Sensitivity Reading for the Stage: Research Overview

Over the past year I’d been slowly working on a research project investigating the potential for sensitivity reading for the stage. This was prompted by two main things:

  1. Over the past decade, I’ve seen a lot of racism, cultural appropriation, and other insensitivities in performance art (trying to address this with the burlesque scene back in my early years nearly cost me my career). I’ve seen the rise of sensitivity reading in publishing - the process of hiring people with lived experience to look over material about those experiences to see if they ring true - and thought the stage world sorely needed something like this.

  2. I often get asked to provide cultural consultation like this for free, or I end up ranting about incidences like these openly a lot, and I wanted to see if I could actually make a business case for this so I can get paid!

This project started with the Centre for Dramaturgy and Curation, a small research group in Melbourne headed by Mark Pritchard (Malthouse Theatre) and Arie Rain Glorie (Brunswick Mechanics Institute) - Mark in particular could see this as a form of dramaturgy and was curious about the potential. We had a couple of meetings talking about the parameters of the project and they gave me some really good resources and information about sensitivity reading, dramaturgy, and making safer creative spaces. I also started talking to my peers online, especially in spaces for marginalised theatre makers, and had one on one interviews with people who have done similar work.

Some of the interesting points that came up:

  • Would the focus on hiring sensitivity readers take away money from just paying marginalised people to make their own work?

  • How do we deal with marginalised people making work that’s still insensitive to another group they’re not a part of (for instance, a White disabled person making work containing racism)?

  • At what point is a sensitivity reader brought into the production process - during the scriptwriting? After a draft of the script is done? During the production? Towards the end of the production?

  • Does this sensitivity reader function as a “cultural spellchecker” (so coming in closer to the end of the process) or are they embedded much earlier on in the process (like a more traditional dramaturg)?

  • Does employing a sensitivity reader take away the ability to make “risk-taking” work or does it actually make the work stronger because it won’t be bogged down by insensitive content that does nothing to support the story?

  • What differences are there in working with productions with little leeway into script editing (e.g. Shakespeare) vs productions devising their own work?

  • Is the responsibility of sensitivity reading left to actors and production members who are marginalised? Could someone else be brought in so that they are not given too much responsibility by virtue of being marginalised?

  • Is hiring a sensitivity reader an overly easy way to get a rubber stamp of approval on your project even if none of the advice is taken - and used as a shield if there is backlash? (“We already consulted someone from this background, it’s fine!”)

  • How much responsibility is the sensitivity reader meant to hold as some kind of “representative” of their marginalisation? How do you build the understanding that not everyone sharing an identity agrees on everything about it?

  • How should sensitivity reading work be funded? What are industry rates? How does this work in other industries (publishing, screen, etc) and what can be borrowed from there?

The project got derailed mid year after the Christchurch shooting, which actually was weirdly connected to the topic. Just before the shooting, I was asked to be part of a script reading for a play in development that was meant to be a farce on “gender terrorists”. The character I got cast as was one of the terrorists, guns and all - given that I’m a very obviously ethnic person of a Muslim background, this immediately became very dodgy, and the shooting didn’t help.

I had a bit of a crisis over the project after the shooting and backed out, both from the play and from this research - what was the point when people are dying?? I decided to use this opportunity to talk to the scriptwriters and make this a free “sensitivity reading” session (as per their request) in return for letting me use it as research material. Together we found that sticking too closely to the “terrorists with rifles” trope would detract from the story - not just by drawing on racist stereotypes, but also potentially triggering their trans and gender diverse audiences and putting in way too many layers of meaning over their central storyline. If they wanted this to be a farce, it would be better overall to lean hard into the farce. Glitterbombs, dildo guns, whatever! Make the weapons ridiculous! This way the play could be stronger, because they weren’t leaning on a tired trope, but put their own interpretation on “terrorist”. (I’m not sure what became of the play since.)

Since other projects have come up, this has been kind of a slow burn, especially since I wasn’t entirely sure what I would do with the information (I function better with a consequential deadline). My research did lead me to development work in screen, which is pretty similar, and a whole bunch of people encouraged me to apply for Screen Australia’s Developing the Developer program. However, I was not accepted (and got no feedback as to why), which is a shame really because it’s the only program of its kind I could find in Australia, so I’m not sure where else to go besides my own independent study.

I do have a stack of notes from my research - I’ll be posting them here as entries using the ‘sensitivity reading for the stage’ tag. Stay tuned!