To what extent can the performing arts host a space to deal with (sexual) violence? What is expected of performing arts institutions in order for them to be a safe(r) space? What does it even mean to be safe in a theatre? How do safety and care relate to each other? Carolina Mendonça and I talked about these questions and tried to unravel the different expectations, confrontations, and potentials in the roles of the artists, audiences, and institutions and their respective relationships.
Our conversations started earlier in 2023 in the context of the ITI annual conference “Conflict & Care: Dispute as Part of Transformation in the Performing Arts and Their Institutions” that I curated together with Berfin Orman and where we invited Carolina to host a roundtable as part of the programme.
The text below consists of excerpts from one of our conversations. It addresses sexual violence as a topic within the performing arts. The text is – necessarily so – incomplete and yet dares to enter tricky terrain.
In the frame of the conference, the term “conflict” had multiple meanings: on the one hand, it addressed how institutions within the performing arts shy away from or even suppress conflict and therefore necessary processes of transformation towards more just structures. On the other hand, some of the artists and cultural workers invited to the conference shared very specific experiences of conflict and how they developed practices of care within or despite the dynamics of conflict around them. Together, they described very different approaches to what conflict actually is and also what kind of problems and potentials are implied. What is your understanding of conflict?
I work as a dramaturg with Carolina Bianchi y Cara de Cavalo and when developing The Cadela Força Trilogy: Chapter I – The Bride and the Goodnight Cinderella, we tried to find ways to address sexual violence performatively. Carolina Bianchi and I tried to figure out another language – not only in words, but also in terms of practices and images. We realised that there is not only one perspective, but always multiple perspectives involved. It’s a conflict between private/public and inside/outside. One of the ways in which violence operates is that it blurs these distinctions – that makes it very difficult to talk about it. So, the theatre became a space where we could sustain this contradiction. I think of the piece as a collective space where we all can linger in this confusion of naming violence and staying with our feelings as they shift. We don’t provide solutions, nor are we interested in healing. Not because we don’t believe in it. But the task for us was to see what happens when we put aside the wish to find solutions: What happens when we really stay with the complexity of violence?
The practice of trigger warnings comes from a necessity to name certain topics and to make people aware in advance. However, using trigger warnings suggests that by naming it, you have control over how you might be triggered or what you might be triggered by. For instance, for my piece Zones of Resplendence, we usually say that it’s a piece dealing with sexual violence and that there is nudity – but maybe it’s not enough to know whether or not this will trigger you. Either way, in dealing with such delicate and violent topics there is an inherent risk. We certainly don’t want to reproduce violence, we want to transform it. However, we can’t guarantee that we definitely won’t reproduce violence for anyone. There is no way to talk about sexual violence without touching upon violence. Using trigger warnings is one way but I feel we also need other tools so that all of us – the audience, the institution, and the artists – can take the risk and address difficult topics.
Most of these tools still have to be invented or rehearsed. One approach could be to think about a physical space for people to gather after the piece. Another approach could be to have a talk or to bring the audience together again on another day. But these tools also change from context to context and depend on the framing: One experience that we had with The Bride and the Goodnight Cinderella was that a theatre proposed a ‘safe space’ next to the piece. How they did it, however, created a binary logic: the ‘safe space’ was presented as a space where all possible discomfort could be solved, as opposed to the piece, which was constructed not only as dangerous, but actually as a place that would almost necessarily violate people. The audience was really afraid to come and see the piece in this context. In another case, just as the piece was about to start, someone from the festival went up front and said “This is a very violent piece. If you don’t feel at ease you can leave at any time.” This was the evening when the most people left during the performance. As the artists, we think of the piece as a whole and want to imagine that throughout the piece there is a collective transformation. In this sense, if you leave in the middle, you won’t have this transformation. Maybe you might stay in this moment of pain. It makes me think about how we take responsibility not only individually, but also collectively. I wonder what happens when we don’t feel safe and allow ourselves to go through this discomfort without immediately protecting ourselves? I wonder if protecting ourselves means that we always need distance?
On the one hand, I hear you talk about how artists and theatres can create and host spaces so that a collective lingering in the confrontation can become possible. On the other hand, there is the question of how dramaturgies of transformation can support the audience to reflect on violence? I’m thinking of this state in which you sit with a topic and allow it to move you.
The performing arts are a powerful context where we can address violence not only through discourse, but also where we can work with affect and modes of listening. How can we give the audience time to listen to certain stories, to linger in this space, to shift their perspective, to take a stance, and then to contradict ourselves? We work with a confusing dramaturgy of mapping stories. We have created different modes of attention, of how to listen and how to talk about these stories. Trying to formulate the stories differently also asks for a different preparation for how to listen to them.
The concept of “safer spaces” has gained more popularity in mainstream culture and by now also in performing arts institutions. We have talked about the potential of the performing arts to be with sensitive topics precisely because of their ability to interweave intellectual, emotional, and physical modes of reflection. What does this mean in relation to the implementation of “safer spaces” in theatres?
Of course, it was very important to claim safe spaces and some performing arts institutions did a great job of taking this claim very seriously. However, I think that now we are in an interesting time of a crisis of the safe space: it challenges us to think about what is inside and what is outside of the safe space. I think that theatres are becoming more and more aware of the impossibility of the claim – which doesn’t mean that there is no responsibility or care. But it means that it’s a complex discussion and that it has to be dealt with in a complex way. Taking care of the audience does not mean that they are safe from all kinds of confrontations with violence that exists.
It sounds as if safety means the absence of confrontation with any conflict? If so, we would expect to be safe in public spaces such as theatres in ways that otherwise we don’t experience in society or in private life. These spaces can’t possibly fulfil this expectation, unless they are empty of the world. Instead of the absence of conflict, I think it’s important to consider safety as a relational practice. I imagine spaces that hold the potential to linger in conflict together as well as to enter into conflict, but in a context where there is care or support around to make that possible. Inevitably, there is also a risk that this might fail, but then it requires us to take responsibility together to figure out the next steps.
It’s easier to say that you will open up to new people and perspectives than to actually do it. Of course, transformation is inconvenient for the institution, because it would require them to restructure. It means that the team working there has to change. It means that parts of the programme are dropped to make space for new approaches. It means that a new culture is established. One element is also: What kind of language and tone are we used to speaking? What is expected of how people behave in certain moments?
Yes, it’s necessary to offer a safe(r) space for artists and other voices to become part of the institution. There is a lot of fear and a lot of resistance, because some artists are not ‘easy’ – simply because the space is not safe for them. With all these tacit agreements of how we should talk to each other – I mean, I didn’t sign this contract?! We have to name certain ideas of power and hierarchy that are actually very violent. And then, in a frame that is already reproducing violence in itself, it’s the artist who is responsible for keeping a safe space for the audience?
It’s within these dynamics that we have to ask: How are the economies of responsibility distributed? What is the responsibility of the institution to provide for the audiences’ experience of safety in a certain piece? What is the responsibility of the artist – while possibly there is no frame for them to be safe with their work? What is needed so that they can really work together?
I’m also thinking about how theatres can be a space for practising self-defence. Practising self-defence implies that you deal with violence and that you have to train to be ready for it. The training creates a fictional situation: you rehearse to defend yourself in an attack. This fiction is also very important in the performing arts. Here, we deal with feelings and memories that are part of us, but we bring them to a space that hosts the otherwise. In this sense, it’s a place for the fictional and it’s through imagination that we prepare our bodies. In this idea, I’m inspired by the work of Elsa Dorlin2. She quotes Frantz Fanon who wrote that in colonised contexts, the colonised don’t have the material tools to fight back, but they constantly dream and think about how to fight back. And by doing so their bodies get ready for when the moment comes to react. I think that the theatre does this too. Another idea that I take from Elsa Dorlin is that she asks where the violence comes from and how that alters our reading of it. For example: someone defends themselves, but this is seen as an act of violence. In another case, violence happens, but some people don’t read it as such just because it’s normalised and part of the system. With this in mind, we need to ask: Who is producing danger in the performing arts, and who is threatened by this violence? I think that the answer is different depending on who the author is. Pieces addressing violence that are directed by women, people of colour or queer people are considered more violent than pieces that are directed by white cis-men.
In rehearsals for The Bride and the Goodnight Cinderella, we dealt with different levels of intimacy and giving up control. So the process was exposed to risks that already have been transformed by the time the audience enters. Nonetheless, it remains a rehearsal in terms of what type of risks are worth taking when the audience is present. This contradicts the idea of rehearsals being the space where things get ready and when everything is under control, we show the final piece. It’s a very different type of performance when we include affect, emotions, and feelings. Then, we cannot control it. We can only have a certain range of ideas of how it will affect people.
What I love about the performing arts is that they offer space to build little utopian moments and rehearse alternatives. In developing artistic practices, there can be a tiny manifestation of the otherwise among artists, but also in relation to and with the audiences and institutions. For example, there are more and more artists, but also institutions, that work around rest. In my understanding, rest is a practice that goes hand in hand with concepts of safer spaces: it can be a moment that is explicitly dedicated to getting rest from the constant effort of defending or protecting oneself and trying to make it work. Here, I’m again thinking of Elsa Dorlin, who also talks about how self-defence is believed to be executed in one specific moment in time, while actually it might be a constant state to be in: the persistence of a massively racist, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic society creates the ongoing conditions of violence.
It’s true that it’s not possible to keep fighting all the time. We have to rest. It’s a very interesting notion in light of the questions we’ve been discussing. Resting doesn’t solve anything, but it’s a mode of care that invites suspension, so that maybe other possibilities can appear. Resting also brings something important to the table: Resting in a collective space necessarily accepts vulnerability. I think it’s in contexts where we are collectively vulnerable that transformation can take place – and this is not easy and it doesn’t always feel safe.
1 The concept of “safe spaces” originates from the 1960’s queer scene in the United States. Queer people (and later other marginalized groups) created spaces to be among each other and hence could unapologetically be who they were without facing discrimination. As the concept “intersectionality” (taking into account the multiple social and political identities of a person resulting in combinations of discrimination and privilege) entered the discourse, the “safe space” transformed into a “safer space” – considering the internalized structures and practices of discrimination that we all carry within us and the (current!) impossibility to be entirely safe from discrimination.
2 Elsa Dorlin: Selbstverteidigung: Eine Philosophie der Gewalt. Suhrkamp, 2020.
Carolina Mendonça graduated in Performing Arts at ECA-USP and holds a Master in Choreography and Performance from Giessen University. Her latest projects are „Zones of Resplendence“ (2023) that speculates around feminist perspectives on violence; „Pulp- History as a Warm Wet Place“(2018) that deals with an intuitive archeology of the leftovers of the XVII-XVIII centuries; „useless land“ (2018) where together with Catalina Insignares they invite de audience to sleep while they read through the night.
Carolina was one of the curators of NIDO (2022) together with Suely Rolnik and Victoria Perez Royo; of the Performing Arts Festival VERBO and Temporada de Dança. She collaborates with artists such as Catalina Insignares, Marcelo Evelin, Marcela Santander, Dudu Quintanilha, Carolina Bianchi and others.
Nora Tormann is a Berlin-based choreographer, dramaturg, and curator working at the fringes of artistic and theoretical research. Nora’s choreographic work circulates around questions of how bodies work as political and philosophical emplacements – how ideological regimes shape bodies and vice versa. Latest works include the site-specific choreographic audio-walk “TURN – cartography of a movement” (2022), and “physical prospects” (2021+22). As a dance-dramaturg, they work with collectives and solo artists and are specifically interested in practices of care. They have curated festivals, conferences, and research laboratories – a.o. the annual conference of the International Theatre Institute „Conflict & Care“, the evaluation laboratory “performing for peers“ commissioned by Fonds Darstellende Künste, and formats within the international mobile plattform “Celestial Bodies”. Nora graduated from the Iceland Academy of the Arts with a Master’s degree in Performing Arts (2019), and holds a Bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts and Sciences, University College Maastricht, the Netherlands, and Tecnológico de Monterrey, México, (2016).