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Trauma in Theatre: Considerations for Arts Leaders as In-person Theatre Returns

As the founder of a trauma-informed arts organization who creates original work on social emotional well-being, I’m constantly thinking about how stress, trauma, and burnout may show up in individuals, the creative process, the organization, and myself throughout a production period. Over the past several years, I’ve focused my research on understanding how trauma, nervous-system responses, and creativity intersect. In response to the pandemic, I’ve noticed an increase in conversations about trauma and a desire to create performances as a way to process lived experiences.

Below I will share the considerations that guide my decision-making when aiming to mitigate stress, trauma, and burnout throughout a season. That said, please take care of yourself while digging into this essay. I will not explicitly describe acts that may be categorized as traumatic, but it is impossible for me to know what may activate/trigger you, so please put yourself first. Walk away if/when you need to; the essay will be here if/when you’re ready to return.

Basics of Working from a Trauma-Informed Lens

Historical trauma expert Iya Affo states that being trauma-informed means being able to say, “I see you, I’m interested in meeting your needs or yielding to your needs.” In an arts organization, it is allowing space for humanity to show up in the creative process, in our organizations, and in ourselves.

An important aspect of trauma-informed creative practices is understanding that trauma and creativity may not mix well. Creative humans may be curious, seek new experiences, engage in play, collaborate, be comfortable with ambiguity, and take risks. Humans with a history of trauma may not trust their intuition, may not believe in their creativity, may not have the capacity for imagination, and may seek out predictable and known patterns or situations. With this in mind, trauma-informed creative practices provide a rigid and predictable framework with fluidity in each stage. This allows individuals to build self-efficacy in the creative process in an effort to mitigate any trauma or stress responses that individuals may generate or have stored in their bodies.

Trauma is not an event. Trauma is a response that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope. It throws our autonomic nervous system off-balance. When I’m talking about trauma, I’m mostly talking about little “t” traumas—not the headliner-type events that may come to mind, like mass shootings, rape, and violence, but the smaller, chronic ones, like microaggressions, teasing, and living through eighteen-plus months of a pandemic. These are things that may not seem like a big deal in the moment but can build up over time due to the chronic nature of the seemingly small responses. Little “t” traumas are the sneaky kind of traumas that we don’t realize are happening and therefore go unprocessed. This is one reason I often discuss stress, trauma, and burnout together. All three can cause our nervous system to be out of balance and therefore tip us into more of a survival state.

As the founder of Grey Box Collective, a trauma-informed, interdisciplinary, experimental, post-dramatic arts organization in the metro area of Phoenix, Arizona who devises performances on topics that are often difficult to discuss, I approach my work with a trauma-informed lens. I understand the nature of trauma in our nervous system, how it can present itself in a space of creativity, and how to shape those spaces to reduce perpetuating trauma or re-traumatizing someone. I have studied counseling, researched and created performances around topics of trauma for fourteen years, and am a certified trauma support specialist. I am not a licensed mental health professional. I say this to name the boundaries of my scope of practice.

I do not discuss trauma through a lens of pathology, I prefer the wider definition stated above. I also prefer a wider definition of “triggers” and prefer to discuss “activation” of the nervous system as it pairs well with a wider definition of trauma. I think of triggers as a light switch: if someone is triggered, they are instantly in a survival mode, having gone from zero to ten in an instant and without warning. I prefer to think of activation of the nervous system and visualize it as a dimmer switch. In understanding activation of the nervous system, the hope is to notice when we’re on the journey to a ten and be able to catch that activation around a three or four.

Most of the above philosophies have been informed by polyvagal theory, which has helped me understand stress, trauma, and burnout in myself and others. I find this theory along with a compassionate approach to learning from it has served me best in sustainable leadership of an arts organization, especially through a pandemic.

Trauma is not an event. Trauma is a response that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope.

Considerations for Arts Leaders Preparing for In-person Performances

As we emerge from the pandemic, I am personally practicing and encouraging others to slow down, pause, or maybe even stop fully before starting any new projects to take the time to consider how stress, trauma, and burnout may show up in individuals, organizations, and ourselves throughout a production period in new ways. Here are some considerations for implementing trauma-informed work in the creative process, performances, and organizations.

The Tough Conversations About Trauma Start Internally

An organization is only as healthy as the mind, body, and spirit of its leadership. For those of us in positions of power, that means understanding our personal trauma histories, our scope of practice, our boundaries, and the power we hold. While we may feel we have a firm grasp of this, with the constant changes happening regarding the pandemic that require more nuanced decision-making, we might need to schedule more time to take care of our mind, body, and spirit.

Being in a position of power in an arts organization means recognizing the power we hold and being cognizant of the why behind the way we work with that power. Where there is someone in a position of power, there is someone, or multiple people, experiencing less agency. When an individual loses agency, it can be replaced with stress, which is where trauma responses may show up. Chronic stress in an organization could also lead to burnout and/or trauma in some cases. Being in a position of power means acknowledging that we can do our best but that stress, trauma, and/or burnout may still happen as a result of the structures, policies, and practices we chose to follow. This is something we have to be ready for. It’s not a hypervigilant sort of readiness but a confident readiness where we can have the resources to be responsive, integrity in our choice-making, and ultimately trust in ourselves.

It is essential that we work on ensuring we can be grounded, centered, and in the present moment throughout our role—especially where stress, trauma, and burnout may show up in ourselves or others. We must have the tools to regulate ourselves in the moment and process/discharge any activations we experienced at an appropriate time. This includes understanding when our nervous systems tend to become activated and developing sustainable coping strategies. Our pre-production work needs to begin in the areas we are finding ourselves activated. All that said, we are human. We may discharge our activation at inappropriate times. And we can repair any ruptured relationships that happen as a result of that. Activation is valid and is an indicator of where work begins so we can be effective and impactful leaders who strengthen the organization as a whole.

Understanding our scope of practice can support maintaining a sense of feeling grounded, centered, and in the present moment by creating clear boundaries. Being in a position of power, this is especially important, because if boundaries are being crossed then that stress can cause our nervous system to become off-balance. And when someone in a position of power is off-balance, others may follow. Another important part of knowing our boundaries and scope of practice is knowing when to refer to mental health professionals. For example, if I am in conversation with a performer who is in deep struggle due to the content of a show, it is important to understand where my support needs to end and the support of a mental health professional needs to begin.

Being in a position of power means acknowledging that we can do our best but that stress, trauma, and/or burnout may still happen as a result of the structures, policies, and practices we chose to follow.

It is also important to understand if/when those of us in positions of power are soaking up others’ deep struggles, which could lead to vicarious or secondary trauma. If a show might result in this, leaders must be proactive, seeking support before production begins or at the first sign of it. This is one reason I encourage a compassionate lens rather than an empathetic or sympathetic lens.

Since the words “sympathy,” “empathy,” and “compassion” are often used interchangeably, a few quick definitions: Sympathy is when youre glad youre not walking in someone elses shoes—theres a fair amount of distance and it can turn into a bit of a pity party. Empathy is walking in someone elses shoes. Finally, compassion is walking next to someone—you are not fully experiencing what they are but you are in a space to support.

My issue with empathy when it comes to trauma-informed work is if someones nervous system has moved into a survival mode and another person—wanting to be empathetic—walks in their survival-state shoes, neither person is going to get out of the situation. In order for an individual to come out of that kind of state, they need to be around someone where they can socially engage again. So enough with empathy. When it comes to spaces where trauma may be present, stick with compassion.

Consistent, Nuanced Dialogue on Psychological Safety and Trauma

The perception of safety—psychological safety, specifically—is in the eye of the beholder. Leaders need to let go of the illusion that they can create a safe space for someone else, because they cant. Individuals can only create a safe space for themselves.

The goal of creating a safe space should be replaced with creating a brave and supportive one where vulnerabilities can be shared, met, and heard with compassion. For a visual, if vulnerabilities are a porcelain vase, and I decide to toss a vulnerability vase out into a group without the group being able to see and receive it, its going to break once it hits the floor. And I probably will not risk tossing any more vulnerability vases into the group. But if I toss a vulnerability vase into a group that I know will catch it, I learn I can toss out more and it will be safe. (There probably is a limit to how much one can toss before the vases can no longer be caught—everyone has their limits.) This idea should be held close when going into discussions of safety and trauma

Everyone has a unique view of safety and trauma based on their lived experiences. As early as possible in a production schedule, it is necessary to discuss how trauma, stress, and/or burnout may show up in the performance, creative process, company, and audience, and to communicate that the dialogue will be ongoing. It’s also important to discuss what happens if something goes wrong so that there is shared vocabulary available for someone who may have tipped into a survival state. However, while one individual may feel a performance or process is safe, that doesn’t mean every single person feels that way, and it is also possible someone does not feel safe disclosing that a performance or process feels unsafe to them. A second scheduled dialogue may help that individual prepare to share their concerns at a later date. If any of this feels outside the leader’s skill set, they should ask for help.

Leaders need to let go of the illusion that they can create a safe space for someone else, because they cant. Individuals can only create a safe space for themselves.

Sex, Violence, Consent, and Touch Deprivation

A culture of consent, including consensual language, can be woven into all aspects of an arts organization. This builds a shared vocabulary that lays the groundwork for larger conversations about intimacy, touch, and other related topics.

With physical distancing being the way of life lately, leaders should encourage conversations about touch deprivation, individuals’ experiences with touch as a way to connect with others, and how to navigate it in rehearsals. Often, the conversation about consent is rooted in understanding someone may have a history of abusive physical touch. Lack of contact is an issue as well and likely more prevalent than ever after semi-regular bouts of quarantine and isolation, where being in contact with other living creatures—pets included—is limited.

Practices that increase a performer’s awareness of their subtle physiological responses to touch should be encouraged. The hope of this is to understand how individuals’ meaning-making around touch may have changed during the pandemic and to avoid overwhelming nervous systems that may have been deprived of touch. Other practices that could be encouraged in rehearsals to mitigate skin hunger are self-touch and floor work. This scaffolded pathway into physical contact could be useful in rehearsals or if staging sex and/or violence—especially as we’re coming out of the pandemic.

In Grey Box Collective, we never aim to realistically reenact sex and/or violence on stage. This is an intentional choice rooted in understanding what happens when the autonomic nervous system goes into a freeze response. A freeze response may sometimes be referred to as a deer-in-the-headlights moment where nothing is happening. However, that is an external view. Internally, there is a ton of conflicting energy because both branches of the autonomic nervous system are trying to dominate the other. One branch wants to mobilize and the other branch wants to immobilize, which means that while both branches are trying to keep us safe, neither gets to complete the action.

This means that both responses could be stored in our bodies, which may result in eventual struggles with mental and/or physical health. In a performance setting, if an individual’s nervous system is activated during staged sex or violence, I believe a freeze response is the most likely response due to social pressure from having an audience. As a result of not being able to complete the responses on stage, they are now stored in the performer’s body. Additionally, if a performer’s nervous system is activated, they will not have access to executive functioning (our thinking brain), which means they may not be able to communicate or utilize a safe word.

These are two of the primary reasons why it can be helpful for an organization to elicit audience responses and move shows forward without staging sex and violence. It’s worth noting, though, that there are a multitude of modalities that support safely discharging stored trauma. Practitioners who specialize in this area can help.

The Impact of Trauma-Informed Approaches

We are living through a time where there is plenty of chronic stress (i.e. a sneaky kind of trauma) which can be enough to throw our nervous systems off balance into a quiet survival mode. In this mode, we may lose access to two necessary skills in a theatre company: our ability to be creative and our ability to socially engage with others. This could result in a variety of challenges such as slower progress in the development phase of new work or greater struggles to build a cohesive ensemble. An organization that experiences these challenges can utilize a trauma-informed lens to build a compassionate, brave, and supportive space to navigate their production season successfully with minimal stress, trauma, and burnout.

There are a lot of moving parts to understanding how stress, trauma, and burnout can show up in a performance, a creative process, an organization, and with human beings. What I’ve shared barely scratches the surface. Understanding and applying this work is cyclical, meaning that each new season, show, and rehearsal process requires going back through these considerations and deepening the work. Working from a trauma-informed lens is easier said than done, but it is worth the effort. This work is important and, when thoughtfully done, it can be a catalyst for incredible transformation, which can include innovative devising practices, re-envisioning community partnerships, and reframing relationships with audiences. How trauma-informed approaches are utilized will differ from company to company because they will be unique to the needs of each company and community.

Now more than ever, companies need to take the time and energy to figure out how to be trauma-informed in a way that aligns with their mission, vision, and core values. Incorporating trauma-informed approaches can happen in incremental steps to adapt to the ever-changing world around us. It is my hope that theatre organizations begin their journey towards weaving trauma-informed approaches into their systems and structures to ultimately support the making of a more sustainable arts ecosystem in the United States by minimizing the impact of stress, trauma, and burnout on those in the field.

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