Theatre and The Fallacy of “Safety” by Artemis Simone
Updated: Aug 25
Here is something I have not said in public before, for fear of being a “bad activist”:
As a Black mixed nonbinary educator, playwright, singer, and aspiring director who has survived sexual, emotional, and physical violence, I no longer believe in “safe” or “safer” spaces, under any circumstances.
Now, I consider myself a social justice facilitator and activist, and I do believe that the changes that some theatres are taking to address these allegations are solid and admirable. Anyone and any institution can change, and theatre can experience transformative justice and truly be for the people with equity and access for all.
In the recent past, at least in the Washington DC metro area theatre scene, there has been a slew of artistic directors and other artists stepping down from positions in and out of the spotlight, whether due to sexual violence accusations, racist internal and external policies, or other deeply unprofessional behavior.
In DC, Black people and other people of Color in the arts, as well as disability and gender marginalized people, have lost faith in theatre’s protection of its artists, producers, and educators, if they ever had any.
Theaters are now having online “town halls” and “focus groups”, and “action steps” are being taken to create online “safe” or “safer” spaces, because in-person spaces are impossible during the pandemic. Change had to happen, not only in how theatre is produced but how the theatre community responds to calls for justice.
The hope with these “action steps” is to show that the theatre community can come together online and still “speak truth to power” to affect changes they want to see; and that is why I no longer believe in “safe” or “safer” spaces, under any circumstances.
The main reasons are:
There is no guarantee under any circumstances that a space will not trigger someone. It is incredibly difficult, especially in larger group settings, to have a therapist or appointed counselor to handle everyone or anyone’s triggered episodes. Also, what happens to people who aren’t immediately comforted? Do we have systems that support them and help them de-escalate after they leave the space? We, as a society, and as an arts community, do not have a social/mental health support system in place that is completely financially/distance-accessible/space-accessible. So, who gets supported afterward? Is there any theatre equipped to truly ensure the safety of its communities during these town halls and focus groups?
These terms directly assume that anyone who triggers someone is potentially “unsafe” to be around. Ignorance on a subject is understandable because none of us were born with perfect and all-encompassingly wonderful politics and cultural competency, and I believe in callouts and call-ins and everyone can learn from their mistakes. That being said:
No one should tolerate willful and damaging ignorance and abuse in these spaces.
Theaters cannot ensure “safety” when they themselves have been “unsafe”. They would have to hire others to facilitate, which costs money that most institutions refuse to spend (but that issue is for another day).
Theatre can’t police potentially triggering statements and ideas without potentially making people immediately defensive and escalating the situation. It is not helpful for long-term change and creates an us/them dynamic that is usually created by a misunderstanding rather than willful obstinance. Ask any person of Color in theatre or at a nonprofit, and they will tell you the astronomically high number of micro/macro-aggressions they experience everyday. They will also say that reliable mechanisms for addressing these aggressions are few and far between, and the mechanisms are rarely reliable and without retaliation.
Sometimes that means that someone, like a victim of violence like me, cannot say something that they need to without potentially being deemed “unsafe”. People cannot control the fact that something that isn’t triggering to them won’t trigger someone else. People should not be asked to leave a space because their experiences are triggering, and the responsibility cannot solely lie on theatres who have already been deemed toxic or abusive.
It also begs the question, “what is ‘safety’?” There are so many definitions based on the spaces themselves, the groups in question, and the preconceived notions that individuals have coming into the space that theatres can’t control.
So, rather than having “safe” or “safer” spaces, I believe in “accountable spaces”:
It lets the room know that they can say what they need to say but that they will be called in to be accountable to their actions and statements, now and in the future. Theatres need to explain themselves. A theatre cannot just fire people, put out a statement, and consider the problem fixed. They need to be held fully accountable to the people, regardless of how it makes the theatre executives “uncomfortable”.
In my opinion, it says from the jump, “you can speak your mind; your emotions and ideas are valid, in terms of the context of you were raised and environments you were exposed to but you must and will be held accountable to the people you hurt in the space and in those communities; and that you are going to be asked to explain yourself rather than make blanket statements.” Everyone messes up, and perfection is unattainable. However, our best can always be improved upon, and accountability and change can be made a continuous priority.
It establishes a room that supports community building and teachable moments from all involved.
No one or space should tolerate willfully damaging ignorance and abuse under any circumstances. People can be called to leave these spaces, should abusive and violent statements and actions continue.
However, just because theatre executives may feel “attacked” or “unsafe”, doesn’t mean they were. Far more likely, they are simply “uncomfortable”. We can’t change people’s minds for the better without talking through it with them and engaging as a caring community but discomfort is natural when unlearning harmful or toxic behaviors. Everyone in power within theatre communities must do some self-reflection about why they are uncomfortable, where they experience privilege, and how they abuse power dynamics.
Lastly, and in my opinion, it creates an inherent understanding that the learning process is lifelong; gaps in knowledge and cultural competency are understandable; but that these misconceptions must be addressed and changed inwardly, in order to create real change outwardly. We all were working with the knowledge we had previously, and that is valid. However, it does not mean it’s okay to still have damaging ideas about historically looted/abused communities.
TO SUM UP, theaters need to:
Treat their educators, artists, and production staff the way they wanted to be treated when they were starting out. Respect is the minimum, but disrespect is earned. Theatres must jump into the work of changing interpersonally and institutionally or risk losing everything.
Do more than post a statement of intent, mission, or value. If one values something, one puts effort into it, starting with themselves.
In fact, theatres need to hire all people who have offered viable solutions that theatres have proclaimed to want. If theatres value their artists, educators, production crew and staff, their lower-level administrators, and their external accountability consultants, theatres must pay everyone fairly and for significantly more than their asking salary.
Follow up on fair and equitable pay by stepping back and letting the advice from their consultants inform the actions theatre organizations take.
Be quiet and hear these communities. One can “listen” all day but theatres must hear the truth, do the work, and make their backs and wallets hurt, in the name of communal wellness, paradigm shifts, and change for the better.
Theatres, I insist that you:
Don’t just listen.
Don’t just “learn”.
Don’t just “take action steps”.
Leap deep into the murky waters of the work. Dive in with us the way we have been asking you to.
You all have had time to learn and “do better”.
Artemis Simone (they/ them) is a theatre educator, playwright, singer-songwriter, and social justice facilitator. They are interested in telling and encouraging the development of stories for and by people of Color, disabled communities, and the LGBTQIA community. Their current musical in development is called SHE SINGS ME HOME (IG and Twitter: @shesingsmehome).