Sensitivity Reading for the Stage: Annotated Bibliography

See more posts about this research project through the ‘sensitivity reading for the stage’ tag.
Bibliography to be updated on an ongoing basis. Last update: 8th October 2019.

Safe(r) Rehearsals: Thoughts on facilitating creative processes that involve sensitive content
by Mark Pritchard

There is a noted lack of safety measures for artists at the beginning of the creative process, especially for making work that can be emotionally fraught or triggering (such as sexual assault, death, or bigotry).

Some suggested strategies include:

  • Check-ins and check-outs - conducted before and after each meeting to see where everyone is at emotionally/physically/mentally and find out what may be affecting their ability to engage in the process (health issues, life upheavals, etc)

    • Through direct verbal means (“I am feeling XYZ”) or metaphors (e.g. number scale)

    • Builds self-awareness, open communication, and non-judgment

    • Caveat: this requires a level of vulnerability from participants that may not be easy to gain without trust, or without any clear strategies on what to do if someone responds in a particular way (e.g. a really low number). People may be hesitant to be honest if they do not feel like their answers will be respected, or if they don’t feel comfortable with the group yet.

  • Begin the project by stating clearly what the aims are - having a conversation about the aims of the project, possible topic territory, any potential triggers

    • This could be difficult if you're not entirely sure where the project can go and aren't anticipating something to be more difficult than it seems?

    • This process needs to happen regularly, not just at the beginning, especially if any new material comes up or changes to circumstances lead to changes in responses from participants

  • Set parameters for navigating the process and conversation - working guidelines and values as well as strategies for handling difficult moments/conversations

    • "What should we do when something comes up that we're not comfortable with? How do we wanna deal with it?"

    • Normalizing strategies such as time outs, stepping out/back from conversations, speaking up

    • Different strategies work for different people - each person’s response needs to be respected both individually and within the group context

    • Can be paired with the above strategy of project starts

  • Traffic light system (green/yellow/red) - a way of communicating people’s (dis)comfort level during the process

    • I’m familiar with this in the context of kink (as a version of safe words) but it is interesting to see this applied elsewhere - the idea of “safe words” in general is useful in most contexts

    • It’s noted that being able to say ‘red’ openly is difficult and can be confrontational so space needs to be allowed for that to happen - perhaps this can be done privately as well?

  • Employee Assistance Program - provides confidential phone counselling support to employees 24/7 for free and confidentially

    • Is this service available to contractors and freelancers, like most artists? Or does one need to be formally employed to access this?

    • What options are there for non-employees? Helplines like BeyondBlue tend to be geared for crisis support and mental health programs can be limited (e.g. Medicare subsidized therapy - only 10 sessions a year, so less than 1 a month)

Overall, these are good starting strategies, but they all need to be built on a foundation of trust and support. Having check-in strategies is at best useless and at worst exploitative, if there’s no careful consideration around respecting people’s responses, knowing what to do when people speak up about needing help, and allowing for privacy and discretion. These strategies require a level of vulnerability that needs to be earned, not expected.

Goodbye Sensitivity Readers Database
by Justina Ireland

Justina Ireland is the person that coined the term ‘sensitivity reading’!

In building this database, Ireland received stories of sensitivity readers being ignored, unpaid, treated poorly, used as shields against criticism, and having their anonymity being broken despite non-disclosure agreements (NDAs).

This was never the point of Sensitivity Readers, and the more I see this process abused by people already undertaking to tell the stories of others, the less I have been able to promote Sensitivity Reading as a boon to marginalized peoples. It is, in my estimation, another way for the voices already dominating the conversation to continue to talk over the oppressed. And I may not be much, but I will no longer use my time and energy to support such exploitation.

Ireland still sees sensitivity reading as a valuable tool for those who put in the work but has also seen too much misuse from writers who see "diversity" as a quick buck. This was a common concern shared by others when asked about the concept of sensitivity reading for the stage - being exploited for their labour and time but also bearing responsibility for their clients’ missteps.

This also explains a common response being “we’d rather have that money given to marginalised people to create their own work”, as they would have more control over the process. However, the process of making and presenting work can itself be very resource-intensive for very little (if any) gain - some people may be more interested in a consultancy role as it is relatively less effort for more potential gain.

Personal experiences:

  • Being asked to beta read a fanfic involving a gay relationship with a Muslim male, providing input as a queer person of Muslim background. Eventually all the advice was discarded because, as the writer said, “I’ve not found a mosque that hosted a gay wedding” - even though mosques don’t typically host any weddings

    • Note: fandom has engaged with sensitivity readers for decades before the idea caught on to more mainstream publishing, using terminology such as “beta reading” and “Britpicking” (used in the Harry Potter fandom to ensure the story is accurate to UK culture

  • Asked by a games writer for suggestions of names that would “sound exotic but aren’t hard to pronounce” - when expressing my discomfort with the question, a brief struggle with the writer ensued before them expressing that they won’t incorporate them anyhow

    • It was unclear whether they meant they won’t have diverse characters or if they weren’t going to add exotification

This situation has ties to discussions around diversity in workspaces in general - how hiring marginalised people is not enough (and indeed can be harmful to the hiree) if the workspace is not willing to listen to the hiree and ends up creating a hostile work environment. Having been in this situation, it can be a very difficult one to navigate - especially in relatively small industries (e.g. the arts) where reputation is key and money is hard to come by.

Onstage/Offstage: Episode 114: S. P. Monahan

This interview is based off Monahan’s article Dear Cisgender Writer… which discusses the difference between playing trans characters and writing trans characters.

Being called out is good for you. Because now you have the opportunity to learn--to expand and deepen the humanity of that trans character. To expand and deepen your own humanity!

Just including transgender people in the playwrights' vision of the world is fantastic!

  • Specifying trans or other marginalised characters in the script (even with minor characters), whether or not the identity is addressed in story, can help guarantee roles for marginalised actors

    • Even though minor character roles can be cast across identity lines, directors tend to stick to the playwright’s original vision (especially for older plays), which tends to mean defaulting to White Cis people

  • No need to worry about being "tokenistic" - write them with sensitivity and respect

    • Write with things you don’t understand but not about things you don’t understand

    • If the writing’s OK, there’s not a problem with the writer wanting attention for having diversity in their script

  • Playwrights who are marginalised may face the tension of having to justify the existence of a marginalised character by revealing a lot of personal experience in script even if storywise it doesn't make sense

    • Why should they not be marginalised?

    • Having to justify WHY a character is XYZ identity is "icky", might as well normalise it by writing them in all kinds of scripts and stories

Common Question: What does it serve the play to have that character in there?

  • This question is not about fragility against being questioned/called out, but more about treating marginalised actors/characters with respect

    • Impact is more important than intent - in this case, shying away from representation means there are fewer characters of marginalised backgrounds in theatre canon - which leads to the aforementioned issue of fewer jobs for marginalised actors

    • Even if it's going to be challenging to audiences to just have a trans character exist - that's actually pretty great!

    • First step to normalisation: let go of the apprehension

Issues around appropriation of trans narratives and writing what you don’t understand:

  • Cultural frames of reference around trans characters were often from a cis perspective (e.g. Elizabethan men acting as women)

    • This felt very unresearched and anachronistic

The visual is critical:

  • Seeing transgender people is critical to the process of normalisation and for survival

  • TV shows can also do this - just put marginalised people there without needing to justify their existence or make the show entirely about their identity

  • Not all theatre that includes trans characters need to reveal something new about the trans experience - it's not the only thing trans people experience!! 

  • Trans people also experience more universal things like falling in love but don't see themselves experiencing that on stage/screen

  • Having that kind of representation (even subtle like changing pronouns) can be so moving and powerful on its own

  • CAVEAT: if you're making a major project about notable trans history, get a trans person to write the script

  • Sensitivity Reading can be a means of finding opportunities rather than faults or threats - a wonderful gift!!!

Referenced: A Call for Exciting Trans Theatre by Nitsan Scharf

Here’s the thing: I’m not. When I go see that same actor play the same trans character for the eighth time—the brave victim stuck in the wrong body—I don’t find myself feeling particularly seen. Regardless, these trans stories, which lack depth and personality, are the ones that get told. They’re uncomplicated, and they allow cis theatre artists and audience members to pat themselves on the back for being such good allies. […]

As outsiders telling marginalized stories, cis playwrights have an obligation to make those stories honest and not dumbed down. They may be providing something new and exciting to cis audiences, but they are not doing the same for the trans people there. And we deserve daring, honest theatre that challenges us, on our terms, as well. […]

A common mistake many cis artists make when writing trans characters is taking the story of one trans person and presenting it as some sort of transgender everyman. If there is a trans person in the cast, chances are they are the only trans person on the entire artistic team. If a trans person was consulted by the playwright, they were probably the only one consulted (maybe even the only trans person that playwright knows). There is a certain arrogance on the part of the playwright here: to do the absolute minimum amount of work and still expect to be lauded as a revolutionary for writing a play about a trans person. […]

You should be following trans issues in the news, reading trans authors, and speaking to the trans people in your life. If there are none, ask yourself why that is, and seek them out. There’s no reason we should get short shrift because someone has not put in the necessary work to get to know us.