The National Women's Theatre Festival

Theatre needs a therapist: a mental health manifesto

Early in my career, I was taking rehearsal notes for a director when I heard a sudden crash. Time slowed as I took in the tableau of actors standing, frozen, around the set’s table while one of its chairs lay overturned on the other side of the stage. I was stunned to realize that the producer had thrown a chair at an actor mid-scene. As a young assistant with little power, I was completely at a loss for how to advocate for the safety of my collaborators. Because the person who threw the chair quite literally ran the company, there was nowhere to turn for support.

Throughout my education and career as a theatre professional, I have worked in a variety of environments ranging from equitable collectives to toxic hierarchies. Some rehearsal processes have been collaborative and nurturing and some have been rife with hateful speech, harmful manipulation, and even physical violence.

Now, several years of insight and experience after “the chair incident”, I am pursuing my Master’s in Social Work to learn as much as I can about organizing and creating systemic change in our industry. According to the National Association of Social Workers’ Code of Ethics, a social worker’s primary goal is to help people in need and to address social problems.

My goal is to become the person our cast needed that day:
an advocate outside of the hierarchical power structure, capable of managing crises as they arise and empowering artists with the tools and resources they need to speak up for themselves and each other.

In the same way that we hire choreographers or coordinators when staging violence and intimacy, we need to normalize having a mental health professional in the room on any production that deals with trauma and potentially triggering topics. A culturally competent, trauma-informed mental health professional with a singular focus on the well-being of the production’s collaborators can minimize physical hazards, amplify voiced needs without fear of retribution, and ensure that consent is informed, conditional, contextual, and freely given. They can effectively anticipate, identify, and address instances of racism, sexism, ableism, and other forms of discrimination in the rehearsal process. Having such an individual on the production team will create safer rehearsal rooms, grounded in an empathetic, anti-racist, and social justice-oriented approach that values diverse perspectives and cultures.

The following points are what I propose as a new standard to which the theatre industry can hold itself:

  • Before rehearsals: 
    • Assess the policies and procedures already in place at the theatre company
    • Anticipate access needs of the production’s unique rehearsal process
    • Meet with the director and theatre leadership to establish a mental health and well-being strategy for the rehearsal process
  • At the start of rehearsals: 
    • Facilitate the creation of Community Guidelines (with “We See You W.A.T.” demands and “Not In Our House Chicago” as starting points) and go over the production’s Conflict-Resolution Path
    • Establish respectful terminology to use when discussing the themes of the play
    • Introduce resources and research to support the mental health and well-being of the team during the production process (including numbers of crisis and support lines, information on local non-profits with applicable services, grounding exercises, etc.)
  • During rehearsals: 
    • Advocate for the well-being and access needs of the members of the cast and production team, acting as intercessory with theatre leadership when necessary
    • Hold confidential, individual counseling sessions with anyone who may want support processing emotions that come up as a result of the material or rehearsal process, with a focus on establishing healthy coping mechanisms and assessing any emergent access needs
    • Facilitate restorative justice conversations and hold space for healing when harm is done
    • Create a safety plan with anyone who experiences harm that results in immediate danger 
    • Offer Crisis Intervention and Mental Health First Aid
  • Post-production: 
    • Coordinate care for collaborators who want/need ongoing support after the rehearsal process ends (a long-term therapist or support group, for example)
    • Share safety and well-being analysis of the rehearsal process with theatre leadership and/or the board of directors
    • Suggest changes to implement in future productions

The theatre industry cannot continue to shirk its responsibilities to the health and well-being of its people. While I intend to use what I learn in my Master’s program to build safer, more equitable theatre spaces (on and offstage), it will only be possible with a coalition of theatre-makers demanding better from our employers and colleagues. With the wisdom of our elders and siblings in this fight, like Chelsey Morgan and Nicole Brewer, who are already doing The Work, we have the collective power to spark a massive shift in the landscape of American theatre. I know that together we can radically reimagine the way we approach theatre-making, one rehearsal room at a time.

Who’s with me?

Written by Abigail Birkett, 2023 WTFringeLab Cohort Member, Trauma-Informed Yoga Instructor, MSW Candidate

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