The imperative of safety and allyship in theatre practice

An article that appears on, appealing for a new initiative:

Trauma Doesn’t Have a Formula

by Shuktara Lal

Last year, I had the honour of being invited to direct a performance comprising students at the Asian University for Women (Chattogram/Chittagong). The eight actors who performed were from several different provinces of Afghanistan, Balochistan (Pakistan), Chattogram (Bangladesh) and Tanjung Balai (Indonesia). Perhaps this may seem like a challenging prospect for a theatre-maker – to direct a play where the performers come not only from different countries but from areas within countries that are quite distinct from each other, where cultural and language identities were manifold (excluding English, at any time during rehearsals, seven other languages were at play), not to mention the experiences of displacement, violence and statelessness that most of the actors were living with.

Directing these actors made me feel a lot of things but ‘difficult’ wouldn’t be one of the adjectives I’d use, maybe because of what I consider to be a very normal approach to direction. I checked in daily on the actors – specifically asking them if they were comfortable with my directorial inputs, and with the script. However non-hierarchical one might say one is as a theatre-maker, if a performance has a director, a power equation is automatically coded into the setup. It’s on the director to recognize this and level it out. In this case, for me, it was about never losing sight of the privileges that marked me – the privilege of being born and living in India, language privilege, socio-cultural privilege. Finally, but in hindsight I think most importantly, I listened – not just to what was being said but, as any theatre director will understand, to nonverbal cues as well. There were times I would make suggestions and the actors would agree but I thought I spotted uncertainty or nervousness in their body language (hand gestures, facial expressions). So I would talk to them after rehearsals individually. They assured me that they had no misgivings – except in a couple of instances. It’s precisely these exceptions that risk slipping by a director. The exceptions related to reservations about dialogues; we edited and re-edited till it felt completely right for all of us. None of this reduced artistic quality in the final performance. It only enabled a working environment that was safe, respectful, patient, empathetic and self-aware – to the best of my knowledge, I did not make any statement of intent that I did not put into practice myself. When theatre is made where those with more power are mindful of working conditions, the effect will seamlessly percolate into the air that theatre groups breathe, in the atmosphere of their shows. Moreover, mini communities plant roots that find ways to stay connected where governments throttle natural mobility and communication.

In the aftermath of a well-known actor and director accused of sexual assault by theatre performers (the case is sub-judice) being cast by another acclaimed director in his recent production, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about the conditions required for theatre artistes (those who identify as women and nonbinary) to feel safe and heard. Following protests by other much younger theatre practitioners, the actor accused of assault was removed from the production after the first show. But exchanges on social media that ensued and an article the director subsequently wrote reiterated the glaring need for directors to simply listen, and in the case of established directors, to not wear their privilege lightly: because of the influence they can wield on account of their professional stature, because of their status and, where applicable, because of the privilege of not having to live with trauma.

Trauma does not follow a formula. There is no one-size-fits-all approach that can be applied to one’s understanding of how one who is living with trauma will “behave” – an umbrella term often used by those not living with trauma to create a kind of checklist of social cues, which, if ticked off, indicate to them that one is “now fine” or “okay” or has “moved on” or “made up with / forgiven their abuser”. On the contrary, trauma, and its effects on one’s everyday, is acutely personal and subjective. Perceived ability to be “functional”, to be passing societal tests of expected productivity, disposition (for example, not looking unhappy), is in no way indicative of the person also not being debilitated by triggers both at the level of memory and on the level of violating circumstances harshly thrust upon them in the present. Trauma therapist, Dr Janina Fisher, has written extensively about this: “Characteristically, the Going On with Normal Life part tries to carry on with daily priorities (functioning at a job, raising the children, organizing home life, even taking up 7 meaningful personal and professional goals). But those activities are often complicated by intrusive symptoms representing activation of parts serving the functions of fight, flight, freeze (or fear), submit, and attach for survival or ‘cling’ who are triggered in the context of everyday life, resulting in hypervigilance and mistrust, overwhelming emotions, incapacitating depression or anxiety, self-destructive behavior, and fear or hopeless about the future. [sic]” [In “The Treatment of Structural Dissociation in Chronically Traumatized Patients”, Oslo: Universitetsforlaget (2014), p 7]

Birati Samuho Performers Collective’s Bhasaili Re. Directed by Sudakshina Chowdhury, written by Titas. The moment of Lakhindar’s forcible sexual encounter on Behula. Her expectation of love met with possible marital rape. Photo: Snigdhendu Ghoshal.

To explain this further: imagine a woman actor who has been sexually assaulted by her director who claims that he is teaching her theatre techniques, citing the names of stalwarts associated with actor training in theatre programmes across the world. He is the one with power, not her. He is the one whose social and professional network includes other men and women with a high level of privilege – leading theatre directors, professors in reputed universities, celebrated performing arts scholars. Not her. For a brief period of time (or more) even her traumatized brain may tell her it wasn’t assault but education. After all, it makes it so much easier to programme oneself to believe a narrative that is also upheld by the heteronormative society one is living in. To not have to deviate from it by articulating sexual violence (and then being questioned about veracity), further still, deciding to go to a police station and file charges, then enduring the lengthy and laborious procedures of courts (none of which are women-friendly in West Bengal, at least, something I have experienced first-hand).

But let’s say the woman decides to do all this, and one day, X years later (it’s hardly relevant, how many years; there is no expiry date for trauma unless a survivor tells you she is no longer living with it), she goes to watch a play, exchanges pleasantries with people she knows in the hall, finds her seat, the bells ring, auditorium lights dim, she immerses herself in the magic of the world unravelling on stage, now, the only space in the large, dark hall that’s framed in light, the centre of attention of every other person who shares the audience space with her that day. Imagine, now, on that magical stage, her assaulter enters as an actor, one of the multiple elements that have been crafted painstakingly over months of rehearsals by the director. This is a trigger. Says Fisher in the same article: “Neuroscience research on traumatic remembering tells us that both spontaneous triggering and deliberate recollecting result in activation of the autonomic nervous system and de-activation of the prefrontal cortex in preparation for mobilizing (fight/flight responses) or immobilizing (freezing/submitting) forms of self protection—as if the danger were happening again. Not only do our clients suffer from the effects of each single traumatic incident but also from the repeated re- activation at a body level of the same non-verbal memories of fear, shame, loss of breath, body tension, pulling back, collapsing, rage, the impulse to hide, even the feelings of worthlessness and fault.” [Fisher, 2014, p 11]

Does she leave the hall, potentially drawing attention to herself as she presses into the seats in front of her to avoid trampling the feet of those sitting in her row as she makes her way to the aisle, potentially inciting reprimands for obstructing the vision of those behind her? Does she remain seated and pretend everything is “normal”, wait till the production ends and then leave with everyone, potentially having to smile at the same people she’d greeted before the play began? What should her reaction be if she hears others rave about the production, and, grotesquely, about that specific actor? Will her head, which might have already beaten herself up about how after being assaulted, for that fraction of time she’d second-guessed herself, told herself it couldn’t be abuse, she an educated woman who should always immediately be able to identify it, judge herself later for staying? Or leaving?

The human head is a fascinating, complex organism, forgiving and unforgiving of the self, and for those of us who live and work with trauma, quite impossible to predict. All these thoughts may be running riots in her head. Or a few. Or none at all. She may freeze. Shoulders may stiffen, throat and chest muscles tighten, sounds of voices actually close by may seem far away, her ears may feel hot. All the while, possibly, no discernible discomfort visible on her face. Remember, as I mentioned, these are only a handful of possible responses in a spectrum of responses to a single incident that a number of different women have experienced while working in theatre in West Bengal. But this was a trigger that was cruel and presumptuous and unlike other triggers, this could have been prevented.

Annyaswar’s September-er 30 Din, directed by Shuddho Banerjee, adapted from Dattani’s Thirty Days in September, on child sexual abuse. Photo: Shuddho Banerjee.

The bar is sadly so low at present in West Bengal theatre, Bangla theatre in particular, that women are not the only ones whose safety is at risk. Last year, a theatre director and children’s drama teacher was accused of child sexual abuse. Currently out on bail, he continues to stage plays. I encourage you to use your imagination to think about parents who send their children to learn theatre and gain collaborative artistic experience, children who may then be sexually abused by their teacher. Use your imagination to empathize with the trauma experienced by the children, and their parents who trusted a director for very valid reasons – and whose theatre group, like most regular groups, is officially registered as a society having its memorandum of association. Now imagine what it must feel like to see feted actors perform in his plays while his case is still being heard.

Rangroop’s Chhayapath, directed by Sima Mukhopadhyay, written by Tirthankar Chanda. It described Irom Sharmila Chanu’s 16-year hunger strike against the draconian AFSPA in Manipur, and explored collective trauma. Photo: Rangroop

Theatre in West Bengal has a history of siding with protest, of excoriating governmental actions, of being political. Theatre-makers pride themselves for being leftist, progressive, culturally refined. This is a state where Binodini (one of the early female actors on the Bangla stage who valiantly tried to hold her own in the inexorably patriarchal society she lived in) is ubiquitous, referenced repeatedly in productions inspired by her, on her, in seminars, academic research about Bangla theatre, in conversations across platforms. We are nearly a quarter into the 21st century, over 150 years have passed since Binodini was born. If we don’t put these plays, discourses and perorations into actionable practices that would safeguard all theatre workers but especially women, children, people of marginalized genders and sexual identities now, then when?

Chokh’s Khun, written and directed by Abhijit Kargupta. Set in Sonagachhi, with a subtext of inter-generational trauma (six generations) in prostitution. Photo: Chokh.

Allyship is in recognizing this. Allyship means venerated directors, actors, practitioners seeing the power they have to help bring about actual reforms in how theatre is practised in the state. It’s about being socialistic in practice. It’s about initiating the formation of committees with women where instances of harassment and sexual violence can be reported anonymously. It’s about ensuring that when a case has been brought to the attention of the committee, while the review is going on the person accused will be disallowed from taking part in any rehearsal, show or entering theatre group spaces. It’s about not questioning the authenticity of a charge made by a woman, which is an oft-experienced (yet preventable) trigger that survivors grapple with. It’s about discussing how one of the provisions for the registration of theatre groups should be them having policies that cover sexual harassment and child sexual abuse (drawing on existing acts that are in place for the Prevention of Sexual Harassment at the Workplace and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences), which anyone working with them must sign.

Theatre, dance and film are the arts that demand the highest degree of safety measures because the close physical proximity and contact in process, rehearsal and performance required by their very nature assume vulnerability and trust are a part of the performers’ training and abhinaya. The employment of designated professionals, intimacy coordinators, is emerging as a part of best practice in film to ensure the comfort, well-being and safety of actors. Asking for safety is not a radical act; it’s the bare minimum. And the first step towards standing in solidarity with artistes asking (clamouring?) to be heard is to port the politics that informs one’s art into one’s everyday life, be self-reflective about one’s privileges, and listen, as one does when making art, to those with less or no power.

Shuktara Lal is a drama therapist and counsellor, theatre-maker and educator based in Kolkata.