied permissions.

As an audience member I will:

  • pay for entry
  • avoid talking and other distractions
  • remain seated in my designated space throughout the entirety of the performance
  • applaud at the end

As a theatre professional I will:

  • present the work as it was rehearsed
  • present the work as it was advertised
  • provide a service or product meant to elicit emotion, thought, or entertainment
  • assume the obligation of providing value aligned with the cost of the ticket

The implications of these agreements are riddled with ableism and socioeconomic inequities, and ultimately they promote a purely transactional relationship. By relying on prefixed traditions, consent is assumed and expectations never questioned, ultimately alienating artists whose work doesn’t fit this model and audiences who, for a variety of legitimate and understandable reasons, can’t meet these agreements.

Isn’t it time to ask what new agreements need to be made not only to keep us safe, but also to develop the earnest, passionate, and eager relationship with theatre we all hope for? When we accept an invitation to a performance, what are we consenting to beyond just becoming obedient spectators? What do we consent to as performers beside just fulfilling our job requirements? What is our obligation, audience and artist alike, for building and maintaining this consent? When or how can this consent be revoked?

One actor with both arms around the other actor, pinning them to the ground. The actor on the floor with both arms straightened out.

Darby Epperson and Dauvin Tavares in The Ballad of Lady M. Choreographed and directed by Andrew Pearson. Costumes by Foreste Jean. Lighting design by Andrew Pearson and Ben Jehoshua. Music arrangement by John "The Hound" Lucido. Sound design by Ben Jehoshua. Performance venue: The Ruby Street, Highland Park, Los Angeles. Photo credit: Brian Hashimoto.

The Consent of Gathering

I ask these questions not necessarily to receive concrete answers but to be in dialogue with an ever-evolving cultural practice. Theatremaking is centuries old and has taken several forms but has always relied on one important factor: bringing people together. COVID has of course disrupted this practice while bringing consent to the forefront of our gatherings. What is legally permitted? What is morally permitted? What behaviors or circumstances keep us healthy around others? How do we consider these questions while still engaging in soul-affirming rituals such as dance, performance, and storytelling? Should we lose these considerations simply because health restrictions are being lifted? As actor, playwright, and activist Anna Deavere Smith points out on Chris Hayes’ podcast “Why Is This Happening?,” regional and nonprofit theatres didn’t always exist (and don’t always have to), and the losses of the past year provide a “great opportunity to do something completely different.”

A completely different way of bringing people together sounds incredibly daunting, but this is exactly what Priya Parker promotes in The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters. The book includes guidance on defining the purpose for gathering, creating “pop-up rules” in lieu of traditional etiquette, highlighting the importance of setting up expectations long before guests arrive, and modeling vulnerability to promote “good controversy.” Gathering, in other words, should not be habitual. It requires thoughtful planning in order to best care for all participants. “How” we gather, Parker argues, is just as important, if not more important, than “why” we gather. Perhaps how theatre lovers come together needs a renegotiation.

So what if we threw out the existing performer-audience contract entirely?

As creators, do we always need to charge tickets? To fill the house? Be well rehearsed? Do we always have to prove a return on investment through data and audience surveys?

As audiences, do we always need to keep to our seats and stay quiet? To attend the entirety of an event? To applaud? Do we always need to view work through the eyes of the consumer?

Do we continue to consent to a binary idea of maker and spectator? At the end of the day, aren’t we all—performers, designers, producers, ushers, patrons—simply theatre participants? Participants in one symbiotic ecosystem?

What if the existing implicit contract was replaced with the model of enthusiastic consent?

After a year of watching performance in my underwear from the couch, I question if the theatre ever truly provided full bodily autonomy.

Enthusiastically Consensual Theatre

Enthusiastic consent (as outlined in Yes Means Yes, edited by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti) has become the accepted model for healthy and safe sexual participation within sex-positive circles. It’s a model in which all parties involved offer a resounding and continual “Yes!” throughout their participation. It promotes asking for more than just permission, but also “Do you still like this? Does this still feel good? Do you want to keep going?” More importantly, when the answer to any of these questions is no, participants stop, reevaluate, and seek mutual pleasure.

Now, after months of celibacy, our newly vaccinated bodies are being asked to dive headfirst into a slew of beautiful orgies made up of performance-makers, producers, administrators, designers, and patrons. That’s a lot of consent to navigate, especially for being so out of practice. Personally, I’d like to be sure the orgies I partake in are filled with continual and enthusiastic consent. I certainly no longer consent to anything that smells remotely like, “But this is the way it’s always been done.”

Pre-pandemic consent relied on unquestioned tradition. With enthusiasm rarely a priority, pre-pandemic consent was merely the absence of “no.” It’s much easier for an artist to say “no” to uninteresting projects if they can count on an unemployment check or cite state-wide restrictions, and after a year of watching performance in my underwear from the couch, I question if the theatre ever truly provided full bodily autonomy.

Two actors, standing behind two other actors, with one hand on their mouths. The actors with their mouths covered have both arms out.

Jacob Byrd, Darby Epperson, Daurin Tavares, and Sadie Yarrington in The Ballad of Lady M. Choreographed and directed by Andrew Pearson. Costumes by Foreste Jean. Lighting design by Andrew Pearson and Ben Jehoshua. Music arrangement by John "The Hound" Lucido. Sound design by Ben Jehoshua. Performance venue: The Ruby Street, Highland Park, Los Angeles. Photo credit: Brian Hashimoto.

Imagine: Audience members encouraged to truly make themselves at home or even leave a performance if their interest waivers. A performer disappointed with their role being asked by producers how it could be improved. A venue downtrodden by constant fundraising just to stay afloat having a communal conversation to find a win-for-all solution. This may sound like a recipe for entitlement and disrespect or sending art-making into a perpetual standstill, but I argue that if all parties are invested in enthusiastic consent we can more readily acknowledge that a successful performance is a shared passion between artist and the public. I believe this promotes audience members who are invested in the artist’s experience as much as they are their own, and creators who want to please audiences for reasons that go beyond covering their budget’s bottom-line or feeding their ego. It helps to remove hierarchies between performer and director, director and board, board and donors, and all other combinations of theatre-based relationships. Imagine if enthusiasm was the driving force for all theatre participants?

Why would we consent to anything less?

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