Consent in Theatre and Ideas for How to Manage It

The incredible downfall of former hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, is undoubtedly the most public the issue of sexual harassment/assault has ever been, but it is certainly not a new problem. It exists in every job, every career, every culture. It is a problem so prevalent and ingrained in our everyday lives, and one that has been deliberately or ignorantly overlooked for so long, that it has permeated every aspect of human existence, with devastating affect.

In live theatre, the sheer number of people who have felt forced to give up on their dreams because they did not feel comfortable getting partially or fully naked, or were not willing to simulate sex scenes because the story required it, is huge.

The number of people who have persevered and found themselves being asked to do things in the name of art, which they were not expecting to be asked to do, is even larger.

And sadly, New Zealand is not immune to this phenomenon. The idea of consent is strangely a new one in this country. We have placed a lot of importance on ensuring the concept is included in sexual education in schools, online, in our culture, and hopefully, the idea of it is starting to take hold. So, to refresh, what is consent?

  • Consent is an agreement between two or more people, where the answer – either yes or no – is given freely, without fear of negative repercussions either way.

The key point here is that final line, without fear of negative repercussions either way.

If you are producing a show which contains scripted content of a sexual nature, it is important that people know what will be expected of them upon auditioning. However, quite often, the Director’s vision will evolve during the course of rehearsals. For instance an Actor may be expecting to…

  • Hug or hold hands, but is then asked to kiss.
  • Act as whores, but then are asked to grope or be groped.
  • Undress to their underwear, but then nudity is requested.
  • Perform standard choreography, but it becomes increasingly sexually suggestive.
  • Make out with a character, but then asked to make it a sex scene.
  • Wear revealing clothes, but then told their costume should be a bikini or something far less than they signed on for.

Obviously this list is not exhaustive, and Directors will nearly always have a very legitimate reason for the request and will be able to explain how it will enhance the show(if they can’t, then you should definitely question their abilities). So it is extremely important that the issue of consent, is handled appropriately and with utmost care.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Is there any chance that the performer will lose (or feel that they will lose) their part in the show – either through demotion to the dreaded back row of an ensemble part, loss of scenes, loss of lines, or loss of performances (if multiple casts)?
  • Is there a chance that the performer risks not being cast in a future production?
  • Is there a chance that the performer is being pressured by the choices of their peers?
  • Is there a chance (either perceived or real) that the performer believes the director will react negatively to them speaking up?
  • Is there a chance, that the performer feels unable to communicate their discomfort to a member of the production team, who is able, in turn, to pass these concerns on to the director?

If any of these questions are answered with a yes, then it should become a priority to address this issue.

For creative teams, some simple solutions are:

  • Ensure that every production has a cast liaison, someone who is friendly and approachable. They may or may not be a member of the cast, but they do need to be at rehearsals, and it is essential that they are easy to talk to. Make sure everyone knows that this person is there to provide a bridge between cast and creative/production team, and that concerns can be handled anonymously if needed.
  • Make it absolutely clear from the first day of rehearsals, that no one’s role will be compromised if they speak up about not feeling ok with following a directors request. A good director should know their cast, production and human nature well enough to be able to work around this, make changes, or sacrifice some more risque content, for the emotional safety of their cast.
  • Discuss with the Director, exactly what they will be requiring from cast members before auditions even take place, so that people can make an informed decision before auditioning. Follow this up with ensuring procedures are in place to ensure that what the cast has signed up for does not change!

Of course, ensuring that your company uses a variety of directors and choreographers, may be enough to make sure this issue doesn’t perpetuate itself, as can often happen when the same creative team does show after show. Obviously we are all human, and there are people we prefer to work with – or not as the case may be – but that is another issue entirely, and for another day!

For Parents of Theatre Kids

Keeping kids safe in theatre is all of our responsibility. But don’t take it for granted that they will be kept safe.

  • Research the show your child is auditioning for, there are some fantastic junior versions of shows out there, which have been adapted for young casts and you can be reasonably secure in the knowledge that these scripts will not contain content which may not be entirely suitable for you child to perform.
  • If your kid is being asked to perform something you aren’t entirely comfortable with, don’t just settle with the idea that ‘this is what theatre is like‘. It isn’t. Theatre is meant to be an inclusive, safe space to develop stories, be creative, learn about yourself, grow in confidence and explore the many facets of human nature. But not until they are ready.

Parents, I would encourage you to speak up for your kids if you feel they may be in this type of situation. Young people are extremely susceptible to group pressure, spoken or unspoken. You know your child better than anyone, and at times, having a parent come in and say no for them, saves them from the embarrassment of saying it themselves. It will save them from enduring scenes they do not want to be involved in, dealing with topics they find upsetting or are not mature enough to understand(if they are performing things they don’t fully understand, it is worth questioning what benefits they are really getting from the experience).

This keeps them safe, and may even stop them from giving up on their love of theatre.

In Summary

The issue of consent in theatre, is not often talked about, but it’s one that needs to be. Theatre is not meant to be an uncomfortable experience for those performing it. The rehearsal space needs to be a safe space, and the director needs to create this. No one should ever feel like they can’t speak up, if they don’t feel OK with what they are being asked to do. This does not grow great theatre.

Great theatre happens when the rehearsals are open, inclusive, and trust is developed between everyone involved. This is when actors feel safe to experiment and explore their characters, this is when directors get to see what their actors are really capable of, and that is when truly great theatre is created.

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