Sexual intimacy on the stage, harassement tackled head-on
An upcoming conference in St. John's for theatre performers and behind-the-scenes folk will take a deep dive into matters at the very heart of the #MeToo movement.
Working With Respect is a free one-day event focusing on harassment and best practices for scenes depicting sexual intimacy. The event is spearheaded by PerSIStence Theatre, a St. John's-based non-profit organization that engages in theatre, professional development opportunities, educational programs and community outreach. Founded in 2017, all of its activities embrace the core beliefs of feminism.
"On one hand, it's not unusual, because across North America right now, the theatre industry is definitely undergoing a rapid catch-up on best practices due to some horror stories that came out of the #MeToo movement," explained Jenn Deon, producing artistic director for PerSIStence Theatre. "Our industry was not immune to that. But I think what is lovely for Newfoundland and Labrador, and a little bit of a challenge, often we don't have resources and access here on the island. Sometimes it takes a little bit of extra effort to bring in expertise."
The #MeToo movement has served as a moment of reckoning for many people in positions of power who have been called out and taken to task for abusing that power to exploit others, often for sexual gratification.
The most high-profile case of this nature coming out of the Canadian theatre scene involves the Toronto-based Soulpepper Theatre Company and its former artistic director Albert Schultz, who also starred for many years in the CBC television series "Street Legal." Several plaintiffs filed a civil lawsuit against both parties, alleging sexual misconduct against Schultz. The case was settled in 2018.
Deon's hope for the conference — scheduled for Feb. 24 at the St. John's Arts and Culture Centre — is to attract a cross-section of theatre professionals who can subsequently share what they learn throughout the provincial theatre scene.
Siobhan Richardson, an intimacy and fight director who also acts, says this is already happening across Canada.
"When a group like PerSIStence is able to create a moment of leadership and bring a community together, then we see these changes happening really quickly and then people also know who they can talk to," said Richardson, who lives in Toronto and will offer an introduction to intimacy choreography at the conference. "Without this kind of central event, a lot of people don't know who else is interested and who else has resources that they can then share. Once we have the ability to share these resources with each other, the information disseminates so quickly because of that beginning moment."
"When a group like PerSIStence is able to create a moment of leadership and bring a community together, then we see these changes happening really quickly and then people also know who they can talk to."
Joining Richardson and Deon for the conference will be Tabitha Keast, a human resources specialist with the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres who also has a theatre background and writes plays. She will take the lead on a lunch-break session titled "Awkward Conversations," during which Keast will answer anonymous questions in a group setting.
There will also be a three-hour workshop called "Respectful Workplaces in the Arts" that delves into harassment legislation in Newfoundland and Labrador, the obligations of staff and how to support staff experiencing harassment.
"People just don't know, and it's a real fear taking those first few steps," Keast said. "If you have a workshop or you have a conference like this, you get the information that you need to get started."
Working with Respect is a one-day conference for theatre practitioners in Newfoundland & Labrador featuring two 3-hour...Posted by Persistence Theatre Company on Tuesday, January 21, 2020
Richardson's interest in intimacy choreography was sparked about a year before the #MeToo movement came into existence.
"It's about creating the detail of the movement," she explained. "I listen to what the director wants with the scene, I listen to what the actors want with their characters in the scene and then I translate those impulses and those story-based ideas into sort of a movement, and then we do some physical dramaturgy on that. ... As we rehearse together, we further refine that movement."
There's a heavy collaborative element to Richardson's work, and making sure this all falls in line with creating a respectful and joyful workspace is an essential part of that.
"You can put some choreography on something, but it's not going to work if you don't have that trust," Richardson said.
She does not consider her role to be that of a consent officer for these intimate scenes, but more of a resource for creating that respectful environment.
"Which includes the seeking of consent," she added. "It also includes everyone being on the same table with what the story is. Sometimes when choreography goes poorly, it's because there's a lack of communication as to what we're looking for in the story. ... Once we're clear on what that story is, then we can be on board with what are the elements of touch, what are the elements of movement that we're looking to use in this. And is everyone excited to do that? Is everyone in a place of creative anticipation? The excitement of trying something.
"That's not to say our work is always comfortable. There are times where we're uncomfortable. There are times where we're having a moment of feeling like or giggling like an adolescent, because we're talking about these things we don't usually talk about in public. While we're definitely focused on what is the experience for the character and not, has the actor done this before — it's not about what people do in their bedrooms. It's about what's appropriate for the story. But there's still an element of, oh, I'm doing this and my body is the instrument being used in this moment."
Demand for work
Richardson has witnessed an increased demand within the theatre industry for her services in recent years. As awareness grew surrounding the need to address power dynamics within the work environment to enhance creative excitement and avoid harming one’s mental health, interest in having her expertise on hand for rehearsals also grew.
"At the beginning of 2018 and throughout 2018, there was a definite increase in inquiries, and that steadily continued," she said. "A lot of people were just so affected by the news and the open recognition ... of this (being) a big problem that we need to fix. and it's really very truly in the way of artistic creation. The tone in rehearsals has changed a lot."
"The tone in rehearsals has changed a lot." — Siobhan Richardson
In addition to the scheduled conference workshops, Richardson will be part of an informal gathering of theatre professionals from Newfoundland and Labrador interested in becoming intimacy directors.
"Hopefully we'll get some intimacy directors and choreographers starting to be trained right here in the province," said Deon.
The conference will be offered to two streams (24 per group), with performers on one side and directors and managers on the other. The deadline to apply to attend is Friday, Feb. 7. People interested in participating can apply online at www.persistencetheatre.com.