Intense emotions and challenging scenarios are at the heart of valuable stage work.
But in that work, physical and emotional safety are paramount. This is true in a university setting, as well as in professional theater settings. Actors can only be at their best when they feel safe and supported in the material they are processing and performing.
UNC Greensboro director and Assistant Professor Mya Brown, a Renaissance specialist in the School of Theatre, is experienced in stage combat, among other areas of theater. In early 2020, she pursued a certification in rapier and dagger staging, increasing her awareness of how affirmative consent can be used to design stage combat that doesn’t cause physical harm or discomfort for the actors.
“Identifying what each actor is comfortable or not comfortable doing is something I started to develop more of an interest in, not just for stage combat, but for the classroom and for rehearsal settings,” says Brown. “We work on maintaining and creating safe but brave spaces for students, so that we can explore all facets of the human condition in a way that won’t harm the artists but will still challenge them.”
Currently, Brown is in the midst of a four-level certification through Intimacy Directors and Coordinators (IDC), an organization pioneering the best practices for safe and harm-free environments for the production of intimate scenes.
The crux of that training is that in stage work and in literature study, students need to engage in giving consent, as they participate in material that includes strong content, such as scenes that portray conflict and violence, romance and sexuality, and racial tension or injustice. For that challenging work, Brown and other knowledgeable theater instructors know that students need safe spaces, physically and intellectually.
“We want to trust and respect the work of theater, but at the same time create spaces where students can be brave. We don’t want to water everything down or stay away from subject matter that could potentially make someone feel uncomfortable. So that’s where my segue into intimacy directing and training comes in.”
One major concept the training covers is “affirmative consent,” identified through a five-point check-off list known as FRIES – “freely given, reversible, informed, enthusiastic, and specific.” Throughout the course of a production or unit study in drama, a facilitator checks in with all participants before they begin an activity or shift gears, to make sure that each person has been able to communicate consent that demonstrates all five of those qualities.
“It’s an opportunity for us to just set some concrete real-life boundaries so that actors, directors, choreographers, and all collaborators of theatre have a clear, concise understanding of what our responsibility is to create safe spaces,” Brown says. “And I think that’s just an awesome movement.”
In addition to using the IDC training and FRIES definition of affirmative consent, Brown invites her students to help her craft a set of community agreements, which gives them personal responsibility and input into designing a supportive theatrical learning community. She also uses her syllabus as a living document that students contribute to throughout the semester.
She says students have been enthusiastic about that process, and that it has increased the trust within her classes, not only between herself and her students, but among the students.
“With clear communication, we can avoid misunderstandings, and that’s one of the four pillars of IDC,” says Brown. It’s context, consent, communication, and choreography. When everyone has an understanding of them, it sets us up for success, with clear and established boundaries.”
In the potentially tricky business of staging sensitive moments, Brown asks the actors to guide the conversation and design the moment, and she helps them discuss the plan through open-ended questions.
“Actors and students can use their comfort level to determine what that intimacy choreography should be like,” she notes.
In UNCG Theatre’s recent production of “Skeleton Crew” that Brown directed, student actors staged a COVID-19-safe portrayal of a budding romance. Brown worked with the students using her IDC training to design, collaboratively, low-contact but charged emotional moments. For appropriate social distancing, the staging was more focused on emotional energy than physical contact, but the production was still an opportunity to engage students in creating a safe, consensual theatrical environment.
Under the direction of Natalie Sowell, the School of Theatre works closely with UNCG’s Title IX office and supports an intimacy policy for all faculty, staff, and students. The policy includes concrete guidelines to help cohorts create safe and trustworthy spaces for theater study.
The school is also working with Theatrical Intimacy Educators, a North Carolina-based company that provides training for faculty and staff as the intimacy policy is incorporated into theater courses and working spaces, including design and costume shops, classrooms, and rehearsal studios, in addition to stages.
“In dynamic spaces where students and faculty engage with one another closely, communication is essential to creative, collaborative processes,” says Sowell.
The goal is for all students and their mentors to be able to take on the intense work of university theatrical productions and literature study in a supportive and safe environment.
Story by Susan Kirby-Smith, University Communications
Photography by Martin W. Kane, University Communications