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!

Circus Oz Subversive Performance masterclass: the Queer Lady Magician sequel and gender diversity in circus

Earlier this month I was part of a 2-week Subversive Performance masterclass run by feminist performance artist Leah Shelton as part of Circus Oz’s Strong Women program, supporting women and non-binary people in circus.

Interestingly I was the only openly non-binary/genderqueer person there (and, it turns out, the only such person that applied, though one other participant did come up to me later and said they were questioning their gender too). It did get a little tricky trying to navigate a space that assumed ‘she’ as the default, especially as someone who has a more ambivalent relationship to pronouns. Even ‘they’ feels weird - I’d prefer ‘Tiara’ to any pronouns but that gets grammatically awkward fast.

The experience did make me think a lot about how I personally situate my own gender and where I fit in into “women’s” spaces like these. In many spaces I’ll still be considered a “woman” (hell the project is called Queer Lady Magician, not Queer Genderqueer Magician, though the Quickchange segment does have a bit where I refer to my gender as “Non-Binary"? Genderqueer? SHRUG EMOJI???”).

Non-binary spaces have only really started recognising me as such, but outside of those small areas, regardless of how I feel about my gender, I’m still functionally “female” (but in the sense of “you’re not really fitting but we don’t have anywhere else to put you").

It also sparked a short discussion amongst the Subversive Performance participants, including Senior Artistic Associate Antonella Casella, about the aims of the program and how to include further gender diversity. Women’s circuses, such as the eponymous Women’s Circus in Melbourne and Vulcana in Brisbane (which Antonella founded), have been vital in providing opportunities for learning and creative development in circus to people who may be shut off from conventional circus or performance pathways due to not fitting in to particular expectations of fitness, body time, or experience. (Indeed, Vulcana was pivotal in giving me training and even my first big break despite my relative inexperience, and Women’s Circus was the first to take a chance on Queer Lady Magician.) Both of them have included non-binary people in their gender policy (WC, Vulcana) though I’m not entirely sure how many non-binary people have been involved with them in general.

There are other circus groups that have taken the same approach of “open to women and non-binary people”, though there has been some strong pushback to this framing lately as it can come off as regarding non-binary people as Women Lite and in the process alienate people that are more masculine but still non-binary.

Some searching of non-binary and genderqueer circus artists only brought me Shay Elrich, Frieda, and this short film about a genderqueer acrobat (but I’m not certain if the story is fiction or non-fiction).

Otherwise, though, the discussions around gender representation in circus have usually been pretty binary: men vs women, and not nearly enough women to start with.

The purpose of the Subversive Performance masterclass itself was to develop work that questioned expectations of gender both in circus and in general society. But how do you subvert an expectation of gender when no expectation exists? Is there a way to portray that without necessarily having to be in opposition to womanhood? How does this (lack of) expectation differ if you were assigned male at birth (which can be difficult to navigate in “women and non-binary” spaces because of latent transmisogyny, even in the more inclusive spaces), or a person of colour, or disabled?

The only thing I could really think of as an “expectation” that applies to non-binary genders would be the “Freak shows” that usually portray people who do not fit gender norms, such as bearded women or the “Strong women” that this Circus Oz program and Vulcana draw their name from. However, that history, and the history of the freakshow in general, is highly exploitative, ableist, transphobic, and racist (see the story of Sarah Baartman, a slave who was exhibited as the Hottentot Venus). Is this what we would need to be subverting? Is this the only model of gender diversity and non-binary genders that contemporary circus can imagine?

What would a true non-binary & genderqueer circus look like?


For the masterclass itself, I decided to work on some material for a sequel to Queer Lady Magician. I’m hesitant in fully spoiling the story, as my dream is to make it a kind of long-term ARG style production that blurs the line of reality and art, and this blog post may blow my cover. But we’ll see!

The first show had, as one of its core questions:

Can an overly honest person be good at magic, the art of deception and manipulation?

This was woven in as part of the overall “defeating impostor syndrome” story, but was especially highlighted in two parts: the story of my emotionally manipulative ex and the character of Chad, the Magician’s evil assistant who keeps trying to take over the show - and, in the climax, manages to do so by convincing the Magician that they are indeed as manipulative as they feared and should die for their incompetence. (Chad’s a hypocrite.)

The soon to be sequel is based on this question:

What happens if the Magician truly was a manipulative bitch?

One big reason for this sequel was that I found that villains are way more entertaining! Writing Chad’s lines, whether in the script or during the 1-week social media takeover leading up to the Midsumma season (“The Incredible Chadbury” took control of the QLM website and my Facebook + Twitter + Instagram and basically caused havoc), was super fun - I relished in writing a comic, highly dramatic douchebag. (It also made me understand a little better why people enjoy being Internet trolls.)

The other big reason was that I did want to explore my inner capacity for manipulation further. I have such an aversion to the idea of being “charming” or “charismatic” because of past painful experiences with charismatic abuser types that I end up being hyper-aware of what the “manipulative” option could be in any given situation and deliberately choose its opposite. I’ve had people say I’m “not charming” on stage and I think “well good, I’m trying not to be”. But I know that I could, if I really wanted to. Hell, there’s been times where I’ve leaned a little into it (and then dealt with a maelstrom of emotions later).

What if, instead of turning away, I dove deeper?

The idea was in my head for a while, then first took form in a dramaturgy & writing workshop a few months ago with THE RABBLE. Through devising exercises and feedback from others, I tapped into some other elements of this story: celebrity, fandom, seduction, even the notion of The Fae in pop culture as untrustworthy, scary, and silver-tongued.

(I’m a major Fae Apologist: I think the way faeries are described, especially in pop culture, is a reflection of xenophobia. A lot of sentiments about faeries, such as “don’t eat their food, it’ll trap you” or “they have a very different and inhumane moral compass”, is pretty much how people talk about foreigners and immigrants.)

The Subversive Performance masterclass was the first opportunity to take those ideas out of my head and into a physical form. The piece itself started off as a more general striptease combined with coin magic (inspired by this mashup of 7 Rings and Crazy in Love, which was very in character for this version of the Magician). I wanted to develop more of this character (who I’ve dubbed MFP for reasons made obvious in the first show), so for inspiration I turned to videos of Dahlia Hawthorne, a villain in the Ace Attorney video game series who switches from innocent charming ingenue to terrifying manipulative demon. I noticed a difference in physicality between nice!Dahlia and evil!Dahlia and decided to base the act on this: MFP taunting the Magician into turning on their charm, the body switching between the two characters, MFP acting all saccharine sweet towards an audience member but then laughing in their face and walking away. I think there was video - if I get access to it, I’ll share!

“Femme fatales” like Dahlia Hawthorne are a pretty common villain trope. I wanted to make MFP more complex, more of a negotiation between the side of me that can be manipulative and the side of me that doesn’t want to even hint at it, seeing if there’s a way to reconcile the two. See what happens if I did pursue and get what I want, instead of almost going out of my way to avoid it because getting it means manipulating someone into giving it to me. Maybe MFP has a point?

After the masterclass, Antonella expressed strong interest in further work and offered the free use of Circus Oz space for creative development for this QLM sequel. Circus Oz has been getting more interested in stage magic lately (they are the current venue host of the Melbourne Magic Festival) and Antonella did come by to check out QLM during Melbourne Fringe, so it seems like a viable option. I don’t have any further plans for developing QLM: The Sequel, mostly because I’d like to get some funding secured somehow (even getting a regular job is hard), but we shall see!