Intimacy Director Lucy Fennell on creating a “safe space” in improv.
The use of the phrase ‘safe space’ in theatre is pretty common; go to a rehearsal or improv workshop and you are likely to be reassured that you are in a safe space where you can allow your spontaneous creativity to run free. But where did the phrase originate? What does it really mean in the context of improv? And can anywhere truly be a safe space?
I’m going to start with a bit of history, stick with it, I promise I’ll get to the improv.
The History of “Safe Spaces”.
There is some deliberation over the origin of the phrase itself. In her book ‘Mapping Gay LA’ Moira Kenney attributes the conceptual idea of a safe space to the women’s movement in the 60’s and 70’s, where it represented a figurative rather than a physical safe space. It stood for a community and ideology separate from the patriarchy, plus the coming together of women intent on the same political aims. Notably, these spaces were not devoid of disagreement or argument, and rather than existing as a safe haven and solution to the problem of oppression, they were just part of a wider, ongoing process of change.
Similarly, the phrase ‘safe space’ was attached to the gay and lesbian bars and clubs of the mid 60’s, which were far from physically safe- due to countless police raids- but nevertheless were places where the LGBT+ community could gather safe in the knowledge that their identities would not come under scrutiny. It was around this time that the term also became synonymous with the physical security of the ‘safe houses’ protecting women from sexual assault and violence.
Alternatively, there is also evidence to suggest that the term ‘safe space’ was coined by social psychologist Kurt Lewin, a German- American academic whose leadership training for corporate bosses in the 1940’s was the origin of a range of terms we still use today, including ‘group dynamics’, ‘feedback’ and reportedly also ‘safe space’. Lewin pioneered a form of group therapy called ‘sensitivity training’ which created a space for participants to discuss feelings as they arose, to be honest, authentic and frank. Free to challenge others without judgement, in an environment of psychological safety.
Throughout the 2010’s, safe spaces were the subject of controversy on university campuses, where student activists called for universities to embrace the concept of safe spaces in both academic and pastoral H.E settings. Students requested the inclusion of trigger warnings in reference to learning materials, pushed for lecturers to use the correct pronouns for students, called for the cancellation of speakers with transphobic or racist views and demanded that universities take action against students accused of sexual assault and rape, or hate speech on social media. They subsequently met kickback from critics with accusations of excessive fragility, assault on free speech and safe spaces being at odds with the academic rigor of university education.
More recently, ‘Safe space’ has been used as a signifier of exclusive spaces for marginalised groups. There is an increased awareness of the need for specific spaces where people for whom the world is largely an unsafe environment can seek respite, relax and embrace their identity without fear of judgement, microaggressions, violence or even ‘just’ ignorance. This includes women only spaces, spaces for non-binary or gender non conforming people, POC, WOC, people with disabilities, neurodivergent people and the LGBTQIA+ community as well as intersections of all of these.
So, safe space has served various purposes over time, broadly they can be summarised as:
- Safe existing spaces (free from violence and physical harm)
- Safe being spaces (free from judgement based on identity)
- Safe talking spaces (freedom to speak honestly and openly without judgment)
What do we mean by “Safe Space” in improv
And this is where I think it starts to get interesting. When we use the phrase ‘safe space’ as improv teachers or directors, what do we specifically mean by that?
I think we have all reached the agreement that a space should be free from physical harm; we tend to advocate slow-mo movement or other theatrical devices for any scenes of improvised violence, and there is an increasing emphasis on physical boundaries and consent. But what of the other two? In improv, is a safe being space somewhat at odds with a safe speaking space? I think maybe it is.
At the start of a class warm up I’ve often heard (and said) “Relax, don’t worry about planning ahead, just see what comes out. This is a safe space- free from judgement”. And I think it’s a good sentiment. We all know the perils of the inner critic, silencing our spontaneity through fear. We need to feel safe that we can open our mouths and that whatever falls from it will not be judged. I remember as a student, doing the exercise where you say unconnected things one after the other with a partner providing a rhythm, and learning about the ‘stages of taboo’ where your mind churns out all the stuff you know you shouldn’t say.
Being gifted a ‘safe talking space’ was an incredibly powerful learning experience for me, but it wasn’t until I was teaching the same exercise to secondary school pupils that I realised the inherent conflicts in that and other improv lessons. Although I was telling students to trust their brains and trust their partner not to judge them for the ‘weird’, scatalogical or sexual words they were saying, I had to acknowledge that there is in fact a place where the line is drawn; slurs, hate speech, and any of the far-reaching ‘isms’ are unacceptable and would breach the ‘safe being space’ of the workshop.
I would say that we are increasingly reaching a point where ‘safe being space’ trumps ‘safe talking space’ in the improv classroom. Some of the best schools and teachers are creating spaces that prioritise safe existing and being spaces but, not unlike Kurt Lewin’s sensitivity training, are also places where frank discussions can occur when sensitive topics come up. I think there is great value in pausing to process a scene that strays close to the line, or to discuss if a joke was punching down.
It’s also great if spaces are safe enough for individuals (not just facilitators/directors) to call someone in* without fear of being deemed over-sensitive and for this to be done without shaming the person who made a (often honest) mistake.
I acknowledge that any seriousness can feel at odds with what is a light and fun pastime for many people. Improv offers glorious escapism from the bleak realities of the world, replacing it with a happy zone of non-existent failure, fantasy and laughter. Stopping to discuss how something came out wrong could feel like a real buzz kill couldn’t it? Possibly… but we do have a responsibility to be conscientious in the way we build the environments we play in with abandon.
And I propose that it’s possible to reach a happy medium between the conflicts of the safe being space and safe talking space.
What can we learn about Safe Spaces from intimacy direction?
As an alternative, I’ve found myself borrowing the phrase ‘Open space’ from my intimacy direction training. Though far from perfect, it represents to me the promise I make when I hold a space: I will communicate with honesty, nurture an environment of open communication, where participants are empowered to advocate for their own feelings, values and interpretations.
The open space can be rocky and volatile, and stuff will definitely come up. But for me that is infinitely better than that same stuff not coming up, and instead going home with the participant. I’ve learnt that creating an open space means more people are going to use it, and that has really felt stressful. I’ve found myself thinking “before I started doing this open space thing my workshops ran without a hitch, now there are people voicing opinions, there are uncomfortable conversations, I’m being called out (in), I’m apologising, I’m learning, learning is hard, I feel like a bad teacher”. But the reward is the ability to navigate with greater safety, content I might have stayed away from in the past, like my recent workshop on improv and pathos, or the potential perils of improvised physical intimacy.
And finally, when the improviser feels safer, they can be braver! Recognising people’s humanity and exploring differing lived experiences is integral to improv, holding open conversations around the content we want to make and airing disagreements makes for quality work, stronger team bonds and ultimately, longevity for the artform that we cherish.
*Calling someone in, as opposed to calling someone out, is the act of highlighting problematic language or actions to your peer without shaming or exposing them, bringing them into a useful discussion or learning experience rather than alienating them.
Consultation and training:
I am available for consultation or training (remote & in person, when allowed) on boundaries, open spaces, consent and the portrayal of intimacy in improv. Feel free to reach out via my email firstname.lastname@example.org and arrange an informal chat free of charge.
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