Staging with Safety & Support: Building a Trauma-Informed Theatrical Space 


Theatrical and performative spaces are uniquely intimate and vulnerable when compared to other workplaces. As most of you know, I have long been concerned with the mental health of artists and crew in the Theatre/Film and TV industry. This is especially the case in the transitional phase we find ourselves in now, following the Covid-19 pandemic.

Through my own lived experience as a professional theatre artist, certification as a Counselor (CAC II) and my active striving towards further education and development, I have become acutely aware of a huge need to shift our language and methods towards a decolonized, trauma-informed approach that prioritizes mental wellness.

In order to achieve this, it is imperative that we really examine how to put into practical application these 6 Principles of a trauma-informed approach: 

  • Safety
  • Choice
  • Voice & Empowerment
  • Trustworthiness & Transparency
  • Peer Support/Collaboration & Mutuality
  • Cultural/Historical and Gender Issues  

I would like to share some of my thoughts here in the dawn of 2024 to better support, address & invoke change in the performing arts industry.

These are considerations for all those working directly & in collaboration with actors, whether at the community, semi-professional or professional levels, in rehearsal, tech and production.

1. Incorporate using the term, “access needs” in check-in. Everyone has access needs in order to participate. Introduce a general definition of what an access need is, and frame it using a neutral tone. Let’s check in about access needs today.  Access need: What is it that I need, or need to take care of, or need consideration for—in order for me to participate fully today? Normalizing access needs is a simple but practical way to empower voices and increase safety, trustworthiness, and peer support.

2. Consider—on the first day of rehearsal—offering a separate area to intake personal information from actors, so that they may feel safer to disclose any mental health/ medication/health issues. E.g. moving to another room but keeping the door open.

Statistics show 1 in 3-4 people may at some point need additional support or a trauma-sensitive tone, including those with mental health issues, physical health, sensory issues, or neurodivergence—including autism, ADHD, anxiety and other mental health designations. Operate with the assumption that most of these conditions are invisible, and many will not feel safe to disclose this with other people in the room. Access to privacy is key to the safe disclosure of vital information regarding physical & mental health.

3. Consciously monitor tone and volume when giving directions in technical rehearsals and production—barking orders from distance may be more convenient and, of course, at times very much needed—but to exclusively use this method during day-to-day operations increases pressure, anxiety and stress. Consider a more relational, warm, soft-skills approach to communication.

4. Assume all cast are trauma and mental health sensitive in your work together. When introducing production or admin team members to the cast, instead of “this is so and so, she/he/they are doing this,” consider a more heart-centered & warm welcome: “This is so and so, one thing that I want you to know about them is ____.” This introduction can be short, but is key as it reinforces a sense of belonging as well as acknowledging a change/shift to accommodate another person. It is important to remember that depending on where actors are in their process, emotional and mental wellbeing, those who are trauma sensitive can be impacted by group dynamics and trust. 

5. Be aware that commenting on choices- involving food and clothing can unintentionally set a “better than/less than” shame-based workplace.

6. Prioritize your own self-evaluation & examination at different points in the process, where individual & group trust levels might be at prior to choosing to be transparent-

For example, adopting the practice of self reflection: Is this the best time to share transparency? Am I feeling connected, committed and invested in these relationships? Will my own need to share/ be transparent increase or decrease wellness in the room if I share now versus later? 

7. Rethink phrases like “This is my show now” which implies ownership and reinforces colonial power dynamics. Consider a trauma sensitive approach like “This is our show. I am excited to see where this takes us”. Consider mutuality, choice, voice and empowerment. A great guide is to build belonging and to lead with empathy.

8. Consider implementing a safety plan for when an actor is ill, whether it is due to temporary sickness, a chronic condition, crisis etc. This safety plan needs to include all who may be directly impacted. Safety plans address not just physical needs but emotional needs as well. Ensure that you follow up, and debrief when needed.

9. When encouraging self-care for actors,  be considerate of limited resources (both money and time) and offer easy to use, accessible options for cast who may be struggling with caring for themselves for various reasons. * Consider building this into your pre-production or booking time for a 45 min- 1 hour presentation to share tools. For  more about how a Mental Wellness Practitioner can support theatre/film/tv, visit here. 

10. Consider taking the time to check in with actors, prior to Opening a show, as to whether they wish to know who is in the audience that night.  Keeping in mind that actors with mental health/ anxiety may have extra labor that they need to do to manage these announcements prior to a show.

11. Remain cognitive of how stress impacts the brain: more pressure & stress moves the brain into survival mode, shutting down access to the limbic system. Actors need to be able to access their limbic system—emotional state—in order to perform, as well as needing to engage their executive state to integrate direction and learning. Being aware of how our workplace conditions (physical and psychological) impact our brains is an important part of safety education that needs to be brought forward and considered.

12. Promote collaboration and mutuality. If you expect a certain behavior from an actor—e.g.  if you require an actor to check in when running late and apologize—communicate this expectation, and then model that through your own behavior, when you are late, apologize. Model mutuality.

13. Dedicate time to create a Community Room agreement with your cast/team. Print and post the community room agreement where all can see it every day. Visual reminders are impactful when normalizing access needs. Encourage the team to have fun with it by decorating with bright colors and/or stickers!

The pursuit of a trauma-informed theatre is a work in progress that requires patience, humility, and a desire for sincere connection & understanding. Each production and cast are unique and therefore will have different needs however prioritizing support for mental wellness for actors/crew is essential now more than ever.

For further reading on promoting wellness in the arts, check out another one of my blog posts:

Read about my Coaching approach here.