Is There a Cost to Prioritizing Safety in the Performing Arts?

Trigger warnings, intimacy coaches, and COVID-19 restrictions orbit a new understanding of the word ’safety’ on local stages

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Reflecting contemporary times always has been a major role of the performing arts, whether through allegory or documentary-style realism. But amid the upheavals of the past several years, Minnesota arts companies and venues have seen changes that encompass more than the plays, dance, or music onstage.

It seems that nearly everyone, from scrappy little theater companies to multi-million-dollar nonprofits, are embracing or at least having to respond to a push for increased safety for performers and audiences alike. Trigger warnings, intimacy coaches, COVID-19 restrictions, and awareness of the potential for individual and institutional abuse all orbit the notion of safety in a way that was scarcely part of the picture even a few years ago—reflecting a consciousness of the mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing of both audiences and performers.

If you’ve gone to a play recently, chances are good you have encountered a trigger warning, whether it was posted outside the theater, in the program, or on the show’s website. Warnings are issued for content depicting violence, sex, trauma, language, and sometimes smoking and loud noises. The Guthrie’s artistic director Joseph Haj was quoted in The New York Times as not liking the notion but basically having made peace with it. “As grown-up people, we should be able to grapple with difficult ideas together,” Haj said. “That said, audiences don’t like to be jumped.”

There’s a counterargument to be made that art often grapples with tough issues, and that disturbing experiences sometimes shock us into thinking in a way we otherwise wouldn’t.

“I don’t love them,” says Dark and Stormy Productions artistic director Sara Marsh about trigger warnings. Her company declines to post them. “A strobe-light warning is one thing—a person can’t control how they’re affected by that. But overall, I trust that the audience can decide for themselves whether they want to come see something.”

Another aspect of safety consciousness takes into account the wellbeing of performers. Intimacy coaching is focused on helping actors navigate love scenes and other close contact. For the theaters that can afford it, intimacy coaching is seen as a way to establish boundaries—not unlike the work of fight coaches, who help prevent onstage injury when, for instance, King Henry V goes once more unto the breach.

“It’s not one-size-fits-all,” says Ten Thousand Things artistic director Marcela Lorca, who worked as the Guthrie’s movement coach dealing with intimacy and violence onstage for 27 years and who has helmed many productions. “My approach is first to see what works for each person and facilitate conversations. Everybody feels differently and brings different experiences, skills, and vocabulary. We work together to unpack what each moment needs, what we’re comfortable with, and proceed step by step in a gradual process.”

Inherent in this notion is the reality that the process of creating a performance can result in personal boundaries being crossed. The theater industry, in a sense, is based on crossing the biggest boundary of all—that between reality and make-believe. But many in the industry are also talking about the need to look at harassment, abuse, and unrealistic work expectations that are, to varying degrees, baked into the culture. This aspect of care and safety consciousness, they argue, comes with valid and complex justifications.

“Gone are the days of ‘The show must go on,’” says Signe Harriday, artistic producing director of Pillsbury House Theatre, about social and working conditions for performers and creators. “I think we’re in a time of mounting pandemics. It’s not just COVID-19, it’s not just a racial reckoning moment, it’s not just economic turmoil. It’s not just one of these many factors. It’s all of them.”

COVID, Balance, and What’s Ahead

Protocols and restrictions that purport to protect physical health are ostensibly more straightforward. COVID-19 alone sent enduring shock waves through the performing arts. Concert and theater goers have for months been checking websites for the status of various mask- and vaccine-related restrictions and recommendations. For organizations such as the Minnesota Orchestra, it’s been an evolving tightrope act for its audience and performers alike.

“We’ve grappled with questions around whether it is OK for a solo violinist or pianist to perform unmasked if they feel it is necessary to deliver the best performance,” says Minnesota Orchestra communications director Gwen Pappas. “Can we mount a large-scale work such as Mahler’s Eighth Symphony that literally calls for hundreds of instrumentalists and singers to perform onstage together?” The answer was yes. And in the case of the soloists, they have proceeded without requiring masks.

The Guthrie saw the impact of COVID-19 most vividly over the summer, when a series of positive tests resulted in numerous understudies taking the stage for its production of “Emma,” and then a handful of canceled shows. Like other theaters of its size, the Guthrie now employs medical professionals to test and monitor its employees.

“I think that theater in general is going to be changed forever,” says Jodi Metz, the Guthrie’s COVID-19 safety manager, about the role of medical professionals in the theater going forward, “with regard to basically tolerating exposures of any type of illness at work and feeling the pressure to work while you’re ill or not at a hundred percent.”

Emphasizing the health and wellbeing of performers and their audiences is a good thing, particularly in the case of actors, who often work with chronic levels of financial and professional instability, and who routinely suffer from profound power imbalances. What’s hopeful is that these needles can be threaded while keeping the immediacy, power, and, yes, danger that gives live performance much of its power.

“You have to balance safety with positive joy and optimism,” Lorca adds. “Being scared all the time is depleting. There are so many risks in the world right now, and to live in fear of these risks is counterproductive. Still, to be aware of these risks and to mitigate risks however we’re able is important.”

Hopefully a reasonable middle prevails in the future, with that sense of joy and wonder that a great night out at the theater provides. There’s a sense of abundance from unfettered art that hopefully lives alongside sensible guardrails.

“We’re operating from a place of fear and scarcity rather than generosity,” Marsh adds. “We’re being told that we can’t do hard things anymore, and we actually can do hard things.”

Do we need to be warned when the show we’re about to see contains disturbing elements? It’s debatable. Should we be glad that actors and other performers have a growing voice in how they’re treated? Yes, indeed. But let’s collectively hope that our direction still incorporates expansiveness and possibility.

“Theater artisans have forever been the people to hold up a mirror to society—as James Baldwin said, to ‘show herself to herself,’” Harriday adds. “Theater and the arts are places where we can more meaningfully examine the conditions of our lives, and hopefully create enough imaginative space to step into alternative possibilities. I don’t think we get innovation, healing, or safety without imagination.”

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Quinton Skinner is a writer and editor based in the Twin Cities. A former senior editor of Minnesota Monthly, he held the same post at Twin Cities METRO and 
has written for major national and local publications. He is the co-founder of Logosphere Storysmiths and author of several novels, including his latest, Odd One Out.