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Features Published 18 January 2018

Emotional Safety in the Rehearsal Room

Ahead of her performance 'For a Black Girl', Nicole Acquah explores ideas of emotional safety and self-care in the rehearsal room.
Nicole Acquah
'For a Black Girl', on at Vault Festival from 24-28 Jan

‘For a Black Girl’, on at Vault Festival from 24-28 Jan

Emotional safety is a difficult thing to achieve in a rehearsal room. Firstly, it’s hard to define. In psychology, it’s a term that’s used to describe a state that mixes openness and vulnerability with the feeling of being supported and safe. In a performance context, that could mean a lot of different things. And how exactly can it be quantified? Each actor is different, and what makes one feel comfortable in a rehearsal space might make another feel uncomfortable.

Still, I don’t think these tricky questions are something to shy away from. The onus is on us as directors, performers and theatre-makers alike to work towards creating a safe atmosphere in which colleagues feel comfortable expressing emotions and, perhaps even more importantly, are taught methods to help with releasing negative emotions.

I’ve been in spaces where professional actors question how to achieve emotional safety and theatre practitioners seem clueless on where to even begin. It dawned on me that as actors, we receive a huge amount of training focused on, understandably, how to get into character but practically no guidance on how to get out of one.

Admittedly, this may sound a little silly, and is probably it hasn’t been taken so seriously. There’s the assumption that once you’re ‘out’ of character, you are ‘yourself’ again. But finishing a rehearsal isn’t always like removing a a simple item or jewellery or a pair of gloves. Without proper training it can be like trying to wriggle out of an exceedingly crafty pair of skinny jeans; frustrating and unnecessarily time-consuming or exhausting. When your natural self has spent the last few days, weeks or months in a rehearsal space, focusing on the emotions of another, then training is required to become oneself again.

Perhaps very little theoretical study has been done on this process of ‘unbecoming’ because as a society, we’re only now beginning to understand more about mental health and self-care. It’s time more of that understanding made its way into the rehearsal room.

Of course, there’s a difference between self-care and emotional safety. The first is personal and the latter is a shared responsibility. Sure, you can make others aware of how you will be implementing your self-care, but the action must be taken by you. For example, I know that if I’m feeling a bit off because of an emotionally hard-hitting scene, a great way for me to relax is to go for a long walk. Alternatively, if I need something a bit more trustworthy; something that ensures I have peace before, during and after rehearsal, then I’ll pray and read the Bible. That is my responsibility. It is also an example of ‘knowledge of the self’ coming into play. If I don’t do these things, then there’s not much a director or fellow actor can do to ensure a correct mental state for me.

But it’s in the realm of emotional safety that I believe a lot of actor/director training goes wrong. For example, I’ve trained in theatre all my life but I only realised last year that I respond well to post-rehearsal strolls. And whilst it’s my responsibility to go for a walk in the first place, is it too much to suggest that acting teachers encourage students to find ways to relax after a difficult scene? If students can be told to follow people in the streets to pick up their gait, or to record real life conversations to learn how to write realistic dialogue, then I don’t think it’s unreasonable that students are also made to understand the importance of emotional safety and self-care. If we can teach Meisner Method and Laban, then we can teach responsible approaches to sensitive practice.

When I was eighteen, I was made to practice the technique of Emotional Memory (aka using events in real life to help you fully inhabit a character) in a totally irresponsible manner. Firstly, although it was my first foray into the technique, I was left unsupervised and told to imagine that all my family members had passed away. Did it produce the required emotions? Yes! Was it dangerous? Looking back, I really think it was. I remember feeling awful for the rest of the day – I was shaking and I felt sick. I had no idea how to distance myself from those feelings.

I’m thinking a lot about this because I’ve been working intensely on a play I wrote and perform in, called For a Black Girl.  I’ve been thinking about what I can do to make those in the cast and on the creative team feel safer.

In general, I think most of the shows I’ve worked on, including For a Black Girl, have made an effort to create an open environment in which people can talk about how they are feeling. I’m working with an amazing team who are genuinely so in tune with their emotions that it makes me feel much more comfortable if I do need to communicate anything. But there is always room for improvement. Have I felt 100% emotionally safe throughout the entire rehearsal process? Nope! The occasions in which I felt I was in danger have been few and far between, but I have learned from the experience and there are a few guidelines which I will be considering next time:

Discuss anything difficult on Day 1
It’s good practice to have a discussion with the cast and crew about the themes the performance touches on and it’s best to have this talk early. Preferably soon after the first readthrough or in the first rehearsal. It’s also good to communicate that people are welcome to be as open (or as quiet!) as they wish to be when it comes to sharing their own stories. Additionally, let the actors to know they have a point of contact (other than the director) who they can go to if they’re feeling uncomfortable about anything.

Frequently and gently remind people
It can be easy to create an open atmosphere in the first few days of rehearsal, but I find that it’s helpful to constantly remind people that they are in a safe space and that it’s okay to talk about anything if they so choose.

Handle intimate or emotionally intense scenes with care
You should never start a scene that could be considered triggering without a director, or even an intimacy director, like those provided by the theatre company Theatrical Intimacy (read their set of guidelines here). It’s easy to assume (especially when working with friends) that emotional safety is a given but it’s best to discuss these things and work with professionals when possible!

Stopping a scene
Sometimes it’s difficult to state that you’re not feeling okay in a rehearsal. As Laura Jane Dean discusses in her Exeunt piece, Putting Your Hand Up, if you’re the lead actor in a show, everything seems to revolve around you, and you can feel guilty stopping a rehearsal or giving yourself a break. But it’s better to be honest with everyone, including yourself, and chat with people even before rehearsals are underway.

I remember once, when feeling super emotional during a scene, I literally said, “Can I have a minute?” And guess what? The world didn’t end! (It definitely helped that the director is one of my best friends so I felt a lot more comfortable saying I needed a minute). There have been other points where I definitely haven’t taken a moment, so as not to be seen as a drama queen, or so as not to ‘waste’ time in rehearsal. But self care is important, and the world will not end because you need to take a break.

In conclusion, we need to work to ensure everyone, from performers and directors to dramaturgs and writers, are emotionally safe. Have an honest talk as often as is needed. And if you’re not getting the support you need – say so. We have a responsibility to each other and to ourselves.

For a Black Girl is on at Vault Festival from 24th to 28th January, 2018. More info here

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Nicole Acquah

Nicole Acquah is a writer, performer and theatre director. She holds a BA in Drama and Creative Writing from Royal Holloway University, and has a particular interest in interdisciplinary practice, physical theatre, new writing and autobiographical performance. She has directed a number of productions for the Sky High Theatre Company, which she founded in 2013. Since then, she has gone on to perform in both short and feature films. She secretly wishes she could rap or beatbox but she can’t (yet) so she performs spoken word and performance poetry at venues across the UK. Close enough. She is currently undertaking an MA at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. Nicole can be found on twitter @Nico_Deemus.

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