Safe Space for Dangerous ideas

This weekend at Summer Sling NYC 2017, I took part in a class run by Siobhan Richardson on the principles of Staged Intimacy, and in this class Siobhan introduced the following lovely piece of shorthand regarding rehearsal design:

“Rehearsals can be a safe space where dangerous things can happen; or a dangerous space in which only safe things will happen” (note to self to check my memory against Siobhan’s original wording)

Today I’ve been musing on the ways this litmus test can be usefully applied to other parts of my life: I would consider, for instance, Facebook to be a dangerous space in which I make safe offerings (or regret it later); solo time with a scant handful of friends to be a safe space in which dangerous things can happen; my neighborhood immediately surrounding my home, sadly, dangerous containing safe; the city at large, certainly the same; if I’m hazarding a guess I’d say my life is overall a dangerous space in which few and far between there are safe spaces and moments allowing dangerous exploration.

This notion has enough potential value, I think, that it warrants some careful exploration and definition, what are the dangerous ideas, what are the dangerous possibilities, in these various realities? What do I need, what do the people around me need, to perceive an interaction, a location, as safe? What violates that safety? How often do I have, and take, the opportunity to check in with the people around me about that safe framework, about their needs and about my own, and how often do we have further opportunity to use those discoveries in order to alter and build a safer moment which allows more daring action?

I suspect many of the rehearsal processes I have entered have moved in my own experience from an initial assumed safety, towards a discovered danger, which I then resent or at best attempt to stoically accept. How can I enter into a new process with fewer false assumptions?  How much of the shift toward danger is a shared experience vs only my own? How much is a shedding of false assumptions and how much is a real shift in shared expectations, actions and needs? How can I, in my various roles as performer, as director, as SM, even as observer of process, supporter from outside, or audience member, formulate intentional invitations and offers towards a better definition of safe conditions for myself and others?

The quick glance at the definitions and etymology of “danger” suggest explicit potential for harm, and roots in a relationship between the Latin “dominus” or lord and the implied dominated: subjects to the lord, subject to danger and harm. In rehearsal processes, is danger shared equally? To whom are the performers subject, to whom the director? What hidden forces – of capital, of time, of assumed shared responsibility for quality, pervade the process with new elements of danger? Is it ultimately useful to utilize a word which is so specifically a measure of potential harm? Could “daring” be a better tool-word than “danger”? The latin root of “safe”, “salvus” has the meaning of uninjured, free from harm – perhaps a safe space forbids dangerous action. Perhaps rather than draw a perfect contrast, as my brain is apt to do, it behooves the artist to draw a linear axis or charted relationship between what is safe and what is dangerous, and to define types and forms of danger (physical, emotional, ideological) and alert collaborators to which forms of danger are invited, which expected, which unacceptable.

I bring to this rumination a dual assumption of safety as a good, one which I desire and seek to enhance my own sense of ongoing sanctity and security and happiness, and of danger as a good, which I seek to enhance my feelings of engagement with the world and of potential for change. I might draw this as an upward spiral of Safety->danger->Safety2->danger2->Safety3 etc…

Stray visualizations: Full armor allows the safety for otherwise dangerous full-contact sparring, but not for unfiltered discussions of racism. Mutual anonymity allows relative safety for participants in a discussion to originate expression but no safety to those same participants as recipients of expression. (From this we can draw the rule that a safe space requires, if not consequence, than at least meaningful patterns of feedback and adjustment)

Three practical applications of this conversation to the next process I begin:

1- Better identify my own role and position in the power dynamic. Especially where those relationships diverge from assumed norms. For instance where I intend to invite actors to offer and devise design elements and performance pallete, I can make clear first what the creative boundaries of that freedom are, and define the process which will resolve conflicts between competing visions between actors and between actors and myself. Learn and name the forces to which I am subject.

2- In imposing a rehearsal technique, better define and communicate to the actors my goals in the process, rather than subscribing to the fetishization of mystery and discovery* . Thus allow the actors to assume responsibility for the process technique’s success, and define in mutually established terms when whether and why it is not working for them

3- !More clearly define and announce the responsibilities I am shouldering so that the actors can focus on the creative opportunities which remain for the taking rather than feeling unsure or in competition for results.


*the “fetishization of mystery and discovery” as I’m terming in in my head, exists in competition with explicit and ordered instruction, and is a source of  frustration I encountered at another class at this weekend’s Summer Sling, probably worth its own post




Today I auditioned for a part in a play. My audition consisted of a brief monologue, one I spent about 10 of a planned 15 hours preparing this week, and about which I felt solid if not exceptionally confident.

Yesterday I fell ill, suffering through an all day rehearsal with chills and aching muscles, and today I woke with congestion and a wet cough, and a feeling of hypoxia.

The audition went, I felt, very poorly.

The experience, in hindsight, serves me if nothing else as an illustrative reminder of a basic truth:

You can’t act when you can’t breathe.

A few lines into a first attempt at my monologue I stopped and asked to start again. I was encouraged to do so.

My second attack was successful in that it ran its full course, but otherwise was a mess:

I lost lines I literally knew backwards, often needing to pause in order to recall my next line or beat. And when I did find my lines I had no connection to the movements I had developed in preparation – I would catch myself frozen, or out of expected form and I would attempt to adjust but the adjustment would be a new unconnected movement, causing me to watch my own body and ask “why is my hand doing that”?

By the end of the piece and my “thank you” I felt faint.  Why, because I’m sick?

Yes. But more specifically, because my heart rate was up and my lung volume reduced. I would run out of breath after short phrases rather than full thoughts, and the air I was getting I was using to force my way through.

The only way to compensate would have been to take longer, “unnatural” pauses, in more frequent, “unnatural” way.

Thing is it wouldn’t have been unnatural to take all those breaths and pauses.  That choice would have saved my performance.

My delivery would have been slow and out of keeping with my conception of the voice I wanted to express, butI would have been acknowledging, and living with, my new needs, my new reality, rather than forcing myself to pretend at the reality of my healthy body which I’d had in preparation.  The auditors would have seen that I was sick, seen how it was affecting me, and also seen me connect that sickness to a full expression of my words.

I would have delivered my monologue in an altogether different voice or character or physicality than the one I’d prepared, but that new delivery, whether the auditors dug it or not, would have been true and natural and focused outward instead of inward.

You can’t act without breath.

Approaching Ionesco’s Rhinoceros

Two approaches to rhinoceritis

Ionesco leaves the rhinoceritis transfigurations open ended, vague. While his rhinos were inspired  by fascists, the particular pachyderms of his play are left free to represent any mass movement: fascism communism or what may come.

This ambiguity may be born of generosity to future producers, a gift of open metaphor to the challenges of later days, or may be born of grasping fearful selfishness, afraid to marry his moment of inspiration when a more beautifully relevant moment may later come along-no matter for the producers! The author is dead etc etc.! But how to fill the void left by Ionesco’s lost purpose?

I’ve two opposing impulses in this.

One: Ionesco’s indecision, or at least inspecificity gifts each producer with an opportunity for decision – a gate meant to be closed. On paper, the “tendency to mass-movement” is vague, on stage it must be particular to the time: fascism, communism, apathy. The rhino should shape itself to the species of the day.

Two: room for ghosts: if the masses are uncertain and amorphous; if the mass movement of the time is not only apathy but Fear Born of Uncertainty,Unwillingness To Act,  then the rhino may (must) be undefined, a spirit, a ghost, unwilling to show itself.

This second read provides at least superficial if not deep and irresolvable conflict with the text: Ionesco’s rhinos are destructive, powerful, intimidating. Ghosts can be this too, but not typically by virtue of physical power and force. A ghost does not charge through walls.

Connection in rehearsal

I recently directed two actors in a rehearsal focusing on connection.  I instructed the actors, still working from scripts, to only speak when they found the other actor’s eyes.  If they needed to read, they should stop speaking, then read, then look up when ready to speak. If the other actor was reading, they should wait to speak until the other looked up. If eye contact became upsetting, they should look away, and stop speaking. If the other actor looked away, wait for them to look back, or chase their eyes: move into their field of vision.

There was more to this rehearsal but the above exercise was the most of it.  The reading, of an 8-page play, which had typically taken 20 minutes, took at least double that time, 40-50 minutes. The actors stopped, started, overlapped one another, repeated themselves, occasionally contorted themselves to remain in view and keep speaking. I was riveted by the action, and by the end I was exhausted on their behalf by the act of watching.

Afterward I asked them about their experiences. What struck me most in their responses was something expressed in similar terms by both: while there was a palpable sense of increased ‘connection’ and ‘understanding’, neither felt able to access the emotions they expected, even insisted, they ought to feel.

What to take from this? One lesson might be that emotion is unimportant for the actor. A more useful lesson might be that emotion is misunderstood. When we are observing ourselves, on stage or off, in the moment of emotion, we necessarily have removed ourselves from the experience in order to analyze and affect it. This is a vital skill in daily life: “I am enraged, I will walk away.” But it is something actors tend to be told to unlearn: self-observation distracts from the intensity of a realistic decisive moment on stage. Perhaps inasmuch as this dictate is true, we can glean a lesson in how to effect it – telling someone to “turn off” their external eye or self awareness is absurd, but crowding out, distracting from that superawareness with other tasks might be a fair end-run.

Another lesson might be that intention, effort, is a more useful catalyst for emotion than text. The text drives action, and the action, and its consequences and impediments in execution, drive emotion. What else is emotion than thought expressed through physical tension and release? Conversely I’ve read, I don’t presently recall where, that when an actor-as-character speaks on stage, that text-as-speech must be the ultimate, frustrated expression of impeded action. To want a book in reach results in reaching for that book. To want a book out of reach, held out of reach, results in a cry: “I need that!”

By this last understanding, this rehearsal might be viewed as theatrically incomplete – speech drove action but the need for speech was driven by a force external to the reality of the scene – instructions from the director, and an expectation laid on by the process of rehearsal, and presence of a script. But these external forces are always present. They fade from the audience’s view, and commonly in realistic modern theatre the actors desire to limit their own experience of these external forces, to replace the external artifice with internal artifice, desiring not to complete the scene but to complete the scene’s actions. But this (and here I risk falling too far into a spiralling rabit hole of analysis) artifice is artificial, and perhaps it isn’t so much the erasure of artifice which engages an audience, but the decision to do so. If an actor on stage before an audience has resolved to experience only the world of his character, and the actor glances by accident for a moment at the audience, or the lights above, that actor has broken from his intention. It is the break of intention and not the break of artifice which damns him. After all in mask, in Brechtian, in mimed performances artifice becomes itself an engaging element. In this rehearsal the artifice of the exercise, understood by actor and audience, became an element of theatrical art.