Safe Space?

I recently came upon an audition notice, and what caught my eye was the phrase, “safe space”. This struck me as a bit odd because art is about seeking the truth. The truth of the artist. A composer may struggle over a single note, a painter a single color, a dancer a step, an actor a character. Each artist knows that every choice is crucial to the creative process. And every decision fills the artist with a quandary. A quandary may last a moment, it may last days, it can span years, and if you’ve ever experienced it, it is the antithesis of safety. It is being lost, and lost leaves us vulnerable, unsafe.

At the heart of every living thing, there are a few primal directives, instincts, which provides us with a sense of safety. Shelter is one of them. A place where we feel safe, protected, at peace. How we define shelter is very much dependent upon circumstance. In a storm, it may be the lee side of a tree, a place to rest from the buffeting winds. For our ancient ancestors, it may have been a cave. For a king, it may be a castle.

One of the ways we find safety is in numbers. We collaborate with others to bring us to an optimum level of security. We form communities and enter into social contracts that increase our sense of safety and to do so, we are willing to compromise something. We offer something in trade for a greater understanding of peace. It may be as simple as sharing the bounty of a hunt, or it might be as complicated as establishing armies. Whatever the degree, we understand that there is some cost, some tax, sacrifice for a safe space.

On the other side of safety is freedom. To be free is to be unrestricted, to be able to make choices to act and do as we please. Yet we are never entirely free, there are always impediments to our actions, and there are still consequences of actions. Running around naked may feel great, but if you do it in the dead of winter, your safety is hardly secure.

The larger and more complex a community, the higher the cost. Not just in taxes, but in the personal space. In a rural community, shouting, hello neighbor, across a field may feel pretty safe and accepting of boundaries. Tranquility can be as easy to achieve as staying on your own property and leaving the world beyond alone and being left alone. Riding in a subway car at rush hour is something entirely different.

When we find a place that feels safe, we tend to institutionalize them. After food, shelter, and procreation, we wander off to who are we, where are we, and why are we here. Who, is answered by family, tribe, community. When, we go to where we define that as literally where we are but are always curious as to what’s over the next hill. And when we are pretty comfortable in the who and where we get to why. Without exception, every known culture has a mythology to explain those fundamental questions. From the campfire came storytelling, which was as institutionalized as religion, which was then studied and it created places of learning, and places of presentation.

Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus in the Acropolis of Athens, Greece.

Religion gives us the promise of hope, a better tomorrow, guidance of social conduct, answers to the unanswerable, safety, the “great spirit”. Problem solved, at least until we meet another culture. Their stories don’t match our stories, their god is different from my god, and religion which started as a safe place became the fuel of conflict.

From very early on, mankind grasped the need to relay information, how to use tools, how to plant, how to write, how to explore. What was safe, what was dangerous. The more we knew, the higher the difficulty of storing and disseminating the information, so collection points came into being, libraries places which could be protected, places where people could explore in safety. Where you have libraries, you have people of curiosity, and when you have questions, there is always someone in the library that has some insight. From libraries came schools, which were institutionalized as universities.

One of the benefits of universities is that learning of other cultures, without coming into conflict with those cultures, becomes possible. The safe space of study allows for debate but is limited to intellectual combat. In time, it was discovered that through research and discussion greater wisdom could be developed. The contract became, your beliefs were not the ground rules of the institution, civility in study and debate provided greater understanding.

And while prejudice always has some impact upon human interaction, the goal for these places of higher education, at least in theory, was to provide a safe place of learning. That safety was about ideas, and the freedom to explore, markedly not the freedom to impose one set of “safe” ideas over another. Safety was in exploring all options, not just your options.

The final institution is the oldest of them all, storytelling. From stories, all else has been derived. And from the collaborative junction of religion, in the form of Greek Mythology and library-education, as in the poetry of the mythology, came theatre.

The Amphitheater where Thespis first spoke the lyrical poems in the first person, institutionalized the safe space of theatre, it drew upon the reliable answers of religion, and it drew upon the safe space of wisdom. What was discovered is that a man speaking as a god was not struck down. What followed is more than two thousand years of man reaching beyond the gods we know, beyond the facts we know and looking for truth, the intellectual pursuit of the god-particle.

What was soon discovered is that in using this new form, it became safe to ask more questions. Through dialogue, actors speculated as to the intent of characters, and because it was done in a place and form with security, a religious celebration, there was more latitude allowed. Political criticism, alternative actions and consequence. Drama, which is what this new event was called, was born from solemnity, which assisted in accepting the event, theatre. This was a challenge to the norms.

Threats to tradition were accepted as non-threatening. While there were restrictions as to the latitude of challenges, the principle was set.

Within a relatively short period of time, satyr and other dramatic forms were quickly developed to question the human condition. The social contract was that if it’s said on stage, it wasn’t real, it didn’t count. Real, as in the lambasting of political leaders was not a civil crime, though speaking out against leaders in the street was a crime. While undoubtedly some actors and playwrights would disappear or be punished for crossing the line, it became traditional for drama, theatre to be safe. Safe politically, socially and physically. The potential threat was mitigated.

Stich, Abbildung, engraving, gravure :1856
Two duellists with swords

So when we watch the mayhem that is the penultimate scene in Hamlet, the combat seems real. The deaths are as anguishing as if they were real. The danger of the clashing swords is real, but everyone knows that no one really dies, no audience will be cut by an errant blade, that both actor and audience will walk away unscathed.

The anguish of Ophelia is real, the despair of Hamlet is real, the tragedy of inaction and too much action at the wrong times is felt with a genuine sense of experience again by all present, and yet, it is safe because it is understood that we are there to experience and walk away. We are culturally aware that theatre is safe.

If we’re at a performance of To Kill A Mocking Bird, we hear the “N-word, it is, or should be, understood to be imperative to the message. While we may be offended, we check our reactions. The most essential aspect of theatre is that we collectively agree that we all check our responses at the door. We allow ourselves the opportunity to feel and experience that which would be absolutely unacceptable in real life.

Theatre is the test of limits, the safe exploration of everything. A laboratory where no matter the action, no matter the feelings, no matter the consequence, we are ultimately safe. Boundaries that we hold sacrosanct in our daily lives are lowered. And we all do this knowingly because we are in on the social contract.

Humanity is very adaptable, we adjust our sense of personal space, personal safe space, in accordance with the circumstance of the moment. Should we want to guarantee an immutable sense of safe space, we would have to make some important choices. We would have to build a cocoon around ourselves, only to discover that that safety is only one of perception, for we have no control over what happens outside of the cocoon.

Life is a balancing act. Every action, every contact, every moment is a threat. Every reaction or lack of response is our comprehension and reaction to the magnitude of danger at that moment. To live together, to secure the safety of numbers, we agree to sacrifice, to accept risks and in so doing discover that some threats are higher than others. We grow to learn that safety is as much a perception as it is a reality. It is incumbent upon us to grasp just how significant that awareness is. Our sense of self, happiness, security is dependent upon our ability to accept and adapt.

Theatre is an opportunity to test consequences. When the consequence is a possibility and not a guarantee, it becomes theatre. Answers move from being examples of being good, leaving us feeling safer, or it leads to more questions, what would I do, which expands our vulnerability. It’s not necessarily a binary choice. In both cases, we exist in a time and place where we are physically safe and emotionally, spiritually, free.

Jack Stehlin, of the New American Theatre says, “Truth is freedom, and freedom is truth.” Theatre is not a place to go to find pat answers, it is where we go to help find new questions.

Looking back at that comment about a safe space to rehearse, it seems a bit of an oxymoron. What was being intended by saying the rehearsal process was a safe space, was to reassure prospective participants that they were free to explore and that they would be in a space where it is safe for them to try, and safe for them to fail. But it is not a guarantee that they will be unchallenged. Safety is in the perception, not in the fact.

About Peter Finlayson

Peter Finlayson is the Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-chief of FootLights magazine and While working on a prelaw program at the University of Michigan, he happily got involved with the theatre program. Much to his mother’s chagrin, law school never happened, but in a career spanning more than 4 decades, Peter has performed, directed or designed more than 150 productions. In his spare time, he is working on a new play. You can follow him on Twitter @Thtrdog .

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